The Trouble on Hell Hollow Road: White Ghosts, Maternal Grief, and the Gendered Fragility of American Park Mythology

Scroll this

Editor’s Note: This post by Caroline Evans Abbott is the sixth installment in the Parks and Profit series, which explores the complex relationship between profit and parks historically and in present-day. Using the story of Hell Hollow road and the ghost of ‘Maud,’ Evans Abbott reveals the connections between gendered ghost stories and the profitability of park imperialism.


Buried beneath dead leaves off Hell Hollow road in Voluntown, Connecticut, the remnants of an empty grave lie intentionally unmarked for their own protection. A drive down the single-lane park road in the darkening days approaching Halloween is something of a rite of passage among youth in the state’s northeastern “Quiet Corner.” It is a pilgrimage which endures the legacy of an underlying, occult story. Hell Hollow road, they say, is haunted by the ghost of Maud—a malevolent, centuries-dead witch so evil her body was rejected from her family’s established plot. Unfit to rest alongside the more honourable, she was buried alone in what is now Pachaug State Forest, one of Connecticut’s 139 public state parks. She hunts the park road seeking revenge for her ostracisation; her spirit, a harbinger of doom and damnation, holding the ground to which her bones were allegedly outcast over a century ago.

At least, this is how the story goes.1

Hell Hollow Road, ConnecticutHell Hollow Road, Connecticut
Hell Hollow Road. Photos by Caroline Evans Abbott.

Ghost stories set in and around public parks offer an interesting vehicle to explore park mythology. Central to Jessica DeWitt’s theory of Park Mythology are the “stories that society tells”—stories that “fail to critically assess parks as colonial and capitalist institutions” (DeWitt, 2021). Definitional to this theory also is the viewing of public green spaces as “unqualified good things” (DeWitt, 2021). Indeed, as Dane Kennedy puts it in one example, the ‘benefits of empire’ were, to the Victorians, expressed through “…the language of liberalism,” the empire viewed as a cosmopolitain force (Kennedy, 2012).2 Extended to DeWitt’s theory of Park Mythology, considering parks as ‘benefits of empire’ provides critical nineteenth century context for the qualification of the ‘good things’ and their entanglements with colonialism. Especially where unqualified by fact, apocryphal oral histories are among these ‘good things,’ ‘benefits’ unburdened of the colonial legacies and capitalist realities they represent. Maud’s is no exception—and provides a proving ground on which DeWitt’s theory can be tested and applied to American imperialism.

“Considering parks as ‘benefits of empire’ provides critical nineteenth century context for the qualification of the ‘good things’ and their entanglements with colonialism.”

Pachaug Forest, ConnecticutPachaug Forest, Connecticut
Pachaug Forest. Photo by Caroline Evans Abbott.

The Real Maud

Born in 1888 and dying in October of 1891, the real Maud was the toddler daughter of Lucy and Gilbert Reynolds: a farming couple living in Hell Hollow, Connecticut with a single-horse farm at the time of the 1880 census (Ancestry.com, U.S., Selected Federal Census).3 Just shy of her birthday, the child choked to death in the night on an apple.4 Devastated, her parents buried their daughter where the child’s grave marker could easily be seen from the house—a decision more commonly attributed in folklore to a grieving Lucy than a united parental front. Their farm’s established family resting place, farther down the property, must have felt too far from home, and a second family plot was established, spurring the generational imagination of a notoriously-superstitious rural New England to ponder the unusual choice (Daniels-Higginbotham et al., 2019). The child’s headstone has been desecrated, removed, defiled, and replaced with enough frequency to prompt even a rumor of the eventual exhumation and relocation of the child’s grave (D’Agostino, 2021). Maud, while leading an unfairly and posthumously-vilified childhood, is not the witch her folkloric legacy hunts: she is the provably fanciful invention of white park-goers.5 But is it fair to say she does not exist?

Census data from Windham County Connecticut, June 1880
Gilbert Reynolds’ single-horse farm shown in agricultural census records for Voluntown, Connecticut (nearest town to where they lived in Hell Hollow), June 1880. Source from ancestry.com

Profit as Social Currency

“In defining landscape as a resource which ‘cannot be exported,’ [Leslie] Bella’s theory falls short of considering non-monetary forms of ‘profit’ as social currency.”

Where driven by the oral histories of white communities, the ‘presence’ of nineteenth century spirits in American Park Mythology is definitional to its relationship with profit. In considering the relationship between parks and profit, Leslie Bella’s 1987 work argues that the very creation of public parks not only guaranteed, but implied, their capitalist exploitation (Bella, 1987). But in defining landscape as a resource which ‘cannot be exported,’ Bella’s theory falls short of considering non-monetary forms of ‘profit’ as social currency. Indeed, if Alfred W. Crosby’s work reminds modern scholars that human colonizers are “never really alone in the natural world”—the automatic carriers of environmental adulterators—perhaps it is plausible to consider them the carriers of the ‘stories society tells’ (Browning and Silver, 4). Traded, commodified, adjusted and resold in white environmental hierarchies, unqualified, spooky tales of rural nineteenth century life have credible staying power to import park tourists. The ghosts themselves are a campfire commodity. Unsurprisingly, the story of Lucy and Maud demonstrates an important pattern to this commodification.

