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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Miss Bettie Brown and
Haunting of Ashton Villa

by Clay Coppedge
The 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.
Ashton Villa, Galveston, Texas
Ashton Villa, Galveston
Photo 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 married.

“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.

Miss 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 the piano.

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.


© Clay Coppedge October 12, 2014 Column
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