Ashton Villa mansion in Galveston
has been called “the most haunted place in America” more than once.
As columnist L.M. Boyd used to say, “Interesting, if true.”
The house was built by James Brown – the hardest working man in the
hardware business – in 1859. It’s generally recognized as the first
brick residence in the state and the only antebellum mansion on Broadway.
The house is a little contrary to ordinary but the woman most commonly
associated with Ashton Villa was even more so.
courtesy of Lou Ann Herda
| Miss Bettie
Brown, James Brown’s oldest daughter, scandalized a Galveston society
that had long been a home of pirates, gamblers and eccentrics of every
stripe and was not easily scandalized.
One way she managed to do this by smoking cigars in public,
no less. She entertained lavishly, rolling out the red carpet so the
ladies’ skirts would not be soiled on their way into the house, and
she liked to wear the jewel-encrusted coat that she once wore to a
garden party at the castle of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria.
To entertain herself, Miss Brown liked to race down Broadway
in a fancy carriage drawn by a team of black stallions during the
day, white ones at night. As one of the wealthiest women in Galveston
and, indeed, the country, she had no shortage of suitors but she never
“Some believed she was a lesbian, but there is no historical evidence
this is true,” Gary Cartwright wrote in his 1991 history of Galveston.
“What she was was remarkably homely. She had thin lips, a prominent
chin, and a nose upon which a family of eagles could have roosted
– positioned, disconcertingly, atop a fantastic hour-glass figure.”
To be fair, and for what it matters, Miss Bettie Brown has also been
described as a beautiful blonde.
Bettie died in 1920 and people soon started with the haunting stories.
A chest of drawers belonging to her reportedly locks and unlocks itself;
one day it’s locked, another day it’s unlocked and nobody knows why
because the key has been missing for decades. A bed refuses to stay
made. Ceiling fans turn themselves on, supposedly whenever the ghost
of Miss Bettie gets a little too warm.
The most common supernatural experience attributed to Ashton Villa
is the claim that she can sometimes be heard – even seen – playing
Fascinating, if factual, since there is no indication that Miss Bettie
ever played the piano. She was an accomplished painter and many of
her paintings can still be seen at Ashton Villa today, but she did
not tickle any ivories. If she learned to play after her death, well,
that would be truly remarkable.
Lately, another theory has emerged. Bettie had a younger sister named
Matilda, who did play the piano. Matilda married Thomas Sweeney in
1884 but the marriage was by all accounts an abusive one. Matilda
eventually sought refuge back at Ashton Villa.
The mansion survived the 1900
hurricane, partly because of its sturdy brick design, like the
smart pig’s house in the Three Little Pigs story. As the storm surge
destroyed most of the rest of the city, the Browns opened the front
and back doors to allow the water to flow through the house rather
than against it. The downstairs and the basement were ruined, but
the house survived.
A granddaughter of James Brown sold the villa in 1927 to the El Mina
Shrine, which used it for the next 40 years. It was placed for sale
by the Shriners in 1968, and there was even talk of demolishing the
enduring old mansion. The Galveston Historical Foundation stepped
in and raised enough money to buy and refurbish the house, which today
is home to the Galveston Island Information Center.
If you go there to see Miss Bettie or Matilda, you will probably be
told they have left the building. Not everybody is going to be convinced.