Top: Mary’s Playhouse at Head of the Harbor.
Mary lived with her father in a large rambling house on Stony Brook harbor, in what is today known as Head of the Harbor, New York. One can assume that Mary’s father was anticipating a large family, or perhaps more likely, he inherited the house. But either way, for him this wasn’t to be.
Mary’s mother died just after childbirth. It was a difficult delivery, and though the doctor was sent for, the isolation of the house meant it was hours before he made it. There were few options available during childbirth in the early 19th century. Quite often, to save the life of the mother, a doctor would be forced to perform an embryotomy, which was literally cutting the baby apart, often by decapitation while still in the womb, and removing the pieces. When the decision was made to save the baby rather than the mother, the results were equally ghoulish. At any event, when he arrived, he found a healthy baby girl, but her mother bleeding to death, nearly ripped apart from the birth. It is said the father never recovered from the loss of his wife, and held Mary responsible for her death.
Life was busy and hard, even for a man of means which Mary’s father certainly was. There were crops to attend to, and there was money to be made harvesting scallops, shellfish, soft clams and oysters from the harbor. Being an only child, and isolated from the other families in the area, Mary had few friends, and spent hours wandering in the woods and along the shore.
One of Mary’s favorite places was the springhouse along the harbor. Being made of stone and fed by a natural spring, the little building was warm during the winter and cool during the hot summer months. And it was in this little building that Mary’s father found her one afternoon, and her life changed from one spent in imaginative isolation, into a downward spiral into madness and horror.
Life was lonely for her father as well, and by this time Mary had grown into what at the time was considered a young woman, a fact which had not escaped him. He was a religious man, and it is often among such men that temptation strikes hardest, and for her father, still grieving the loss of his wife all these years later, and now seeing her face in Mary’s was more than he could bear, and he cracked. There in the springhouse he had her for the first time, before eventually moving her into his bed.
Mary was loyal to her father, and though she knew what he asked of her was wrong, there was little she could do. Her father was well thought of in the community and no one would believe her story if she told it. To run away was more dangerous than to stay, and so she accepted his advances, growing slowly and inexorably mad as time wore on. Until the day when what she had most feared became a certainty, and she knew she was carrying her father’s child.
Mary had spent many long hours in the woods, and the creatures she found there had grown used to her presence. It is said she had the power to draw these animals to her, which she did now as she sat in the springhouse, torn by guilt, torn by rage, and as they came to her she tore them limb from limb with the aid of the hatchet which was always kept there. It was then that she decided what she must do, and she went back to the house with the hatchet carefully hidden in the folds of her dress.
That night was a night like many others, and when her father called her into his bed, she came. She moved under cover of darkness, just a silhouette to her father, and standing over him as he lay there, brought the hatchet down into the center of his skull. Again and again her arm raised and fell, the weapon gripped tightly in her fist. Until eventually she stopped, climbed beneath the sheets and went to sleep.
And so Mary went on with her days as though nothing had happened, and each night climbed into the bed with her father’s now bloated and rotting corpse, and went to sleep.
Eventually the townspeople took notice of his absence, and a few of them rode out to pay him a visit. It was still early, and as there was no answer at the door they went inside. They could smell the stench of death, a smell that during those times would have been familiar to most. Up the stairs they went and pushing open the door they found Mary, sleeping peacefully next to her father’s blood-soaked corpse.
The townspeople, horrified by what she had done, and Mary far too mad now to defend herself against their accusations, dragged Mary from the house and down the hill to the tree which still stands alongside the road. And there they hung her and put an end to a sad tragic life.
Though of course that’s not the end of the story, for though Mary was guilty of the crime which she was hung, the circumstances certainly merited a degree of mercy. And so Mary is seen sometimes, standing beside the tree where her life was cut short. She’s seen through the gates of the house, near the unmarked grave just inside the woods where she was buried. And of course she’s seen in the springhouse, where the water still runs clean and cool.
Through the years the little house has become a test of bravery. It is said that at night, only the bravest of teenagers will pee against it, and those that do will return to their car and find it won’t start. At least the lucky ones, for it’s also said that after pulling away they will meet their death on the curves ahead, forced off the road and into a tree by a young lady in white who runs from the darkness and into their path. And if you choose to drive by Mary’s house at night, look up the hill to the window on the top floor, and you’ll see a light burning. If you look closely, you’ll see Mary sitting there, looking out at the tree where she met her death.
* * * * *
This is the story of Mary’s Grave, sometimes called Mary Hatchet, and incorporates many, but not nearly all the elements found in the many variations of her tale. It’s associated with several locations, all over Long Island, and of course there is no way of knowing what parts, if any are true.
