I've mentioned a few spooky Wellfleet stories on this blog before, like those about the witch Maria Hallett (who is still remembered in Wellfleet to this day) or accounts of the mysterious Tarzan of the 1930s (who seems to have been forgotten). But while we were in Wellfleet my friend David told me a story I had never heard before. And it's not just spooky, it's downright gruesome. Hearing a new story always makes me happy, and David swears this one is true. He works at the Wellfleet Historical Society and has written a book about town history so I believe him.
The story is about the Gross family, a large and prominent clan in Wellfleet's past. Many of the Gross men were famous sailors, and one of them even married a Hawaiian princess in 1789. But the family members best remembered today are the ten Gross sisters who posed for this photo in 1850 or 1851:
|Photo of the Gross sisters from Wellfleet Historical Society|
In addition to being numerous the Grosses were also devout. They belonged to Wellfleet's Methodist church where all the sisters were members of the choir. The Methodist church still exists in town, although the current building is of a more recent date.
|Wellfleet Methodist Church|
She lived quite a distance from the church, and in the time it took her to walk back the sun had set. Everyone else had already left the church, and its windows were dark. Unfortunately Ms. Gross had not brought a lantern, but she bravely opened the door to the church and stepped inside anyway. She spent a lot time inside the building and thought she was familiar with every inch of it. What could possibly go wrong?
The church was pitch black. Ms. Gross walked cautiously down the aisle, guiding herself by holding onto the backs of the pews. She remembered which pew she had left her bonnet in and when she reached it she began to feel along the seat. But much to her surprise she didn't find her bonnet. Instead she found the face of a man who was lying in the pew. His face was cold, and it was wet.
Ms. Gross screamed in surprise and horror. She backed out of the pew in a panic, but then tripped and fell into another pew across the aisle. As she fell she steadied herself with her hands - which came to rest on another man. She felt his wet, soggy clothes and his cold, inert body. She smelled the ocean.
Sobbing, Ms. Gross stumbled down the aisle, feeling her way along in the darkness. She tried to keep her hands on the backs of the pews, but occasionally she slipped, and each time she did she felt another corpse, touching here a cold face, there a wet foot or a clammy hand.
When she finally escaped the church she ran to the nearest house and pounded hysterically on the door. The family inside took her in and listened to her tale. When Ms. Gross had calmed down they explained to her what why the church was full of corpses.
After choir practice had ended, a wagon had come up to the church from the harbor. It had been filled with dead bodies. Apparently a ship had sunk of the coast of Wellfleet and the crew's bodies had washed ashore in the harbor. The Methodist minister agreed to store them overnight in the church while the townspeople decided where to bury them. The minister certainly didn't think anyone would come stumbling in to find them. After all, everyone had left after choir practice.
That's the end of the story, but I wonder how Ms. Gross felt. Was she relieved to know there was a logical explanation for all the corpses which suddenly appeared in the church? Or was she saddened and horrified to realize she really had been touching the dead bodies of men who drowned at sea? I also wonder how she felt about her bonnet. Did she vow to never forget her bonnet again, or did she instead vow to never wear one again? Significantly, in the photo of the ten sisters the youngest one, Maria, is not wearing a bonnet...
This story reminds me of that old Halloween game for kids, the one where you are blindfolded and touch various things that are supposed to be body parts. You touch cold grapes and someone tells you they are eyeballs, you touch spaghetti and someone tells you it is intestines, etc. In Ms. Gross's case, though, she actually did touch dead bodies. If there's any lesson to be learned it might this: gruesome things can happen anytime of the year, and they even happen in small towns with pretty white churches.