Top: St. James General Store.
“You’re certainly in a cantankerous mood today,” Miss Bronwen noticed as she looked out the window of the passing scenery. “And look at you, speeding along at almost sixty miles per hour. But that’s right, you’re in your element now.”
I hmmmmphed indignantly and concentrated on the road for a bit. The road was Route 25a, which runs along the northern part of Long Island, that I had once referred to as being in my element. When I first moved to Long Island, 25a was my road of choice. It doesn’t suffer from a multitude of lanes, and feels much more rural than autobahn. With a bit of imagination, one can almost feel like they are in New England, which let’s face it is a bit more romantic than most of Long Island. George Washington, gentleman soldier and our first president, once tooled up and down this road. Even more importantly, Blue Oyster Cult got their start along this highway. And one can find many interesting sites without straying too far from its winding length. So I would go to great lengths, literally, to take 25a no matter where I might be going, which today was St. James, and the topic which had me ticked off is the film Lost Suburbia, a horror film about Long Island urban legends.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good thing that the filmmakers decided to make it. I mean anytime a group of people decide to make a film based on real urban legends, particularly ones based on Long Island it’s a good thing,” I said, resisting the urge this time to wave my arms madly like an Italian, driving while talking on a cellphone, “It’s just that it’s so, so dumb.”
“Well isn’t it just possible that they simplified it to fit the current crop of movie fans, which particularly in the case of horror films tend to be teenagers, who aren’t always known for their long attention spans?” she answered, sounding entirely too logical.
“That’s beside the point!” I shrieked. “Okay, point taken. Today’s horror film requires less imagination than horror films of the classical era, and by that I don’t mean Halloween, Friday the 13th and all that rot, which aren’t really horror films anyway but more of the crime/drama genre if you want to get technical.”
“By all means,” she added, “let’s not get overly technical.”
“It’s the format of the thing that bothered me,” I continued. “They start each segment with experts discussing the history of the legends, so the dramatized parts carry an air of legitimacy. I’m not complaining about the acting, and let’s be honest, some of the performances were real howlers. Or the quality of the special effects – though when faced with a budget shortage, the accepted technique is to show very little and leave the rest to the imagination.
“What I found particularly irksome about the film,” I said, catching my arms beginning to wave, “was some of the team of experts they had talking about the legends.”
“Don’t tell me,” Miss Bronwen began, squinting already in fear of the outburst that was bound to come, “It was …”
“Yes!” I shrieked, then managed to get my voice back under control. “Kerriann Flanagan Brosky and the ever present Joe Giaquinto.”
“Ms. Brosky I can handle. After all she wrote the first volume of Ghosts of Long Island, which is almost the Bible of ghost stories on Long Island. It’s certainly the best and most accessible place to start. Hell, half the places I’ve been to on this road, my element, I became interested in because of her books. It’s hard to find too much to fault with her grasp of history,” I said. “In fact, this very place here I first became interested in because of her book,” I said, pulling to a stop and slamming the car into park in a cloud of dust, just across the road from the St. James General Store.
“She has the right idea at least, which is to first start with the eyewitnesses. Interviews, research the history of the location. Then along comes Joe who has his own spirit guide, who tells him things which not only no one else knows, but which also can’t be checked factually. He’s a natural medium, which we of course know because he says so. He not only knows who the ghosts are typically, he’s able to communicate with them, find out what they want, and he’s made it his life’s work it appears to bridge the gulf between this world and theirs. And I can take all that crap or leave it, I mean there have been people who have made similar claims for ages, and many and perhaps most of them truly believed in their own powers, and wanted to use their powers for good.” I stopped for a breath and to wipe the foam from my lips.
“So you doubt his motivations?” she asked, curious.
“There are reasons to believe that he’s in this for the money,” I replied hesitatingly. “I mean I hate to slam anyone, but for the love of God and all things holy – you go to his website and most of the site is for paying customers only. For only six bucks per month you get access to things you usually find for free on any of the other paranormal sites on Long Island, and of course, $5 off to attend any events, which means I can only presume that the events cost money as well. I mean what the …”
“You’re waving your arms again,” Miss Bronwen interrupted sunnily.
“I know I know,” I replied exasperated. “But it pisses me off! Can you imagine paying to attend a seance? Luckily he takes all major credit cards. What does that say about the credibility of the experience? Why would you have people at an investigation that you don’t feel you actually need there? And if you really need their services, is it ethical to charge them for the pleasure of providing them? And then there are his EVPs, some of which he allows you to hear on his site. The worst part is before you listen to them, he tells you exactly what you are going to hear.”
