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by Josh Withe - Merrimack River Valley, New England - USA

Being homeschoolers, we take advantage of as many hands on learning opportunities around us as we can. Each summer a group in Massachusetts sponsors free visits to educational places on Fridays. Taking advantage of this we've gotten into Old Sturbridge Village, Plymouth Plantation, and the Boston Harbor Islands Ferry.

Ferry boat

There are two Islands the Boston Harbor Island ferry free tickets get you to, Spectacle Island, most noted for its beaches, and Georges Island. Georges Island is dominated by a Historic fort, most noted for its history in the Civil War.

Fort Map

While the forts batteries were there to defend the port of Boston, inside the fort walls an interesting collection of southern POW's were housed.

Small guns for island defense
Harbor defense guns on the roof (civil war era)

Thanks to how close Boston is, Fort Warren was about the best place to be a southern POW. For a small fee you could have almost any food delivered, newspapers and mail arrived almost daily, with the teaching hospitals and medical colleges in the area the men were the best cared for of any POW camp. Thanks to those benefits, and the distance from the south, Fort Warren got the very top POW's.

Inside of the front gate

From the Vice President of the Confederacy, to the whole Maryland state legislature (that way they couldn't vote to secede) and many more. Among them was a common soldier with a very determined wife. After he got a letter to her telling where he was, she took matters into her own hands, travelled from Georgia to Hull, MA. There she found some southern sympathizers to plot with. On a moonless night she was rowed across to Georges Island equipped with a pistol and a pickaxe. As the legend goes she was able to make her way into the room her husband was in by slipping through the gun slit in the wall.

The group of men in the room hid her and then devised the plan of not only escaping, but blowing up the powder magazine as a blow for the south.

Powder magazine

Their tunnel was discovered before they could reach the magazine, each man was captured as they exited the tunnel, then the wife, with her hair cut short and dressed in men's clothing. She was sentenced to hang for her activities; however they couldn't find a dress to bury her in. Finally a long black robe left over from a play was found, and the execution happened.

In each following war the Island was fully staffed to defend the port of Boston, and each time sentries reported seeing a figure in black walking the walls or beaches of the Island on dark nights.

Exploring the fort by camera flash and photo view, spooky!

A few were brought up on charges for firing at nothing, and one deserted his post after being chased by her. More than one person has reported being spoken to and a few even reported having someone start to strangle them while on night watches. The most interesting report I ever read came from a WWII Coast Guard watcher. While on watch on Windmill point (where the Hull Lifesaving Museum Boat House is located) he observed a dark figure walking down the beach.

Hull's windmill point from the ferry at the island dock

Due to the problems with collaborators supplying German U-boats, any activity on the beach was suspect during the war, so he followed the figure. As the figure passed under a bank on the shore, it turned and walked into the surf, no swimmer was noted, and a further search by boat turned up no body. Later discussion brought out the fact that the bank was most likely where the "lady in black" started her fateful boat ride, as the bank would put the sea out of sight of anyone on shore, and it is a very short trip out to George's Island from there. Sometime after the start of the cold war, Fort warren was abandoned, almost demolished, and finally saved by citizens, today it is run by the Metropolitan District Commission.

There is no entry fee for George's Island; however the ferry trip out costs, so getting out there for free was worth the early start to get in line for a ticket before they were all gone. The fort is so popular that the ferry company has to put your return ferry trip time on the ticket also to make sure they get everyone off the Island. The only overnight residents are park rangers (who live outside the fort) and a few lucky visitors (boy scouts usually). During the day the rangers lead tours of the fort, taking you through the main gate and some of the more interesting parts.

Front gate

We were fortunate to get my kind of ranger, his dad is in charge of the fort, he grew up there, has been into every locked room and tunnel, and knows as much of the history about the fort as there is to know.

Besides being able to tell more than one interesting story about people who were there, or what each room was or looked like, he also had some funny stories. For many years they did a haunted fort, for Halloween, in the main bakery there are two huge stone ovens with the old iron doors still in place. He said each year this became the witches kitchen, there would be an old hag or two stirring a bubbling cauldron in the fire lit room, at some point while she was talking she would open the oven door and slide a bound figure out, feel him and then slide him back in muttering that he wasn't done yet. This was our host almost every year, he said you can't imagine the things you think of lying in a dark oven lashed to a board!

The tour end in a large gallery, the largest indoor space in the fort, one wall has cannon slits in it that face what was the main channel into Boston harbor.

Gun slit showing Boston Harbor Light

During WWII this area had a shooting range and two lane bowling alley as well as a basketball (invented in MA!) court. This was the area used for drills in cold weather, and the site of the funniest story about the fort I've ever heard.

The ranger's dad invited civil war re-enactors out for encampments, and one year a group brought four light cannons with them. As soon as the ranger (still a kid then) saw the cannon, he began to beg his dad to get the men to fire them. First the men all dressed up paraded the central grounds, set up camp and prepared for dinner. It wasn't just dinner; it was a cotillion with the finest uniforms on the men, and the women in their fancy gowns, dancing to civil war tunes until late in the night.

Finally the ranger and his dad got the men with the cannons to fire them; they rolled the cannons down to the gallery and proceeded to arrange their equipment for an inspection and firing. The ranger broke off his story here and said "if you ever get the chance to fire a cannon, DO IT! There is nothing like setting the spark, and feeling the gun jump when you're only a foot or two away." They loaded the cannon and prepared to fire it, as they rolled the first one up to the cannon slit the ranger said he looked out, and there in the old channel was a huge party boat lit up like a Christmas tree. Disco lights, thumping music, and people dancing away. They gave the ranger the honor of firing the first shot, and then proceeded to fire the guns down the line.

After the smoke cleared enough to see again they all looked out to see a totally dark, silent party boat, no lights, no music, no dancing, and rows of faces staring at the fort. The men fired a few more volleys, then secured the cannons and powder.

When the Ranger and his dad finally made it back to the house outside the fort, the phone was ringing off the hook. The Hull Coast Guard Station was demanding to know if they were firing at boats in the channel, telling them to knock it off, and if they ever did it again they wanted to watch!

More of the group left after that story, but my family and parents walked back to the front gate with the ranger, on the way I asked him if he ever saw the lady in black. He said there are plenty of strange things that go on, on the Island. The ranger's house has a motion activated security light on the stairs, many times rangers hear a man's heavy boots stomp up the stairs, but no one comes through the door at the top. He went and checked once when he heard a heavy tread on the stairs, the light was off, and the only guy out side was asleep somewhere else.

Inside the fort, he's been freaked out by things observed more than once, even had the light from a window blocked by something passing in front of it, and felt like something had passed between him and others standing nearby.

More than one person has looked into the records of the Island; they state there is no record of the woman behind the lady in black, while the man named as her husband died in the fort, he was never married, and he died of disease. The story became well known after it was set down by a local historian Edward Rowe Snow, only he knows if it is true or not, and he isn't here to tell us anymore. Whatever or whoever is out there, has a wonderful view of the Boston skyline, Boston harbor light, and what was once the second busiest harbor on America's coast.

Josh Withe


Mr. Snow's Legend


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