Easton’s Ladies in White

Union Cemetery, Easton Connecticut

Like all small colonial towns in New England, Easton has its share of ghost stories, but few can compare to the tales told about our oldest burial ground, the Union Cemetery.  Set off by stone walls and wrought iron fencing, it sits at the intersection of Stepney, Sport Hill and Westport Roads. It’s antiquity is impressive.  Its earliest surviving headstone dates to 1761, though in truth most historians agree that many earlier graves exist in the northeastern corner of the grounds where the markers of wood or stone have long since crumbled away.  This hallowed site is still in use today with recent interments despite its reputation as one of the most haunted cemeteries not just in Connecticut but in the country. Now while the archives of local historical societies can’t confirm the existence of ghosts, they can help us connect some of these stories to people from our town’s past and to some cultural practices and beliefs that may have contributed to this eerie legacy. 

As early as 1882, the cemetery near the Baptist Church was recognized as an important site for historic preservation and the funerary inscriptions were recorded and published.  Other than this antiquarian interest, it wasn’t until the work of paranormal specialists Ed and Lorraine Warren that the Union Cemetery become the subject of a book. In his 1992 work, Graveyard: True Hauntings from an Old New England Cemetery, the couple documented stories about apparitions at this site.  Though there are different spirits mentioned in their book, the most popular figure is the White Lady.  Appearing to neighboring children, materializing on the roads in front of passing drivers and gliding towards cemetery visitors, witnesses describe a young woman surrounded by shimmering light. She wears a long white dress in a style from a bygone era-sometimes thought to be a wedding dress with a veil and at other times, a bonnet. Long, black hair frames her face while glowing orbs of light and dark shapes surround her. Whoever she may be, not even the Warrens were certain. 

Now the term “White Lady” or “Lady in White” is really quite an ancient moniker for figures described in the ghost lore of many countries and cultures, but particularly in the British Isles from where these traditions may have spread.  Appearing as a gliding specter, these tales all relate the story of a woman who died a tragic death and left behind a sorrow tied to a particular location.

Initially, it was believed that the universal appearance of these accounts was due to the custom of dressing the dead in white grave clothing and winding sheets. However, folklore scholars suspect that the ultimate ancestor of these tales rests in the European traditions of glowing fairies and radiant, white robed pre-Christian deities whose iconographic influence has persisted.   

 At the Union Cemetery there are numerous 19th century graves of young women who died during the prime of their lives. One suggested identity that has been proposed for the White Lady of Easton is a “Harriet B. Seeley.” Though there are quiet a few Harriets at the Union, none match this name precisely.  Assuming there has been a misreading or a conflation of different women, there are two possible candidates:  Harriet Seeley Bryan who died in 1836 and Harriet R. Seeley who died in 1853. Sadly, both match the criteria.

Harriet Seeley, daughter of Patience and Elijah Seeley, was born on October 19, 1815.  She married Titus A. Bryan on February 10, 1836 and nine days later, she died.

The grief of her family is expressed on a tombstone so worn away today that it is barely legible.

Harriet Bryan’s tombstone and inscription as recorded in the Fairfield Historical Society, Reports and Papers, 1882-1887.

Records indicate that she died at the home of her husband in Washington Connecticut and we can only imagine that she had just arrived when her body was returned to her childhood home and family for burial. Whether illness or accident, her life certainly was cut short unexpectedly.  Many serious diseases such as cholera were prevalent in Connecticut at the time and travel between cities and towns helped spread infections prior to any understanding of germ theory and proper sanitation. Whatever the cause of death, her untimely end might be the inspiration behind the White Lady who is often described in wedding attire. And what of her widowed husband?  He returned to Washington and remarried the next year. Perhaps as a tribute to his first wife, he named his eldest daughter, born in 1839, Annis Harriet Bryan.

The second possible candidate could be Harriet R. Seeley.  Married to Ezra Sherwood Seeley in 1850 when she was 24 years old, she gave birth to a son on May 20, 1853.  The infant did not live long and Harriet died on May 28th.  Her gravestone epitaph has a chillingly simple, yet sorrowful passage.

