As the legend goes…
In the summer of 1835, a young widow, Martha Crawford, and her small son, Joseph, came from Canada to visit Martha’s sister Ann. Martha was immediately attracted to Ann’s brother-in-law, John and quickly made wedding plans. But when Ann told Martha a secret about her future husband, Martha quickly broke the engagement and tried to flee back to Canada. Ann’s husband James told Martha that if she refused to marry John, she would never reach Canada alive. (The “secret” to this day has never been learned.)
Ann died shortly after Martha’s wedding. Martha’s husband John died in 1840 and within a year of his death Martha developed the same symptoms that had caused her sisters death. There was an obvious feud between Martha and her brother-in-law James over property that belonged to the deceased John, and Martha’s illness prompted James to take advantage and declare her incompetent to the court so he could be appointed administrator of John’s will. A quick decline in Martha’s health was blamed on the greedy James and she bordered on insanity. Finally Martha sought help in 1845 from Dr. Sam Denton at the University of Michigan. She told the doctor she will tell him her “secret” if he would in turn bleed her to death. He agreed to listen to the story and tricked her by saying his lancet had broke and was unable to bleed her to death but would keep her secret (and doctors never tell!) Martha became hysterical, crying out that “they” would kill her. She died soon after and the community accepted her death as a result of ill-health, but never forgave James for his cruel harassment.
In the fall of 1845, Issac Van Woert, his wife, and two small sons arrived in Dixboro in hopes of finding work and a place to live. The Van Woerts rented the house that Martha had died in from her now 15 year old son Joseph, and within a few nights he witnessed something very frightening. Issac reported, in a sworn statement in Ann Arbor a few weeks later, that as he was walking through his yard one night he saw a light through the window. “I put my hand on the window sill and looked in. I saw a woman with a candlestick in her hand in which was a candle burning. She held it in her left hand…..she wore a loose gown, had a white cloth around her head, her right hand clasped in her clothes near the waist. She was bent forward, her eyes large and much sunken, very pale indeed….she moved slowly across the floor until she entered the bedroom and the door closed. I then went up and opened the bedroom door and all was dark. I stepped forward and lighted a candle but saw no one, nor heard any noise, except just before I opened the bedroom door I thought I heard one of the bureau drawers open and shut.
“I spoke of what I had seen several days after, and then learned for the first time that the house in which I lived had been previously occupied by a Widow Mulholland, and that she died there.
“The second time I saw her was in October about one o’clock in the morning….as I opened the bedroom door it was light in the outer room. I saw no candle, but I saw the same woman that I had seen before. I was about five feet from her. She said ‘Don’t touch me-touch me not.’
“I stepped back a little and asked her what she wanted. She said ‘He has got it. He robbed me little by little, until they kilt me! They kilt me! Now he has got it all!’ I then asked her who had it all and she said, ‘James, yes, James has got it at last, but it won’t do him long. Joseph! Oh, Joseph! I wish Joseph would come away.’ Then all was dark and still.
“The third time I saw her I awoke in the night, know not what hour, the bedroom was entirely light. I saw no candle, but saw the same woman. She said “James can’t hurt me any more. No! He can’t! I am out of his reach. Why don’t they get Joseph away? Oh, my boy! Why not come away?” And all was dark and still.
“The fourth time I saw her was a few days later, about eleven o’clock p.m. I was sitting with my feet on the stove hearth. My family had retired and I was eating a lunch, when all at once the front door stood open, and I saw the same woman in the door supported in the arms of a man whom I knew. She was stretched back and looked as if she was in the agonies of death. She said nothing, but the man said, ‘She is dying. She will die.’ And all disappeared and the door closed without noise.
“The fifth time I saw her was a little after sunrise. I came out of the house to go to my work, and I saw the same woman in the front yard. She said ‘I wanted Joseph to keep my papers, but they are……….’ Here something seemed to stop her utterance. Then she said, ‘Joseph! Joseph! I fear something will befall my boy.’ And all was gone.
