Gather ’round and let us tell you the tale – a ghost story, if you will – of the Legend of the Lady in Black.
But first, the history of Fort Warren – the backdrop of this creepy tale.
According to BostonHarborIslands.org, Fort Warren was completed just after the start of the American Civil War and now serves as the main attraction of Georges Island. This massive structure, composed of stone and granite, was constructed between 1833-1860 and was initially built as part of a broader network of coastal defense. It once served as a training facility for Union soldiers and functioned as a prison for Confederate officers and government officials during the Civil War. The fort held a number high ranking civilians, including Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan.
The stone structure is named after Joseph Warren, a patriot that enlisted Paul Revere and sent him on that now-iconic ride to warn of the British arrival during the Revolutionary War. Warren died during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The large pentagonal bastion fort was built with granite and other stone quarried from Quincy and Cape Ann. It was all but finished by 1858, but when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, there was still construction debris on the parade ground and no guns were mounted. At that point, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and the Legislature played a critical role in organizing heavy artillery companies to garrison Fort Warren. It was the fifth largest of the 42 third system forts. When complete, the fort has five bastions that increased firepower along the walls. Additional guns were mounted in casemates, interior rooms within the fort’s walls, and fired through openings called embrasures. Guns were also mounted on the terreplein, or roof level, on top of the casemates.
Fort Warren played its part in both World Wars, serving as a command post of The Harbor Defenses of Boston during WWI. Throughout WWII, it was yet again an essential defense strategy in defense of the Boston Harbor. Fort Warren stood its ground, protecting the water from enemy forces. In 1950, Fort Warren was decommissioned and was soon sold to the State of Massachusetts as a recreational ground.
Okay, now let’s get to the Lady in Black….
Enter, Mrs. Melanie Lanier – wife of a Confederate soldier, Samuel Lanier, who was imprisoned at Fort Warren, after being captured during a battle in North Carolina. When Melanie learned of her husband’s fate, she vowed it would be her life’s mission to set him free. She began to plot and plan to break him out of Fort Warren.
She devised a plan with the help of some local Confederate sympathizers. Samuel’s only job was to hum a song to let her know his location and she would take care of the rest.
After traveling from Georgia to Hull, MA, Melanie, disguised as man, boarded a boat with two Confederate soldiers and rowed to Georges Island. She had with her a pickaxe, rope and a pistol. When she arrived on the shore, she stood quietly by and waited for the signal.
She followed her husband’s humming tune until she made her way to the dungeon cells from outside the fort. Melanie was able to squeeze through the slit-window of his cell, and was then hidden by the Confederate soldiers.
With the use of the pick-axe, the soldiers dug a tunnel to the center of the fort with the goal of overtaking the guard and their weapons. The tunnel took several weeks to dig, and on the eve of finishing the tunnel, the sound of the pickaxe alerted a guard. The alarm was sounded, and the tunnel quickly discovered. As legend would have it, when each of the Confederate soldiers was removed from the tunnel, a tally was taken. When all the prisoners were accounted for, Melanie was supposed to spring from the tunnel and capture a Union officer with the pistol.
Melanie did succeeded in surprising the officer, but he slapped the pistol from her hand. The pistol went off and the bullet struck and killed her husband. She was immediately charged with espionage and sentenced to death by hanging. As the story goes, she was given a black cloak or robe to wear for her hanging in the gallows. It is believed she was then buried in the Corridor of Dungeons in Fort Warren.
After her death, soldiers began to report seeing her all over Fort Warren. One soldier even swore he tripped and broke his ankle while running away from the apparition. For hundreds of years, sightings of “The Lady in Black” have been reported with her dark robe swaying in the harbor’s breeze as she searches in vain for her husband. She has also been seen standing atop the entrance arches of Fort Warren, staring down those who enter. Creepy.
You can take a ferry to Georges Island and explore Fort Warren with a special self-guided “Lady in Black” tour. If you’re brave enough, you’re challenged to explore the Dark Arch or walk through the Dark Tunnel in search of her ghost. You can learn more here.
You can learn more about visiting the island here.
Maureen Dahill is the editor of Caught in Southie and a lifelong resident of South Boston sometimes mistaken for a yuppie. Co-host of Caught Up, storyteller, lover of red wine and binge watching TV series. Mrs. Peter G. Follow her @MaureenCaught.
The late great Boston historian Edward Rowe Snow would retell this tale during his tours of Fort Warren.
He used a lady volunteer to hide and surprise the tour folks at some point.
My wife on our tour got to play the Lady in Black!