[NH] Henniker – Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth

(WARNING! This spoils the Ocean-Born Mary legend)

Ocean-Born Mary is one of America’s most famous ghosts. However, only a few parts of her legend are true.

Here is the actual story, according to Henniker records:

Ocean-Born Mary really was born in 1720 aboard a ship, the Wolf. Also, her life was spared by the pirate Don Pedro, just as the story claims.

Mary’s father, Captain James Wilson, died soon after they landed in Boston, and his widow, Elizabeth, took Mary to Londonderry, NH, where she claimed the land Capt. Wilson had been granted.

Elizabeth married a second time, to James Clark (great-great grandfather of Horace Greeley, the man who said, “Go West, young man.”). She died about 1732.

1732 was also the year that the Wallace family, originally from Scotland, arrived in Londonderry, NH after living in Burnt Mills, Northern Ireland. (Burnt Mills is not on modern maps, but this is the town mentioned in historical accounts.)

Thomas Wallace married Mary Wilson on December 18th, 1742. She was actually six feet tall, with red hair. And, true to the legend, she wore a gown made from the silk given to her parents by Don Pedro.

The Wallaces did, indeed, have four sons and a daughter: Elizabeth, Thomas, Robert, William, and James. However, Thomas Wallace, Sr., and his wife Mary lived a long and happy life together, until his death on October 30, 1791. He is buried in Hill Graveyard, in Londonderry, NH.

Their daughter Elizabeth married Major (later Deacon) Thomas Patterson of the NH Militia; he was the son of Peter Patterson. They had at least one child, Robert.

Thomas Wallace, Jr., was a distinguished Revolutionary War hero.

Sons Robert, William, and James married sisters, respectively, Jeanette, Hannah, and Anna, all daughters of Robert and Mary Moore of Londonderry.

“Ocean-Born” Mary Wilson Wallace moved to Henniker on July 6, 1798 at age 78, and spent the rest of her life with her son, William, about a quarter-mile from another son, Robert.

Robert is the one who built the mansion that, today, is supposedly haunted by Ocean-Born Mary. William’s journals and the census records suggest that Mary never lived in that house.

Mary died in 1814 and was buried in William Wallace’s family plot, as described in the legend, in Centre Cemetery.

The romantic tale of Don Pedro cannot be documented after the encounter outside Boston Harbor. He certainly did not have a land grant to 6,000 acres of Henniker; Robert Wallace, who built the mansion, was considered a wealthy landowner with a deed to 300 acres surrounding the home.

The silk wedding gown was very real, and worn by several of Mary’s descendants at their own weddings. Pieces of the gown remain, in the D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. and in the public library of Henniker, NH. It is a lovely faded teal green silk, in a brocade style, with small teal flowers and white stripes through it.

The home that Mary actually lived in was reported to be haunted and–after it was empty for awhile–the town purchased it in 1844 as a poorhouse, and it was known as the “Wallace Poor Farm.” In later years, it was destroyed by vandals.

The “Ocean-Born Mary” house, as her son Robert’s mansion is known today, was owned by several families before it was bought in 1917 by Louis Maurice Auguste Roy, author of The Candle Book.

Mr. Roy and his mother purchased the house and restored it, after hearing rumors of a ghost.

Soon after completing work on “the Ocean-Born Mary house,” the Roys opened their doors to the public. They charged admission, and Mr. Roy told colorful tales about Mary Wilson Wallace and the ghost which his mother claimed to have seen many times.

The phantom rocking chair was never Mary’s, and it rocked because Mr. Roy had placed it over a loose floorboard that he could shift from the other side of the room, to make the chair sway.

Further, Mr. Roy would describe the lost fortune of Don Pedro, still buried somewhere in the garden where the pirate had died. Then Mr. Roy rented shovels to the tourists, for 50-cents each, so they could dig for treasure in the back yard.

The descendants of Mary Wilson Wallace were not amused, but the public’s love of adventure, romance, and a good ghost story, made Ocean-Born Mary one of America’s best-known ghosts.

Mr. Roy died in 1965, and subsequent owners of the home, while intrigued by the legend, have done everything possible to discourage curiosity-seekers from trespassing and otherwise bothering the home and its residents. They have even moved the road in front of the house, blocking tourists from invading their privacy.

The house last appeared in Yankee magazine in September 1996, where it was in the “House for Sale” section, listed at $875,000.

If the house is haunted–and it may be–it is probably not Ocean-Born Mary who walks there.

The first half of the story–in which the pirate spares the life of the crew and passengers, when the baby is named for his mother–is romantic enough to spark legends. The rest of the story appears to be made up by Mr. Roy. (The black-and-white photo on the first page of this article, was taken by Mr. Roy to publicize the house.)

Henniker is a lovely town and it is home to New England College and Pat’s Peak skiing area. Henniker’s Centre Cemetery is a classic New England graveyard, and perfect for picture-taking, if you like stark and eerie images. Mary Wilson Wallace is buried there.

A Henniker grave marker
Grave marker at Henniker’s Central burial ground.

However, the Ocean-Born Mary ghost story is clearly drawn from Green Lady traditions (because she haunts a house, not a family), and the story of appearing on a horse-drawn coach is straight out of Irish legends.

Mary Wilson Wallace is probably not haunting her son’s home.

Special thanks to Colleen D. of Henniker’s public library,
for her time and assistance in locating materials about Ocean-Born Mary.

Also thanks to Mike Wallace, one of Mary’s relatives,
who provided useful information for our research.

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