The many makeovers of Boston’s best known ghost

Pirate Anne Bonney helping to shape the spirit’s spirit

The tragedy of the Lady in Black who haunts the fortress on George’s Island in Boston harbor is so closely linked with New England’s celebrated popular historian Edward Rowe Snow (1902-1982) that some people think he invented the story himself. Here’s how Snow told it for a Boston television show in 1970 (video link).

The Lady in Black is perhaps New England’s most unusual ghost story. It all began in the Civil War in 1861 when a young Confederate captain, [was] captured and taken to Fort Warren, where he was lodged in the Corridor of Dungeons.

His wife found out, landed at this fort on a rainy night, came up, whistled to him, he answered and a rope was lowered and she was taken into the fort at one of the long musketry embrasures here.

They met. They planned not to escape from the fort, but to capture the fort, turn the guns of the fort against Bos[ton, to change] the entire course of the war. But it was not to be, because they were detected, and in the battle which followed, her husband was mortally wounded.

After his funeral, she was told that she must be executed as a spy. And they gave her a final request, and she asked that she be given a lady’s dress to wear. They gave her the lady’s dress, and wearing it, she was swung out into eternity.

And after that, after she was buried by the side of her husband, seven weeks went by, and then the first ghost-like [ events] came. A group of officers, after a fresh snow storm, were crossing the beautiful parade grounds. They got about halfway across, and the leader, looking down into the snow, noticed tracks of a lady’s slipper, going nowhere.

Cue some ominous music. We can be sure that that version of the story is made up. How?

Edward Rowe Snow in 1970

Because it differs so much from the way Snow had presented the tale decades before in his first published book, The Islands of Boston Harbor, 1935, pp. 72-74 (link).

Most strikingly, Snow had been candid in his earliest telling about the non-historical character of his material, and about its roots in a persistent local military barracks oral tradition. “The legend of this famous Lady in Black has been whispered at Fort Warren for many, many years, ” Snow wrote, “I herewith offer the reader the legend without the slightest guarantee that any part of it is true.”

In 1935, the captured officer was a lieutenant, not a captain. No Confederate captain died at Fort Warren, but one lieutenant did, James W. Kincey (b. ~ 1841) of North Carolina. He succumbed to typhoid fever the week before Christmas, 1861. The Gloucester Telegraph reported his death (in its December 25, 1861 issue, page 2, under the heading “War Correspondence”), with no mention of his having a wife, or of anybody being held for espionage.

There was no “battle” when the couple was apprehended in the 1935 version. The woman tried to fire a single shot, but her handgun exploded. Shrapnel from the explosion killed her husband.

Finding slipper tracks in the snow was a recent event, “two winters ago” in 1935. Those footprints were found at the sallyport beside the parade grounds, not “halfway across” the field.

Fort Warren has hosted a ghostly lady since 1862

Among the earliest regiments stationed at the fort was the Massachusetts Thirty-Second Infantry. In his memoir of the unit’s Civil War service (published in 1880, first chapter, link), Colonel Francis J. Parker compares Fort Warren to the setting of Anne Radcliffe’s gothic classic, The Mysteries of Udolpho:

To one who thoroughly explores the Island there will recur vivid reminiscences of the mysterious castles of romance and of history…it needs only a dark and windy night to make almost real the romantic descriptions of the Castle of Udolfo, with its clanging sounds of chains, its sweeping gusts of air, its strange moanings and bowlings, and the startling noise of some sudden clang of a shutting door reverberating among the arches.

After a few of the prisoners died, including Lt Kincey, a temporary cemetery was improvised outside the walls. With the spooky setting thus completed, Parker reports that sometime during the winter of 1861-62,

One dark howling night the sentinel, on post near what was called the grave-yard, reported to the officer that a white form had twice passed between him and the fort, and upon close questioning the soldier admitted that he had not challenged, because he feared it was a ghost. There was considerable stir, in and outside the fort, until an inspection had shown that no prisoner had escaped and no intruder could be found.