“I’ve heard them,” she said, “and you need a guide to make sense of what the voices, if you can call them that, are supposed to be saying.”
“Precisely!” I shouted, then lowered my voice as the people getting out of the next car turned suddenly to stare. “One of the main reasons given why EVPs are hoaxes is when you tell someone prior to hearing them what they are going to hear, it’s next to impossible not to hear it.”
“And so we’ve come the the St. James General Store so you could rant about all this?” she asked, raising the eyebrow.
“Oh,” I said, remembering our quest for the day. “No, we’re here for information. According to the film, there’s supposed to be a cemetery in the woods around here which according to legend is one of the sites of Mary’s Grave. And I intend on getting these people to talk.”
Once inside I headed upstairs for their selection of local history books. The General Store has a surprisingly good selection, and some of the information I needed for today I had already found there. Being typically impoverished (not having a paying site like Mr. Giaquinto), I scour the books in bookstores and libraries, and when I find things that might be useful, snap photos of the pages with my camera. In this case, I had managed to save up my pennies and picked up a couple of books to purchase. As I gathered these up, Miss Bronwen held up for me a copy of Ghosts of Long Island and pointed at the back to the photo of Joe G, with an innocent smile. I growled under my breath and started for the stairs.
Standing there was a young boy, taking a photo of the steps with his cell phone camera.
“Watch out for the ghost,” I said helpfully. “Supposedly there’s the ghost of a little girl that’s been spotted on these stairs, and though she’s never harmed anyone, it’s always possible that she might push little boys down them.”
The little boy looked at me like I had two heads (I don’t), and then proceeded to back away very carefully.
“You’re incredibly mean!” Miss Bronwen scolded, slapping me on the back of the head. “And just for that, you’re buying me candy.”
At the bottom of the stairs an overpoweringly wonderful scent cascaded over me, and I spent about fifteen minutes running it to ground, while Miss B. did her own investigations of the many nifty items in the shop. I finally located the source, some spice scented candles, picked up three of those and headed for the counter. I ended up buying the books, the candles, a bottle of water, Miss Bronwen’s candy and a large chocolate/peanut butter cup which are to just absolutely die for. There may be ghosts in the St. James General Store, but there is also one of the best old fashioned candy counters anyplace on Long Island.
While the lady behind the counter rang us up, I told her about the film I had seen the night before. She had not only never heard of it, which I thought odd as it had quite a bit on the store in it, but had also never heard of Mary’s Grave. She did remember that in the woods across the road was supposed to be a graveyard, but she had never been there. I thanked her and Miss Bronwen and I took our booty back to the car. We sat there wordlessly, shoving various candies into our faces, while I checked my own spirit guide – an iPhone with GPS. Taking a look at the satellite view of the woods just to the north of us, I noticed a trail. When we started to feel bloated, we hopped out and started through the field towards the woods. The grass was tall, and at first the woods presented a solid wall of tree and brush, but gradually an opening appeared, which we headed for. Less than ten yards in we found ourselves standing in the midst of a tiny graveyard. There were only three tombstones, two large and one small, along with a slab for a revolutionary war veteran. I pulled one of the two books I had picked up out of my bag and turned to the page I had already marked. Sure enough the names matched.
Mr. Matthew Smith died January 11, 1823 at the age of 66, and his wife Sarah died May 19 in 1840, at the age of 69. Matthew no doubt was one of the descendents of Joseph “Bull” Smith, the founder of Smithtown. At least one of their children, Leonard was also buried here in 1841, and also two children of Clarence Smith – Samuel Norman in 1922 and Henry Lawrence in 1925, though they were later moved. I related all this to Miss Bronwen, who was kneeling down and trying to read the faded inscriptions on the tombstones.
“So no Mary’s Grave here then?” she asked.
“Probably not,” I answered. “The book does say that there are probably several other graves with no markers. But the stories that have sprung up about Mary, (click here to read some). if she had indeed whacked her father with a hatchet or axe, even if they had buried her and not left her body to be eaten by wild animals, there certainly wouldn’t have been a tombstone. Nor would it have been buried in a family plot. If there are legends about this place being the final resting place of Mary, indeed, the Mary’s grave of lore, which is what the movie insinuates, then it would have been just that. Legends.”
“But what if Mary had been a victim, as some of the other stories say?” she offered.
“In the Head of the Harbor area, in the century or more from the founding to the late 1800s, there are no Mary’s graves that fit the story. The closest we have is a seven year old. Judging from the records I’ve gone through, someone would have a memory or story about her, and would have known where she was buried. After all, Leonard there died in 1841, and there is no inscription, yet we know he’s there. This wasn’t a heavily populated area, and much of the land was settled by Smiths who are pretty well documented.”
