A safe harbor for escaped slaves, ghostly figures and the governor of Delaware
When Charles Hillyard III built a fine middle-period Georgian house he named Woodburn around 1798 in Dover, on land originally granted by the Swedish crown in 1684, he had no idea it would one day serve as a residence for the governor of Delaware. That would not happen officially until 1965, when the state purchased the property for that purpose.
In 1825, Daniel and Mary Cowgill acquired the home from Hillyard’s heirs. Cowgill, a Quaker and abolitionist, freed his slaves and allowed them to meet in the great hall at Woodburn. This was a harbinger of what would reportedly occur there at a later time.
While it is not easy to separate fact from fiction, present-day observers find the tales that have been told through the years about Woodburn intriguing. According to “Urban Legend of Woodburn” (online at 123HelpMe.com), the mansion is known for being a stop on the Underground Railroad. Escaped slaves supposedly came to and left from the house after dark.
Although researchers have found no conclusive evidence that Woodburn was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Mrs. Joe Ann Vickers of Rehoboth Beach, the daughter of Thomas Murray — who purchased Woodburn and lived there with his family from 1953 to 1965 — reinforces this assertion.
She recalls her father finding what he believed to be the remnants of a tunnel through which escaped slaves purportedly moved in and out of the mansion’s basement. Vickers also relates her understanding that slaves hid in compartments alongside the fireplace in the dining room and music room when authorities or raiders came searching for them.
In his 1884 novel “The Entailed Hat,” author George Alfred Townsend, a native of Georgetown, Del., penned a lengthy account of how the gang of notorious kidnapper Patty Cannon raided Woodburn in the dead of night to capture escaped slaves and sell them back into slavery. Townsend’s narrative describes the gang’s stealthy arrival at the mansion and plan of attack that went for naught when the inmates of the household countered with gunfire that routed the would-be slave catchers.
In the jargon of the time, Townsend also depicted the fear that took hold of black members of the Cannon hooligans when ordered to storm the darkened house they knew for certain to be haunted: “‘Dar’s ghosts in dar,’ the hoarse voice of Derrick Molleston was heard to say, and the Negro element stopped and shrank.” Whether Townsend’s fictional account was based on fact has yet to be determined.
The ghosts in question have become part of Woodburn’s legend. According to Haunted Houses.com, Lorenzo Dow — a guest of former owner Dr. M.W. Bates — was coming down the stairs to eat breakfast with Bates and his wife when he passed a gentleman going up the stairs “dressed in the fashion of the preceding generation, complete with queued hair [pigtail], knee breeches, ruffled blouse, etc.” When Dow asked his hosts about this person, Mrs. Bates realized he was describing her long-departed father.
Other anecdotes have Woodburn owners complaining about vintage wines in the cellar disappearing overnight. Former Gov. Charles Terry Jr. reported seeing an apparition of an otherwise unidentified man in a white wig helping himself to a decanter of wine.
The most compelling story comes from Vickers — who, as a senior in high school in 1954, experienced an unusual event while asleep in her third-floor bedroom at Woodburn. She woke in the middle of the night, feeling very cold, and saw what appeared to be smoke. As she got out of bed to investigate, the “smoke” moved toward her before moving away out the door and the door closed. Young Joe Ann ran down to report this incident to her grandmother, who responded she also “thought something was going on up and down the steps.”
Vickers explained that, while these incidents were unusual, they never caused her family to be fearful. She has fond memories of Woodburn and says she would be happy if her spirit chose to live there after she is gone.
An edifice like Woodburn that manifests Delaware history in a variety of ways serves as a fitting residence for the governor. A visit there is worthwhile, to view this stately dwelling. Public tours include the Wall of First Ladies that features portraits of the governors’ wives.
Once she and her husband, Jack, assumed office in 2009, Carla Markell undertook a renovation of Woodburn’s interior, with a focus on historical accuracy. She explained, “It is a museum. It is the people’s house. But it’s also a home, and we wanted it to reflect that.” Essentially, she replaced heavy, massive pieces of furniture and multitudinous decorations with what is described as a lighter, focused look.
Located at 151 Kings Highway in Dover, Woodburn is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., by appointment only. Admission is free. Tours must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance by calling (302) 739-5656. For more information, go to http://woodburn.delaware.gov/information/timeline.shtml.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War author and speaker and former president of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table in Dover. He lives in Bethany Beach. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.