“Hanging Mary and the Haunted Asheville Orphanage” – by Clifford B. Davids

Hanging Mary and her cat “Shadows” posing in the Little Girls’ Dormitory

Hanging Mary and her cat “Shadows,” posing in the Little Girls’ Dormitory

Mary’s last hanging was darkness and beauty as she slowly swayed from the third floor balcony of the orphanage dormitory. The carefully tied noose was flawless, and it fit perfectly around her slender neck. She quietly peeked from underneath her hood, hoping that the children watching on the stairs below would never forget her every twist and turn.

The orphans were mesmerized. A few of the older children recalled her past hangings, but the little ones had only heard the stories. They could all recite the rhyme about her first “collaring” down at the dairy barn 15 years earlier, and they sang it over and over as she swung: “Hanging Mary stole some rope, climbed upon a box of soap, tied a knot down at the dairy, slipped and fell, poor Hanging Mary…”

No one knew much about Mary’s past. It was rumored that her father had died tragically  in WWI, and her young, beautiful mother had gone insane with grief over his loss. She had been a painfully shy child, and never spoke to anyone at the orphanage. You could say that her accidental hanging had truly enlivened her. She became quite fond of the attention, and quickly developed a talent for what she called “the rope ballet.”

Everyone at the orphanage had their personal favorite. Many of the older matrons fondly remembered the years after the first hanging. It was a challenging time for her, trying to adjust to her newly ambiguous life – her hangings were short, but they were full of power and passion. She experimented with a wide variety of knots, but could never really decide on the one she liked the best. Still, she always delighted in the sensation of the rough hemp as it slowly tightened and dug into her cool, pale skin.

Her most inspired performance from that era became an instant classic. It occurred in the summer of 1936 during the harsh North American Heat Wave. The fields were scorched, food was scarce, and the children were ravenous. She chose to hang from the top of the empty grain silo, which gave her excellent height and exposure, and also brought attention to the orphanage’s severe plight. Afterwards, the canned donations sent to the kitchen tripled and the pantry filled to overflowing. It was a huge success.

The 1939 cyclone

After the cyclone hit in 1939

Her middle period was marked by broader stylistic experimentation. The knot-work became more varied and complex, and she began to pay closer attention to the weather conditions as a backdrop. Her finest moment came after a monster cyclone struck the woods adjoining the orphanage in March of 1939, creating an unholy mess. The sky turned a fantastic shade of burnt orange/red, a perfect contrast to the sturdy white oak she had selected for her gallows pole.

She chose her death collar carefully. It was a knock off on the fisherman’s knot, but instead of going over and under, she went through and around. She found that it gave her the friction she desired, but wasn’t too tight.

She had promised a revolutionary new hang that would be wholly authentic, inspired by the chaotic times. It involved a subtle move she had been working on for months – a tuck of the left elbow followed by a slight twisting of her neck inside the noose. When the town came out to help clean up the debris, her performance rendered them spellbound. At first she seemed to boldly defy gravity, floating effortlessly. And then the sky turned a cool magenta…and she fell motionless. It was magnificent.

More than ten years passed after her legendary cyclone hanging. The 1940’s were a time of great challenge at the orphanage, particularly during World War II. There were endless days of farm work for the children, followed by cold showers and thin gruel. Although things improved after the war, Mary knew that the time had come for her to move on. But she wanted to give the little ones a proper farewell.

She planned it down to the last, small detail. It would be a private affair, strictly for the orphanage children, by invitation only. She would use the Little Girls’ Dormitory for her stage, and wear a simple dress of white linen. Most importantly, she chose the slip knot for her collar, with its powerful curve and dark touch – they said she hung so beautifully it took your breath away.

When it was finally over, Mary blinked through her tears as the children sang their favorite rhyme. It was the perfect ending, and her last goodbye.

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The banned photo of Mary’s last hanging at the Little Girls’ Dormitory, top right

Hanging Mary on the third floor balcony of the Little Girls’ Dormitory

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11 Responses to “Hanging Mary and the Haunted Asheville Orphanage” – by Clifford B. Davids

  1. Tyler Cloherty says:

    Wow! – love this one, Cliff. Was this a random photo or do you think it was taken specifically to capture her? Nice writing!

    • cbdavids says:

      Thank you, Tyler. Incredibly, I found the hanging photograph in the back of an old photo album that belonged to one of Mary’s orphanage sisters. She was also the one who told me her story.

  2. Alice says:

    Great story. Is this a well-known legend in your area or was the photograph just a lucky find for you? I can’t say that I blame Mary for getting tired of “hanging herself” in order to call attention to the orphans’ plight. I believe I’d have “moved on” much sooner if I faced eating “gruel” for very long.

    • cbdavids says:

      Alice–I guess in Mary’s case you could say “home is where the hemp is.” It was very difficult for the children to leave the orphanage and move on with their lives – despite the trying conditions, it was the only home they knew.

      Unbelievably, the legend of Hanging Mary is not widely known. I only found out about it because I was lucky enough to meet one of her orphanage sisters who told me the story.

  3. Alice says:

    BTW, there’s a wonderful story about Half-Hanged Mary for which a poem was written. Mary was hanged for witchcraft, but amazingly survived until the morning and was not hanged again because it was against the law to punish someone twice for the same crime–miraculously she lived to a ripe old age.

    • cbdavids says:

      Yes! Half-Hanged Mary Webster, made famous in a poem by Margaret Atwood, was accused of witchcraft in 1684 and then hung from a sturdy tree. Somehow she survived, and was said to have boasted afterwards, “Most will have only one death – I will have two.”

      That would make Mary Webster the original rope artist!

  4. Emily C says:

    Great story! Kinda creepy…Where was this orphanage?

    • cbdavids says:

      Thanks, Emily. Be sure to tell this one to ALL of your children – but be careful not to scare the little ones! Hanging Mary grew up at an orphanage just outside of Asheville, N.C.

  5. Cheryl G says:

    The fact that she takes such pride in her performances makes it all the more creepy! And those eyes…..

    • cbdavids says:

      So eerie, and so right – she was a mistress of her craft! I can only imagine that the hangings left her gaze looking somewhat…erratic. Her left eye appears to be wandering aimlessly in its socket, and the right one seems to look right through me.

  6. Cheryl G says:

    I showed my mother-in-law your stories and she was fascinated with both the Ghost Sentry and Hanging Mary. I look forward to seeing what’s next.

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