A reporter who signed himself “Campus” told the Gloucester Telegraph (January 22, 1862, page 2, under “War Correspondence,” see image at left, click on it to enlarge), that guards at Fort Warren saw not only vaguely described “figures of a supernatural character,” which the soldiers seem to have fancied to be Confederate soldiers’ ghosts, but also very particularly a woman. She was elderly, not the young lieutenant’s gallant wife, but a former inhabitant of the island, perhaps somebody displaced when the land was first acquired by the military decades earlier. Whoever the soldiers thought she was, she launched the long tradition of spectral women seen on George’s Island, even though “Campus” writes of her with his tongue gently in his cheek.

Did Snow believe that he saw the ghost?

Fort Warren was decommissioned in 1947. Snow played a leading role in a vigorous public campaign to convert George’s Island into the public park which it is today. There are still people who suggest that Snow invented the “Lady in Black” as a gimmick to promote the park project, but there’s no question that Snow had first published the yarn a dozen years before the fort became available for civilian use. Snow did, however, use the story both to influence public opinion and as a highlight of his commercial guided tours of the fort.

With growing exposure, the story acquired new details. Snow hadn’t given his ill-fated lovers names. The heroine is now often called Melanie. The officer’s surname has become Lanier, and his first name is usually either Samuel (the name of an enlisted soldier from North Carolina who died of illness at Fort Warren about when Lt. Kincey did) or Andrew (a real-life enlisted soldier from Georgia, but not someone who died at Fort Warren).

One influential embellisher was Daniel Cohen, whose book was clearly marketed as juvenile fiction rather than serious history (Civil War Ghosts, 79-85, Scholastic Publishers, 1999). In addition to beefing up the story with imagined dialog and firm but fictive dates, Cohen said that Snow had seen a historical photo of Civil War prisoners at Fort Warren, where

Standing at the rear of the group is the indistinct figure of a woman dressed in black. But no women were staying at the fort at the time. Snow thought that the photograph might show the ghost of the Lady in Black.

Can you see her?

The photo in question is probably this one (detail shown). When it is printed with low brightness and high contrast, then it may indeed look somewhat as if a woman’s torso appears above and behind the prisoners who stand in the doorway. When printed more brightly, however, it is clear that there were cloths hanging high up in the room behind the prisoners (click on the close-up image on the right to verify). The “woman’s torso” is an example of pareidolia, the inclination of our visual systems to perceive meaningful forms whenever possible. For example, sometimes we see animal shapes in clouds, or religious icons on grilled cheese sandwiches.

If pareidolia explains how people can see human torsoes in photographs of laundry, then it may also have been a factor in how sentries saw human forms and shapes in the stormy, gloomy winter nights of 1861-2.

The story still keeps getting better

Edward Rowe Snow’s cross-dressing, battle-ready, condemned-to-the-gallows young wife owes much to women pirates like Anne Bonney (our lead illustration above) and her shipmate Mary Read, colorful characters familiar to maritime historian Snow. I suspect he consciously blended historical female swashbucklers into his explanation of what successive generations of soldiers on George’s Island had thought they’ve seen in the darkness ever since that first winter of the Civil War.

Snow’s action-adventure melodrama has completely eclipsed the earlier contemporaneous amateur tales, the ones about the anonymous elderly woman and the idea that some of the original figures might have been Confederate soldiers’ ghosts. Snow fiddled with his version while he was alive, and in the decades since his death others have improved upon it even more. Today, the Lady in Black enjoys a kind of institutional sposorship, as park rangers regale visitors to the fort with their own personal renditions of the legend, sometimes seasoned with accounts of recent sightings of the lady herself, restlessly wandering the premises.

Thanks to the friendly helpful staff of the Sawyer Free Library in Gloucester, Massachusetts for access and assistance in using their microfilm newspaper collection.

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