Harriet R. Seeley’s tombstone and inscription as recorded in the Fairfield Historical Society, Reports and Papers, 1882-1887.

Harriet’s death highlights how childbirth was the most significant health hazard for young women of reproductive age and how infant mortality was quite high.  Just a cursory glance through the 19th century tombstone inscriptions at the Union Cemetery shows a disproportionally high percentage of graves for both women under 30 and children under 5 years of age. 

In Easton, a birth was most likely supervised by female family members and possibly a midwife. If difficulties arose, a physician might have been called if the household could afford it. In either case,  hand washing was not a common practice and life threatening infections were frequent.  Some of the contemporary treatments for postpartum sepsis such as mustard plasters, alcohol baths and opiates would often make matters worse.  Without antibiotics the prognosis for many was dire. 

One could imagine Harriet delirious with fever or barely conscious of the fact her child had not survived. The unnamed son listed on her headstone is in keeping with the treatment of stillborn infants at the time who did not live long enough to receive a name or more formal recognition. These bodies were not always buried in consecrated grounds.  In fact, midwives would often dispose of them in separate unmarked areas and their deaths would go unrecorded in parish registries.  In some instances, a stillborn child would be wrapped and placed in the coffin of a recently deceased adult or a baptized child and buried with them in a local graveyard. Was the Seeley baby buried right away in another grave or at another location? Or, was her family able to place the baby with Harriet when she passed away seven days later? Considering the length of time, it seems unlikely that they were interned together in the same casket. Perhaps then at the core of the White Lady legend in Easton is the tragic memory of a mother bereft of her child in her final moments of life, giving rise to a belief that her spirit could not rest in peace until she finds her infant son.  

‘Fading Away,’ staged composite photograph, Henry Peach Robinson, 1858.

In truth, both of these women could have inspired the White Lady legend since their deaths coincide with a transitional period in American spirituality that moved from an era where the loss of a loved one was often perceived as a chastisement from God to a world where 19th century consolation and mourning literature allowed people to embrace their emotions of grief and loss.  Popular manuals encouraged families to spend long hours near gravesides with other grieving families sharing memories of the departed and their hopes for heavenly reunion. The spirits of the dead were believed to exist in a plain closely connected to that of the living as this was the dawn of the age of table rapping, seances and spirit photography.  Connecticut newspapers from the time mention both spiritualist lectures in Bridgeport and reports of locals claiming to see ghosts on the road at night in Easton and in neighboring towns.  

The Spiritual Telegraph, periodical, April 5, 1856.

The residents of Connecticut-both in the larger cities and in smaller towns were some of the most ardent subscribers to periodicals that published on these subjects such as the Banner of Light and the Spiritual Telegraph.  As the latter’s name implies, modern communication technology actually helped promote people’s belief in the unseen-in their abilities to reach other worlds and receive messages from beyond. 

As these cultural phenomena coalesced, there were also concurrent movements idealizing the image of the dead female both in literary and visual arts. There was a fascination and romanticization in Pre-Raphaelite works depicting tragic women with their hair unbound and dressed in flowing white, uncorseted gowns. These shockingly transgressive images based on real life models confronted Victorian contemporaries with issues of love, sex and death while helping focus attention on the life threatening challenges facing women.  These powerfully evocative and timeless portraits were widely circulated in print form. It is hard to imagine these images not influencing the perceptions and imaginations of those who saw and describe female apparitions.

“A Somnambulist,” oil painting, Sir John Everett Millais, 1871.

In a sense, the White Lady of Easton is really an amalgam.  In her glowing white aura, she represents more than any one woman or any one family’s tragic loss. She represents all those lost too young and she manifests all our beliefs and anxieties about death and eternity.  The core of her legend is a sorrowful tale, but she is not a terrifying spirit.  When people look for her, as they often do this time of year, they, like the spiritualists before, are looking for hope-a chance that there is an existence beyond this mortal world.  It is the reason why even the most cynical passers-by can’t help but glance into the Union Cemetery. Perhaps the true horror, would be her absence.

image_pdfimage_print