To be young and in love, and in a time of war no less…tragic luck. Particularly if you are referring to the Lady in Black. Her origin is actually quite sweet. She and her husband were married just weeks when he was drafted to fight in the confederate army as a lieutenant during the United States Civil War. Unfortunately for him, he was taken as a prisoner of war after Union army general Ambrose Burnside overtook Roanoke Island in North Carolina. As a prisoner of war the young man was taken to Fort Warren on George’s Island in Boston harbor. Amazingly, the young man succeeded in getting his wife a message through the underground railroad of where he was going. After receiving the message, the young woman journeyed to Hull, Massachusetts where she found a southern sympathizer who decked her out in men’s clothing and gave her a pistol. Then in the dead of night, the young woman rowed herself onto George’s Island in an ill-fated attempt to save her husband.
Upon reaching the island she quickly located her husband and they made a plan to escape via digging a tunnel. Disastrously the noise required in digging a tunnel attracted the attention of Northern soldiers on base, including the Colonel. Upon getting caught the young woman tried to shoot the Colonel but the old gun misfired and killed her husband instead.
The young woman was sentenced to death by hanging, but made one last request, to die in the clothes of a woman. Upon searching the grounds, the soldiers found black robes used by one of the soldiers in a play for the entertainment of the troops. The young woman wore the dress to her execution, and it is said that she still haunts the grounds of Fort Warren to this very day.
Edward Rowe Snow is known for this story in particular and can be seen in many video’s like this one talking about the Lady in Black. It is important to note that Snow realizes how unlikely this story actually is. Before telling the story in his book The Islands of Boston Harbor, Snow explicitly states, “I herewith offer the reader the legend without the slightest guarantee that any part of it is true” (30). Arguably one of the reasons that Snow was so vocal in the telling of this story was because of his love for the land on which it supposedly took place. It has been said that,
“Edward Rowe Snow was instrumental in the preservation of Fort Warren as a public resource, which helped to lay the foundation for the Boston Harbor Islands State Park, established in 1970. The Boston Harbor Islands National Park Area became a reality in 1996, and the islands are now managed by an alliance of state, municipal, and federal agencies, aided by the private sector” (Snow, 34).
To this day, those who travel to Fort Warren can take a Lady in Black tour led by park rangers. I personally went on one of these tours and found it fascinating that before telling the story my park ranger guide said, “I can’t guarantee that any part of this story is true.” After the tour was over I asked her about the story and she explicitly said that every guide tells the story differently.
Throughout the years people have tried to prove the story of the Lady in Black true, and certain people believe that they have even found the name of her lieutenant husband, but no such information has ever been confirmed as fact. Because this is a ghost story there will always be those who believe that it is possible or even probable; and those who believe it to be gibberish. But the real value in this story is that it was used by Edward Rowe Snow to help save an extremely important United States landmark. If it was not for the avid interest of Edward Rowe Snow in preserving Fort Warren, there is a good chance that it would not exist today. The Lady in Black may very well be a huge contorted lie, but it is one that helped preserve the fort, whose staff tell her story to visitors of the Park, and there is immeasurable value in that.
D’Entremont, Jeremy. “Edward Rowe Snow-‘The Lady in Black’ at Fort Warren, 1970.” Youtube, February 24, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aW2hXzgsXF8.
Snow, Edward Rowe. The Islands of Boston Harbor. Updated by Jeremy D’Entremont. Forward by William M. Fowler, Jr. 1935. Reprint, Carlisle, MA: Commonwealth Editions, 2002.