“Is this the cemetery in the film?” she asked.
“Definitely not, though they insinuated that this was the actual site of the legend,” I replied.
We went back past the General Store and started down Harbor Hill Road. The trees overhang here, as they do through much of St. James and Head of the Harbor, and it was refreshingly cool. There’s a sense of melancholy about the area. Even if there were no ghost stories, this place has a feel about it that time has stood still, as though you’re stepping into a snapshot of the past. Or more properly, a nineteenth century painting. It’s easy to see ghosts here, as the setting for their appearance is still intact.
At the bottom of the hollow we reached the intersection of Harbor Hill and Three Sisters roads.
“Didn’t you mention something on the way here about a ghost story involving three sisters?” she asked.
“Aye, I did. But this isn’t them. According to legend, the Indians referred to the crops that they raised as the three sisters – corn, squash and beans. Richard “Bull” Smith had seven sons, and they all settled in the area, with the elder Smith settling down Moriches Road a short bit in Nissequogue. His son Adam came here probably about 1690 and settled just down Three Sisters Road there a ways, at a place the Indians called Sherrewogue. One of Bull’s grandsons, Joseph, settled down Harbor Hill Road here in 1688. He’s the one responsible for most of the Smiths in the area now, and there are many of them. This was Three Sisters Hollow, and the harbor was originally called Three Sisters Harbor as well. And since you’re into all things linguistic, for the record, they originally spelled their name Smythe.”
“Like the singer?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am. I Am the Warrior, hit number seven back in 1984,” I replied. “Poignant connection you made there.”
“Think she was channeling Richard the Bull back then?” she asked. “Aw shucks, I was just trying to get the song stuck in your head.”
I was trying desperately to get anything other than that song in my head as we continued to walk.
“Over there on the left is an old cottage which once belonged to a schoolmaster about 1890. Next to that is L’Hommedieu, which was the home of Henry Marcial L’Hommedieu, a descendent of Richard the Bull. He was in there around 1917, though the house dates back at least to the mid nineteenth century,” I droned on and on.
“You think your readers realize you don’t actually have all this information at your fingertips when you’re walking around a place like this?” she asked. “That in reality, you’re saying things like ‘some actor dude lived over there, some French guy lived there in a totally unpronouncably named house’? I bet Joe Giaquinto remembers and can pronounce all the names,” she continued.
I shushed her and we went further into the hollow.
“And on your right we have the old Daingerfield House, and back there is an old graveyard as well,” I continued. “It’s another Smith family graveyard and the only Mary in there died at six months.”
“That’s sad,” she said, “but I suppose there was a lot of that in that day and age.”
“Quite true,” I answered. “This would have been about 1840. The next house down was the home of George Curtis, who wasn’t a Smith but became one by marriage, and was also a master builder. It was originally over on Three Sisters Road. Up there on the hill a bit is the Bartlett House, which means we’re now on what was once the Wetherill estate, the one people often associate with Mary Hatchet and Mary’s grave. Here in the foreground, this building was once part of the Soper Bottling Works. They bottled soda pop as I understand it.”
“So this area wasn’t just a residential street then? It was more like a real village,” she asked.
“Absolutely,” I replied. “It was farmers and tradesmen and a few sailors to boot. The area to the north of us now, the part where the legends about Mary sprung up was deeded in 1688 to Daniel Smith, another son of Richard Bull, and later it went to his great, great grandson Jonas. The town was divided up into twelve lots in 1715 of about 50 acres lots. A couple years later they built a landing in the harbor, and in 1720 they laid out this road, which went up through Adam Smith’s property, by now in the possession of his son Edmund. The name of the harbor seems to have changed unofficially from Three Sisters Harbor to Stony Brook Harbor about 1736, which is where they make the first mention of Joseph Smith, whose home was right about there, beneath those tall pine trees, unless I’m sorely mistaken.”
“So the history of this place is fairly well documented?” Miss Bronwen asked. “And there’s no mention of anyone being hacked to bits or the hanging of a suspected witch?”
