Until now, every subject of my Forks in the Road columns has been, for better or for worse, a real person. So I thought, maybe it’s about time for a bit of fancy, or fantasy, or in this case downright fear. I speak of no other than the esteemed “Slippery Mary” of legendary proportions, who was said to haunt the old Castle School, which was located at the corner of Montcalm and VanBuren streets, where the Mather medical office now stands.
As a child, I remember my mother regaling me with stories about Slippery Mary, who was said to slide down the covered roof of the outside fire escape, and surprise unsuspecting youngsters who were out and about after dark when they should have been home. “Don’t stay out late, or Slippery Mary’s gonna get you,” we were repeatedly admonished. The legendary figure was covered in a black cape and hood and would invariably follow errant children and jump out in front of them while cackling and swinging back her cape. Children would scream and run away.
Slipper Mary was very scary. Kids love to hear scary stories. Ghost stories with a connection to their environment are especially spooky. For example, former Oswego City Historian Rosemary Nesbit was a master teller of tall tales and ghost stories, and for a number of years even staged a program entitled Tales of the Haunted Harbor outside the H. Lee White Maritime Museum at the northern foot of West First Street. She sent shivers down many a young spine with her hair down, face lit, spooky appearance and her vocal intonations which were superbly scary. Spooky stories well told have a way of enduring. But, back to Castle School and Slippery Mary.
An Oswego captain of industry named Frederic Carrington, who owned both a flourmill and the Varick Canal, built Castle School. He built a huge castle-shaped residence on the edge of what is now Montcalm Park in the 1840’s. It was referred to variably as Carrington’s Castle or Carrington’s folly. In later years, it passed to several families and was eventually sold to the Oswego City School District and became school no. 9, or Castle School. It was torn down in the late 1950s after the west side’s Frederick Leighton Elementary School was constructed. Before it’s closing, it was the site of a gruesome murder suicide episode across the street in Montcalm Park, during noontime recess, which was witnessed by dozens of elementary students. In that sense, reality was even more gruesome than fantasy. It was only a short period of time after that incident the Castle School was closed.
Fiction, when presented in a compelling manner, can be intimidating. The art of being able to tell a good ghost story is a diminishing one. My peers and cousins tell me that I became very good at it in scaring all the younger kids. I enjoyed telling these stories at campfires, sleepovers, and on any other occasion when I could gather an audience willing to listen.
So, who was Slippery Mary? Legend had it that when the school system was undertaking renovations to convert the building into a school, they found a secret closet containing a hooded long black robe, and this was said to be the home of Slippery Mary who thereafter, being displaced, earned her moniker by sliding down the roof over the outside fire escape after dark, and patrolling the neighborhood searching for kids who were out beyond their curfew.
In later years, my dad built us a summer cottage on a hill overlooking Nunzie’s, or Salvadore’s Grove. Somehow Slippery Mary relocated to Snake Swamp, which was across the road. For all I know, she continues to haunt the swamp and adjacent areas. Ghosts have to be flexible to survive.
For most of my life, I have believed that Slippery Mary’s story was widely known, at least among us First Warders. As I did some research for this article, it increasingly appears that she may have been a wholly constructed fantasy of our family and friends. That matters not. The story of Slippery Mary lives on. Her story is now being told by my children, and nieces and their friends to new generations. In that sense, the legend of Slippery Mary survives. Good stories always do.
John T. Sullivan is a former Oswego Mayor and the author of three books, “Forks In The Road” parts I and II and an autobiography “Pee Not Your Pants — Memoirs of a small time mayor with big time ideas,” available locally in the river’s end bookstore and online. His column appears exclusively in The Palladium-Times on the first Monday of each month.