The legends and stories of a woman named Mary are found scattered all over Sweet Hollow Road and Mount Misery. I’ve spoken to people who were teens in the sixties, and some of the stories were around then, and undoubtedly, some are much, much older. There’s Mary’s grave in Sweet Hollow Cemetery, which once had the words “Life, How Short” inscribed over its gates. There are actually a few Mary’s graves in that cemetery, if you get to poking around. The story is well-known. Go to the grave and stand before the tombstone, shine your flashlight on it, say Mary three times and Mary will appear to you. Or Mary will strike you dead on the spot. Or you will die before the sun comes up. There are many variations, and not only in this graveyard, but in graveyards all over Long Island, and in fact, all over the world.
As a child, my sister taught me that if you stared in a mirror without blinking and repeated out loud “I don’t believe in Bloody Mary,” over and over again, you would eventually see her, which of course is an optical illusion much more effective if you are female. Another variation of the same story.
People point to one or another tombstone with no words but Mary carved on them, and believe this must be the Mary’s grave of legend. Sadly, if you look nearby you’ll usually see a family tombstone, with the children listed, and the dates Mary died, along with her family. It was once a very common practice. No real mystery there about a tombstone with only a single name.
The stories pile up: Mary can sometimes be seen standing next to her tombstone. Mary is buried across the road from the graveyard, a suicide victim, not eligible to be buried in hallowed ground, and can sometimes be seen standing just inside the forest, watching. Mary is spotted sometimes, walking along the side of the road in her white dress. Mary darts out in front of cars and disappears. Mary sometimes flags you down and asks for a ride home, and when you reach the graveyard she tells you to stop, and says this is where she lives. When you look again to the passenger seat she is gone.
There are several Mary and the car stories in fact, which typically portrays Mary as an innocent, the lady in white. Mary and her husband were newlyweds going down Sweet Hollow Road when they were both killed in a car crash. Mary wanders the road in her wedding dress, looking for her husband, and her husband’s phantom headlights can be seen scouring the road for Mary. In another tale, Mary was a teenager whose boyfriend suspected her of cheating. In a fit of anger, while they drove through Sweet Hollow, he opened her door and pushed her out. Mary lived, but before she could crawl off to safety, another car ran over here like a bump in the road, killed her and kept on driving. Her spirit walks along the roadside now, looking for her jealous boyfriend and the driver who killed her.
Unfortunately, for those who need to believe that one or more of these stories are true, all of them can be found as urban legends throughout the country. What the urban legends about Mary make up for in quantity, they lack in originality.
And what would a colonial era area be without a witchcraft legend? Mary treated the children of the area who had contracted smallpox, and unfortunately, several of them died. The locals as a result, accused Mary of witchcraft, and stoned her to death. Children playing in Sweet Hollow from time to time feel her tender hands stroking their hair. Other tales are less specific, only that she was accused of being a witch and was hung, some say in Sweet Hollow itself, others in Huntington. This is of course easily shot down, as the town records for the era are in existence, and does refer to a couple of accusations of witchcraft, which resulted in no hangings or stonings, and none involved a Mary from the Sweet Hollow area.
The first question to ask to get to the truth of the legend is why Mary? All these events didn’t happen here, and certainly not by a women named Mary. But most legends have some grain of truth about them, and at some point there might have been a Mary who lived along Sweet Hollow Road, and perhaps something happened so memorable and so horrifying, that she’s become a magnet for urban legends, which stick to her name like glue.
Or perhaps it wasn’t horrifying after all. As a child in the midwest, I heard the story of Black Annie, who wandered the alleys in our hometown at night, looking for children who were out where they shouldn’t be. If she caught you, she’d rush towards you screeching “my children, my children,” in her delusions, believing you to be one of her children who were lost to her long ago. Some stories claimed that the walls of her house were papered with the skin of the children she found after dark.
In truth, the tale is believed to have originated in the British isles, and refers to a nun, hence the black clothing, who used to care for leper children. She lived in a cave so as not to spread the disease should she contract it, and the walls of her cave were covered with tokens that grateful children had given her.
So you see, in time, even the best among us can become horror stories, especially if parents can tell the tales to keep their children from wandering where they shouldn’t be.
Many of our urban legends and ghost stories were brought over by immigrants from other countries. And it’s likely that this happened with Mary, and also that some of the tales are much older than one would suppose.
Here’s a basic question which no one seems to ask, why the name Mary? Why is this name associated with legends and mysteries? In fact it’s a practice which goes way back, all the way to the Good Book, the Bible, to the story of the virginal Mary at the well. Mary had just drawn water from the well when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she was to give birth. Some might say that lie has begat countless lies about Mary since then. Others might be more considerate and say legend rather than lie. And of course, there are others who simply believe.
Some might point to that other Mary, the Magdalene, as the source of mysteries attached to the various Marys. There’s a great body of evidence that this Mary was much aligned by the disciples, apostles and the authors of the various books of the Bible. The oldest tales have her afflicted with demons, something which wouldn’t be her fault after all, which gradually metamorphosed into Mary being a prostitute. Just like our Mary, her tale seems to have changed over time, and not for the better.
