By Julia Gabbard, Tour Guide
If asked what they know about Liberty Hall, most people will say “The Gray Lady.” Humans are very interested in what lies beyond the grave, so it is no surprise that stories of the Gray Lady continue even now. This is part one of a four-part series on Liberty Hall’s Gray Lady. However, to enjoy the stories of the Gray Lady, one needs to understand a bit about the Brown family while they lived, so I’ll start with a brief history.
Liberty Hall was built by John Brown, one of Kentucky’s first two senators. Construction began in 1796 and was completed by 1801, when John moved in with his new wife Margaretta Mason Brown and their firstborn son, named Mason. Soon after, Margaretta gave birth to their second son, Orlando. Both Mason and Orlando would survive into adulthood, but sadly, three other children would not be so fortunate. There were two baby boys, both named Alfred, born and lost in the space of two years, the first deaths to darken the joy of their happy home.
Then in 1807, to the delight of the family, a girl child was born. She was named Euphemia, and was a light upon the hearts of all who knew her. But that light would be extinguished too soon, on October 8th, 1814, when she was just seven years old. Margaretta was nearly undone by the loss. She sunk into the deepest depths of grief, and her writings at that time were filled with an outpouring of sorrow and despair.
Inconsolable, she grew emaciated and withdrew from life, wandering the gardens of her home, searching for a sign from her angel child.[i] When her brother visited from New York, he was alarmed by her condition, telling other family members that she appeared to have aged drastically.[ii] It was feared that her grief would send her to death’s embrace and an early grave. One can imagine the worry this caused an already grieving family. Three years would pass, with Margaretta’s emotional state little improved, to the exasperation of some close to her.
Into this house of woe, a beloved visitor would arrive. In 1817, Margaretta Varick, Margaretta Brown’s maternal aunt, arrived from New York. The aunt had helped to raise Margaretta after the death of her mother at an early age,and the two were very close. Mrs. Varick was at the advanced age of 72 and had endured the rigors of the lengthy trip during a particularly hot summer, reaching Liberty Hall in late July.
She had yet to recover from the grueling journey and was with the family for a mere 2 days before she fell violently ill and died on the third night in an upstairs bedroom of the home. The exact cause of her death is unknown, but a heart attack was suspected.[iii]
Now, a lady such as herself would have utilized what was known as a traveling cloak to protect her few everyday garments from the filthy conditions encountered on the boats and carriages that transported her to Frankfort. And so she reached the Brown’s household in her gray traveling cloak, and she’s been wearing it ever since.[iv] She had no means to foresee that this trek would deliver her to her final resting place and begin the long legend of the Gray Lady of Liberty Hall.
[v] The grave markers that stand there today are inscribed with the names of many Brown family members, but Margaretta Varick’s is not among them, and the cemetery has no record of her burial.[vi] We can speculate that dismay or confusion around the resting place of her remains could account for her wanderings. Or perhaps it was the unfinished business of failing to reach her intended destination, which was to have been Illinois, where her son resided. Her visit with Margaretta was to be a stop along the way. She may have felt guilty – dare I say, mortified even – that rather than bringing comfort to her beloved niece, she had instead brought more grief and trouble to the family.Mrs. Varick was thought to have been laid to rest in the family plot on the property, alongside several who’d gone before her. After the establishment of the Frankfort cemetery, all the Brown family’s remains were moved there over a period of time—by 1847 according to family accounts.
Though the truth may never be known to those on this side of the veil, her spirit has lingered in the area of the room where she departed this mortal realm, still trying to look after familyand visitors to Liberty Hall.
According to legend, the first post-mortem sighting is said to have been made by a new family member, the young bride (Mary Hanson Gunn) of John Brown’s grandson, Gratz, in the late 1820s. She was staying in the bedroom where old Mrs. Varick had passed away and reported being astonished at the sight of a gray figure, who walked silently across the floor of the room before disappearing.[vii] Gratz’s sister, another Margaretta, told of seeing the spirit as well, in the hallway near the haunted bedroom.[viii]
Mame’s experience seemed to have been passed off by the family, but for her, it would reoccur the following two nights, causing her to believe that the phantasm was more than a dream or imagining. It was unsettling enough that she asked to be moved to one of the other bedrooms. The rest of the family, at the time, did not seem to believe that what she had seen was a ghost, but that there was some unknown, natural explanation. It would be sometime later, when sharing her experience with a family friend that she learned of the suspicions about old Mrs. Varick’s spirit haunting the home.[x] So Mame learned that she was not the first to see the ghost who would come to be known as the Gray Lady. She certainly wouldn’t be the last.
As it was, the event seemed to leave a lasting impression upon Mame. After she inherited Liberty Hall as an adult, several contemporaries recalled that she would give palm readings and was thought to hold séances within the walls of the storied mansion.[xi] However, if Mame did have further encounters with spirits, she did not record them for posterity. She did often recount her experience with Old Aunt Varick and referred to her as “our beloved ghost” in one letter, regarding her as a benevolent presence.[xii]
Mame would be the last family member to live in the home, joining the dearly departed in 1934. It was she who had the foresight to ensure that Liberty Hall would be preserved as a museum, due to the historic importance of her family, and the structure itself. She was a member of the National Society of The Colonial Dames in The Commonwealth of Kentucky, to whom the house was sold, and who are the caretakers of the property to this day.
[i] Eby Jr., Cecil D., “Alfred Beckley’s Recollections of Kentucky,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 60, no. 4 (October 1962)
[ii] John Mitchell Mason to Mrs. Nancy Mason, September 5, 1818, from Memoirs of John M. Mason by Jacob Van Vechten
[iii] Kentucky Gazette newspaper obituary, September 9, 1817, Averill, Rebecca, “The Gray Lady: A ghost story of Liberty Hall,” transcription from late 1930s, Liberty Hall Historic Site, and Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (1992): Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY
[iv] Early descriptions of the Gray Lady’s attire include “quilted gray silkbonnet, ruffled at the back of the neck and long fringed crepe shawl” from Averill, Rebecca, “The Gray Lady: A Ghost Story of Liberty Hall,” transcription from late 1930s, Liberty Hall Historic Site and the gray veil is mentioned in Scott, John Matthew comments in the Kentucky Advocate newspaper article, November 5, 1936 and Hughes, Alice, “A Woman’s New York,” New York World Telegram, ca. 1937
[v] Brown, Orlando notes in Memoranda of the Preston Family (1842): Hodges, Todd and Pruett Publishers, Frankfort, KY, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections
[vi] Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (1992): Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY
[vii] Averill, Rebecca, “The Gray Lady: A Ghost Story of Liberty Hall,” transcription from late 1930s, Liberty Hall Historic Site
[viii] Hughes, Alice, “A Woman’s New York,” New York World-Telegram, ca. 1937 and Thomas, Elizabeth Patterson, Old Kentucky Homes and Gardens (1939): The Standard Printing Company, Louisville, KY
[ix] “Genuine Ghost in Old Tradition at Liberty Hall,” Kentucky Advocate, November 5, 1936 and Hughes, Alice, “A Woman’s New York,” New York World-Telegram, ca. 1937
[x] Hughes, Alice, “A Woman’s New York,”New York World-Telegram, ca. 1937
[xi] “Liberty Hall,” Louisville Courier-Journal, November 13, 1922, conversation with Nash Cox, ca. 2013, and Nickell, Joe and John F. Fischer, Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (1992): Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY
[xii] Mary Mason Scott to William Sawitsky, undated letter, ca. 1920s, transcription, Liberty Hall Historic Site Collections