The Local Legend of Little Mary-The Ghost of Hillcrest Cemetery
So you like scary stories, do ya? Come a little closer and lend me your ear. I’ll tell you the legendary local lore of little Mary of Jackson, Michigan. Poor little Mary suffered a death most humans have feared since the original fear of death itself. Prison city has no shortage of grisly tales, but this one stands out prominently because of the tragedy and youth of its circumstances. First, you must understand why Mary’s family is so memorable in Jackson to learn how things came to transpire.
Mary McNaughton was 7 years old when she perished. She was born in 1884. She was the granddaughter of Moses Archibald McNaughton who was a doctor, mayor, real estate developer, and railroad entrepreneur at different stages of his life. He was of Scottish decent and moved to Jackson from Argyle New York in April 1841. Moses was a leader and pioneer in Jackson from the start when he practiced medicine, then moved on to developing the areas in Jackson by Cooper and in Rives Junction as well. His wealth grew quickly. He married in 1848 and began building his family, they had four children. Between 1871 and 1873 they built a gigantic mansion on W Trail Street that later was used as an American Legion Hall before ultimately being bulldozed to create room for a medical center that still stands and is in use today. The house originally cost $70,000 to build and included an underground tunnel system that is rumored to have been part of the underground railroad. Partly believed because of his stint in the Senate in 1853 fighting to end slavery. He was well known to be an outspoken abolitionist.
The Cemetery Plot:
One of the real estate investments was an expensive plot of land that used to be known as Oaks Cemetery, then was known as Oakdale Cemetery, but is now called Hillcrest Cemetery. The family plot lies in a little known small wooded section of land with footpaths and walkways between the back of Elm Street Cemetery entrance and behind the Blake Woods Medical Center. There are warning signs everywhere to the public cautioning that its off limits and not to go back there. A few friendly groundskeepers may take you on a small tour back there, if you are lucky, like I was. As you can see Mary still gets visitors who leave trinkets and bows even still today.
An imported monument also can be found in this location that came from Scotland to honor the McNaughton clan. Moses’s son, Robert, was Mary’s father and he too was heavily involved with the McNaughton business ventures, and they lived in a home on Blackstone Street.
Trying to escape death:
Mary, her mother Elizabeth, and sisters Edith, Ruth, and Helen fled Jackson in 1892 during a typhoid fever and diphtheria outbreak that was quickly infecting the city’s inhabitants. They went to Brighton and it was there that Mary suffered peritonitis from an infection, and on July 18th her appendix ruptured.
Elizabeth was inconsolable in the hours passing after her daughter’s peril condition turned for the worst. The women packed up and retuned to Jackson to bury poor Mary in the family plot. The journey back was difficult for her sisters as well. As the family gathered around her freshly dug grave they said their prayers and goodbyes with heavy hearts.
That very night Elizabeth’s screams woke her from a nightmare. She said she was sure that there had been a mistake and that Mary had been buried alive! Her desperation and unrest persuaded her husband to order Mary’s grave to be exhumed in order to calm her and give her reassurance that this was not true.
As the lid was removed, to their horror, there before them were deep and desperate scratch marks gouged into the lid of the coffin. Mary lie there in true rigor mortis with her face twisted in agony and little hands bloodied and worn raw proving that her mother’s worst fears were real. Little Mary had indeed been mistakenly buried alive and despite her feeble attempts to escape her fate, she had suffocated in that casket shortly after being put into the earth.
Legend has it that while walking in the woods near the family plot you can still hear Mary crying and hear the sounds of wood being scratched. She’s even been seen hovering over her gravesite in solitary ghostly despair. The only records to be found of her death are recorded in the Old City Health Department’s tattered ledger.
Mary’s parents left Jackson several years later in 1906.
Mary’s gravesite was vandalized back in the 1970’s quite often. This led to restricting the access to the public to try to preserve the plot. In 1997 they gave tours to the public, not to tell Mary’s tale, but that of her family’s and how they influenced Jackson’s development. Cemetery officials say there are no plans to start tours again in the future, but some family members do still go visit when tracing their genealogy back to the McNaughton clan.
Mary is not the only one in history to fall victim to being buried alive. There are many accounts dating back to the 1300’s of those that shared a similar fate. A few years after Mary’s ultimate demise an invention was created in 1896 that would save lives. Centuries of suffocatingly horrific premature burials happened over time, but one man in Russia, Count Karnice Karnicki imagined the nightmare one faces when buried underground and he came up with a contraption. This instrument contains a spring-loaded tube that passes vertically from the lid of the coffin to the top of an airtight box that lies above ground level. The tube lies on the deceased persons chest connected to a mechanism inside of the box that will move in a way that causes the lid of the box to fly open at the slightest movement to release a flag, as well as a loud bell to get the attention of someone nearby.
Primitive medicine would often mistake comas for death, but the most common was catalepsy. Characteristics include immobility of muscles and the victims could appear in strange and odd positions after experiencing hysteria which is a side effect of schizophrenia which there was no drug treatments for during Victorian times. Taphophobia (fear of being buried alive) became very real for some people.
These devices were rented out during the Victorian era and after a good amount of time passed, they would be re-rented to the next person. Horrific tales spread of those who had been nearly buried alive and though there is no record of the success rate, there began to be a small amount of comfort to those who’s families could afford to rent a device.
Many other inventions over time were used for preventative measures. In later years another man installed a telephone inside a casket with a direct line to the cemetery office. Can you imagine lying 6 feet underground, in the dark, and no matter how loud you scream – nobody would hear you……? No problem! Just call the office! You could literally receive a call from the grave…. Speaking of which, I wonder if I’d get cell service that far down? Can someone test that theory for me please?
This fall, Awaken Haunted Attraction in Leslie, MI will be unveiling some amazing new outside horrifying fun.
Don’t miss the bell!
Amanda Kelley – Author