Of course, one can’t count out the fact that Mary was one of the most popular names throughout the ages. In the 19th century, it was hard to swing a dead cat, black or otherwise without belting a woman named Mary.
As I wrote about the story of Mary Hatchet at Head of the Harbor, legends about women named Mary are especially common around wells and springs. In Ireland, a lot of the cures and miracles that are associated with the cult of Mary are attributed to Saint Brigid, who actually predates Christianity, whose shrines are typically found at wells and springs, and whose pagan origins became entwined and replaced with the worship to Mary the virgin. In fact springs are considered sacred in most ancient cultures, from the people who built Stonehenge and who turned Glastonbury into the mystery it is today, to the native Americans. In a suburb of London a couple centuries back, there was a popular legend about a Mary remarkably similar to the Mary of American folklore, who was said to haunt a well.
That people coming to these shores brought folk-tales and legends with them isn’t even a matter for debate. Neither is the fact that they then began to associate these stories with landmarks near their new homes. Wells and springs were dangerous places, particularly when the wildlife on Long Island was likely to kill and eat you. After all, animals typically used the same springs as humans, so children were particularly vulnerable to these dangers. Tell a child to stay away from the spring because there might be wolves and they’ll go there every chance they get. Tell them that Mary might be there and they’ll think twice.
There was a spring in Sweet Hollow, around the intersection of Chichester Road and Sweet Hollow Road. It was called Mountain Mist Springs, and the water from there was used in the early 20th century, bottled and shipped to Montauk to treat soldiers returning from the Spanish American War suffering from yellow fever. Certainly the spring was known of much earlier, and being a spring, it was likely considered a dangerous, and quite possibly a haunted place. Certainly the kind of place that a mother would warn children to stay away from, even employing what are affectionately called mommy lies to keep them away.
Which brings us to a couple of the most gruesome tales told about Mary of Sweet Hollow Road.
It was near this spot that according to one legend, a house once stood where Mary and her family lived. As the tale is told, the house caught fire and Mary burned alive in the blaze. On lonely nights you can still hear her screams. And it is entirely possible that this story is true. A look through newspapers of the 19th century find many articles about fire in Sweet Hollow. It was remote, under populated, and as a result, fire and rescue services were basically non-existent. There are however, no articles that I’m aware of which refer to a woman named Mary perishing in any of the blazes, though I did find one of an elderly gentleman who was burned alive.
But the story can’t end there, as the stories are never told the same way twice. Mary became an arsonist, who set the blaze in which she died, as well as her family. It wasn’t her home, but an insane asylum which Mary had been committed to, and the other patients and the staff burned alive as well.
To begin with, as I’ve pointed out in the first article in this series, there is almost no possibility that there was an institution here during that time. There wasn’t a population to support it, there was no money allotted to it, and the infrastructure wasn’t there. Think about it – the reason given for it being located on Mount Misery is that it was remote, and so neighbors wouldn’t be upset by the screams of the patients. Being remote, there weren’t enough people needing mental care – which was almost non-existent at the time anyway, to warrant the service. Some say it was for patients from New York City, but most of Long Island was farmland or wilderness at the time. They certainly didn’t need to come all the way to Mannetto Hills to find a suitably isolated location.
So Mary was never a patient in the mental institution on Mount Misery, nor a worker, nor did she set the fire that killed all the inmates and the staff. Which means she couldn’t have laughed as she burned alive, and therefore her laughter and the patient screams can’t be heard on Mount Misery. Nor can you occasionally catch the scent of burned wood and flesh, unless it’s from a different ghastly fire.
And that different ghastly fire wasn’t the second institution, built after the inferno that was supposed to have swallowed up the first one. Once you get past the colonial era, you’re in well-documented history. And there is no documentation of a mental institution in the area in the 19th or 20th centuries either. At least none that has come to light, and it would have to be hidden in a very dark corner of history to have remained hidden all this time. After all, if such a tragedy existed, there would be a documentary on PBS – Tragedy at Sweet Hollow.
One of the first asylums on Long Island was built in Amityville, and that structure did catch fire once. But not with wholesale death and destruction. And of course, that fire was well-reported, even in the New York Times. As are several other fires in mental institutions in the New York City area. This was a constant fear, and at times it did happen, sometimes with the loss of human life. It just never happened on Mount Misery, nor along Sweet Hollow Road. Which also brings into the doubt the integrity of all those ghost hunters out here who have EVPs of people being burned alive on Mount Misery.
“But,” dear reader you might ask, “what about the schoolhouse fire?”
Which brings us back to the intersection of Sweet Hollow and Chichester roads.
Just up Sweet Hollow Road from this intersection is the old West Hills school. The old West Hills school house was built in the 18th century, and as the population of the area in the 17th century was dismally low, it’s unlikely that there was an earlier one, lost to history. According to the grand-daughter of Lemuel Carll, when the old school building was partially burned in the 1880’s, she walked to Melville school. Once repaired, the building was used as a school until 1912.