Profit and the Feminine Archetype

Along the pathway of imperial expansion, ghost stories shape gendered experiences of park mythology—and the sun never sets on one white, feminine archetype. In San Francisco, a spectral young mother in Golden Gate Park searches the banks of Stow Lake frantically for the baby whose carriage she lost to the water; in the protected pine barrens of New Jersey on the eastern seaboard, the legend of the Jersey Devil—the illegitimate chimera of the devil himself and Mrs. Leeds—endures (Shaw, 2019; Stow Lake Ghost 2021). Anachronistic in her long- nineteenth-century gown, the restless spirit of the “White Lady”—or the damned offspring of one, as in the case of Maud—is prevalent across the mythos of public parks the world over, amplified by its reincarnations in media and culture (Beck, 1970). Critically, the archetype reveals park mythology’s reliance on heteronormative, cisgendered responses to emotional anguish—specifically, to reproductive anguish. Her appearance is the epitome of gendered, mythologized relationships with public land: putting ‘nature’ “on a pedestal and admiring it from afar,” doing “for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman,” a “paradoxical act of sadistic admiration” (Morton, 2007).

Hell Hollow, Connecticut
Hell Hollow Landscape. Photo by Caroline Evans Abbott.

Kyriarchy and Empire Building

And so too, with profitable pedestals come gates to keep; fundamentally, Maud’s story and those like it reveal park mythology’s profitable entanglements with Kyriarchy. Uniting the ruling, oppressive systems of global dominance under Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s umbrella term does justice to the interrelation of imperialism, racism, and misogyny in constructing park mythologies (Schüssler Fiorenza). Citing historian Ann Douglas, Kimberly Kutz explains the “complex retransfer of force from the living to the dead” taking place in the post-Civil War period of the mid-nineteenth century, and the “domestication of death” through story (Kutz, 2013). Jon Coleman reflects on the nationalism of late nineteenth century American audiences, describing the west as “a stage for masculine regeneration” for American men, “their spirits unchained” (Coleman, 2012). As DeWitt distinguishes, Park Mythology is chiefly perpetuated by those that, “due to their status in society, have not directly experienced the dispossessive and exclusionary effects of parks and park creation.” Rooted—but not limited—to the exclusive influence of nineteenth century American imperialism, mythologies with bases in these contexts make this domestication a stage for powerful global actors. Park profitability itself is a benefit of empire. It follows that, per DeWitt’s theory, these ghost stories not only deny the colonial legacies of parks and their settler governing bodies, they uphold and expand upon them.

Pachaug Forest Floor Pachaug Forest Floor
Pachaug Forest Floor. Photo by Caroline Evans Abbott.

Conclusion: Reburying the Feminine

“As the posthumous settlers of public land and parks, archetypal ghosts like Maud’s maintain the ‘unqualified’ transmission of whiteness on a gendered, imperial landscape.”

In recent years, Maud’s story has been revisited and revealed for the tragedy which underlies the fiction, bringing context to the life of the long-forgotten woman whose non-normative, environment-bending choices birthed a century-long witch hunt (MacNamara Grace, 2003). Indeed, modern scholarship holds the power to posthumously exonerate feminine figures from the archaic moral crimes of which they were perceived guilty in death, reburying them as the women they ‘truly’ were. But wherever the environmental choices of white, feminine figures are contextualised, so too the entanglements between the feminine and the imperial are revealed. It is precisely these entanglements which are too often left bare in environmental contexts. Removed from their role in life as settler beneficiaries of empire, white ghosts are interred anew on a ‘stage for regeneration’ of American nationalism.

As the posthumous settlers of public land and parks, archetypal ghosts like Maud’s maintain the ‘unqualified’ transmission of whiteness on a gendered, imperial landscape. Where each coincidence of this archetype and ‘public’ land occurs, the link between profit and the maintenance of these punishing boundaries must be considered critical to global studies of park mythology. Sans consideration for imperial contexts, apocryphal (and indeed misogynist) narratives are replaced with, as Coleman puts it, the ‘valorization’ of white visions of ‘survivalism’ (Coleman, xiii). The ‘unchaining’ of the feminine spirit without consideration for these intersections often only offers forth, at best, a ‘stage’ for new, white-feminist icons (Williams, 2019).

In the cultural lexicon, the ‘ghosts’ of Lucy, or Maud—of Mrs. Leeds, or of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Ghost—endure as they ever have. Their femininity lies in state, entangled with their maternity as a commodification of grief which erects and enforces gendered boundaries around environments along profitable margins. Hell Hollow’s legacy, and profitability, haunts every settled park, every town, every green corner. Park mythology, and the profitability of story as currency, provides a footbridge over this otherwise deep and empty grave.

Feature Image: Hell Hollow. Photo by Caroline Evans Abbott.