“None whatsoever, and yes, there is a fair amount of documentation,” I replied. “For instance, we know the Smiths in the area had ten slaves in 1755, six of which belonged to Edmund. The revolution seemed to have split the Smith family fairly down the middle between the patriots and the loyalists. By 1837 we have maps of the area, by 1857 we have maps with the landowners indicated. What is known as Mary’s playhouse, where according to legend she either mutilated animals, and according to others was molested by her father was on land owned by the Carman family, who used to own all the land uphill from there to Moriches Road, and was the site of a dock by 1853, where there was a fair amount of shipbuilding going on there. So it’s highly unlikely that it would have the quiet necessary to commit these kinds of acts, even if the playhouse would have been there by this time, which it surely wasn’t. Where Joseph Smith’s house stood, there later lived Henry Smith, who ran the General Store. He was being plagued by robbers, so he rigged up a shotgun aimed at the door with a string attached to the trigger, so when the door opened it would discharge. Unfortunately Henry seemed to be a bit absentminded. He forgot something on the way to work one morning, went back inside for it and also forgot the shotgun. So his wife took over as postmistress and ran the store.”
“I’m thinking that falls under the category of natural selection,” she said.
“I’m thinking I agree,” I responded.
“This is the boundary of history here,” I rather pompously commented. “This house was originally the superintendent’s cottage for the Wetherill estate. With the coming of the estates in the late eighteen hundreds, the land appears to have passed from the hands of the Smiths finally, but in name only. The orchard here was put in as I understand it by the Wetherill’s and the ice pond was built for the estate as well, and was created by damming up Obadiah Smith’s stream, which wandered through round swamp which comes right up to the harbor, and should be just over that hill.”
“You mean the one behind the caretaker’s cottage?” she asked.
“That’s the one,” I replied, scanning the area from the road. “Ooh! There’s someone up there now. Maybe he can point out the graveyards. They’re owned by the village of Smithtown so should be public land anyway.”
We started up through the orchard towards to the top of the hill, and no one was to be found. There was a trail leading into the woods so we set off towards that. At the treeline, just to the right was one of the graveyards, overgrown and contained in a rusted and leaning iron fence. Just ahead was the trail, to the right lies the ice pond, to the left the swamp, and further down along the ice pond was what I was most looking for, the stone ice house. What wasn’t visible was the person I had seen up here, nor anyplace they might have gone.
“Um,” Miss Bronwen said, “where is the person we were supposed to talk to. You did say you saw someone?”
“I’m relatively certain of it,” I replied. “He was wearing a blue shirt and would have been standing about right here. And no, there’s nowhere he could have gone. Chalk that one up to strange things happen sometimes.”
“I suppose so,” she answered a bit warily and started off down the trail.
The trail itself is only about three or four foot wide, and drops off into the pond or swamp on either side. It’s hard to say which looks least inviting. The swamp is rather wild, marshy and full of cattails. The pond is covered with a green scum and I was thankful Long Island has no poisonous snakes. I took a couple of photos while she played balance beam along the trail, then made our way over to the ice house.
“In reality, the Smiths didn’t lose the land except in name only,” I explained. Judge Lawrence J. Smith, who lived most of the nineteenth century had four daughters, who used their inheritance to build large estates. His youngest daughter Bessie married Stanford White, the renowned architect and talked him into buying most of Mr. Carman’s lands, which as you recall stretched down to the harbor and is the location of Mary’s playhouse. They built their pile on top of the hill over there, replacing the main Carman farm. His oldest daughter built on the other side of Cordwood Path and doesn’t figure into the legends. Another daughter, Kate, married a man named Wetherill, and this was part of their estate. So the names changed from Smith, but the blood was still there. And ironically, there seems to be a subtle shift in power to the females of the line. Stanford White was famous for instance, but of course, died fairly young and his widow took over the reins. Their granddaughter became mayor as I recall.”
We turned the corner of the ice pond and moved closer to the ice house, which was along a slight rise overlooking the water.
“Now Judge Smith might have made a good model for Mary’s abusive father,” I continued. “His daughter Ella wanted to marry one of her cousins, which he objected to, and had a wooden cage built in the attic, where she was kept for a month and was fed only bread and water. She got sick of course and he let her out finally, but she never married the cousin either.”
“Nor did she waste her father with a hatchet I presume?” Miss Bronwen asked.
“Nope,” I replied.
Miss Bronwen peered down into the depths of the ice house. “So this is the ice house?”
“I’d say this is it,” I responded. The structure was made of rough stones and is about ten or twelve foot square, and maybe eight to ten foot deep. Originally it had a red tiled roof, which is long since gone. “It was likely designed by Stanford White and built about 1895, when they built the main house. We’re out of the realm of legends here and into recorded history after all.”
