The Banshee – Ghost, Faerie or Something Else?

Banshees are unique in paranormal research.  The following is from an article I wrote in 1999.

When someone mentions a ghost, most of us think of cemeteries, haunted houses, and transparent figures draped in sheets.

Likewise, the word “faerie” is usually linked with cute little figures with wings, and merry mischief… like Tinkerbell.

However, mention a Banshee, and people squirm.

The Banshee, like a ghost, can represent death, but that is not her actual role in folklore or in our lives.

She can appear transparent, usually the size of a living person. Nevertheless, like her fae counterparts, she is associated with a more magical Otherworld.

She reminds us that the Otherworld is a vast place, inhabited by many kinds of beings, including faeries and ghosts.

The Banshee — in Irish, the Bean Sidhe (pronounced “bann-SHEE”) — means “spirit woman” or sometimes a spirit (perhaps a faerie) dressed in white. She is usually described as a single being, although there are many of them.

Your Irish Family’s Banshee

According to legend, one Banshee guards each Milesian Irish family. These are the families descended from the “Sons of Mil” who emigrated to Ireland long ago. Often, those families’ surnames start with O’ or Mac, and sometimes Fitz. Remember, many of those prefixes have been dropped, particularly by American families.

In other words, if your ancestors lived in Ireland for a couple of generations, your family — and perhaps your household — probably has its own Banshee.

There is a Banshee for each branch of these families, and the family Banshee can follow the descendants to America, Australia, or wherever the Irish family travels or emigrates.

The Banshee protects the family as best she can, perhaps as a forerunner of the “Guardian Angel” in Christian traditions. However, we are most aware of her before a tragedy that she cannot prevent.

Traditionally, the Banshee appears shortly before a death in “her” family.

The Banshee is almost always female, and appears filmy in a white, hooded gown. (The exception is in Donegal, Ireland, where she may wear a green robe, or in County Mayo where she usually wears black.)

However, if she is washing a shroud when you see her, she may merely signal a major life-changing event in your future. The way to determine this is to go home and burn a beeswax candle after seeing her. According to folklore, if it burns in the shape of a shroud, her appearance does foretell death.

The Banshee’s Wail

The night before the death, the Banshee wails piteously in frustration and rage. Her family will always hear her. Many others in the area will, too. For example, Sir Walter Scott referred to “the fatal banshi’s boding scream.”

One of the largest reports of this wailing was in 1938, when the Giants’ Grave in County Limerick, Ireland, was excavated and the bones were moved to a nearby castle.

The crying was heard throughout central Ireland. People said it sounded as if every Banshee in Ireland was keening.

That collective Banshee wail was unusual but not unique. When a group of Banshees are seen, they usually forecast the dramatic illness — and perhaps death — of a major religious or political figure.

In Irish mythological history, the Banshee tradition may link to the fierce Morrighan as the “Washer at the Ford,” a legend of Cuchulain. In that story, the Morrighan appeared as a young woman who prepared for an upcoming battle by washing the clothing — or perhaps the shrouds — of those who would fight and lose.

Does the Banshee Cause Death?

Despite her grim reputation, seeing or hearing a Banshee doesn’t cause the death. Traditionally, the Banshee is a very kind woman. As poet and historian W. B. Yeats commented, “You will with the banshee chat, and will find her good at heart.”

Perhaps her appearance and wailing before a death are efforts to protect her family from a death. or other tragedy that she foresees.

This is the clearest link to what are popularly called “ghosts.” In many stories, the spirit appears to warn the living about danger, illness, or death. Many gothic novels feature a ghost whose appearance forecasts death.

Likewise, in the Sherlock Holmes story, the Hound of the Baskervilles howled before a family death.

In real life, my maternal grandmother and her siblings were individually visited by the spectre of their mother, to warn them of her imminent death in a hospital many miles away, and to say good-bye.

This level of concern for the living is consistent with many ghosts, as well as the Banshee.

Whether the Banshee is a “ghost” or a “faerie” may never be resolved. However, the Banshee provides clear evidence that the lines separating ghosts, spirits, and faeries are vague at best.

For more information about the Banshee, one of the best studies is The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght (paperback, © 1986, Roberts Rhinehart Publishers, Colorado).

Note: Most of this article originally appeared as “Banshee – Ghost, faerie or something else” – in October 1999 at Suite 101, when I was one of their consulting editors, writing about paranormal topics.

Photo credit:
Menlo Castle, photographed by dave gilligan, Limerick, Ireland (Eire)

Ocean-Born Mary: The Truth – Henniker, NH

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

Ocean Born Mary - the true storyOcean-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.

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, 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.

Ocean-Born Mary – Her Ghost in Henniker, NH

“Ocean-Born Mary” is among America’s most famous ghosts. Here’s her popular legend, researched in Henniker, New Hampshire by Fiona Broome. (If you’re busy, you can listen to Fiona’s recording of the story. It’s about eight minutes long.)

Ocean-Born Mary – The ghost legend

Ocean-Born Mary is one of America’s most famous ghosts, and she was an actual person with a real history. Her ghost stories are credible, as well. In this 8-minute recording, hear Fiona Broome describe the ghost’s past, and what to look for to encounter her ghost.

