Getting to Peddocks Island was never a given. It always has taken a fair amount of planning, research and coordination to get there especially since I moved to Worcester. Buses, trains and even humping my way on foot have been a standard part of any mission I have undertaken. The boats to the island have been the most unreliable part of the journey at times. This was never more true than on my first visit of the summer in 2007. I had all of my contingencies covered including having called the office of the company which ran the island ferries to make sure that I would indeed be able to get there. This time I got as far as Georges Island, the main terminus for boats to the Harbor Islands before I discovered that despite what I had been told Peddocks Island was in fact not open to the public on that day.
When I received the news that the island was closed I was beside myself. I was angry beyond words that I had made the arduous trip all the way to Boston only to be denied a short distance from my ultimate goal. To make matters even worse I would now be stuck at Georges Island and Fort Warren which even by that early date had been reduced to an overcrowded morass teeming with youth groups, tourists and, worst of all, corporate team building outings. It would be nearly impossible to achieve the separation I needed to successfully commune with the fort in a way that was conducive to taking my best photographs.
I attempted to make the best of the aggravating turn events by seeking out things to photograph at Fort Warren before the inevitable wave of obliviousness washed over the island. I headed toward Bastion A of the old granite Civil War fort. It was a large open space with vaulted ceilings that I used to refer to as "Dracula's Castle" for its similarity to scenes from Todd Browning's famous horror film. Ironically in one of many odd coincidences that occurred during my time on the islands I came to find that it had served as a movie theater for the troops stationed there during World War II. When I arrived at the bastion there was a ghostly fog inhabiting the vast room giving it a more otherworldly feel than it even normally had. I thought at least I would get some sense of the ethereal history that I had hoped for when I set out. Soon my idyll was shattered when group after group of screaming kids descended on the bastion running aimlessly through it's echoing corridors. Not only was the mood utterly destroyed but the swarming masses of kids running around had dispersed the fog ruining any semblance of a dreamlike air. My frustration reached a boiling point when I was shooting a long exposure in a darkened corner when a group of knucklehead teenagers came by waving bright flashlights all through the composition. Things had gone from evocative to exasperating in the space of 15 minutes.
In my previous years of travels around the islands I had imagined myself as being invisible to the blithely unaware day trippers whom I encountered. I really almost believed nobody would notice me if I stayed quiet and to myself while photographing places that nobody seemed think had any redeeming historical significance. So I exited the swirling mass of howling young uns with this in mind and started to make my way, hopefully, to some quieter corner of the island. As I walked from the darkness of the fort I encountered two very pretty young black girls who clearly did not perceive my imagined invisibility. They asked me if I was taking pictures. They seemed quite sweet and interested in what I was doing as opposed to the loud, intrusive mob I had just left behind.
As I got to talking to them one of the girls was particularly interested in the lore of the islands and asked me if I had seen The Lady In Black. This was allegedly the ghost of the wife of a Confederate spy who had been hanged at the fort. According to the legend she still roamed the halls of the ancient fortress. I said I had not, but was familiar with the story. I mentioned how I would certainly entertain such an encounter should it have happened. She then went to explain about more "ladies" who haunted the other numerous military installations that once occupied the islands. She referred to a Lady In Red who supposedly held forth at Fort Strong on Long Island a short distance away.
Then she came to the part about a ghost who roamed Peddocks Island and the dilapidated remnants of Fort Andrews, my desired destination and the epicenter of my work up to that point.
She claimed that there was a spirit wandering the fort's large and crumbling brick barracks named The Lady In White (for distinctly masculine locations it seems there were a lot of colorful and tragic female figures involved with these places). She told me the tale of a talented young woman who had fallen in love with one of the officers stationed at the post during World War II. She was a singer who had frequently entertained the boys as they trained in preparation for embarkation to the great conflagration raging in Europe. The officer supposedly didn't think it wise to commit to such a liberated soul and instead jilted her for another more refined young lady who was purportedly more suitable for his standing. One night after having been rejected by the young lieutenant she was playing piano and singing for the enlisted men in one of barracks. As the story went after serenading the attentive audience she was consumed by the despair of unrequited love and leapt to her death from a third story window. After the fort was abandoned by the army at the war's end all of the buildings were sealed and hoarding fastened to all of the windows. Except that the window from which she jumped kept having the boards covering it knocked off. It was impossible to keep them in place as each time crews reattached them they would be found lying on the ground the next day.
The thing that stopped me in my tracks about her account was not the eerily tragic account of spurned loved followed by terrible tragedy, but it was that I had a narrative in mind while I photographed the among the ruins there. It concerned a young officer who had stepped outside of his rigid, unquestioning military approach to life and had followed his heart, falling in love with a beautiful, creative young woman. In my backstory she was an artist who was unlike anyone he was accustomed to being with ever before. My version of events had it that he had forsaken her for expediency and devoted his attention to another girl for whom he did not feel the same passion but was the daughter of his commanding officer. In that moment he had abandoned his soul for the straight and narrow life of self denial, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout his life and lead to his own unfulfilled downfall. The first of many tragedies that would play out over the years was the death by her own hand of the irreparably saddened free spirit whom he had denied.
The similarities in her fanciful tale and my imagined narrative were stunning. I had never told anyone of my story and I had never heard about any Lady In White before despite extensively researching all aspects of the island's history.
The two girls who had almost seemed to have emerged from another time that day went on their way and I never saw them again despite keeping a lookout on many visits to Georges Island that followed. I was left to wonder what strange narrative I had crossed paths with and which I had imagined so vividly.
Before my encounter with the girls I had manged to get into one of the badly deteriorating barracks buildings on Peddocks. I dropped down into the basement of the structure to gain access and frighteningly found myself nearly trapped inside as getting out the way I got in proved nearly impossible. A couple of years later, after my conversation with the two girls had occurred, I related the story of my experience of being trapped in the barracks to the uncle and nephew who ran the water taxi to Peddocks. I told them how I couldn't explore beyond the basement of the building because the stairs were impassable due to being burnt out. They claimed it was possible to climb them, but it was extremely treacherous due to their condition. They said it was too bad I didn't make the attempt because there was something worth seeing on the third floor. It was a piano.