“The purpose of an ice house,” I continued, “was of course to collect ice. The thickness of the walls trap the cold, the water from the lake provides for a good supply of water, which then freezes in the winter. The lake keeps the structure cool inside, and being built into the ground here in the back helps with that even further. So the Wetherill’s would be assured of having a good supply of ice in the spring, as well as most of the summer I’d guess. In some cases, the ice would remain frozen all the way till the following winter. In addition to ice, food that might spoil and go rancid could be stored here, prior to the invention of the electric refrigerator.”
“How clever they were,” she added.
“And industrious as well,” I answered. “They had to dam the stream, build a lake and this building all so they might have ice for their lemonades. Or for their sodas bought from Mr. Soper down the road.”
We turned and went directly into the high grass behind the structure. A few tombstones poked their heads out of the weeds. This was the graveyard of the Gersham Smith family, which according to the records holds eight graves, none of them named. Mary. We poked around there for a few minutes, then opened the gates to the graveyard of Joseph Smith II and his family.
“Were the graves outside of the fence perhaps buried on non-hallowed ground?” she asked.
“Nah, these people died after the fence was built and the graveyard was full”, I answered. “After all, people were just dying to get in.”
She rolled her eyes and I continued, “There’s another graveyard which we passed which no longer has any stones, as well as a couple up near Leffert’s barn. There is one Mary buried in the larger one, but she’s the one who died when she was six months old. Across the road was another graveyard that belonged to the family of Gideon Smith. Those were all moved to the methodist and Episcopal churches. There was an Ann Maria Smith who died of a broken heart at the age of 39, which I found very curious.”
“Curious indeed,” she replied.
“Her only child had died the year before, apparently during or just after childbirth,” I went on. “And the baby died three months later, Ann Marie gave up the ghost three months after that. There’s also a Mary in that graveyard, or was before they moved the graves, but she died when she was about three months old as well.”
“Childbirth seemed to be a hazardous affair back then,” she commented.
“Very true, I replied. “The Mary stories all seem to refer to the mother dying at Mary’s birth, or shortly thereafter. But there aren’t a lot of candidates for women who could have been her mother. Remember, there weren’t a lot of people living in this area, and at least their births, deaths, children and property are pretty well documented.”
We scoured the weeds for a couple of smaller, rough tombstones thought to belong to two Hessian soldiers, German mercenary soldiers who fought for the British in the revolution. A painting of the area done on a serving tray by the noted William Sydney Mounts seems to portray two Hessians, which seems to refer to a belief at least that some Hessians were stationed in this area.
We left the graveyard and cut through the orchard onto the road which leads to Stony Brook. There you have good views of the harbor, and behind you into Round Swamp. Then we hiked back to the intersection and tried to look nonchalant as the local police drove by, eyeing us suspiciously.
“The closest I can find for there being any record of any truth in any of the Mary stories around here comes from this spot,” I proclaimed. “Captain William Smith built a house here prior to the revolution, which stood for 200 years. Now you’ll recall there is the story about Mary being seen in the upstairs window of her house, which is of course now supposed to be the Wetherill house which stands on top of the hill beyond those trees. Sometimes she’s seen standing there, sometimes in a rocker by a lit candle in the window. Sometimes just a candle. Or more recently, how the upstairs lights or attic lights seem to always be on – which actually appears to be true. According to legend, she’s waiting for her husband to come home, and some say the candle is so he can find his home from his ship in the harbor.”
“And you believe this is true?” she asked incredulously.
“Nah. To begin with, the legends are associated with the wrong house. Second, the right house was originally down here level with the harbor, and wouldn’t have been visible to a ship from the harbor, and damned hard to see a ship in the harbor, even if there has been a second floor, which, if the other houses from this area are any indication, is damned unlikely. Third, Captain Smith wasn’t married to a woman named Mary, but to a woman named Sarah. She was the widow of Isaac Carman, and this is the first instance I’ve found of the Smith and Carman families commingling. They’re buried up there by Leffert’s Barn, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, had no children. Willie died in 1837 at the ripe old age of 82, four years after Sarah who died at 46 in 1833. So he was close to twice her age, and if she married him when she was fifteen, he was probably close to retirement from the sea by that point. This whole area prior to William building his house belonged to Jonas Smith, and later much of it went to the Carmans.”
“But could there be a germ of the truth in the story, convoluted by centuries of retelling? I can buy that. And here’s where things get weird. Folk tales as you know often have a grain of truth to them, albeit the tiniest grain. The land the stories are associated with were given by Richard “Bull” Smith to his son Daniel in 1688. Daniel married Mary Holton who was about 20 years younger than him, and they had a son, Solomon, in 1704. Mary dies, we don’t know when or how. So there’s Mary number one. Solomon marries, has two children, both of whom grow up, marry and have no children of their own, which is probably a good thing as they both married second cousins.”
