Miss Bronwen barreled down Old Country Road, eastward towards Melville. I had just told her that originally Melville itself was called Sweet Hollow.
We approached the southern most section of Mt. Misery Rd. She asked if I wanted to go visit the Day Camp at the end, where as legend had it, a serial killer had taken out that day’s campers. I passed on that though there is an interesting old graveyard nearby.
We also passed the Presbyterian Church of Sweet Hollow, where many of the town’s early settlers are buried.
John Woolsey was known as the Sweet Hollow Giant. A big man, he could hoist a full barrel over his shoulder and walk down Sweet Hollow Road to town.
The American Revolution hit this area pretty hard. Though much of Long Island was British sympathizers, the folks in the West Hills were often rebels.
Wilmot Oakley was one such fellow, and found himself under attack by British soldiers. “Mr. Oakley fired his gun, and one of the intruders his pistol, which triflingly grazed the ear of Mr. Oakley. He handed his wife the gun, and took from her the loaded one ; fired it off, and his man fell. While she reloaded, he warded the other two of the rascals off with the gun in his hand. He then took the gun again loaded by Mrs. Oakley, fired, and the second man reeled and fell. The other man, seeing one of his comrades dead and the other fallen, ran out of the house, Mr. Oakley (with his gun reloaded) after him, fired at him as he was running on the road. The next morning traces of blood were seen in the road and on the fence, so that there is little doubt that he was wounded, though he escaped.”
“I am glad to say every effort was made to save the life of the robber, who lay in a dreadful condition on the floor of the parlor, but it proved unavailing. He followed his companion in wickedness before the light of day.”
I told Miss Bronwen “I haven’t found where Wilmot lived yet. What makes this place so special is there is actually more history here than folklore. I mean Walt Whitman was born just over the hill. And there are quite a few houses still standing from his family and others of the time.”
Today we’re looking for the 19th century, and a lady named Mary. I’ve spoken to people who were teens in the sixties, and some of her stories were around then, and undoubtedly, some are much, much older. I don’t find any documented references except those from the internet. And they might just as easily have been spread by me as a reputable researcher.”
I had her whip into the parking area for West Hills Country Preserve, where a trail led up Mount Misery, eventually hooking up with Mt. Misery Road. Those woods are said to be haunted by a variety of spooks. The trail ends at the barrier with 666 painted in red on it.
We crossed the street and went through the gates of Melville Cemetery. At one time there was a sign here which read “Life, How Short.”
“What I hate is that all the focus on the legends of Sweet Hollow Road online, lead to a rather belligerent sort of crowd visiting the area. A few years back there were almost a hundred gravestones knocked over. There’s one person who works here, and there’s no way they can fix damage like that.”
“Why do people do such stupid shit?” she asked.
“Beer is a likely culprit,” I responded. “There has been at least one fatality around the graveyard, an unlucky kid hanging out the car window whose head struck a road sign as they were driving past. They’re always catching people up here at night, looking for Mary’s grave. ”
“There are actually a few Mary’s graves here, 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.”
She told me, “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.”
I pointed to one stone with nothing inscribed on it but the word Mary. “People point to one or another stone like this, and believe this must be the Mary’s grave of legend. Sadly, if you look nearby you’ll usually see a family tombstone, right there, 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.”
“Mary can sometimes be seen standing next to her tombstone. Now I believe in ghosts, that’s possible. Or 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. I’ve felt that, and even walked into the woods when I did, and was sure I felt someone there with me.”
We walked up the road towards the Northern State Parkway overpass. “I’ve heard this one,” she said. “A busload of children skidded off the overpass on an icy night, killing everyone inside. If you park below the overpass, and leave your car in park, invisible hands push you to safety.”
“And it works!” I said. “But if you look close you can see it’s really just a question of the car rolling down an incline, which can’t be seen till you get out and look closely. It’s a story you find all over the world. It certainly didn’t start here as it even worked with wagons before there were cars in some places.”
We stood in the shadow of the overpass, the trees on both sides forming a canopy and it was quite beautiful. I pointed upwards, “and there was the group of kids who hung themselves from here in a suicide pact, and at night you can sometimes see them hanging there.”
She looked up, blanched and head back towards the car.
“Of course I’ve found no evidence, no reports of anything like that happening here. And I’m sure since it would have been rather recent, historically speaking, there would at least be a collective memory of it. “
“And that’s the fun bit about Sweet Hollow Road. There is a lot of history here, and a lot of folklore. But being an isolated place, and a lovely place, it gets a lot of traffic. And since a lot of traffic often means beer and weed, urban legends get told. There stories are almost archetypes, go to tales when you want to scare someone. And that’s a practice which goes back to the furthest recesses of time.”
We got back in the car and drove down the road, only a minute or so to the gates of West Hills County Park and got out.
“We can walk down the road a bit,” I offered, “or we can hike up to the top of Jayne’s Hill if you like?”
“What are the odds you can get us there without getting us lost?” she asked.
I thought for a moment … “Slim.”
“I opt for the road,” she decided, and starting walking across the grass.
