(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 that I researched, on-site.
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.)
Mary’s Happy Marriage
Thomas Wallace married Mary Wilson on December 18th, 1742.
And yes, 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 “Ocean-Born” Mary and Thomas Wallace did, indeed, have a daughter and four sons: Elizabeth, Thomas, Robert, William, and James.
However, “Ocean-Born” Mary wasn’t widowed early in life. In fact, 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.
More family history: 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 Patterson.
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.
Mary’s Later Life
“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 one of her other sons, Robert Wallace.
Robert is the one who built the mansion that, today, is supposedly haunted by Ocean-Born Mary.
But… 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. (That’s a little odd. Why wasn’t she buried with her husband, back in Londonderry?)
The romantic tale of Don Pedro cannot be documented after the encounter outside Boston Harbor.
So far, I haven’t found a land grant giving him 6,000 acres of land around Henniker. Though it’s unlikely the grant was that large, I can’t rule it out, either. The problem is: the grant was probably in his real name, not given to “Don Pedro.” So, I’m not sure if I’ve overlooked a record of his land grant.
However, Robert Wallace, who built the mansion, was considered a wealthy landowner with a deed to 300 acres surrounding the home. Even 300 acres is a very large piece of land, and could include a significant area around Henniker.
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.
Where Mary Lived – and Where She Didn’t
The home that Mary actually lived in was reported to be haunted and – after it was abandoned for a few years – the town purchased it in 1844. It was turned into a poorhouse, known as “Wallace Poor Farm.”
In later years, it was reportedly destroyed by vandals. (The history of that house is just odd enough to make me wonder if it really was haunted… perhaps by Mary. Maybe, as the story was passed from one generation to the next, people confused the brothers’ houses.)
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.
The Roys and Mary’s Legend
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.
So, it’s possible the Robert Wallace’s house was haunted.
However, Mr. Roy’s stories were laced with fiction.
For example, the phantom rocking chair was never Mary’s, and it rocked because Mr. Roy placed it over a loose floorboard that extended the length of the room. By shifting his weight on it, from the other side of the room, Roy could make the chair sway.
Then, Mr. Roy enticed visitors with his story of the lost fortune of Don Pedro, still buried somewhere in the garden where the pirate had died.
And – as if he didn’t seem enough of a charlatan at that point – 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.
Despite that, Ocean-Born Mary became one of America’s best-known ghosts. After all, the public love stories of adventure, romance, and real-life ghosts.
The ‘Ocean-Born Mary House’ in Recent Years
Mr. Roy died in 1965. Subsequent owners of the home, while intrigued by the legend, have done everything possible to discourage curiosity-seekers from trespassing.
They 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 that 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 Don Pedro story appears to be made up by Mr. Roy.
Oh, “Ocean-Born Mary” may still haunt at least one house in Henniker, NH, and appear in locations around town, especially at Halloween.
Remember, October 30th is when her husband, Thomas Wallace, died. That kind of anniversary – plus any spectral energy at Halloween – could explain why stories of her ghost appear at that time of year.
If You Visit Henniker, New Hampshire
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.
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, but she may still haunt Henniker.
If you’ve encountered her ghost, I hope you’ll leave a comment and share your story.
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.