Miss Bronwen turns her head towards me, eyes widening, “Um.”
“Exactly,” I interrupt her. “Something happens to Mary, she dies and we don’t know when. Now Mary is Daniel’s second wife. His first wife, Ruth Tooker was only about a decade younger than him. They had one son, little Danny Jr. about 1690, who likely inherited this land. He has eight children, one of which is also a Mary, who conveniently marries a William. But they live in Mastic, and he appears to become a judge rather than a sea captain. And may I be frank here?”
“Please do,” she responds.
“All these Smiths that live further up Harbor Hill Road, they are easy to trace. You know who lived in what house and when. They’re all buried in most cases not fifty yards from it even. The ones along the other side of the harbor appears to almost be genteel. But all I know about the land between here and the end of Cordwood Path where our story takes place, is Richard gave the land to Daniel, Captain William built a house here which lasted for almost 200 years, the Carman’s had a house further down the road, and along with a Richard Smith, built a dock there in 1853, and within 50 years it was all in the hands of Wetherills, which as I said were Smiths anyway. From that point on it’s all documented.”
“So,” she started, “there was a Mary here early on, and there was cases of not incest exactly, cousins marrying cousins, which could have been the germ of the legend?”
“Who knows?” I replied. “Remember the judge who said ‘there’s been enough of that in our family already?’ Perhaps it was a bit more scandalous, or had been a bit more disastrous than people speak of. And perhaps my imagination gets away from me too easily. Certainly this stretch of the road was never very greatly populated. The Smiths never owned it completely – as I said, the Carman’s owned much of it, as well as much of the lands above us on the hill, till later in the nineteenth century when the Whites managed to buy some of it back, and they became de facto Smith properties. Perhaps if there is truth to the Mary stories here, it was the Carmans and not the Smiths, who after all would have had the land where her playhouse stands. Whatever is the case, the locals are either more tightlipped about this stretch of road, or there just isn’t as much to tell.”
We walked a few feet up the road and I pointed to a gnarled tree.
“That’s supposedly the hanging tree. After Mary hacked her father, according to some of the stories, they dragged her here, or grief over the loss of her lover, or even the madness of her lover/husband and got stretched from its branches. In other stories, Mary felt guilt over incest with her father, or sadness that her father wouldn’t let her marry the man she wanted and hung herself. At any rate, I’m no expert on trees, but that one doesn’t look over a century to me, and probably a lot less.”
“All the same,” she added, “it’s truly creepy looking.”
“That it is,” I replied, and we kept walking, up the small hill along the road, until the house started to become visible. It sets high on a hill, which is partly man-made, as Mrs. Wetherill wanted the best view possible. She wanted all the houses in that view cleared away, including Captain Smith’s house,” I explained. “It seems Kate Smith wasn’t that interested in historic preservation.”
“God bless America,” Miss Bronwen belted out suddenly, grinning.
“Not that Kate Smith,” I answered, recovering from the shock of such a loud voice coming from such a tiny person. “There were a couple of other houses to tear down as well. Kate was a widow and the sister of noted architect Stanford White’s wife. Anyway, Kate wanted a house shaped like a maltese cross, reminiscent here of the DaVinci code if you’re into all that. The mind swims with possibilities. Her dead husband was a clergyman, a rather wealthy clergyman at that, which really didn’t matter as her father was the second richest man in America at the time. Anyway, Stanford designed an octagonal porch to wrap around this bizarrely shaped house. There were arguments between Kate and Stanford, who finally said that he was determined to make her wishes come true and design the ugliest house in America.”
We stood looking up the hill at the house, and at last Miss Bronwen spoke.
“Well, he failed in that,” she said. “It’s really a gorgeous house, at least from a distance.”
“I agree,” I replied. “Gorgeous but you have to admit, certainly more than a bit gothic looking and certainly creepy.”
As we reached the top of the hill she peered closer at it. “It’s true! There is a light on in the upstairs window.”
“Aye,” I replied. “And the gates are padlocked as the stories say. Originally the road to the house came from Moriches Road above them on the hill, that’s where the real gates to the place are. Quite nice gates I might add, designed by Stanford as well. But now that road ends in a subdivision. I don’t know if anyone lives here or not. According to the stories, it’s just watched by a caretaker. After Kate’s death, her daughter Isabella inherited the house, whose claim to fame is the octagonal rose garden behind it. After her death it went to her daughters, Isabella and Kate. And nowhere in their histories do you find anyone named Mary, nor any sea captains away at sea, nor any widows waiting by the window with only a candle to keep her company.”
