Some twenty-five miles east of Cleveland, ghost hunters in the small, leafy town along Lake Erie tell stories about the “Veiled Lady of Kirtland.”
By Paul Sturtevant
A ghost haunts Kirtland, Ohio.
Some twenty-five miles east of Cleveland, ghost hunters in the small, leafy town along Lake Erie tell stories about the “Veiled Lady of Kirtland,” who supposedly dwells within the cemetery.
They say that days before her wedding, she discovered her beloved in the arms of her sister!
That she swore an oath to never to look at another man again, instead wearing a heavy veil her entire life!
It’s even being claimed that in her afterlife that she terrorizes men throughout Kirtland!
Except, that’s not what happened at all. And I should know – she’s my third great grandaunt.
Her real name was Harriet Martindale, and she went by Hattie. I recently pieced together her story from some of the more forlorn corners of my family’s archive. And what I found tells a very different story than the prurient tale of ghost hunting enthusiasts. Rather, it’s a story about a brilliant, generous woman, deeply connected to her family and local community, who struggled with illness her entire life. A woman who encountered some of the worst of nineteenth-century women’s mental health treatment, and due to a lifelong disability, became the subject of nasty local gossip that spread around the globe, and slanders her to this day.
Debunking a false story is a dangerous endeavor, especially in our current era of “fake news.” Even repeating the original lie in order to correct it can give it the oxygen it needs to spread. But as the adage goes, this lie has already—literally—traveled around the globe, so it’s well past time to tell Hattie Martindale’s actual story. So, how did this all start?
On July 18, 1909, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a multi-page illustrated spread entitled “The Veiled Lady of Kirtland.” Reporter George B. Davis came to visit Kirtland and Hattie—and though he barely spoke to her, he spun local gossip and lies into what would become the ghost story that endures today.
The Plain Dealer story has all the elements of a gothic novel—and is illustrated like one too. For all the effort they put towards the layout, the reporter clearly did not talk to anyone who knew Hattie well. “No one in the village knows why she wears the veil, but the gossip is that it is because of a love affair and a resolution made more than 40 years ago that no man should again see her face,” wrote Davis.
The only named source in the article is Kirtland’s Postmaster, who claimed to have gone to school with Hattie at the old Western Reserve Seminary. Allegedly, the Postmaster had been quite taken with her, calling her an “unnatural beauty,” adding that she was “graceful, popular, and had many suitors.” Now, the Postmaster reported that Hattie kept her home dark, and she apparently never frequented the post office while it was open, only dropping off her letters after nightfall. The reporter repeated another story from the Postmaster, that:
a morning more than 40 years ago… she was missing from home. She had risen in the night, harnessed a colt, and ridden north. The whole countryside was aroused. The lake to which the tracks of the colt was dragged. But the girl was not drowned. She returned home while they were still patrolling the beach. She said she had gone away to be alone, and as far as the postmaster remembers, no other explanation was made. When they saw her again the veil covered her face. She has worn it ever since.
It’s an odd story; why make such a 40-year fuss over the fact that a woman wanted some alone time?
The story was picked up and reprinted by the New York World newspaper (of World Series fame), which syndicated it around the world—as far as Sydney, Australia’s World’s News and Dunedin, New Zealand’s The Evening Star.
In 1916, the “Veiled Lady” story made the papers again. This time, reporters focused on a salaciously romantic tall tale:
True to her vow, made at the age of 20, that she would not let mortal man look upon her face for the rest of her natural life, Miss Harriet Martindale today has just passed the forty- fifth year of her seclusion. Miss Martindale, at the age of 20, was engaged to be married to a young man with whom she was very much in love. One night while walking alone in a country road near her home, she saw her sister in the arms of her fiancé. Three weeks later the man she was to have wed became the husband of her sister. Heartbroken over the sudden realization of his perfidy, she solemnly vowed no man should see her face again, and through the use of a heavy veil and a life of seclusion she has kept her word. She has requested that in the event of her death, no man be allowed to see her.
