CLOSE
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

How Seattle's Neighborhoods Got Their Names

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Seattle’s modern history dates back to the Denny Party’s landing in 1851. Since its founding, the city has divided itself into neighborhoods, each with its own distinct personality. But where did the names of those neighborhoods come from? The answers range from references to the area’s American Indian heritage to lost coin flips, American presidents to misidentified foliage. A vast (though not 100% exhaustive) list of these histories is below. If this sort of information piques your interest, be sure to check out the Washington State Online Encyclopedia and the Museum of History and Industry.

Alki Point

Image courtesy of Introvert, under Creative Commons license

Alki Point is the westernmost neighborhood in West Seattle (so you know it’s really far west) and is also the southern boundary of Elliot Bay. It was also the first landing point for the Denny Party, who were the first western settlers in Seattle. The area was originally named “New York Alki,” after the state that many in the party had originally called home, and the Chinook Jargon (a language used to bridge communications between natives and early western settlers in the Pacific Northwest) word Alki which means “eventually.” The name remains relevant today, as “eventually” is a succinct answer to the question, “If we leave now, when will we get to Alki?”

Ballard

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license

Ballard is named after Capt. William Rankin Ballard who ran, among other enterprises, a feed store in Salmon Bay with fellow ship captain J.A. Hatfield. After the two men reluctantly accepted a deed to 160 acres of logged land north of Seattle as payment for a large hay bill, both Hatfield and Ballard decided they did not want to be responsible for the property. So they flipped a coin, with the loser getting the land. Ballard lost the coin flip, developed the land, and profited to the tune of $160,000. However, the neighborhood’s name remained Gilman Park until railroad conductors started calling the last stop on the Eastern Railroad line (which ended just south of the current Ballard locks) “Ballard Junction.” The area picked up the colloquial name Ballard, and when the town incorporated itself in 1890, the name was made official.

Beacon Hill

Image courtesy of Melissa Jonas, under Creative Commons license

Beacon Hill was originally named "Greenish-Yellow Spine" by the Duwamish Indian tribe, but that name did not stick. Instead, Beacon Hill got its moniker from M. Harwood Young, who named the hill after the neighborhood in his home town of Boston. Young may or may not also be the reason that Boston fans suddenly outnumber Mariners fans every time the Red Sox come to town.

Belltown

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Belltown is named after William Nathaniel Bell who was a member of the Denny Party which first settled Seattle. Bell not only named the neighborhood, which abuts downtown to the northwest, but also named two of the area’s major thoroughfares after two of his children (Virginia Street and Olive Way).

Bitter Lake

Image courtesy of Shawna Scott, under Creative Commons license

The Bitter Lake neighborhood in north Seattle is named after the small lake inside of it. That lake itself got its name because of the tannic acid that flowed into the lake from a local sawmill. The lake became so bitter that horses refused to drink from it, leading to the well-known phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but if it’s in a lake filled with acid then you won’t be able to get it to drink.”

Capitol Hill

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There are two origin stories for the name of Seattle’s oldest suburb and both are related to developer James Moore, who platted the area. The first is that he hoped to move the state capital north from Olympia. The other is that he was trying to make his wife feel more comfortable by naming the area after the neighborhood in Denver that she hailed from.

Central District

Image courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, under Creative Commons license

The Central District contains a number of smaller neighborhoods, and it is named after its central location in Seattle. But you probably could have guessed that. Did you guess that the Central District is named because of its centrality in the city? I hope so.

Columbia City

Image courtesy of Mattgrundy via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons license

This south Seattle neighborhood, which has been at the forefront of recent transit-related gentrification, was not named directly for Christopher Columbus, but instead was named after the song "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," which was popular in 1890 when developer J.K. Edminston established the neighborhood.

Crown Hill

Crown Hill, a neighborhood just north of Ballard, takes its name from the cemetery that was placed there when Ballard residents decided they needed more space for their dead after their young city’s population grew rapidly due to the emergence of the shingle industry. For a time Ballard was known as the “Shingle Capital Of The World.” Even though the Crown Hill Cemetery was founded in 1903, according to its website there is still plenty of space available.

