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Feature: Lady ghost haunts Boston island

By DAVID D. HASKELL

BOSTON, July 30 -- Two teenage girls cautiously approached the pitch-black chamber, followed close behind by one's 5-year-old sister.

Scared to be scared, but looking to be so, the girls were in search of a ghost, the "Lady in Black" that haunts old Fort Warren on George's Island in Boston Harbor.

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Into the coolness of the darkened room they went, slowly, feeling their way with their feet.

Suddenly a voice sounded from within. The girls screeched and recoiled, but did not retreat.

Then laughter. The voice was only that of a teenage cousin, a boy, who delighted in scaring the girls.

It was all in fun, a scene replayed numerous times each day by thousands of visitors drawn to Fort Warren on George's Island in Boston Harbor.

Fort Warren is a Civil War-era bastion guarding the entrance of Boston Harbor. Its thick granite and earthen walls, constructed between 1834 and 1860, are honeycombed with stairways, rooms and chambers -- dark, cool havens from the outdoor summer heat.

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Families, groups and tourists find it fascinating to explore the ramparts above, with their vistas of Boston proper in the distance and the Atlantic Ocean seaward, and the narrow passageways below, tromped over by Union troops and Confederate prisoners more than a century ago. And by a lady ghost.

The 28-acre George's Island is the cornerstone of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, and one of just six of the 30 islands open to the public. The former military installation at one time was slated to become a nuclear waste disposal facility, but was preserved as a historical site thanks in large part to the late local historian Edward Rowe Snow.

Snow wrote many stories about the islands, and helped popularize the legend of Fort Warren's Lady in Black, a ghost story that has thrilled and chilled generations of tourists, most particularly impressionable children.

In his "The Romance of Boston Bay," Snow couldn't swear to the truth behind the legend, but said there are many people now who believe in the lady's existence.

It seems that during the Civil War, hundreds of Confederate prisoners were brought to Fort Warren, including a recently wed young lieutenant. He was able, by secret means, to get a message to his Southern bride telling her where he was and how to get to him.

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Armed with a pistol and dressed as a man, the love-struck woman made her way from nearby Hull to the fort in a rowboat. She evaded sentries and on a prearranged signal, was hoisted up to a small opening in the granite wall of the Corridor of Dungeons, where she was reunited with her incarcerated husband.

They immediately went about trying to escape, but were discovered by Northern guards. The woman tried to fire her pistol at the Union commander, but the old-fashioned pepperbox-type handgun exploded, killing her husband.

The fort's commander decided he had no alternative but to hang the woman as a spy, since she snuck into the fort dressed as a man. But he granted her final wish to be hanged in women's clothing. A search of the fort turned up some black robes, which the woman wore when she went to the gallows.

Snow wrote that over the years her ghost has been seen wandering the dark passageways of the fort and the Corridor of Dungeons, which is accessible only through a small opening halfway up the granite wall. A recently constructed wooden stairway now leads to the opening.

Once inside, visitors find an old coffin, the legendary resting place of the Lady in Black, when she "rests." She's never there during visiting hours, however, preferring to avoid the nosey noisy tourists who lift the coffin's cover to find, inscribed in stone, the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you wish to be treated."

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George's Island is open seasonally to the public, free of charge. Passenger ferries to George's Island operate from Boston's Long Wharf and from Hingham to the south and Lynn to the north, for a fee.

From George's Island, free water taxis shuttle visitors to Gallop's, Peddock's, Lovell's, Bumpkin and Grape islands, where they can enjoy picnicking, hiking, camping and whiffs of salt sea air far from the fumes of Boston's downtown traffic.

Formed by receding glaciers some 16,000 years ago, the islands are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They are cared for as the Boston Harbor National Recreation Area by a cooperative venture involving federal, state, and local officials and private nonprofits.

The islands were being used by American Indian tribes when the first European settlers arrived in Massachusetts Bay in the 1600s and quickly took them over for their own use.

Through the decades the islands have been the locale of Revolutionary War skirmishes, Civil War forts and prison compounds, and internment camps for American Indians during the King Philip's War of 1675-1678.

For those planning to visit the islands, a word of advice, bring plenty of fresh water and refreshments. None of the islands have drinking water and the only snack bar is on George's Island.

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All the islands open to the public, however, do have toilet facilities.

For more information, see the web sites Bostonharborislands.com, fbhi.org, bostonharborcruises.com, boston-online.com/harbor, and nps.gov/boha.

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