Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Ghost of Melanie Lanier

On Georges Island in Boston Harbor stands a pentagonal-shaped fort that was built in 1833. The fort’s original purpose was to protect the main shipping channels. 

It was named after Dr. Joseph Warren, the patriot leader who sent Paul Revere and William Dawes, to alert Lexington and Concord, on the night before the American Revolution started. 

Fort Warren was completed in the mid-1860s.

During the Civil War, Fort Warren was used as a prison for Confederate military and political prisoners. 

It was during this time that Melanie Lanier’s story unfolds. Her husband, Lieutenant Samuel Lanier was a young confederate soldier when he was captured at Roanoke Island, and brought to Fort Warren as a prisoner.

The lieutenant managed to send a message to his wife Melanie, outlining an escape, in which he gave her directions, and a prearranged signal to announce her arrival. 

When she received the letter, she decided bravely to go to Fort Warren, and help her husband. She traveled from Georgia, where she lived, to Hull, Massachusetts, where she made her way to the home of a confederate sympathizer. 

It was here Melanie cut her hair and obtained a Union soldier’s uniform. She planned to use this disguise to help with her rescue.

Every day she observed the fort with a spyglass. She set out on a stormy January 1862, night. Dressed as a man, she rowed across the harbor to Georges Island. She took an old pepperbox pistol and a pick-ax. 

When she reached the island’s beach, she slipped past the sentries and gave her husband their signal—she was then hoisted through a musket hole, to where her husband and other Confederate soldiers waited.

The night Melanie arrived, Lieutenant Lanier and several other soldiers were digging a tunnel to the center of the fort that led to an open area.

Their plan was to overpower the guards and seize their weapons. Unfortunately, they choose a route that allowed the Union soldiers stationed on the other side of the wall, to hear their digging. 

These guards alerted their commanding officer, Justin E. Dimick, and as the first prisoner’s emerged from the tunnel, he and several Union soldiers were waiting for them.

Where tunnel surfaced
The rest of the escapees still in the tunnel hastily devised a new plan. They would give themselves up, and then Melanie would emerge from the tunnel, using the element of surprise, and her pistol to force the Union soldiers to surrender. 

At first, this plan appeared to work. Melanie sprang from the tunnel and pointed her pistol at Dimick. He raised his hands, appearing to comply, but as he approached her, he suddenly knocked the gun in her hand, the barrel exploded, and a bullet fragment struck and killed her husband, Lieutenant Lanier.

Melanie was arrested and tried as a spy. She was found guilty and condemned to hang. 

This tale is tragic in more ways than one if she had been tried just for her attempt to assist her husband’s escape, her sentence would not have been death. 

Her last request was to be buried in a dress. The only piece of clothing found close to a woman’s garment, at the fort, was an old black cloak that had been used in a cadet play. Melanie Lanier was hanged on February 2, 1862, and then buried in this cloak.

One witness to Melanie Lanier’s execution, Richard Cassidy described afterward that while he was walking his post, one night near the site of the hanging, he suddenly felt someone or something touch him. He turned around and saw a lady wearing all black. 

Several other soldiers during this time reported seeing a spirit dressed in black, walking the parapets and ramparts at night.

Corridor of Dungeons where Lady in Black has been seen
The ghost of Melanie Lanier became known as the “Lady in Black.” 

After these initial sightings. Several Soldiers reported shooting at a black figure that disappeared into thin air. Other soldiers over the years heard a female voice warn them not to go into the area called the Corridor of Dungeons—these warnings were taken seriously, and these soldiers refused to enter this area.

One report involved four officers, that described they had seen the footprints of a woman near the entrance to the fort, in newly fallen snow. 

Soldiers playing poker in a storeroom reported that stones were seen rolling across the floor regularly. One soldier was court-martialed for leaving his post—his defense was that the Lady in Black’s ghost chased him. 

As recently as World War ll, a soldier saw Melanie’s ghost. Legend has it this man suffered a nervous breakdown after this encounter.

Today Fort Warren is maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. It is the centerpiece of the Boston Harbor Islands, which is now a public park area. 

Thousands of tourists visit this historic fort each summer. Even though there are no longer soldiers stationed at Fort Warren, people still occasionally see the ghost of the Lady in Black.

Here is one ballad about this story. 

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