Denny Regrade

Image courtesy of William Creswell, under Creative Commons license 

The Denny Regrade, also known as the Denny Triangle, was once Denny Hill, named after the Denny family which founded Seattle. However, the entire area between present day downtown and South Lake Union was flattened, buildings were moved, and the current area which is soon to be heavily developed by Amazon was created.

Eastlake

Image courtesy of arhytht, under Creative Commons license

Eastlake is the small neighborhood east of Lake Union. It is not east of Lake Washington. If you go east of Lake Washington, you’re in Bellevue.

Fauntleroy

Image courtesy of Rr Parker, under Creative Commons license

Fauntleroy, in West Seattle, was named by a US Coast Guard lieutenant in 1857 in honor of his fiancée’s family. More interesting is the sub-neighborhood contained within named Endolyne, which is centered around the spot where the Fauntleroy streetcar line once ended. “End of the line” became “Endolyne,” and the name stuck.

First Hill

Image courtesy of Ryan Healy, under Creative Commons license

First Hill was originally developed by mill owner Henry Yesler, who logged the hill and rolled timber down the slope. The skidding logs gave birth to the term “skid row,” and the relative importance of the grade to the economy of the city led to the coining of the name “First Hill.”

Fremont

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license

Fremont considers itself the home of Seattle’s counterculture. The neighborhood boasts an only somewhat ironic statue of Vladimir Lenin, and the recording studio where Nirvana laid down Bleach. So naturally it is named after the hometown of two of the city’s founders: Fremont, Nebraska. What could be more countercultural to Seattle than a small town in Nebraska?

Georgetown

Image courtesy of Curtis Cronn, under Creative Commons license 

Developer Dexter Horton named Georgetown after the University, as his son had recently graduated from the medical school when the area was incorporated. This unfortunately braggy start did beget what was once the world’s sixth largest brewery (the source of Rainier Beer) as hops grew well in the fertile soil of the area that had once been covered by the Duwamish River.

Green Lake

Image courtesy of Maurice King, under Creative Commons

Green Lake is named for the glacial lake that abuts the southwestern border of this neighborhood. The lake itself was named for its propensity for algae blooms by surveyor David Phillips.

Greenwood

Image courtesy of Jmabel, under Creative Commons license 

Greenwood was initially called Woodland, and was little more than a bog that also housed a cemetery. However, once the Crown Hill cemetery was established, bodies interred at Woodland Cemetery were moved, and the area was developed as Greenwood by state governor Henry McBride.

Haller Lake

Image courtesy of Michael Hanscom, under Creative Commons license 

Haller Lake, which sits at the north end of Seattle proper, was named for Theodore N. Haller who platted the land in 1905. His father Granville Haller, one of Seattle’s early settlers, owned the land, but the lake is technically named after his son.

High Point

Image courtesy of Brett VA, under Creative Commons license

This community contained within the West Seattle neighborhood of Delridge is named because it has the highest elevation in the city limits of Seattle at 520 feet.

Hillman City

Hillman City in South Seattle was named after developer Clarence D. Hillman, who was frequently accused of fraud and selling the same plot of land to multiple consumers.

Interbay

Image courtesy of listorama, under Creative Commons license

The valley between Queen Anne Hill and Magnolia was been called Interbay since 1892 when the postal service renamed the area which had previously been called Boulevard.

International District

The International District had long been a center for Chinese immigrant populations in Seattle, but did not receive an official designation until 1951 when Mayor William F. Devin named the area the “International Centre.” It now is the home to both Seattle’s Chinatown and Little Saigon.

Lake City

Image courtesy of Seattleye, under Creative Commons license

Lake City took its name from a sign that someone posted along the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad north of the Sand Point brick factory. The sign, tacked to a shed, said "Lake," in reference to Lake Washington, and the name Lake City eventually stuck.

