There’s a witch in Lowell Cemetery, ‘they’ say. The Witch Bonney. As the legend goes, the bodice of her dress slips lower and lower every day each October. When it falls to her waist by Halloween, her ghost runs free, liberated from her bronze and granite prison. The Witch Bonney will then roam the streets of Lowell, looking for the families who condemned her to die in the Salem witch trials.
The Witch Bonney has all the elements of a great New England ghost story:
- The eery picturesque setting: Lowell Cemetery is a Victorian garden cemetery spanning 85 acres of hills, ornamental trees, decorative shrubs, and vistas of the Concord River.
- The untimely death of a young woman: The Witch Bonney stands guard over the grave of Clara Bonney Lilley, who died at 39 years old in 1894.
- The creepy statue: With dead, black eyes, the Witch Bonney statue watches the sky above Lowell, waiting to be freed of her prison of stone and bronze.
- And, somehow, an unsettling sex appeal: The bodice of the statue’s dress clings precariously to her chest, barely covering her breasts.
And, like all well-bred women of wholesome Victorian stories, the Witch Bonney comes with her guardian — Lowell Cemetery’s famous Ayer Lion. Some versions of the ghost story have the Witch Bonney and the Ayer Lion watching over each other for eternity through their lifeless stone eyes.
Is the Legend of the Witch Bonney True?
Does some spirit stare out from those dark, empty eyes? Is the Witch Bonney the statue or the ghost of one of the four people buried there? Did Clara Bonney die a terrible, untimely death that has left her soul restless and searching for vengeance over 125 years after she died?
If the legend isn’t true, why do ghost hunters with electromagnetic readers capture high EMF readings near her grave? Why do photographers who go to take pictures of Lowell’s most haunted grave tell stories of fully charged batteries that are struck suddenly lifeless? Why do visitors leave offerings at her feet and whisper about the bad things that happen when a coin or ribbon is taken from her grave?
VERDICT: NOT (ENTIRELY) TRUE
Like most urban legends, the tale of the Witch Bonney can’t be true–not as it’s told anyway. Consider:
- The Salem Witch Trials happened 160 years before Clara Bonney was even born.
- Lowell Cemetery didn’t exist until nearly 150 years after the Salem Witch Trials ended.
- Clara Bonney’s death certificate reveals that she died from a painful, lingering type of sepsis in 1894.
- Contemporary sources reveal that Clara Bonney was actually anything but a witch in life. When she died, the Lowell Sun reported that she was “sympathetic and generous” and that many were “recipients of her charity.”
So, If the Legend of the Witch Bonney Isn’t True, Why Are We Still Here?
Common sense tells us that a ghost story with so many loose facts can’t be real. But, if you visit the grave, an energy seeps from that statue, something that brings passersby to leave offerings of coins, cigarettes, and ribbons at her feet.
People describe a charge in the air as they pass the grave, a feeling that pauses their step. Can ghosts exist? Even if logic and research tell us they can’t?
What Really Happened? A Story of Lost Love
If any spirit or energy is left there at the grave of the Witch Bonney, 125 years after Clara Bonney died, it might be her husband’s grief.
To Charles Sumner Lilley, Clara Bonney was his whole world. They met when they were barely twenty, upper-crust Lowell kids who remembered the Civil War, but not much before it.
Clara’s father was Arthur P. Bonney, one of Middlesex County’s best lawyers in the 1870s. He brought Clara and Charles together when he found Charles designing carpets for the Lowell Manufacturing Company. That was when Charles’ career suddenly took off, much faster than his courtship with Bonney’s daughter.
Charles and Clara: The Long Courtship
Charles Lilley must have had a hard time winning Clara over in those first years. The Bonneys were a Belvidere family, headed by Arthur Bonney, a one-time Massachusetts state senator who rubbed elbows with many of the key Lowell personalities of his day. Clara too came from valued stock; she counted William Bradford–the second governor of Plymouth County–among her ancestors.
Charles Lilley had been a sickly child, whose health held out only until he graduated from Lowell public schools, but not long enough to see him through college, despite all the tutors from Cambridge his parents’ money could buy.
Still, Arthur Bonney must have seen something in him, and brought him under his wing to learn law in the mid-1870s. Lilley then set to using his good fortune to try to win over Clara, Arthur’s only child.
Charles’ String of Accomplishments
Soon after meeting Arthur Bonney, Charles Sumner Lilly emerged as one of Lowell’s rising legal stars as he worked hard to win Clara over:
- He was admitted to the bar in 1877.
- By the early 1880s, he was practicing law and starting to eye local politics.
- He was elected to three terms in the Massachusetts State Senate, serving on many committees.
- In 1884, he was appointed to Governor Robinson’s executive council.
Still, it wasn’t enough. He was nearly thirty-five years old, but he remained single. He hadn’t won Clara Bonney over yet.
That didn’t happen until a few years later. Charles and Clara finally married in 1891. Two years later, Charles was appointed a justice on the Middlesex County Superior Court.
When Tragedy Came
But, the good fortune would not last. Clara soon became ill with a “long and painful illness,” which her death certificate recorded as Pyaemia–a type of sepsis that led to cancerous abscesses, and was almost always fatal before antibiotics.
She died on July 19, 1894. In her obituary in the Lowell Sun, the writer noted her “great fortitude” in facing her illness.
Clara’s death stripped Charles of his drive. He cared for their young daughter, also named Clara, and received an honorary degree from Dartmouth College in 1896. He ultimately resigned his spot on the Supreme Court in 1900 to resume his private law practice on Lowell’s Merrimack Street.
After Clara: A Secluded Life among His Books
Charles lived another twenty-six years after he lost Clara, dying in 1921 after a brief illness. Even though he was a judge with many connections in Lowell’s legal and political spheres, contemporaries noted that he never fully recovered after losing his wife in 1894.
In an article published when he died, the Lowell Sun wrote: “Judge Lilley in his later years sought few personal acquaintances following the untimely death of his wife and lived a secluded life among his books. In earlier life, however, his affability and good comradeship won him a wide circle of friends.”
The Legend of the Witch Bonney
Today, the bronze statue on Bonney Avenue stares upward at the sky with its empty, dark eyes. She holds her cape over head, and looks to the Ayer lion for protection.
Visitors whisper and watch, looking for ghosts and leaving offerings at her feet. They make up stories about the young woman who lies buried there.
A single black tear weeps from the statue’s left eye, poking through the green patina that’s formed in the century since Charles Sumner Lilley died. Clara Bonney might best be remembered as the Witch Bonney, but it’s probably the grief of a longtime widower that visitors feel as they look to the statue’s stone breasts as if they could predict the end of the world.
The Final Word
Is the legend of the Witch Bonney true? It’s hard to believe in ghost stories, especially right now. There’s so much going on in the tangible world. Things that we can touch and feel and see.
In researching this article, I found several accounts of batteries and electronic devices with full batteries that suddenly discharged and died at her grave.
I shrugged and maybe scoffed a little.
Then, it happened to me, when I returned to her grave on a brisk morning in mid-October. The batteries to my car’s key fob suddenly died. And I stared at the Witch Bonney, wondering how I would get the ignition to turn over with a dead battery in my key fob.
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