Hawes House, which stood at 506 E. Leigh St. before it was demolished in 1968, was rumored to have been haunted by the "Grey Lady." (Photo courtesy Mary Wingfield Scott/Scott Collection/The Valentine)
Nobody who lived at the Hawes House knew from whence the Grey Lady came, only that on occasion she drifted like a vapor through the perfumed gardens or slid along the paneled walls as though anxious of discovery. Sometimes, she’d lay her small cold hands on an unsuspecting visitor. After Hawes House became an orphanage, it was said that children mistook her for a nurse and were startled when she vanished. Still later, when the building was repurposed as a street center for destitute men, some of the clientele said they sensed her presence.
You, unfortunately, cannot visit to test your empathic sensitivity. The Hawes House site, 506 E. Leigh St., is buried beneath the Altria Center for Research and Technology and catty-corner from the bunker-like Coliseum entrance where Leigh slides beneath Fifth Street. This is the same stretch of road that, for most of this year, underwent a $3.6 million construction overhaul as the city upgraded the Fifth and Seventh Street bridges over Leigh.
The brick Hawes presented a dignified, though not especially inviting, face to Leigh Street. Inside, the central foyer featured shutter-style screens that architectural historian Mary Wingfield Scott described in her Houses of Old Richmond (1941) as unique in residences remaining from the antebellum period. She appreciated the lovely mantels and doors, a graceful stairway, “chair-rails and paneled wainscot, the wide floor boards of random width, the plaster cornices — all admirable.”
The Hawes’ immediate western neighbor, the wood-framed Boyce-MacFarlane house, circa 1796, had a narrow, high-roofed two-story center that sprouted three octagonal wings. This odd structure survived until 1910, when it was demolished for the Leigh Street Methodist Church.
William Mann, deputy marshal of Virginia, purchased the entire square along Leigh in 1810. During construction around 1816 of what would become known as the Hawes House, Mann lived at the Boyce-MacFarlane House. He placed his new residence in the square’s middle, surrounded by gardens. After a few transfers, Ann Clap purchased the house in 1844 for her son, Samuel Hawes (1799-1875). His initial life in Richmond was fraught; his business partner stole from their company, and Hawes retreated to a country store until returning to town.
Hawes, an otherwise pragmatic businessman (from Dorchester, Massachusetts, who rose as a deacon at Richmond’s renowned Second Presbyterian Church) claimed to have experienced some 50 visitations of the Grey Lady. Hawes swore his nine children to secrecy because, he explained, if the wider world took the place for haunted, it wouldn’t sell for another half-century.
Mary Virginia, Hawes’ third child, described the neighborhood of her youth as “quietly, but eminently aristocratic. There were few new houses, and the old had a rural, rather than an urban, air.”
After marrying Presbyterian clergyman Edward Terhune, Mary Virginia (1859-1922) spent most of her adult life living and writing in New Jersey and New York City.
Under the pseudonym Marion Harland, Mary Virginia Terhune wrote some 75 works of fiction and domestic advice, a multitude of magazine articles and short stories, and syndicated newspaper advice columns. Historian Karen Manners Smith observes, “It is not extravagant to say that Marion Harland was, for many readers, the Julia Child, Danielle Steel, and Dear Abby of her day.”
Terhune’s titles include Where Ghosts Walk: The Haunts of Familiar Characters in History and Literature, Series I (1898) and a Part II (1910) followed by her autobiography The Story of a Long Life (1910) — in which she devoted an entire chapter to the specter, which she detailed as wearing a high, carved comb in her hair.
After Samuel Hawes’ death, the house in 1873 became an orphanage administrated by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Terhune told of how laborers unearthed, some six feet away from the drawing room window and four feet underground, a small skeleton wearing the deteriorated tufts of a dress. Under the skull rested a decorative tortoise shell comb. If speculation existed at the time about who the woman might have been, Terhune did not write about it.
The Grey Lady eventually wafted into Marguerite DuPont Lee’s 1930 Virginia Ghosts. Books, newspaper and magazine articles kept the Lady alive.
Look closely - can you see the Grey Lady? (Photo courtesy The Valentine)
On Feb. 24, 1936, Times-Dispatch writer Polly Daffron visited Hawes House, by then a Salvation Army facility for men. One transient, Daffron quoted said, “Even when she did hang over my bed and rest her hands on me I felt like a fool admitting it.”
When the time came in 1968 for the house’s destruction, neither the Grey Lady nor any preservationist group saved it. The place was considered old and in the way, as were most nearby structures. By then, too, the neighborhood had become majority African-American, and was vulnerable to city planners and developers who had a grand plan called Project One to develop downtown. Project One sought to bring white businesses and residences to a section between Interstate 95 and Jackson Street and bounded by Fifth and Seventh streets.
The construction of I-95 destroyed much of the neighborhood. What the interstate did not eradicate, Project One did.