There are two main legends about this school. In the first, Mary is at her home at the intersection when her father, the school teacher returns from a hard day of work. She notices he has a funny smell about him, which he said was from smoke. When she asks why, he relates to her that, more or less, he got fed up with the noisy little rugrats, went outside the school, locked the door from the outside and torched the place. Then presumably danced his little happy dance as all the hapless creatures inside were toasted like marshmallows. Understandably horrified – as she was never a teacher herself, otherwise she might have been more understanding – Mary retreats to her room and hangs herself in shame. And since there are those who can never have Mary being a victim, in some telling of the tale, Mary was the school marm and set the blaze herself.
In another version, the father dispatches the students one by one with an axe, which is certainly a more hands on approach. And of course, in another, it was Mary wielding the axe.
That bloody hatchet.
Sweet Hollow is a short road, but a long enough road for Mary to make the leap from the innocent lady in white to the ruthless killer garbed in black, Mary Hatchet.
You find the full range of Mary’s emotions in these stories. There’s Mary the victim, where Mary was molested by her father, or sodomized by her boyfriend, and she takes her revenge with a hatchet to the skulls of her transgressors. In some tales, there were two sodomites, and as a result, she takes two lives every year beyond the grave, which of course is poppycock as two people yearly dispatched with hatchets to the head would surely attract people’s attention in the liberal news media. And yet I’ve seen no CNN trucks parked alongside Sweet Hollow road with film crews scouring the area. Film crews abound of course, usually consisting of amateurs with sometimes startlingly professional equipment, the results usually finding their way to YouTube.
And there’s the insane Mary as well, with Mary cleaving the brains of her entire family for no other reason other than she wanted to. Or perhaps it was those pesky voices in her head. These stories can be found all over Long Island as well, nay, all over the country. Anyone out there remember the truly atrocious southern rock band of the seventies, Molly Hatchet? Same story, only a prostitute in New Orleans, and Molly is of course a derivative of Mary. And the whole prostitute premise harkens back to the Magdalene.
Luckily enough, Mary Hatchet is a historical figure. Often depicted in drawings, engravings and photographs wearing a black, Victorian style dress and wielding a hatchet, Mary was quite a popular figure early in the twentieth century. She was one of the symbols of the Women’s Temperance Christian Union, who campaigned tirelessly to have the old demon alcohol prohibited. Which she eventually accomplished. These organizations often met secretly, and to avoid people disrupting their meetings, they never gave out the address. Only that the meeting would be held at Mary Hatchet’s house, hence the large number of Mary Hatchet’s houses found in folklore all over the country.
And for those of us who might enjoy a bit of the sauce now and then, plenty of reason to make up mean stories about the woman.
Unfortunately, this image of Mary the crazed, axe-wielding lunatic is likely to be the one we’re stuck with for some time to come. For coming this fall to a theater near you, Blood Night, The Legend of Mary Hatchet brings the legend of Sweet Hollow road to the masses. Of course it’s not the legend of Sweet Hollow Road, to borrow a particularly catchy phrase I read recently, “any more than masturbating to Posh Spice makes you David Beckham.” It’s just an excuse to swill a few buckets of gore and gallons of blood across the big screen. It’s billed as stemming from the real Long Island legend of Mary Hatchet, though in truth it bears little resemblance to any of the stories. No doubt many people will fall for the illusion the film’s marketing is trying to spin, that the events, or at least some of the events actually took place. Already people are googling Mary Hatchet and Mary Mattock to find the true story. For good measure they even toss in Kings Park Psychiatric Institute into the film, re-christianed as the more scathing Kings Park Lunatic Asylum.
If they look hard enough, they’ll find there is no true story, only a rich body of legend. Hopefully they’ll find the much simpler tales, told for the sake of a good story, which captures the feel of the place, if not the history. There are plenty of Mary stories to choose from, and if your tastes run to the gruesome, you’ll find plenty to your liking.
But my favorite is much simpler. Mary is seen wandering the woods along Sweet Hollow Road. No reason why, no horror or gore, just a ghost moving through the trees. Which is why I like the simplest story the best. I’ve hiked most of the trails on Mount Misery, Sweet Hollow and West Hills, in summer, winter, spring and fall, and in day and night. I’ve stood over Mary’s grave and said her name three times. I’ve called for her in the woods. And so far she’s not shown herself. I’m not saying she’s not there, just that so far, I’m still alive, and still walking the woods alone.
Why does Mary still wander the woods of Mount Misery and Sweet Hollow? Because she is called to. She’s summoned by countless fear seekers, ghost hunters and curious teenagers each year, and no doubt will be this Halloween as well, and for many more to come. I have no doubt that from time to time, when someone calls, she’s there. There is something about us that needs the supernatural. And as long as we need Mary, she will come.
Real ghost stories and the places that inspired them