It is difficult to tell where this story originated, because it was syndicated around the country almost verbatim. Over the course of 1916 and 1917, you could read it in papers Los Angeles, Seattle, Michigan, West Virginia, Indiana, South Dakota, in four different papers in Illinois (including one in Chicago), Alaska, and surely more not yet available in digitized archives.
Hattie died in 1919. But that did not stop the gossipmongering. In 1940, 1970, and again in 2000, the Cleveland Plain Dealer rehashed the story again and again. But in its afterlife, it morphed into the ghost story that has attracted the attention of local ghost hunters, who have embellished the tale, adding that her ghost “hated men” and she allegedly tears up photographs of men in her old home. As recently as 2010, the Lake County History Center ran Halloween tours of local historic cemeteries where volunteers dressed up as Hattie’s ghost.
That’s the lie. Here’s the truth.
The real Hattie Martindale was born in 1838 to a large family—at least by today’s standards. She was the second youngest of seven children, with four older brothers, an older sister Lucy, and an adoptive little brother.
Her family was well-off. Her father, Timothy Dwight Martindale, moved the family to Ohio and quickly became a prominent member of the community, serving as Treasurer of Kirtland for several years. The family was committed to religion and to education; Timothy helped found the Western Reserve Teacher’s Seminary and the Kirtland Institute. Most of Hattie’s siblings went to college, and several became teachers. They were staunch Congregationalist Protestants—Hattie’s father was among the leaders of an effort to discredit Joseph Smith and his Mormon followers when they chose Kirtland as their first headquarters.
The first public records we have of Hattie show that she was bright and driven. In 1862, Hattie graduated from Oberlin, only twenty-five years after Oberlin College became the first institution of higher-ed to admit women. In college, she was a member of the Young Ladies’ Literary Society.
My family’s archive, which fell to me when my mother died in 2018, contains hundreds of letters, photographs, genealogies, wills, bills of sale, diaries, song sheets, store receipts, calling cards, scraps of fabric, and more. The key collectors in the nineteenth century were Hattie’s sister Lucy Martindale, and her husband Thomas Milton Morley.
Before they were married, Thomas joined the Union Army as a Cavalry and Artillery officer. Not to be outdone, during the war Lucy volunteered with the abolitionist American Missionary Association who sent her to Hampton, Virginia. Because Hampton never fell to the Confederacy, it quickly became a huge refugee camp as Black people escaped slavery en masse to the Union-controlled territory. Lucy went to teach hundreds of children who had escaped enslavement.
That’s another story for another time. The important thing for our purposes is that Lucy and Thomas kept hundreds of letters they sent to each other during the war, and many more that they received from friends and family at home—including to and from Lucy’s only sister, Hattie.
The newspaper gossip and ghost stories that talk of Hattie being jilted by her betrothed, who just weeks before their wedding ran away with her own sister—that could only be Lucy and Thomas.
But Lucy and Thomas’s letters tell a very different story. Their love was not sudden or secretive. In their first letters, it is obvious they are very fond of one another, and spoke about marriage over and over in their letters during 1862. Then, finally, on June 21st 1863, Thomas sends a letter to Lucy nervously proposing, and she sends one, two weeks later, equally-nervously accepting.
In early March of 1864, Lucy returned home, Thomas was given a furlough, and they were married by the pastor of their Congregationalist church. They celebrated with family and friends, including Hattie, who served as Lucy’s bridesmaid.
Nothing hints they were sneaking around behind her sister’s back or that they were doing anything untoward. But they do talk about Hattie a lot, which gives us the first hints of what might have really been going on in her life.
In her final year at Oberlin, Hattie developed trouble with her eyes, which got in the way of her studies. Thomas wrote to Lucy that he worried: that “your sister Hattie will be greatly disappointed in not being able to finish her studies with her class. How many times such a pivot is the turning point in the history of individuals. I hope she will not be long afflicted.”
Lucy went to Oberlin to, as Thomas put it, “render efficient aid to your Sister in ‘being eyes for her’ thus enabling her, I hope, to finish her course.” Two years later, Hattie’s eye troubles continued. Looking for help, she went to stay at the “Cleveland Water Cure.” Part-spa, part quack-hospital, places like the Water Cure touted their ability to cure nearly any disease imaginable with combinations of hydrotherapy, exercise, and diet.
