August 20, 2018

Something Grisly From Cape Cod: The Forgotten Bonnet

I was on Cape Cod recently and had dinner with friends who live in Wellfleet. I really recommend visiting Wellfleet if you can. It has beautiful old buildings from the 18th and 19th century, a bustling little harbor, and lots of green space. Wellfleet has everything you could want in a small New England coastal town, even a pretty white wooden church. But as readers of this blog know, quaint old towns often are the scene of gruesome stories, and sometimes bad things even happen in pretty churches. 

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
The sisters were  famous on Cape Cod because there were ten of them and they all lived long healthy lives, which was quite rare at the time. Tbe oldest sister, Lurania, was born in 1767. The youngest, Maria, was born in 1794. Photography was relatively new when this photo was taken, and the sisters had to travel all the way to Boston to pose for it. Clearly they were an important family if they could afford to have their picture taken and travel to do it. 

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
The sisters faithfully attended choir practices, which were held in the church in the evening. This is where the gruesome story begins. One evening one of the Gross sisters walked all the way home after choir practice when she suddenly realized she had forgotten her bonnet at the church. (I wasn't told which sister it was, so let's just call her Ms. Gross.) Ms. Gross remembered that she had left her bonnet in one of the pews. How embarrassing! No proper woman would dream of being seen without a bonnet. She turned and began the long trek back to 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.


Sue Bursztynski said...

It must have been quite a shock for the poor woman! Not to mention the sadness of those men being drowned. No, if it was me, I certainly would never have worn that particular bonnet again!

Alex Fisher said...

Note that one of the sisters in the photo does not have her bonnet!

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comments Sue and Alex!