The Truth About Ocean Born Mary
There really was an Ocean Born Mary and she really did live in New Hampshire. Beyond those bare facts, little of the story you have likely heard is true. She didn't marry a pirate, bury a treasure, explore the streets of Portsmouth or reside in the Ocean Born Mary House in Hennker. But don't be sad. Legends live longer than facts.
Elizabeth Fulton, history tells us, gave birth in the hold of a ship off Boston on July 28, 1720. She and her husband James were among the Scots-Irish immigrants on their way to a new life in colonial New England. At the same time, on deck, privateers hijacked the ship. Whether the invading pirate truly intended to murder the passengers, something pirates rarely did, we'll never know. According to the first piece of the legend, the bandit heard the wail of the newborn child and asked if her parents would name the girl Mary after his mother, or his wife, or his girlfriend, depending on the legend one favors. The Fultons named their daughter Mary, and the pirate spared the lives of the immigrants.
Here the thief suddenly turned into a philanthropist, offering gifts to the swaddling infant. Among them was a bolt of light green brocaded silk, bits of which reside today in the museum at the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord, and at the libraries in Londonderry and Henniker. In the next piece of the legend, the pirate requested that the cloth be used for Mary's wedding gown, when the time came. Mary's father died soon after their arrival in Boston, but she and her mother moved on to Londonderry, NH as planned. Local historians tell us that Mary, tall and red-haired, did wear a gown made from the pirate's silk when she married James Wallace in 1742. The couple had four sons and a daughter. Three of the sons married three sisters and all settled in Henniker. Mary lived a full life with her husband in Londonderry. In 1798 she moved to Henniker and stayed with a son named William for her final 18 years. She died at age 94 in 1814.
Legends, like water, seek their own popular level. They carve through fact by repeated telling, the way rivers cut through stone. Fiction is about the way we want things to be, rather than the way it is. Over time the story of the pirate's wedding gift expanded to find the pirate himself returning two decades later to claim Mary. In other versions, he builds a house near hers in Henniker, and in another, hires Mary as his housekeeper. It's certainly a romantic notion, and survives into an age when ancient male movie stars woo younger and younger women. In this case however, the elder pirate would have been a century old, and his bride 78.
Attempts to identify the actual pirate muddle matters even worse. In one version of the legend he is the "ruthless, but handsome" Don Pedro. In other versions Mary is a beautiful "Amazon" who is wooed by Philliip Babb, the butcher pirate often associated with the Isles of Shoals. Sometimes in legend Mary's husband, who lived to be 81, dies young, allowing the pirate to return and claim her. In at least one version, her husband himself is the pirate.
Nothing keeps a good story alive like a piece of real estate. In 1917 a Wisconsin man, Louis "Gus" Roy and his mother were looking to purchase an old New Hampshire house with a compelling history. A Henniker postman suggested an appropriately spooky-looking colonial once owned by Ocean Born Mary Wallace's son, Roger Wallace. Records show Mary had lived in a different house a mile away with her son William, but that didn't stop Mr. Roy from inventing a fascinating tour and charging visitors to walk through.
Even visitors who knew the house was as fake as Plymouth Rock, still enjoyed a thrill at the thought of pirate gold buried in the back orchard, and bodies entombed under the massive fireplace hearth. Roy filled the house with period furniture and claimed item after item had been owned by Ocean Born Mary herself. The house appeared on early postcards and found its way into anthologies of New Hampshire folklore. When the Roys began seeing Mary's ghost, no publication, especially not "Yankee" and the "Boston Globe," could resist the haunting tale. Roy reportedly rented shovels for fifty cents and invited people to dig for buried gold in his back yard.
The legend got another shot in the arm in 1939 when children's author Lois Lenski published a nearly 400-page tale of a 10-year old Ocean Born Mary and her adventures in Portsmouth, NH. Filled with dozens of the author's charming illustrations, the work is clearly imagined, yet grounded by Lenski's detailed research about early 19th century Portsmouth. In the author's notes, Lenski credits Portsmouth librarian Dorothy Vaughan, who will be 97 this year, for helping with the research. She also credits Mr. Roy, then the owner of the Ocean Born Mary house in Henniker. Today a collectible copy of Lenski's book sells for over $100. The drawings of little Mary in Portsmouth leap off the page, while Lenski's explanation - that Mary was never here - lies buried in the final pages of the book.
Mary herself lies buried in a clearly marked tomb in Henniker. Visitors can find it in the William's lot in the cemetery behind the Town Hall, now called the Community Building. But Ocean Born Mary gets no rest. Her house (which was not her house) appears in "The National Directory of Haunted Places". Mary's legend appears in the popular writings of Hans Holzer and her ghost is catalogued in "The Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits."
Ed and Lorraine Warren, founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research make much of their experience at the (not) Ocean Born Mary House. According to an essay on their web site, the Warrens accidentally found themselves in Henniker one day. They visited the house, felt the presence of Mary's ghost, and got a tour from sideshow barker Mr. Roy, whom they call the "caretaker" of the house. This was sometime before World War 2. Lorraine, the article explains, had her first out of body experience and astrally projected herself into the air and hovered above Ed and Gus. Too bad they had the wrong address.
More recent owners of the house in Henniker have gone on publicity campaigns to tell the true story, hoping to discourage vandals, door-knockers and wannabee psychics. Yet despite the facts, the legend looms large. Visitors who toured the Roy house right up until the mid-1960s, tell their children. Web sites routinely recount the myth, and the Henniker house is on every major online list for amateur treasure hunters. Drip, drip, drip, the legend pounds away at the facts, one drop at a time, eroding away the annoying bits of truth and keeping the legend alive.
Copyright © 2001 by SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
Illustrations from Ocean Born Mary © 1939 Lois Lenski. Photographs courtesy of the Henniker Historical Society
For more information OCEAN BORN MARY click here. Also contact the Henniker Historical Society and read The Story of Ocean Born Mary by Alice V. Flanders.
Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.
New | Site Map | Talk | Store | As I Please | Search