Unsurprisingly, after three weeks at the Water Cure, Hattie found no relief for her eyes. As Lucy wrote to Thomas: “She is not nearly so well as when she went away [to Cleveland]. Her eyes are so bad. She says she is losing what faith she had in the Water Cure.”
While Hattie was in residence at the Water Cure, she studied French and German with teachers who lived nearby. Lucy thoroughly disapproved. As happens too often to this day, Lucy blamed Hattie for her illness, convinced that Hattie’s love of learning was the cause:
She has some disease which might perhaps be cured if she could only give up study and take time to be cured… She ought not to expect to improve when she studies as she confesses the same to me; but she says it is better to lose one’s health than to lose one’s mind. I feel so badly about her, so anxious. I’m afraid she will never be well again.
Hattie spent months at the Water Cure. The next time Hattie visited home, Lucy convinced her to leave all her books behind. When Hattie went back to the Water Cure, Lucy reported that Hattie: “complains that it is dull business, and she would like to be at work.” When Lucy visited the Water Cure, she became suspicious, writing that, “There are a great many people there all trying to get well, I suppose. But I could not discern but that the majority of them looked as well and ate as heartily as people ordinarily do.”
Yet, Hattie stayed for even longer, and started taking Electric Baths as treatment for her eyes.
Electric Baths were a very primitive attempt at electrotherapy. In an Electric Bath, a patient would be charged with electricity, either via a generator or a battery, and either left to sit with this charge, or shocked by a doctor in an attempt to cure an illness. An ad for the Cleveland Water Cure preserved at the Library of Congress touts its “Electro-Chemical Bath” as “the cure of very many diseases, it is an invaluable aid, and in many others it is impossible… to effect a cure without it.” Suffice it to say, this “treatment” doesn’t do anything good; it was abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century.
Despite this, Hattie’s eyes began to improve, which Hattie attributes to the baths that she took two to three times a week. Of course, with historical hindsight we know that the Electric Baths were, at best, a placebo. But as the letter chain closed when Thomas returned from war in 1864, Hattie’s eyes seemed to be improving.
By the 1870 census, Hattie was living with her mother and her brother next door to Lucy, Thomas, and their rapidly growing family. As neighbors rarely write letters to one another, the archival record pauses for a bit.
But in the 1880 Census, something important changes. Hattie was still living with her brother, mother, and now a nephew. But the census-taker placed a mark by her name in column 19.
Over the past few decades, there has been a serious, overdue reassessment of mental health treatment, and how we stigmatize people with mental illnesses and disabilities. And nineteenth-century mental health treatment for women—even wealthy white women like Hattie—has a bad reputation for good reason.
Accurate records of Hattie’s health are hard to come by. An 1880 census supplement further describes her condition – “mania.” While we now have a better understanding of Bipolar Disorder (and the manic episodes it can cause), in the 1880s a diagnosis of “mania,” especially in a woman, could mean a great many things. Yes, it included what we understand it to mean today, but, as K. S. Kendler wrote in an issue of Psychological Medicine, it could also include: “changes in character, moral standards and physical appearance, and increased sense of humor and sexual drive.” In other words, a woman who was “misbehaving” might find herself labeled a “maniac.”
There are a few other clues as to Hattie’s condition, in her own words. In a small box tucked away and labeled “miscellaneous,” I found a series of letters between Lucy and Hattie—addressed to Hattie at the Newburgh Hospital for the Insane. Hattie writes that the first women’s ward she was assigned to was horrible, but she was moved to another that, while more hospitable, was deeply boring. One day she was stuck in her room all day as the staff “forgot” to unlock her door. The rest of her days were filled with endless sewing, patching, quilting, and knitting—and half of the day she was required to “work for the institution.” There were only a few books, and most were stories that were “so tiresome.”