Notes

  1. As with any piece of folklore, there are varying versions of the apocryphal version of the Maud Reynolds story. In electing this initial representation, I mean no disrespect to the Reynolds family, but hope instead to describe my own experience hearing the fable in my own community.
  2. Though Kennedy would likely argue that the Victorians did critically assess the benefits of their imperial institutions, I would argue that this assessment hinged too highly on upper-class perspective to be considered representative of the entirety of ‘home-based’ Victorian (and nineteenth-century American) communities.
  3. Discrepancies in town records have it that Maud’s death occurred in either October of 1890, or October of 1891. For the purposes of this essay, the 1891 date listed on records establishing the second Reynolds family plot has been used, but a margin for error exists. It should also be noted that discrepancies in the spelling of Maud’s name exist, with both Maud and Maude existing in town records in dated contexts which substantiate the plausibility of either spelling being potentially accurate. For the purposes of this essay, I have chosen ‘Maud,’ with no disrespect meant to the Reynolds family should this be incorrect.
  4. While another colloquially-transmitted aspect of the narrative, this aspect of the tale contributes to astute postulations that, as in the New England Vampire Panic, the causality of Maud’s death and vilified legacy may have been related to an epidemic. One of then-rampant diphtheria’s notable symptoms is severe throat swelling which can be quite significant and dangerous in toddlers, lending basis to the suspicion that the disease was contributive to the child’s death, and revealing potentially-interesting intersections with the medical humanities. It should also be noted that discrepancies in town records exist surrounding the date of Maud’s death.
  5. Perhaps the most critical piece of context in establishing the basis for my attribution of Maud’s apocryphal story to white communities is the lack of context informing the even more apocryphal and quite racist ‘folktale’ involving the death of yet a third feminine identity from Pachaug State Forest, which is often heard alongside Maud’s story. I have not included a reiteration of the narrative here, but some of the tale’s more macabre and violent aspects sensationalise the rage of a raped and murdered 18th century Native American femme.

Work Cited

Ancestry.com. U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880 [database on-line]. Census Place: Voluntown, Windham, Connecticut; Page: 12; Schedule Type: Agriculture. Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

Beck, J., 1970. The White Lady of Great Britain and Ireland. Folklore, [online] 81(4), pp.292-306. Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/1259197> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Browning, J. and Silver, T., 2020. An Environmental History of the Civil War. 1st ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, pp.1-7.

Coleman, J., 2012. Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation. 2nd ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p.ix-16.

D’Agostino, T., 2021. The Ghosts of Pachaug State Forest | The Yankee Express. [online] Theyankeexpress.com. Available at: <https://www.theyankeexpress.com/2021/02/09/345709/the-ghosts-of-pachaug-state-forest> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Daniels-Higginbotham, J., Gorden, E., Farmer, S., Spatola, B., Damann, F., Bellantoni, N., Gagnon, K., de la Puente, M., Xavier, C., Walsh, S., Parson, W., McMahon, T. and Marshall, C., 2019. DNA Testing Reveals the Putative Identity of JB55, a 19th Century Vampire Buried in Griswold, Connecticut. Genes, [online] 10(9), p.636. Available at: <https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4425/10/9/636> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

DeWitt, J., 2021. ‘Parks Are Not for Profit,’ or Park Mythology and White Denial. [online] NiCHE. Available at: <https://niche-canada.org/2021/02/04/parks-are-not-for-profit-or-park-mythology-and-white-denial/> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Golden Gate Park. 2021. Stow Lake Ghost. [online] Available at: <https://goldengatepark.com/stow-lake-ghost.html> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Kennedy, D., 2012. The Great Arch of Empire. In: M. Hewitt, ed., The Victorian World, 1st ed. Oxon; New York: Routledge, pp.57-60.

Kutz, K., 2013. Chief of a Nation of Ghosts: Images of Abraham Lincoln’s Spirit in the Immediate Post-Civil War Period. The Journal of American Culture, [online] 36(2), pp.111-123. Available at: <https://www.proquest.com/openview/25a0df8867ffae9ac8eb5b84596009ba/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=29587> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

MacNamara Grace, E., 2003. A Time of Tales And Hauntings In Hell Hollow. [online] The Day. Available at: <https://www.theday.com/article/20031026/DAYARC/310269925> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Morton, T., 2007. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. 1st ed. Boston: Harvard University Press, pp.3-8.

Shaw, C., 2019. The Devil You Know: How Leeds Descendants see their Jersey Devil relative. [online] pressofatlanticcity.com. Available at: <https://pressofatlanticcity.com/news/local/the-devil-you-know-how-leeds-descendants-see-their-jersey-devil-relative/article_d129aa12-cf96-53aa-8ba7-d76c970fabbc.html> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Tucker, A., 2012. The Great New England Vampire Panic. [online] Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-great-new-england-vampire-panic-36482878/> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

Williams, M., 2019. How White Feminists Oppress Black Women: When Feminism Functions as White Supremacy. [online] Chacruna. Available at: <https://chacruna.net/how-white-feminists-oppress-black-women-when-feminism-functions-as-white-supremacy/> [Accessed 25 June 2021].

The following two tabs change content below.

Caroline Evans Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of literature, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx.

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.