“Across the road there, where the trails begin,” I said pointing towards the trees, “that’s where the black dog seems to be most often seen. It varies, but essentially it’s oversized and has glowing red eyes. Much like the Mothman and even the strange Bigfoot type creature people see here.”
“Did you remember to bring doggie treats just in case? Like the mailman?” she asked.
“It doesn’t seem to bite, or even want its belly rubbed. Essentially it’s seeing it that brings down the curse. If you do, you’ll die soon. Or someone you love. Or even a relative, which you might like at least.”
We walked further down the road. It’s a narrow road, no center line painted and not particularly made for those walking along the edge. But it’s a beautiful walk, the trees forming a canopy overhead, slightly rolling with hills and curves. And traffic was light, as it usually is.
“Mary is the lady in white of Sweet Hollow Road,” I carried on. The lady in white is a ghostly archetype, reported all over the world throughout time. Today we tend to think of it as a throwback to the Victorian era, likely because it was also a favorite of writers of that age, and it’s from then that much of what we know of gothic ghost stories developed.”
I looked behind us and seeing no cars coming, moved to the center of the road.
“There are several Mary and the car stories, which typically portrays Mary as an innocent. 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 white wedding dress, looking for her husband, and her husband’s phantom headlights can be seen scouring the road, looking for Mary.
“Mary is spotted sometimes, walking along the side of the road in a white dress. Mary darts out in front of cars and disappears. 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.”
“It’s a part of what’s known as the phantom hitchhiker pantheon of folk tales and ghost stories. They go way back, long before automobiles. Ghosts alongside of roads which go along with you for a ways, before spookily disappearing. Or perhaps you never know till after you’ve said your goodbyes.”
She began singing in what sounded like my country accent …
“At the wheel sit a big man, he weighed about two-ten
He stuck out his hand and said with a grin
“Big Joe’s the name”, I told him mine
And he said: “The name of my rig is Phantom 309.”
I finished it for her …
“But, every now and then, some hiker’ll come by
And like you, Big Joe’ll give ’em a ride
Here, have another cup and forget about the dime
Keep it as a souvenir, from Big Joe and Phantom 309.”
“I never had you pegged for a Red Sovine fan,” I said with a kind of sideways grin.
She went full southern belle … “Oh I learned that from my daddy.”
I rolled my eyes and carried on. “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 since Sweet Hollow’s roots stretch back into the colonial era, witchcraft finds its way into the Mary saga. 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 being a witch, and stoned her to death. Children playing in Sweet Hollow from time to time feel her tender hands stroking their hair.”
Miss Bronwen’s shoulders visibly shook and she darted her head from side to side, looking behind her. I dropped the twig I had used to tickle the back of her neck unnoticed.
“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.”
It’s been years since I walked down Sweet Hollow Road, and every so often I dream about the place. You never get to the bottom of the mysteries of Sweet Hollow Road, or Mount Misery for that matter.
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.
But 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, with the story of the virginal Mary at the well. Mary had just drawn water 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.
We were approaching a historic marker nestled among some trees. I pointed it out, “This spring is close to the intersection of Chichester and Sweet Hollow Roads. So it’s quite likely it was important. It was called Mountain Mist Springs, and the water from here 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. Remember Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill?”
“Of course! He lived just down the road from me, in Oyster Bay Cove. A bit before my time of course.”
“Of course. And it’s just down the road, more or less. Teddy used to ride his horse up here to the pub, and also over to Harry Stimson’s house off Mt. Misery Rd. He was the Secretary of War during world war two. Harry and Teddy were fond of their horses.”
We continued on walking, “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.
“My mother used to tell us it wasn’t good for you to eat too many plants … not a fan of fruits and vegetables. She said it would make you into a blooming idiot.”
I winced, “not particularly the kind of thing I was talking about, but still I’m nod politely and pretend you never told me that.”
She gave me the finger with a smile.
It’s a curious little intersection there, at Chichester and Sweet Hollow Road. You can almost see three historic sites at once. There’s the spring behind us. Down Chichester to the right is the Peace and Plenty Inn. And just ahead is the West Hills School, which is associated with a grisly fire. It did burn. That’s one part of the tale which is true.
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.
Other accounts say it was completely rebuilt. No accounts that I’ve seen mentioned a loss of life in the fire.
“There are two main legends about this school. In the first, Mary, remember Mary? Well she’s at 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. In another variation, Mary was the school marm and set the blaze herself.”
We had sat and snacked, just off the road in a little clearing. We were pretty sure we were trespassing but we’re harmless trespassers. I kept on …
“In yet 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.”
“With that, she becomes the infamous Mary Hatchet”, Miss Bronwell said.
“Exactly!” I exclaimed. “You do pay attention sometimes!”
“And I remember being drug all around St. James and Head of the Harbor, looking for her there as well,” she reminded me.
“As I said, 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 perished in the blaze. As the story goes, 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 doesn’t end there. Folklore and urban legends as well, are seldom told the same way twice. The same story told two slightly different ways over time becomes two separate stories. In this variation, Mary became an arsonist, who set the blaze in which she died, as well as her family. In others 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.”