“Just a very lovely, albeit slightly strange looking house,” she added. “And still an interesting story, without anything supernatural or anyone getting hacked to bits. Now where do the second gates lead to?”
“Now there’s a good question, I replied. “Shall we find out?”
She deferred demurely at first, mentioning trespassing and a few other objections. However, I pointed out there were no signs, and after all, this was once land that was free to roam for horseback riders, so in essence we were just taking advantage of an age old tradition. So between cars which seem to go up and down the road incessantly, we slipped behind the gates and started down the trail. It curves a bit towards the house, and then into a hollow, perhaps one of the kettle holes left early on Long Island’s history as the glaciers did their work. Then suddenly it more or less peters out, and we were left debating on where to go. It was then that I saw what I had been looking for and I pointed over towards the base of the tree.
“And perhaps there is Mary’s Grave,” I said.
“You mean that little pile of rocks?” she asked.
“Yep. And sure, probably not that pile specifically, but think about it. If Mary hacked her father to bits and either hung herself or was hung by the townsfolk, what are the odds that she would have been memorialized with a tombstone, which after all would have been expensive.”
“Good point,” she added. “And besides, whether a murderer or a suicide, she couldn’t have been buried on hallowed ground. Perhaps near hallowed ground, or even near a family plot, but not in it.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “It’s like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
“Huh?” she asked, confused.
“They’re looking for the Holy Grail,” I answered. “And in the end, they are faced with an array of various cups, most of which are gold and jewel encrusted. And those who don’t think of it look for the most elaborate, when in truth, it was the most simple. Perhaps there was a Mary, and perhaps she did kill her father, or kill herself for some reason. It’s entirely possible that some member of her family wanted her remembered. Now if she was married to a Smith, and it was a Smith family member that she killed, the family likely wouldn’t allow a permanent memorial. So perhaps that this family member who remembered her made a little pile of stones to mark her grave. Something simple, which could be replaced when the family scattered it. I know, unlikely, but still possible.”
“So what about all the graveyards with Mary’s grave clearly marked?” she asked. “Might not one of them be the real Mary’s grave?”
“Could be,” I replied. “Though as you point out, except in the few cases where Mary is a victim, in all these legends, she couldn’t be in hallowed ground. Richard “Bull” Smith was a Quaker I believe, and they are very religious people. And Mary, especially among the faithful, was one of the most popular names in the Western world. It would be highly unusual to find a graveyard of any size without a Mary interred there. And if the legends are correct, and if this in fact Mary’s grave …”
“We won’t be able to leave this spot,” she replied.
“Well, if this is the end, why not go out in a feast of love?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and grinning.
“Or perhaps I should try to raise Mary to save me from your clumsy and untoward advances,” she grinned. Then leaning over the stones she whispered, “Mary, Mary, Mary. Arise and protect me.”
Giggling, she started running back down the path towards the road. I don’t run. Not unless someone is chasing me. It’s just not something I do. When I reached the road, she was perched on the stone wall, kicking her legs and smiling.
“Now if you were the observant type,” I said indignantly, my wounded pride still sore from her spurning my advances, “you would notice that the stonework of this wall bears a remarkable resemblance to the stonework in the icehouse. Does it not?”
“Aye, it does,” she said, reaching into her pocket for some of the candy we had picked up at the general store. She nibbled on a chocolate twizzler and smiled at me innocently.
“At the gates on Moriches Road, the stones are round, and the stonework much more finished,” I continued, ignoring the imp. “The purpose of this wall wasn’t so much to keep people out or to provide privacy, instead it’s a retaining wall. As much of this hill is manmade, it wasn’t particularly solid when the house was built. So the base was filled with rubble then covered with soil. And these walls held it in place, and kept the house from sliding down the hill into Long Island Sound.”
“Interesting!” she said, hopping down from the fence and starting down the road. I followed along. We rounded the bend and a curious house appeared on the right, overlooking the Sound.
“This is Shore Cottage, designed in 1912 as a replacement for an original structure which had been his mother’s guest house, by Lawrence White, son of Stanford White. The stone is actually an artificial stone, a process invented by his father. This was the site of the old Carman boatyard, so you see this was originally a pretty happening place. When people see it now, it feels isolated and remote. But this was once a thriving village. Lawrence got his Bachelor’s degree in American, studied in Paris, was an aviator in World War I and was decorated by both the French and the Italians. He re-enlisted for World War II, and in his spare time, managed to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy into blank verse, a task which took twenty-five years.”
