Martha Taylor, the official Henniker town historian, believes ghosts may exist.
Not this ghost, though. Not the ghost named Mary Wallace – once connected to her hometown – despite visual evidence to the contrary, shown on a recent documentary on the Travel Channel.
“I believe in the possibility of ghosts, but the show was made for entertainment purposes, and I think I had to be there to see what really happened,” Taylor told me by phone the day after the show.
Mary, the story went, haunted a house in Henniker, before a team of ghost-hunters – the stars in that recently shown documentary – eventually discovered that Mary has been haunting a house in Rhode Island, not in Henniker.
The Rhode Island house originated in Londonderry, once Mary’s childhood home in the 18th century, and it was dismantled and moved to the Ocean State, year unknown, reason unknown. Mary never lived in Rhode Island, having passed away long before the move, and her ties to Henniker were deemed strong enough to send a crew here for a new show, The Holzer Files, and its segment on Mary, “Legends and Lies.”
Mary, buried in the cemetery behind the Henniker Town Hall, died in 1814 at the age of 94. She fooled paranormalist Hans Holzer, who was famous enough to earn a staff-written obit in the New York Times 10 years ago.
He visited the Henniker house in the 1960s, looking for clues, and came away unfulfilled, not realizing at the time that he was searching in the wrong place.
And that’s not simply because Mary had more interest in haunting her childhood home, the one that landed in Rhode Island. It’s because the Henniker house under the microscope when Holzer rode into town once belonged to Mary’s son, Robert, whom she never lived with.
Instead, Mary moved in with another son, William, after her husband died, and William lived on the same street, Bear Hill Road, as Robert.
Taylor and other longtime residents have long known the real story, that Mary never lived in the Henniker house that’s supposedly haunted; and that some guy nicknamed Gussie moved into that house and ran with the story, charging admission to the gullible, convincing them that he lived at the epicenter of the supernatural; and that Mary really lived her later years in another house in Henniker, also on Bear Hill.
Those factors contributed to Taylor’s skepticism before she’d even seen the film, shown on Nov. 21.
“Not buying into it,” she said then.
I’d seen an advanced copy, sent to me earlier in the week. I’d wait for Taylor to watch for herself. Then seek comment. Perhaps she’d be convinced that Mary has been floating around in Rhode Island for decades, maybe centuries.
I’d see what she thought about the mysterious snow-white footprints and an unexplained voice, caught on tape, in the Rhode Island home, featured in the second half of the documentary.
But the next morning, Taylor remained unconvinced.
“I think I had to be there to see what happened,” she said. “You can only do so much on TV to prove it. I have great doubts about what they found.”
This is a complex tale of twists and turns, following the trail of ghostly breadcrumbs that Mary dropped so long ago. She was born on a ship sailing from Ireland to the United States in 1720, leading to her longtime nickname, Ocean-Born Mary. Pirates boarded the ship. Mean pirates.
But baby Mary caught a break when the captain of the pirates offered her mother a deal: Name your baby after the captain’s mother, or die.
Simple enough. Mary named her baby after the captain’s mother. She grew up in Londonderry, married there, had children there. Then her husband died and three of their sons moved to Henniker, building separate houses.
Mary moved in with William, whose house should have been the famous one, because that’s where Mary lived the last 16 years of her life.
But when a photographer named Louis Maurice Augustus Roy – nicknamed Gussie – moved into Robert’s house in 1917, dollar signs appeared in his eyes.
Gussie knew about the legend of Ocean-Born Mary and built his business, steeped in deception. He spread the word, falsely saying that Mary had died in his house, that the pirate had come to visit her there and that he buried his treasure there as well.
For a fee, you could come inside, listen to the noises, watch the rocking chair rock, feel the fear. He rented out shovels to his customers and let them dig for the captain’s treasure until the cows came home.
“He was a showman,” Taylor said. “He promoted his ghost story and expanded the whole story.”
Facts blurred. Legends grew. Roy made money.
He also, according to some, confessed on his death bed in 1960 that he had made the whole thing up. And when Taylor moved to Henniker in the early ’90s, she soon got into the spirit of the climate there.
“Libraries from out of state came to see it,” Taylor said. “Groups of children came as part of a field trip.”
Back to Holzer, who died 10 years ago at age 89. He went to the house in the 1960s, and his interviews from those visits can be heard in the documentary. Holzer never completed his work in Henniker, never felt satisfied that he had uncovered the whole truth.
The Travel Channel’s ghost-finders – led by lead investigator Dave Schrader – began snooping last spring, with Holzer’s daughter joining the team.
They learned the details, the real details, Schrader says, that Mary and the pirate did not have a fling, as was thought, and Gussie had exploited the wrong house. They also buried the idea that treasure was hiding.
The other Henniker house, Mary’s house, might have been a good place to look, but it burned down in the 1920s and was never rebuilt.
So they went to Rhode Island. To the old Londonderry house.
“That’s where Mary found solace, in that house,” said Schrader.
He’s the face out front, answering questions about his credibility.
He and his team of four set up walkie-talkie-looking things that, Schrader said, would beep when something unseen passed. It beeped.
They spoke to the woman living there now – the human woman – who said Mary had begun to make her presence felt recently. They shot video and saw footprints, bright white. We don’t see how the prints were made, but we see them.
And on a recording, after Mary was asked if she was in the room at that very moment, you hear “Yes,” spoken in a creepy, gravelly whisper. Did she bring the valuable jewelry, found hidden in the house?
Her third and final word was “Lies,” proof, Schrader says, that the untold story, the one with so many elements falsely passed down through the years, had caused Mary’s restlessness.
Maybe she could rest in peace now.
He swore by it, telling me there was no trickery involved. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
“We don’t do that,” Schrader said.
He cited his professional background, in radio for 13 years, a published author. “I would not put myself into the cross-hairs of something that will use fake evidence and while I’m honoring the name of Hans Holzer,” Schrader said. “That place was amazing.”
Schrader knew what Taylor and Kristin MacLean, the president of the Henniker Historical Society, were thinking last spring, when the production team came to visit.
“They were completely skeptical,” Schrader said, “because they knew the original story wasn’t true.”
Not even creepy voices and footprints, however, could change Taylor’s mind. She’s like a lot of people. She needs to see this ghostly stuff for herself. No TV show. No scripts.
Personal, visual contact, or bust.
“If they didn’t find the ghost they were looking for, maybe there’s no show,” Taylor said. “To sell it to the Travel Channel, they had to have something to show.
“How do I know they didn’t cut and paste?”