Ocean Born Mary ghost story

Ocean-Born Mary’s story begins just off the coast of old New England. Her story includes adventure, romance, and – of course – a classic ghost or two. Here’s what I discovered in my research in the town of Henniker, at its public library, and during a visit to Mary’s grave.

Mary Wilson was born at sea on July 17th, 1720 (according to the old calendar), soon after her parents set sail from Londonderry, Ireland, aboard the ship, the Wolf.

As the ship neared Boston harbor, it was boarded by pirates, led by the ruthless – but very young and handsome – Don Pedro.

Don Pedro learned that there was a newborn aboard, and offered to let the ship and its passengers continue their voyage, unharmed, if the Wilsons would name the baby “Mary,” after his beloved mother.

The Wilsons eagerly agreed, so Don Pedro honored his promise and let them continue to Boston.

However, before his own ship of ruthless (and now unhappy) pirates sailed away, Don Pedro returned to the Wolf with a length of Chinese silk. He told the Wilsons that the fabric should one day be used for Mary’s wedding gown.

So, many years later – just before Christmas in 1742 – when Mary and Scotsman Thomas Wallace married, in Londonderry, New Hampshire, her wedding gown was made from that silk. (You can see a piece from it at the Henniker Public Library, and a larger piece in a museum in Washington, D.C.)

Mary and Thomas Wallace had a happy marriage, and their family quickly grew to include a daughter and four sons.

Sadly, Mary was widowed soon after the birth of her last son.

Word of the tragedy reached Don Pedro. Though he was still a relatively young man, he was eager to settle far from the call of the sea. During his career as a pirate, he’d earned – and saved – a fortune.

He ordered his men to row up the Contoocook River to the 6,000 acres of land he’d been granted by the King of England.

Apparently, “Don Pedro” was actually an English nobleman, previously the “black sheep” of the family, but now his wandering days were over.

Don Pedro had his ship’s carpenter build a fine mansion on a hilltop in what is now known as Henniker, New Hampshire. Even today, the house is known for its beams and detailing. They’re uniquely like a ship.

When the house was completed, Don Pedro went to Londonderry and begged Mary to live with him – as his housekeeper, since she still mourned her late husband. According to local legend, Don Pedro supported Mary and her children in grand style for many happy years.

However, the fortune that Don Pedro had earned was also the cause of his death. One night, men came to the Henniker mansion under the pretense of visiting with their old friend, Don Pedro.

Mary and her children went to bed, unaware that tragedy would soon strike.

Mary heard a curse from outside her window, and then a groan. Recognizing the voice of Don Pedro, she rushed to the garden and found him alone, dying with a pirate’s cutlass in his chest.

Before he died, he told Mary where he’d hidden his gold. Then, he asked her to bury him beneath the hearth in the home they’d shared so happily.

She honored his wishes. After that, Mary lived a long and comfortable life, never leaving the Henniker home. Don Pedro’s fortune had been so large, Mary left most of it where he’d hidden it.  According to stories, it’s still somewhere on the property. (But, before you grab a metal detector and start looking for the treasure, remember this: Don Pedro’s land grant was 6,000 acres. The gold and jewels could be almost anywhere around Henniker.)

One of Mary’s hobbies was painting, and the American eagle and stars she painted over the front door of the home, can still be seen there today. Inside, her landscape murals decorate many rooms in the home.

Mary is Probably a ‘Green Lady’ Ghost

After her death in 1814, her spirit remained in the house, as a “green lady” ghost. That is, she protects the home and the people in it.

In the early 20th century, the home was opened to the public. Visitors often saw her rocking chair sway gently as she let them know she welcomed them.

Mary has been sensed near the hearth she tended carefully, after it became the final resting spot of Don Pedro.

In more recent years, two NH state policemen saw her one night, crossing the road in front of her house.

Hans Holzer, the famous ghost expert, has conducted two different (and apparently successful) seances to contact Mary. As recently as 1963, Mary helped put out a blazing fire in the house, while the owners watched in amazement.

Mary’s Halloween Ghost

On many Halloween nights, Mary rises from her grave in Henniker’s Centre Cemetery (twelve rows back from the front gate, and marked with a special plaque), and rides a magnificent horse-drawn coach to her home. (Her grave is shown in the photo, below.)

Ocean Born Mary's gravestone
Ocean-Born Mary’s gravestone, in Henniker, NH

Many people have seen Mary’s ghost. They always comment on her red hair, green eyes, and magnificent stature, at about six feet tall.

Even as a ghost, she’s an astonishingly beautiful woman. Her home is  privately owned and definitely NOT open to visitors. Please respect the owners’ privacy.

Ocean-Born Mary remains one of America’s most famous and beloved ghosts. Many people around Henniker will tell you about their encounters with her, especially around Halloween.


That is the legend, and it is a wonderful story. Unfortunately, only half of it is true.

If you want to know more about the real Ocean-Born Mary, read The Truth about Ocean-Born Mary’s Ghost. It is not nearly as romantic as the ghost story, but it’s still fascinating.