“Well, wasn’t he the the industrious chap?” she noted.
“Aye, that he was. He was also an aide to President Woodrow Wilson, when he wasn’t clearing and building riding trails for horseback riders in the area. In spite of all the legends, the real story is here for those who care to investigate, and it’s really just as interesting. Certainly not as splashy as axe murders, but pretty fascinating all the same. They were farmers, fisherman, craftsmen, and then early in the twentieth century came the artists and actors.”
“When did the Mary stories begin?” she asked.
“That I don’t know. They were certainly around in the 1970s, and there are stories that they were invented then. That’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible that they were based as I’ve said before, on some element of truth – a rumor or half remembered fact that some stoner used to weave a tale designed to get the girl in the passenger seat to scoot over closer.”
“You sound familiar with this approach,” she said suspiciously.
“Well, duh?” I said. “It’s pretty inherent in teenage boys. Now come along. We’re burning daylight.”
We walked a bit further when to our right a curious structure arose.
“Ladies and gentleman, to the right we have Mary’s playhouse,” I announced in my best tour guide’s voice. “It was here according to legend, that Mary used to mutilate small animals for her pleasure. In other tales it was here that Mary’s father used to molest her. And in others, it was here where Mary split her father’s skull with a hatchet, earning her the moniker Mary Hatchet.”
“Wow,” she said. “That place looks like a miniature version of the icehouse.”
“Well, if you read my website you’d already know,” I replied click here. “I had guessed that it was a spring house, and there to the right is the spring. A springhouse works much like an icehouse. The spring keeps the temperature inside quite cool. Though instead of storing ice, they typically would store food which might go rancid. In the center you see the stone slab. The stone stayed cooler still, so meat which was bound for the stove would be kept on that relatively safely for a while. And of course, in the winter there would have been plenty enough ice to keep the place stocked as well.”
“And the stonework is pretty much identical to the retaining wall at the Wetherill House,” she said. “As well as the stonework at the icehouse. Which means it’s not early enough to be Mary’s Playhouse. But it did hold slaughtered and butchered animals, and perhaps that’s the source of the stories of her mutilating animals in her playhouse.”
“Very observant, Grasshopper,” I commented in my worst Asian accent. “So from about 1890 till the present you have recorded history, and no Mary and no playhouse. Prior to that it was the Carman/Smith shipyard and dock, dating back to 1853. Prior to that is anyone’s guess, though what is certain, is that this structure wasn’t here. But remember, the Smiths were English. And already by the time that the Smiths left England, there was a tradition of Mary at the well, a tale often told about wells and springs to keep children away. From what I understand, the locals hate all the traffic that these legends bring,” I replied. “Which only makes sense. After all, you have the stories that you honk your horn, flash your lights and other such nonsense to either call up Mary’s spirit or to drive it away. There’s the rite of passage among teenage boys that you pee into the spring there to prove your manhood, which is just wrong. People obviously pay a lot of money to live here. I’m sure they want their quiet.”
We walked on to Cordwood Beach and sat on a bench. It was a beautiful day, sunny but still a bit brisk with a nice breeze coming from the sound. Ever notice how the ocean has a scent all its own? How intoxicating it must be to live downwind from that scent year round.
“These places do look creepy though,” she commented. “One thing that strikes me about it, and about many of the places we visit, is that the early structures on the island have an almost medieval look to them.”
“Exactly,” I answered. “It’s almost an archetype, the haunted castle. We don’t have castles here, except for the ones built early the twentieth century. But a lot of the earliest structures on Long Island were built in the 1600s, which after all, is only about two or three hundred years from architectural styles of the middle ages. So there’s still a bit of a medieval feel to some of them, later architects echoed that in their designs, and maybe our unconscious minds equate the two, and from that, spooks and ghost stories are born. Of course there’s the whole Salem witchcraft connection too. There are certainly ties to Salem and Long Island of the period. After all, Sayville I believe was named for Salem village by refugees from that bizarre place. You see a house which looks like it belonged in Salem, and it’s easy for the imagination to make the leap to witches and the supernatural.”
“Well, it was a good story, even if it isn’t true,” she said smiling.
“Yes it was, and that’s the whole point of all these tales,” I responded. “They are great stories, and it doesn’t matter if they are true or not. What counts is that Stanford White and his son, and everyone else, the Smiths and the Carmans built an environment that today makes people feel the need or desire to tell these tales, regardless of the truth. They designed and built not only houses, but a landscape which inspires the imagination. And to me, that’s just as interesting as the folk tales that spring from them, tales which can find their match in all corners of the world.”
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them