Often called the "the most haunted place in America," the Ashton Villa isn't for the faint of heart. With eclectic architecture and a two-story, iron-wrought veranda, this antebellum building is known for standing out. But if you think that the exterior of this Italianate estate is extraordinary, wait until you visit the inside. Inhabited by the poltergeists Bettie and Tilly Brown, the Ashton Villa is alive with paranormal activity. Bettie was a free-thinking, risk-taking, cigar-smoking hot-shot. Tilly was a Victorian divorcee who survived a brutal marriage. No "angels of the house," these women were rough and tough Texans. So, why do they stay at Ashton Villa?
Ashton Villa is no stranger to lingering souls. It even hosts sister specters, Bettie and Tilly Brown. Their father, James Brown, commissioned the mansion in 1861 to showcase their excessive wealth. Shocking the citizens of Galveston was just another bonus for James, the fifth richest man in Texas. Yet this hardware tycoon died in 1895, leaving the Ashton Villa to his eldest daughter, Bettie Brown.
The Ashton Villa outlived the family for three generations, surviving the Civil War, the Hurricane of 1900, and near demolition. It's no surprise that residual energy remains in a home filled with a haunted history.
James Brown raised his daughters within an atmosphere of opulence, extravagantly indulged, profoundly privileged. Their wealthy upbringing even earned Bettie Brown the nickname, "The Texas Princess." Yet Bettie wasn't your run-of-the-mill upper-class icon.
Known for her unconventional habits and happenings, Betty raced carriages down Broadway, smoked cigars in public, and traveled unchaperoned. She would host marvelous parties, letting kittens climb and clamor upon the trains of her gowns.
Ever scandalous, Bettie shocked and stupefied Galveston society. Bettie brought her infamous eccentricities abroad, too, traveling solo throughout Egypt, India, Jerusalem, and Morocco. Despite Bettie's many suitors, she never married. She instead preferred to live an independent life – collecting invaluable relics from across the world, keeping company with her courters and kittens.
Rumor has it that Bettie remains in the Ashton Villa today, where visitors sometimes see her standing in the Gold Room. Visitors catch her, too, atop the staircase. The truly superstitious allege that they can feel her phantom presence in the thick of the property.
Residual energy is likewise attached to Bettie's collectibles. One tour guide witnessed the apparition of a blonde atop the second-floor landing. The woman, gowned in turquoise, held an intricately detailed fan – one of Bettie's beloved belongings. Bettie's chest of drawers is likewise haunted, locking and unlocking spontaneously… Though the key has been missing for years.
Ceiling fans, too, turn themselves off and on, stirring and spinning around. Lucie Testa, Ashton Villa's former manager, noticed strange activity with one particular ceiling fan on February 18 of 1991 – the day of Bettie's birthday. Testa had hit the switch, yet the fan continued to oscillate. Perhaps that wouldn't have been strange if the mansion's alarm hadn't gone off earlier in the day – and inexplicably, at that.
Legend has it that Bettie plays the piano, too, though some think that these melodies belong to quite a different musician…
Does the phantom piano belong to Mathilda Brown? Unlike her sister, Tilly married in 1884. Yet her marriage was ill-fated; her husband, Thomas Sweeney, was brutishly abusive, ruthlessly beating and belittling Tilly. Even their children would hide from Thomas upon his return from work, terrified and teary-eyed.
Luckily, maids and family members testified to Thomas’ abuse, providing eye-witness accounts during Tilly’s divorce. Thomas was proven to be so barbaric that he was denied property rights during the legal proceedings. This was exceptionally uncommon at the time, as Victorian law often stipulated the husbands retained ownership of their estates during their divorce. The Court even denied Thomas custody of his children – another win for Tilly Brown.
Skeptics think that Tilly, rather than Bettie, haunts the Ashton Villa. Their argument? Bettie was a free-thinking non-conformist who would rather travel abroad than stay inside. By comparison, Tilly was a homebody who had never left the country. During Tilly’s divorce, Ashton Villa provided respite and refuge. Is this “sweet, kind-hearted young girl” a lost soul? Or does she still seek sanctuary in this three-story, Italianate estate?
There are rumors that Tilly caused the death of her ex-husband. Yet Thomas Sweeney died in the Treemont Hotel ten years after their divorce. His autopsy, too, lists “death by natural causes,” contradicting Tilly’s assistance. It’s unlikely that Tilly murdered Thomas Sweeney, though we’ll never know for sure.
Once awakened by the slight sound of piano playing, the Ashton Villa's caretaker feared for the worse. He expected vandals, or worse, burglars. Yet whenever he approached the source of the music, he saw a vague, female apparition in nineteenth-century attire. The music and the musician disappeared upon second sight, and the caretaker was unable to ascertain her identity.
Although some suspect that this was the Ghost of Bettie Brown, the Galveston Historical Foundation confesses that Bettie "never learned to play the piano in life." Bettie was, instead, "an accomplished painter whose works are on display throughout the house." On the other hand, Tilly "played both piano and violin." Do both sisters stalk this supernatural estate?
There is another paranormal phenomenon at the Ashton Villa: the disembodied voice of a disgruntled man. Visitors often overhear him arguing with an unseen woman. Some suspect that he may be the specter of Thomas Sweeney. Others allege that he’s one of Bettie’s many admirers.
Does this furious fellow propose to Bettie Brown – begging her to be his bride? Abandon her independence for deadlock – er, wedlock?
It would certainly attest to the steadfast nature of the supernatural.
Once a makeshift hospital during the Civil War, the Ashton Villa has seen its fair share of soldiers. It was used as both Confederate and Union Headquarters, though simultaneously, never at once. General Gordon Granger of the Union Army even announced the end of the war upon the villa’s veranda. Is that why phantom Confederates prowl the property, marching within and around the mansion?
Ashton Villa is known for more than these ghastly, grisly guards. President Ulysses S. Grant, for example, visited the Gold Room in 1880. Archives from the Ashton Villa prove that he was particularly fond of brandy and cigars.
The Brown Family retained Ashton Villa until 1926, upon which it became a Masonic meeting hall. By 1970, it faced demolition. Yet the Galveston Historical Society purchased the property, restoring it as a public museum.
Sadly, tours are no longer available. The Ashton Villa is now available as a venue, though you'll have to book a pretty big function to venture in. Perhaps Bettie and Tilly pop into a few events, here and there?
If you’d like to stop by the streetside, the Ashton Villa is located at 2328 Broadway Avenue J. Even a glimpse of this ghoulish property is worth your while.