Perhaps the most common question that visitors to George’s Island ask is “does the Lady in Black really exist?”
The short answer to this question is, no.
(Full disclosure, I used to work as a Park Interpreter on George’s Island. I was one of those staff members who crushed everyone’s haunted dreams.)
If you haven’t heard of the legend before, it’s more of a love story than horror film fodder. According to the Legend, Samuel Lanier (sometimes, incorrectly referred to as “Andrew Lanier”) marries his young sweetheart Melanie before going off to fight for the Confederacy in the early days of the Civil War. The pair had hoped for a wedding under more fortunate circumstances, but if the worst were to happen, at least Melanie would be protected by their new government was one of the Confederacy’s first war widows. Samuel sets off to fight, leaving Melanie behind.
He’s captured in his first battle, and sent to a place far up north to a cold Island off the coast of Boston: George’s Island. The officers at the Fort on the Island are rather kind given the circumstances, and they allow the prisoners of war to write letters home. Samuel of course writes to Melanie. He tells her not to worry, that the officers of Fort Warren treat him well, yet he’s disappointed that he can no longer fight for the Confederate cause. Of course, telling someone to “not worry” is just going to make her worry even more. Melanie decides that she’s not going to just sit around and do nothing. She hatches an idea. It’s a crazy idea, but she’s got young love on her side. She decides to dress as a young man and head north to break Sam out of prison.
Once she finds her way up north, she meets a family of Confederate sympathizers in a town south of Boston called Hull. They promise her three things: a rowboat, a Union uniform, and a pistol. She rows her boat across the waters to George’s Island, keeping that pistol safe in her back pocket. She arrives at the Island, claiming to be a 16-year-old new enlist in the Union Army. She tries not to say too much; she can’t let her girlish southern drawl betray her disguise.
She’s led to the barracks of the other enlisted soldiers, but she has no clue where the POWs are housed. She gets the idea to whistle a southern tune around the Fort. If someone responds, then maybe he’ll know where Sam is. To her luck, the man who responds to her whistling is Sam himself! The two are overjoyed to be reunited, but they don’t celebrate for too long. There is still the issue of breaking Sam out of the prison.
So they hatch yet another far-fetched idea.
Again, it’s a long shot. But, they’ve gotten so close, and being reunited so far from home must be a sign of good luck, right? The the two decide to dig a tunnel underneath the Fort to the beach. They wait until the sky storms so that the claps of thunder mask the sounds of their pick-axes and shovels hitting at the rocky New England soil.
What they didn’t prepare for was for an officer to be patrolling on the Fort’s ramparts. He’s mainly looking out for enemy ships in the Harbor, but he occasionally turns back to check the Parade Ground for any soldiers breaking curfew. On this night he sees the most peculiar sight he has yet to see at Fort Warren. He sees a POW and a Union solider he has never seen before digging a ditch. His mind goes to the worst possible place: they have murdered someone and are burying the body. He runs down the slippy granite staircase, and before the words can even leave his mouth to confront the two, Melanie takes out her pistol and shoots.
No bullet comes out.
The pistol got water logged. Instead of firing, it explodes. A shrapnel hits Melanie in the stomach, causing her to yelp out in pain, exposing her disguise. Another hits Sam in his neck. It cuts a critical artery. He bleeds out before Melanie and the officer.
Melanie doesn’t put up a fight. The commanding officer of the Fort, Col. Justin Dimick is a just man. Rules are rules, and Melanie must be put to death for the attempted assassination of an officer during wartime. However, he grants her one final wish.
Her wish is to die as a Southern woman. Not a Yankee man.
There are women on the Island. Wives of officers, laundresses, bakers. None of them are going to lend a dress to her though, not a Confederate woman who tried to kill one of their husbands. So they search for something else for her to be hanged in. In the basement of the Fort they find an old black cloak. It’s the best thing they have to give Melanie to wear as she is hanged the next morning.
Visitors to the Island still hear the whistling of a Southern tune echoing in the abandoned tunnels of Fort’s bastions.
However, none of that happened, because no woman was ever executed on George’s Island during the Civil War. Actually, only 13 Confederates died in total at Fort Warren, which was a very low number considering that over 2000 soldiers and politicians were kept there as prisoners in Fort Warren during the Civil War.
The story was actually made up by an Island historian, Edward Rowe Snow, who grew up in Hull, just like the family of Confederate sympathizers in our story. Snow made it his mission to preserve the Harbor Islands as public parks, and in doing so, he came up with ghost stories to attract visitors.
The “Lady in Black” is definitely out as a potential ghost of the Island. However, this doesn’t explain the sightings of a specter by soldiers stationed on the Island in WWI or by visitors today.
So, then, Who is Haunting George’s Island?
Fort Warren had one of the lower prisoner mortality rates of the Civil War and was well-known for its treatment of prisoners. That being said, 13 Confederates did die on the Island under not-so-willing circumstances. If there is any reason to haunt a place, then dying of typhoid while a prisoner of war is as good as any.
One of those 13 was actually a man named Samuel Lanier whose name is inscribed on the Island’s controversial memorial to the 13 who died. Perhaps, it’s not a Mrs. Lanier who is haunting George’s, but rather a Mr. Lanier!
Visitors have heard chains rattling while on the Island, and perhaps the ghosts of George’s Island serve as a reminder to a darker time in Massachusetts history that is often pushed under the rug.
If any single person has cause to haunt George’s Island, it’s Alexander H. Stephens.
Stephens was the Vice President of the Confederacy, and during the end of the Civil War he was held on the Island as a political prisoner. While others were pleasantly surprised by the conditions maintained by Col. Justin Dimick, Stephens was not a fan. “Words utterly fail to express the soul’s anguish,” he wrote of his confinement on the Island.
While Stephens did not die on the Island, his negative feelings about abolition, the suspension of habeas corpus, strong federal governments, and his imprisonment gives one cause to believe that a part of him is still trapped on the Island.