A Ghost Story: The Lady in Black

It’s 1862 and General Burnside has successfully gained control of Roanoke Island. The Confederate soldiers who were captured were sent up to Fort Warren in Massachusetts, a detention center for prisoners of war. Among those captured was Lieutenant Samuel Lanier, a soldier out of Georgia.

Lieutenant Lanier manages to smuggle a letter out of the fort to his wife Melanie. After receiving the letter, she risks everything on a trip up North to see her husband. She finds sanctuary in Hull, Massachusetts in the home of a Confederate sympathizer. She disguises herself as a man, cutting her hair short and wearing the clothes of a serving boy.

But Fort Warren is on an island in the middle of the harbor, difficult to reach even if one isn’t a Confederate soldier’s wife. She hitches a ride aboard a boat and sneaks onto the Fort and finds her husband’s cell using plans he sent her in the letter.

Once reunited they make plans to escape from the fort, plans that involve a lot of digging. Unfortunately, they choose a spot far too close to the barracks for the guards. The couple is discovered. Backed into a corner, Melanie points a pistol at Colonel Dimick, the officer in charge of Fort Warren. She tells him to release her and her husband or she’ll shoot him. Dimick refuses and Melanie fires.

The pistol explodes and shrapnel from the gun hits her husband, killing him instantly. Melanie is arrested and convicted and sentenced to hang in less than a day.

Her final request is that when she is hanged, that she is allowed to wear women’s clothes, instead of the disguise she’s been wearing. Her request is granted and she’s given some old robes that had been used in a play earlier that year.

After she’s hanged, her ghost is seen wandering through the fort, dressed in the black robes she wore to her execution.

This was the first, interesting ghost story I came across while researching haunted places in and around Boston. What you read above is an amalgam of half a dozen different versions that I read, though each version only differed a small amount. It was always Fort Warren. There was always a captured lieutenant. And there was always his wife, who seemed to posses far more steel than he did.

What was interesting, to me, was the amount of detail I’d find sometimes. The names of everyone, the battle Samuel Lanier was captured in, the place he and Melanie came from, the name of the commanding officer for Fort Warren: so much detail.

And yet, it’s most likely completely bull.

There is a record of a Samuel Lanier being both imprisoned and dying at Fort Warren. However, there are several differences between the historical Samuel Lanier and his legendary counterpart.

At Fort Warren, there’s a memorial stone that lists all those prisoners who died during their imprisonment (seen here). Lanier’s rank is not listed, but he’s from Company K of the 10th Regiment from the North Carolina State Troops (if I’m reading that right), which means he wasn’t from Georgia.

This matches with the record listed on this site of the soldiers from Company K. Samuel Lanier was a private who was captured and sent to Fort Warren where he died of typhoid.

No trigger happy wife from Georgia. No exploding pistol aimed at the fort’s commander. Just a bad sickness that Lanier caught in one of the nicer prison camps at the time.

Since the story is made up, that means there’s no ghost. You can’t have the ghost of an angry, hanged woman without the angry, hanged woman.

Sigh, like I said yesterday, I didn’t even need to leave my chair.

Dylan Charles

Special thanks to The Washington Greys website and waymarking.com.

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