An old house. An unexpected death. Ghostly images. And, strange sightings. These are all the makings of an eery ghost story known as The Gray Lady of Liberty Hall best shared by candlelight on a blustery autumn evening with the full moon shining through the trees, casting long shadows on the lawn.
The Gray Lady is an all-time favorite of Frankfort residents. Perhaps it has stood the test of time because it is based in truth, or maybe because so many say they have witnessed the other-worldly form of The Gray Lady in the Palladian window of the stately historic home on the corner of Wilkinson and Main streets.
Searching for a final resting place
John Brown, one of Kentucky’s first senators and a founding father of Kentucky, built Liberty Hall in 1796. Thomas Jefferson even wrote to Brown with suggestions for the home’s design. Frankfort was little more than a settlement when Brown helped to establish the seat of government in the city. There were less than one hundred Frankfort residents in 1797.
The Brown home became something of a social and cultural center. John and his wife, Margaretta entertained early American political figures including President James Monroe, then Gen. Andrew Jackson, Maj. Zachary Taylor and Gen. Marquis de Lafayette. But the visitor who has gained prominence and notoriety in the last century with Liberty Hall’s many guests is Margaretta Varick.
Varick was Margaretta Brown’s aunt who had traveled from New York in 1817 on her way to see her son in Illinois. At the age of 65, she had endured a rigorous journey, and then fell violently ill in one of the bedrooms at Liberty Hall only three days after her arrival. She died before morning came. Her cause of death is not certain but theories range from a heart attack or acute indigestion to succumbing to the exhaustion of travel. Her body was supposedly buried in the Brown family burial plot either at Liberty Hall or not far from the property.
Brown family members were re-interred to the Frankfort Cemetery in the late 1840s, after the cemetery was incorporated in 1844. But, alas, there is no grave marker at the Frankfort Cemetery for Margaretta Varick. That leads some to conclude that she is unable to find her final resting place.
A kindly ghost
Mary Mason “Mame” Scott, the great-granddaughter of John and Margaretta Brown, was the last family member to live at Liberty Hall. She was also the first to record seeing a ghost in a gray dress in her upstairs back bedroom in the 1880s. It was the very same bedroom where Margaretta Varick died.
Mame was sleeping in the room when she awoke to see an apparition — a tall woman veiled in gray. Mame screamed and her brother, John Matthew, came with a shotgun, but the ghost had disappeared. For three nights in a row, the same thing occurred.
A family friend later suggested that Mame had seen the ghost of Margaretta Varick. Mame later referred to the spirit in a letter as “our beloved ghost” and viewed her as a kindly ghost. The ghost of Margaretta Varick has been nicknamed The Gray Lady.
Some believe that Aunt Varick’s spirit never departed and has been seen by visitors and family members through the years. Continued sightings of The Gray Lady occurred near the haunted bedroom during the early 20th century.
After a fire at Liberty Hall in 1965, volunteer curator Frances Coleman took photographs of the front stairway and when they were developed, one photo showed a vaporous figure on the stairs. That photo has often been presented as evidence of The Gray Lady’s presence in the house.
The reported paranormal activity seems harmless, but a bit creepy if it happens to you. For example, records indicate that in 1980, researcher Estill Pennington was startled by sudden terrible smells and a quill pen moving in fast circles in an inkwell in the front parlor which is now the dining room. Also in the 1980s, volunteer curator Eugenia Blackburn, who was living in the Liberty Hall apartment, noticed that The Gray Lady washed windows and dusted tables. One day when she returned home from shopping, the gate opened by itself.
Sara Elliott, current director for Liberty Hall Historic Site, says The Gray Lady is a benevolent ghost, with no poltergeist activity. She explains that she has never experienced The Gray Lady or any other ghost on the property. “I’ve been here late at night but I’ve never heard or seen anything,” she remarks. “But there are a lot of people in Frankfort who have their Gray Lady stories.”
The Gray Lady may not have the monopoly on haunting Liberty Hall. There are stories of an opera singer who was invited to sing for guests at the residence. She went for a stroll in the gardens and was never seen again. At times, some say you can hear the soprano voice of an opera singer in the gardens. Others say they’ve witnessed a War of 1812 soldier running on the grounds. The opera singer and soldier stories don’t originate from Brown family sources according to Elliott. “I’m not sure where the stories of these other ghosts have come from,” she commented.
A fascinating family
Elliott believes that the Liberty Hall Historic Site is a gem. “The family is so fascinating both politically but even more so from a personal view,” she remarked. “The family history encompasses their everyday lives and because we have their letters and diaries, we know that they dealt with some of the same issues that we do on a daily basis. The people in the 18th and 19th centuries were like us. There’s so much humanity in their letters. For example, one of John’s brother’s committed suicide, Orlando’s daughter may have had a mental disability and Mourning Stepney (a slave) had a physical disability. We know all of this because of the writings the family kept.”
The treasures of the property are the letters, journals and books of the family according to Elliott. “We have so much primary source material,” she said. “One of my favorites is a childrearing book that Margaretta gave to her son Orlando Brown. It’s inscribed ‘To Orlando, From Mother.’ It’s interesting that she gave it to him rather than her daughter-in-law. Also, probably one of our most valuable pieces is John Brown’s copy of the Constitution. Each new member of Congress was given a copy.”
John and Margaretta Brown and their descendants have been the sole owners of Liberty Hall until it became a museum house of the Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Therefore, the majority of the furniture and household goods are original to the house.
Ghosts in the Garden
Liberty Hall will host Ghosts in the Garden from 5-6:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 26. “Ghosts” will be dressed as historic figures related to the Brown family to give out candy to trick-or-treaters. For more information, call 502-227-2560. The story of The Gray Lady of Liberty Hall is told during the specialty tours, Our Beloved Ghost and The Gray Lady Children’s Tour.