What I should have been doing last Friday morning: studying for my French test.
What I was actually doing last Friday morning: crawling through the window of an abandoned Civil War fort on Georges Island, an isle about 40 minutes off of the shore of Boston. Scaling a rickety wooden staircase and scooting through a narrow second-story window is the only way to reach the supposed resting place of Melanie Lanier — the infamous Lady in Black whose spirit haunts Fort Warren.
My roommate, Maggie, and I realized too late that Melanie Lanier’s supposed coffin — located in what the park rangers referred to as the ominous Corridor of Dungeons — had, in fact, become a pigeon’s nest at some point in the century since the fort’s decommission, if the pair of pigeons standing sentry at the window and the amount of bird poo on my jeans were a sign of anything.
Fort Warren has undergone a lot of changes since its heyday, as it transformed from a premier bastion of the Civil War and the first and second World Wars, to its derelict and abandoned state during the 1960s and ‘70s, to its role as a historic landmark today. The fort has quite a high creep factor, which only contributes to its haunting aura. Once one hears the story of the Lady in Black, a Confederate woman who snuck into the prison to free her husband (a scheme that resulted in the death of both Sam and Melanie Lanier at the hands of Union soldiers), it is quite easy to imagine the apparition of a shadowy woman emerging from the maze-like corridors. I think I heard an old southern song whistling in the distance, just as Melanie supposedly whistled her husband’s favorite song in order to find him in the prison.
Anyway, the place is creepy, and now there were pigeons to deal with.
The pigeons, alarmingly alert, stared at us unblinkingly, before hopping down a hall striped by shadows. Years of built-up dust and feathers left a layer of filth on the ground. The pigeons led us through several linked chambers, stopping finally in the second-to-last room. On the floor was a wooden door, ancient and peeling with rusty hinges.
Maggie and I exchanged glances. Anything could be under that door — a centuries-old coffin, a rat’s nest, a commemorative plaque, a portal to hell. Neither of us were eager to lift up the door, despite our intentions to see as much of spectral island as we could.
Our pigeon guides had disappeared, which we took to mean that they had either vanished into a coop in the wall, or that they had been ghosts. Neither option was particularly appealing. And the shadows seemed to be darkening with every passing second.
We decided to open the door and see what’s inside. Maggie and I, with concerted effort, lifted open the wooden door to find not a frightening skeleton or feminine apparition, but a plaque. Inscribed upon it was the Golden Rule: “Treat Others The Way You Would Like To Be Treated.”
This was, in light of our dramatic and vaguely horrific journey to Melanie Lanier’s grave, decidedly anticlimactic, not to mention confusing. We left the Corridor of Dungeons with as much grace as we entered — that is, with none at all, sliding back through the narrow windowpane into the blinding sunlight.
Making our way back to the dock — boats ran every two hours from the island back to the city, and our two-hour block was running out — we happened upon the park ranger who had been regaling the tale of the Lady in Black to us earlier. He politely inquired about the success of our ghost hunt.
While he had no wish to invalidate the experiences of those who had seen the Lady in Black, the ranger said he didn’t believe that she was real, mostly because her story was a tactic that famous historian, storyteller and BU alumnus, Edward Rowe Snow, used to save Fort Warren. Apparently, during the 1960s, Georges Island was nearly turned into a landfill, reducing a historically significant landmark to rubble. Snow sought to preserve the fort by the only means available to him: ghost stories. By piecing together different legends and tales of the island, Snow began giving tours on the island, in the hopes that spooky figures would generate enough interest in Fort Warren that it could be saved.
Learning about Snow revealed how powerful ghost stories can be. After all, it was a ghost story that motivated me to take a ferry out to an old fort just to crawl through a pigeon’s nest. Ghost stories are not interesting because we know them to be untrue, but because there is always the chance they might be.