Remembering Boston’s Lady in Red

The Lady in Red walks Long Island's shore.

The Lady in Red walks Long Island’s shore.

Today we celebrate Evacuation Day in Boston. School is closed because yesterday was a Sunday and the actual anniversary of March 17, 1776 when the British military fled Boston. The fleet of the mightiest navy in the world departed Boston Harbor under heavy cannonading by George Washington’s forces. The colonial army was using guns that had been dragged to Boston from Fort Ticonderoga by a contingent led by Henry Knox.

Abigail Adams saw the fleet departing and described the ships’ masts as a “forest” in the harbor. On board the British ships were 11,000 soldiers and 1,019 citizens who remained loyal to King George and wanted to return to England.

Two of these Loyalists were newlyweds William and Mary Burton. Their hoped-for married life in Britain was not to be, however. Mary was struck in the head by a cannonball fired from Long Island as their ship made its way seaward. She was not killed immediately but lingered on for several days in great pain. As she lay dying, Mary pleaded with her husband not to bury her at sea. After her death on board the ship, the British and the colonial forces on Long Island struck a truce, and William Burton was allowed to come ashore to bury his love.

Burton sewed his wife’s body into a red blanket that Mary had brought aboard to keep warm on the long journey home. He laid her to rest on the East End of Long Island and made a grave marker from a piece of driftwood. He vowed to return to Boston some day and give her a proper head stone, but he never did come back.

The British fleet did not depart immediately. The ships stayed at anchor in Boston’s outer harbor and blockaded the port for another three months, exchanging gunfire with shore batteries. They finally left on June 13, 1776 when a barrage of cannon fire from the East End hit the British flagship Milford. British Commodore Banks ordered his ships to put to sea. On July 17, 1776, that same Long Island Battery on East Head fired a thirteen-gun salute to celebrate the Declaration of Independence.

But Mary Burton refused to be forgotten. Her wooden grave marker soon disappeared. But in 1804, fishermen shipwrecked on Long Island encountered her ghost, wrapped in a red cloak and sighing mournfully. With blood pouring from her head wound, she floated over a hill and disappeared. The Lady in Red was also seen and heard in 1891 by a soldier at Fort Strong, which was built on the island shortly after the Civil War.

March 17 is better known around here as Saint Patrick’s Day. But Evacuation Day was one of the turning points in America’s war for independence. Had it not taken place in 1776, we might not today enjoy the religious freedom that allows us to honor Boston’s patron saint.

But also, had Evacuation Day not taken place, William and Mary Burton would likely have spent many happy years together and given the world their children whose descendants may have been our friends, neighbors and relatives.

Let us today remember Mary Burton, the Lady in Red, and pray that she rest in peace at last.

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