On the 8th of September of 1900, a hurricane gutted St. Mary's Orphan Asylum of Galveston, Texas. The hurricane's catastrophic impact ultimately claimed 6,000 lives, engulfing the city as well as its inhabitants. By the beachside, ten nuns held tight to ninety-three children, their wrists roped with clotheslines. They had fastened the clothesline to themselves, fettering the children to their waists in a futile attempt to save their lives. Only three survived, though the Liberty Vindicator reported that they were "bruised and scarred and crippled." It was the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.
What happened to St. Mary's Orphan Asylum? – Where ninety children met their death?
Ghosts are inevitable once tragedy strikes an orphanage – especially one with such a haunting history. Fire had devastated St. Mary's Orphan Asylum in 1875, while a storm surge later struck the surviving structures. Although Galveston rebuilt the orphanage, residual energy remained.
Later, the "Saffron Scourge" saturated this hard-hit city. The orphanages were overwhelmed, overcome with those who had prematurely lost their parents. The infection had not yet afflicted their bodies, yet their lives would be short-lived. They were later lost to the Hurricane of 1900, found with their wrists still wound with ropes. As for their spirits – some say that they stray the seaside, waifish and wind-swept, still.
Some suspect that the children’s spirits still roam the structures where St. Mary’s once stood. Employees of the Seawall Wal-Mart report lost toys and misplaced pallets – the mischief of playful poltergeists. Sometimes they overhear the disembodied laughter of adolescent apparitions. One employee even noticed a small girl crying out to her mother, yet she could see neither the child nor her caretaker. Employees and customers alike searched for the source of the noise, yet the girl was never found. Perhaps this poltergeist was motherless before death? Is she an orphaned spirit of the asylum?
Some suspect that Galveston built their famous Hotel Galvez on top of the St. Mary's Orphan Asylum’s dead. That would certainly explain the prevalence of paranormal activity. Guests hear phantom children running and laughing throughout the hotel – playing the piano in the lobby, or running amok through the halls. You can hear the sound of their laughter if you listen closely, though the children themselves remain unseen.
Travelers regularly report one particular ward near the hotel lobby, gift shop, and staircase. Often seen bouncing her ball, visitors report that this small, ghostly girl wears nineteenth-century clothing. Even construction workers have claimed to see this “wayward waif.”
By 1900, the Sisters of Charity of the St. Mary's Orphan Asylum were fostering ninety-three children between the ages of two and thirteen. Not all of these wards were Texas natives: some had arrived by "orphan trains," a welfare program that transported orphaned, urban children to the American Midwest.
These trains, alongside the Yellow Fever Epidemic, demanded larger, more extensive accommodations. Claude Dubuis was one of the first of Galveston to provide an updated facility, offering a thirty-five-acre plantation for use as a permanent orphanage. In 1874, the Sisters of Mary's Infirmary founded the St. Mary's Orphan Asylum at Dubuis’ location. A two-story, girls-only facility was established the same year. By 1896, St. Mary's was granted a Texas Charter.
On September 7 of 1900, a Category Four hurricane ravaged the Island of Galveston. It was the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, with winds up to fourteen miles-per-hour. One of the surviving three children described the fifteen-foot-storm surge striking the sand dunes “as if they were made of flour.”
In an attempt to save as many children as possible, the Sisters of Charity fastened themselves to the bodies of the adolescents. Their young wrists were wound with clothesline, wrapped to the waists of the nuns. They had hoped to withstand the storm surge, yet some suspect that the ropes were counterproductive: these fatal fetters may have led to their ultimate loss.
Nevertheless, the nuns held tight to their ninety-three children. They chanted the “Queen of the Waves” in either panic or prayer, consummating a macabre choir: help, then sweet Queen, in our exceeding danger, by thy seven griefs, in pity Lady save – think of the Babe that slept within the manger, and help us now, dear Lady of the Wave. It was traditionally sung by French fishermen during weary weather, but not even the “Lady of the Wave” could protect them from these irregular winds.
One hundred bodies were found from the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, their wrists still wound with ropes. On October 5, the Liberty Vindicator reported that nothing remained “but strips of black robes and blue working aprons of the Sisters fluttering on the trees.” The asylum was now a “sandy waste.”
The Vindicator even accounted for eight of the sisters, who had “been found scattered miles apart, and buried where they lay.” Some “were found with their cinctures tied round a few orphans, manifestly, in their efforts to save them.” As for the three that survived? They “clung to a tree, and by some mysterious way which they cannot explain came through with their lives, bruised and scarred and crippled.”
In 1901, Galveston reopened the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum at 40th and Q Street, where it remained until 1967. Although the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum is no more, the legacies of this heroic sisterhood live on. Newspapers had once written that these “noble” nuns were “too good for earth.” Although these women have been largely lost to history, Galveston agrees. On the ninety-fourth anniversary of the storm, a marker was placed at the site of the former orphanage, memorializing – and immortalizing – these steadfast sisters. As for their orphaned wards? Some say they frequent the seaside today.
You can find the historical marker for the original site of the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum at 6801 Seawall Boulevard. For ghost-hunters, the Hotel Galvez is located at 2024 Seawall Boulevard. You can also find Galveston’s most haunted storehouse, the Seawall Wal-Mart, upon the same street. Do let us know if you encounter any paranormal activity.