The older asylums on Mount Misery
The idea that there was an asylum, or multiple asylums on Mount Misery is a legend that will not die. (I cover this extensively here). There is almost no possibility that there was an institution here during the nineteenth century. There wasn’t a population to support it, there was no money allotted to it, and the infrastructure wasn’t there. 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.
The ghost at the Peace and Plenty Inn
Just down Chichester we came upon a low slung, dark red house, obviously ancient.
“The Peace and Plenty Inn has been welcoming weary travelers and serving ale before they rang in the year 1700.” I gestured towards the left side of the building, the oldest part which was built about 1880. Teddy Roosevelt used to ride his horse here to belly up at the bar. Walt Whitman had a few here too. They used to gamble and guess the weight of pigs, but the project frequently got out of hand and turned violent.”
“The important question,” she said with a grimace, “is do they have a bathroom.”
I looked towards the woods, “actually they stopped serving about 1844, or thereabouts. Asa Chichester owned the place then. Business had dried up and shut the place down. Since then he’s haunted the Peace and Plenty. “Some say it’s his father, who was a rebel during the revolution. Lots of footsteps, footprints even, swinging doors, things moving, disappearing and occasionally flying through the air. May not be a particularly happy ghost.”
“So I’m not getting a bathroom?”
“There’s the woods?”
She wheeled and turned and started back down the way we came. We were a goodly distance from the car. And I know her well enough that she can make use of the bushes. But I pay for that.
“I’m not pissed off,” she said over her shoulder as I struggled to keep up. “But I saw a trail that leads up to Jayne’s Hill back there which should afford some privacy.”
“I can stand watch …”
“You can stand down there on the goddamned road.”
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 their skulls. In some tales, there were two sodomites, and as a result, she takes two lives every year, which of course is obviously bullshit as two people dispatched yearly with hatchets to the head would surely attract the media.
There’s the insane Mary, with 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 – all over the country.
I found I was rambling to a freshly relieved Miss Bronwell about 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.”
“You mean that horrible, horrible southern rock band?”
“Yes, the same. I actually had to leave their concert because watching them was making me physically ill. Could have been the dope though.”
“The important question,” she said, “is why were you at a Molly Hatchet concert to begin with.”
+ + +
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 all over Long Island.
As memories of the Temperance movement faded from popular knowledge, the name stuck. It ties in with Lizzie Borden as well.
It’s this version of Mary who makes it onto the big screen, or at least direct to video. Of course they’re 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, capitalizing on a memorable name.
If you look hard enough, you’ll find there is no true story, only a rich body of legend. There are plenty of Mary stories to choose from. Just none are particularly happy.
“So,” she asked, drawing out the silence for emphasis. “What’s the real story? Why do all these stories exist, and in this place?”
“My guess is it’s the old maximum, ‘location, location, location.’ You’ve got native Americans to the south. The American Revolution to the north. You’ve got a genuine American hero of the arts, Walt Whitman born right over there. His family’s homes still dot the neighborhood. It’s got a sense of history that makes historic provenance believable.”
“And the beauty of the place,” she interjected. “It’s one of the loveliest spots on Long Island. The hollow here is like a hidden world amongst all the subdivisions and traffic. And the view from the highlands make the place look uncivilized, or undeveloped might be a better word for it.”
“And at night it’s truly a creepy place,” I added. It’s a thick wood, you don’t get a lot of light, you don’t see any houses, don’t really even hear much traffic. A lot of the trees are gnarled and broken. There are a lot of mountain laurels which just grow that way even.”
The parking lot for West Hills County Park was once more within view.
“My favorite folk tale about Sweet Hollow and Mount Misery,” I began, “is about the man you’d run into on the paths. He’s dressed in an old fashion manner, some say in rags. Hat slouched over his eyes, grizzly beard and carry an abnormally large head. If you ask what’s in the basket he’s happy to show you. As he throws open the lid with a cackle, you stare down into a basket full of human heads.”
“That sounds like it should be in one of those films,” she said.
“Exactly,” I answered. “But at the same time, it could be a story a hundred years old. Told around the fireplace, or told by a mother who wanted to keep her kids out of the depths of the forest.”
“Most of the stories are obviously from a more recent date. You find many of the same ones, all over the country, usually cropping up the last half of the twentieth century. Often with Mary as the main character.”
“It’s possible something happened here that left a black stain on the place. The details are forgotten, but it was so awful it started people talking. What they didn’t know, they filled in from their imagination and gossip. As the generations went on, the truth was forgotten, but the stories had a momentum of their own.”
“So in the end,” she added, “people make up stories about this place because it’s traditional to do so.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. You go to Sweet Hollow Road after dark, you tell a story. The night does the rest.”
“Do you have a favorite Mary story?” she asked, as I tossed her the keys from my bag.
“I do!” I replied. “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, ain 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.”
“But why does Mary still wander those woods? Because we keep calling her back. 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.”
Read more about Mount Misery and Sweet Hollow Road
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