“The sixth time I saw her was near midnight. It was the same woman standing in the bedroom. The room was again light as before, no candle was visible. I looked at my wife, fearing she might awake. The woman then raised her hand and said ‘She will not awake.’ She seemed to be in great pain; she leaned over and grasped her bowels in one hand and in the other held a phial containing a liquid. I asked her what it was. ‘The Doctor said it was Balm of Gilead.’ And all disappeared.
“The seventh time I saw her I was working at a little bench…I saw the same woman. ‘I wanted to tell James something, but I could not, I could not.’ I asked her what she wanted to tell. ‘Oh, he did a awful thing to me.’ I asked her who did. ‘Oh! He gave me a great deal of trouble in my mind. Oh they kilt me! They kilt me!’ I walked forward and tried to reach her but she kept the same distance from me. I asked her if she had taken anything that had killed her. Sh answered ‘Oh, I don’t…Oh, I don’t…..’ The froth in her mouth seemed to stop her utterance. Then she said ‘Oh, they kilt me’ I asked her ‘Who killed you?’ ‘I will show you’ she said. Then she went out the back door near the fence, and I followed her. There I saw two men whom I knew, standing…..I saw them begin at their feet and melt down like lead melting, until they were entirely melted; then a blue blaze two inches thick burned over the surface of the melted mass. Then all began bubbling up like lime slacking. I turned to see where the woman was, but she was gone.
“The next time I saw the woman was in the back yard about five o’clock p.m. ‘I want you to tell James to repent. Oh! If he would repent! But he won’t, he can’t. John was a bad man. Do you know where Frain’s Lake is?’ She then asked another question of much importance, and said ‘Don’t tell of that.'” (Van Woert later revealed that this latter question pertained to a well at the corner of Main and Mill Streets, directly across the street from the Dixboro General Store, and near Martha’s house.)
“I asked her if I should inform the public on the two that she said had killed her, and she replied ‘There will be a time. The time is coming. But, oh, their end! Their end! Their wicked end!’
“The last time I saw her was on the sixth of November, about midnight, in the bedroom. She was dressed in white….she looked very pale. She said ‘I don’t want anybody here.’ And then muttered something I did not understand and then she said ‘I wanted to tell a secret, and I thought I had.’ And then she was gone.” (The Van Woerts moved out of the house the next day.)
The above was duly sworn to before William Perry, Esq., at Ann Arbor, December 8, 1845.
Some believed that Van Woert’s imagination had run away with him, but others argued that he was a man of good character and a member of the Dixboro Methodist Church. When Van Woert’s statement was released to the public, the residents of Dixboro demanded that Martha’s body be disinterred to determine if she had died of poisoning, and it was done. At a coroner’s inquest in January of 1846, a verdict was handed down stating that the deceased had died of poisoning “administered by some person unknown.” Frain’s Lake and the well at Main and Mill streets were searched for bodies, but none were found.
While there was no concrete evidence to prove that James Mulholland was guilty, he disappeared from the area and was never seen again. His property was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1852.
Joseph, upon reaching the age of 21, was owner of his mothers property. In the 1850 census he was listed as a farmer living in Superior township and owning property worth $1,000.
Today, most of us would give this story little credence, but in the mid 1800’s, many held a firm belief in the supernatural. The Ypsilanti Sentinel and the Ann Arbor True Democrat printed accounts of Martha’s mysterious visitations in 1846. And over the years many more newspapers have recounted the story, including Detroit, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Whitmore lake publications.
The haunted house burned under suspicious circumstances around 1860 or 1870.
Across Cherry Hill Rd. from the Dixboro General Store stood a tavern, on the same property as the Mullholland house and the well. The legend tells of a tin peddler who stopped over night there. The next morning he could not be found, although his horse and cart were still tied out front undisturbed. Rumor has it the peddler was murdered and his body thrown down the well. Could this have been part of the secret Ann revealed to Martha? That either James or John were responsible? Although no body was ever discovered, the well was filled in and the Mulholland name was always connected with the suspected murder. Emmett Gibb, who ran the Dixboro General Store from 1924 and continuing for many years, told a reporter in the 1960’s that on a still, cold night one might still hear the tinkle of the peddler’s bell if one listened carefully.