DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — On a cold night in December 1882, a physician, a county sheriff and an undertaker went to a house on Hodgdon Street in Damariscotta, placed the still-warm body of Mary Howe in a wooden coffin and went off into the night for a secret burial.
Mary Howe had been declared dead by the physician weeks before. But her family protested, saying she was merely in a trance and would wake up. Town officials didn’t believe it, though.
There’s no record of where the men buried Howe.
Author Greg Latimer, whose book “Haunted Damariscotta: Ghosts of the Twin Villages and Beyond,” explores the story of Mary Howe, said there are many questions surrounding her death that may never be answered. Was she really dead? Did they bury her alive?
He is hoping to answer one important question, though: Where was she buried? “We know for certain she existed,” Latimer said.
Mary Howe shows up in records from the era. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Howe was born in 1835 and was an unmarried dressmaker who lived with her older siblings, Emily, Caroline, Lorenzo and Edwin, in Damariscotta. There are even newspaper accounts and diary entries that mention her questionable demise and burial.
“What we’re trying to do now is locate where they took her,” Latimer said. “If we don’t find a plot, I think we can definitely find the cemetery.”
Howe and her brother Edwin practiced spiritualism, a religion structured around the belief that the spirit world exists and wants to communicate with the living. To that end, she and her brother held seances during which they purportedly communicated with the dead at their home on Elm Street, then known as the Howe House Inn. The house was built by the Howe family in the 1800s and is today known as Clarks Apartments.
“After the building was sold, the plumbers were renovating the building and found tubes and wires in the walls,” Latimer said, speculating the devices may have “enhanced communication with the dead.”
After that home was sold, the siblings moved to Hodgdon Street, where Mary allegedly died — if you believe the physician who declared her dead and the second opinions to the same effect.
But there’s more to her story than that. Mary Howe was known for going into long trances where her breathing and heartbeat would be almost nil. It was something she’d done before and come out of. But Latimer said that during her final trance, she was in it for longer than usual — at least two weeks — before she was declared dead by a town physician.
“Her brother was beside himself,” Latimer said. “It’s not like he could fake her being alive. Some symptoms like post-mortem lividity are really hard to hide.”
There was no sign of the settling of blood in the body that happens after death. And her limbs? They were pliable. Even her skin remained warm to the touch.
Her brother protested, not believing his sister was dead. Finally, local officials took matters into their own hands, removing her body from the home in a casket and arranging the secret burial.
“They had some out-of-town grave diggers come and bury her,” Latimer said.
Latimer believes she may have been buried in either Glidden Cemetery in nearby Newcastle or Glidden Street Cemetery in Damariscotta, because the word “Glidden” has come up in his research about her death. Latimer will be examining records from the cemeteries as well as death records for any trace of a potential burial site.
“We’re hoping that of those five people [involved in her burial], somebody told somebody. It’s definitely not a secret you’d want to take to the grave,” Latimer said. “It’s going to be a lot of research.”
If he finds Mary Howe’s final resting place, Latimer plans to raise funds for a memorial marker.
“She was probably considered a pretty extraordinary woman at the time,” Latimer said.
Ghost lore in cemeteries
David Hopkins, co-founder of Maine Ghost Hunters and co-owner of the Merkaba Sol store in Augusta, said cemeteries often are associated with stories of haunted happenings — but it’s not necessarily real.
“A lot of it is folklore,” Hopkins said. “I don’t know why people are drawn to cemeteries. There could be things that happen there, but I think it’s that Hollywood fear factor.”
And there’s no shortage of cemetery-related ghost stories in Maine.
In Bucksport, for instance, folklore has surrounded the mysterious grave of Col. Jonathan Buck for more than a century. As legend goes, a granite monument was erected in honor of Buck in Buck Cemetery. Shortly after, an image of a woman’s stocking-covered foot appeared on the monument. Townspeople, unable to remove the image, removed the stone and destroyed it. It was replaced, and the foot appeared again. It’s said that the image is a result of a curse placed on Buck by a witch whom he had put to death by fire. However, there’s no fact to back any of it up — except for the unmissable image.
And, of course, Mary Howe has her own share of cemetery folklore.
“Legend has it if you stand near the grave, you will hear low grumbling,” Latimer said.
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