Two questions arise: Why is the story, and indeed so many stories involving women named Mary, found not only around Long Island, but throughout the country? And second, how old is the story?
Luckily for us, the names involved in the story might provide clues to its age. There seems to be two camps when it comes to the tale, those who believe, and those who don’t. Those who don’t point to the fact that the tale is told in too many different places. And why is the basic tale so widespread? The details themselves vary, but typically involve Mary committing a murder or murders with a hatchet, a stone hut in the forest, incest and Mary’s ghost. Mary is often described as a ghost dressed in white, but just as often, a woman with an angry or fearful expression, wearing Victorian era clothing and holding a hatchet or axe.
And this part is simple, for Mary Hatchet was a historical, though fictional character, well known in the last part of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century. She was a symbol used in the literature for the Women’s Temperance Christian Union (WTCU), a group dedicated in part to bring about prohibition. Mary used her hatchet to bust open casks of liquor, and is frequently depicted as an angry woman, in Victorian era clothing, holding a hatchet. The WCTU frequently met in member’s homes, and these homes were often called Mary Hatchet’s house. So it’s entirely reasonable that there will be found across Long Island, as well as throughout the country, many so-called Mary Hatchet’s houses. As time wore on, the name stuck to these old houses, which were typically of the Victorian era or older, the type which quite often find ghost stories attached to them. And it’s often the older generation that used to pass on ghost stories, and it’s easy to picture a grandfather passing on with a twinkle in his eye, to his children and grandchildren, the story of the woman in black, wielding a hatchet who used to live in the house.
The well not only fits the same pattern, but also pushes the date of the story back farther. In the middle ages, in an area which later was swallowed up by London, there was a natural spring known as Black Mary’s Hole. Though in later years, sinister stories were told about Black Mary, it appears that originally she was a nun, and was called that either because of the color of her habit, or because she was originally of African origin.
When the English came to this country, quite often they would give the name to natural springs which they found here, as well as small ponds or lakes. And so it’s quite likely that originally the spring at Head of the Harbor reflected the name Mary as well. To begin with, the nearest settlement at the time would have been Saint James, which was named for the Episcopal church there, which showed that this was a heavily English area. Further evidence can be found in Massapequa, which has a small pond that was long ago known as Mary’s Hole. It’s also worth noting that another location associated with the story of Hatchet Mary is Mount Misery. There Mary is associated with either a school or asylum, which according to the oldest reference I’ve found of the story, was located at the corner where Mount Misery, Sweet Hollow and Chichester Roads meet. And is the site of another natural spring, known since the time of the Native Americans’ occupation of the area.
Natural springs and wells have of course often been thought of as enchanted or haunted, so it’s no surprise that the early settlers of the area brought folk tales with them, and associated them with these sites. These tales had a practical aspect, in that they were intended to frighten children away from these areas, which were often dangerous.
Incest in association with wells were also known throughout the history of folklore. A traveller, a class of people who move from place to place in Ireland, sang a song to a collector in 1966 which dates from the middle ages and was thought to be long lost. The original was believed to be either English or Scottish in origin, and relates the story of a man traveling through the countryside, who meets a woman alongside a well. There he learns that she has had several children, each by a different member of her family, and each that were killed at birth. And it’s worth noting, that one of the legends of Mary Hatchet is that she has a child or children with her father, who she dispatches with her hatchet along with the father, and these are the crimes for which she is hanged. It should also be mentioned, that Scandinavian versions of this song includes verses about Jesus meeting Mary Magdalene at a well, who claims to be a virgin, untill he tells her she has had children by her father, her brother and the village priest. And so another, more ancient Mary enters the story.
The Well Below The Valley
A gentleman was passing by
He asked for a drink as he got dry
“My cup is full up to the brim
If I were to stoop I might fall in”
“If your true lover was passing by
You’d fill him a drink as he got dry”
She swore by grass, she swore by corn
That her true love had never been born
“Young maid you’re swearing wrong
For six young children you had born”
“If you be a man of noble fame
You’ll tell to me the father of them”
“There’s two of them by your Uncle Dan
Another two by your brother John
Another two by your father dear”
“If you be a man of noble ‘steem
You’ll tell me what did happen to them”
“There’s two buried ‘neath the stable door
Another two ‘neath the kitchen door
Another two buried beneath the wall”
“If you be a man of noble fame
You’ll tell me what will happen myself”
“You’ll be seven years a-ringing the bell
You’ll be seven more burning in hell”
And of course none of these bits of evidence says anything about the historical facts of the tale, if indeed there are any. But I do get a feeling that the tale told of Mary at Head of the Harbor is quite old, perhaps as old as the original settlement there. The Europeans who came to this continent brought their legends and folklore with them, and old ghosts found new haunts in the new world.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them