She wrote that she wants to get better, but the lack of stimulation was not helping her: “if I could only write all the time I should be thankful. I believe my head would not whirl so much.” Later, she was so upset that Lucy was unable to visit that she spent the day crying—though she added a mysterious sentence that may shed some light on her condition: “I have been so disappointed at not seeing you that I had a long time of crying over it the other day—and it has done me a great deal of good. If I can only cry, then I am very much better.”
With the talk of a whirling head and a need to cry but difficulty doing so, it may be that what was labeled “mania” were actually other symptoms of her eye disorder.
Hattie also twice indicated that everything she wrote should be taken with some skepticism —because she knew the hospital staff were reading her letters before sending them. She writes that “I am so thankful that you like my letters, but you cannot judge anything about me by my letters. They are too much criticized. As long as a person has the least particle of sense left—they will be careful what they write.”
She warned her sister—and by proxy, us today— there may have been more going on than she could say; and indeed, history proves that that was true.
The Newburgh Hospital, later renamed the Cleveland State Hospital, was built for long-term psychiatric care. But even by the 1870s, it became notorious for overcrowding, and in the 1950s, multiple nightmarish exposés by the Cleveland Press laid bare the inhumane, grossly negligent treatment inflicted on the patients.
Even in the best of circumstances, nineteenth century mental health treatment, like that at the Newburgh Hospital, had an entirely different purpose than it does today. In the nineteenth-century mental health issues were often regarded as a moral failing, in addition to, or instead of, a physiological or psychological one. Nineteenth-century mental hospitals often prescribed moral “re-education” through manual labor (hence all the sewing), and physical restraints like straitjackets and “cribs” (effectively, coffin-sized boxes with bars on all sides), or locking someone in their room like Hattie was.
Thankfully, it seems that Hattie did not have to stay in the Newburgh Hospital for long, returning home to her mother and brother. When they died in 1898 and 1899 respectively, she inherited their substantial fortunes, and for the remainder of her long life, we have many records of her charitable work. She gave an entire library’s worth of books to the local high school. She bought two houses for elderly local women who had fallen on hard times. She bought stocks that she gave to all of Lucy and Thomas’ children. I even have a receipt from a local grocer in the year she died that notes regular purchases of milk and butter for her one of her neighbors.
Hattie’s obituary in the local Painesville Telegraph, in just a few short lines, paints a picture in stark contrast to the cruel rumors about her life spread by international papers and today’s ghost story. The author writes that “Miss Martindale was a very worthy woman and was held in high esteem by everybody. The funeral was private, only a few immediate friends besides the relatives attended.”
We also gain even more insights into Hattie’s life after her death, when Lucy and Thomas’ grandson, J. Morley Nutting, tried to correct the false gossip about his grandmother and her sister that was spread over and over by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He wrote letter after letter, including one, sent to a Plain Dealer reporter in September 1959, which lifted the veil, as it were:
I find that during her life Aunt Hattie had plenty of men friends. Only one was serious and she turned him down. Her only sister was my grandmother at whose wedding she was the bridesmaid…I further have learned that Aunt Hattie started wearing the veil after a trip to Chicago for some eye treatments. Her eyes watered badly in extreme light, and she took to wearing the veil for protection in sunlight. It grew to be a habit as a partial protection against strangers.
He then implored the reporter to help him set the record straight. To no avail.
Both the ghostly “Veiled Lady of Kirtland” and the real-life generous, capable Hattie Martindale have much to teach us. The horror is not found in the ghost story itself, but in the story of how often and how casually our rumor mills and our media set up women and people with disabilities to be figures of public spectacle. This can take the form of public lies, mockery and pity, as with Hattie. But today, it far more commonly takes the form of its candy-coated cousin “inspiration porn”—a term coined by disability rights activist Stella Young to describe a common way that people with disabilities are objectified by being made into “inspirational” figures by and for able-bodied people. Both of these kinds of stories can be harmful. Both distort or completely misrepresent the reality of the lived experience of real and complex people’s lives. Especially in our world of instantaneous global and social media, these stories can be hard to uproot, even with effort. We must hold our media and ourselves to account, if we have any hope of understanding one another and treating everyone with the respect they deserve.