Laurelhurst

This tony enclave adjacent to the University District was originally owned by the colorful "Uncle Joe" Surber, a settler known for his hunting and piledriving. Eventually, Henry Yesler bought the land, parceled it out, and sold it to developers including Joseph R. McLaughlin, Paul C. Murphy, and Frank F. Mead. They named one of their many developments in the area Laurelhurst. That name became codified in 1910 when Seattle officially annexed the area.

Lawton Park

Image courtesy of Wonderlane, under Creative Commons license

This neighborhood in Magnolia is named after Lawton Park, which sits on the site of the former Fort Lawton. Fort Lawton was named after Major General Henry Ware Lawton who captured Geronimo in 1886.

Leschi

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This neighborhood which lies just south of Madrona along Lake Washington is named after the Nisqually Indian Chief Leschi, who had an encampment in the area. Leschi was hanged by settlers in 1858, but his legacy remains. While a large number of the areas around Seattle have American Indian names, Leschi is one of the few areas within Seattle that still has a name that pays tribute to the area’s native heritage.

Licton Springs

This North Seattle neighborhood takes its name from the Salish word Liq'tid, which refers to the reddish mud that the springs of the area naturally produce.

Loyal Heights

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license 

Loyal Heights was, and to a large degree still is, a bedroom community north of Ballard. It was named by developer Harry W. Treat who also named the beach along Puget Sound in the area, Loyal Beach.

Madison Park

Image courtesy of Walter Siegmund, under Creative Commons license

Madison Park takes its name from Madison Street, which was the earliest direct route from Puget Sound to Lake Washington by car. Madison Street was named for US President James Madison.

Madrona

Tucked between Leschi and Denny-Blaine along Lake Washington, Madrona was originally called “the Cascade Addition,” but the name was changed to Madrona by John Ayre in 1889. Madrona is another name for the arbutus trees that grew (relatively sparsely) in the area.

Magnolia

Image courtesy of snap turtle, under Creative Commons license

While Magnolia was named for the magnolia tree, it was done so erroneously. In 1857, Lt. George Davidson mistook the madrona trees on Magnolia Bluff (which were likely more plentiful than the growth of madronas in present-day Madrona) for magnolias. Despite Davidson’s error, the name for the bluff stuck, and the neighborhood there took the name.

Maple Leaf

Image courtesy of Joe Mabel, under Creative Commons license 

The name for the north Seattle community Maple Leaf either came from the Maple Saw Mill which operated nearby or the trees which once grew in the area. There is also an apocryphal story that Maple Leaf was so far north of downtown Seattle that it got its name for being near Canada.

Matthews Beach

Image courtesy of Chas Redmond, under Creative Commons license

A community within Lake City that sits on the shore of Lake Washington, Matthews Beach was named after John G. Matthews who established his homestead in the area in the 1880s.

Montlake

Wikimedia Commons

Montlake, a community that sits in between Capitol Hill and the University District alongside the Lake Washington ship canal, got its name from real estate agents who wanted to evoke the beauty of both mountains and lakes in order to move land. Sorry Montlake, you’re just a marketing term.

Mount Baker

Wikimedia Commons

This relatively affluent south Seattle community which stretches from Rainier Avenue to the shore of Lake Washington takes its name from its view of Mount Baker which can be seen by looking northeast from the area.

Northgate

Wikimedia Commons

Northgate’s name was codified around the development of the Northgate Mall in 1950, which was the first indoor shopping center in America to be called a mall. So, yeah. It’s named after a mall.

Othello

A relatively newly-defined neighborhood in the Rainier Valley, Othello (which is also called Brighton or simply Southeast Rainer Valley) has experienced a recent boom of transit oriented development. The neighborhood is named after Othello Street, which runs through the area. Othello Street is named after the play; it was originally called Matthiesen Place, but was changed by a theater-loving developer.

Phinney Ridge

Wikimedia Commons

Phinney takes its name from Guy Phinney, an immigrant from Nova Scotia who established his own menagerie in the area. That menagerie became the Woodland Park Zoo (which technically is south of Phinney Ridge), and the ridge north of it between Greenlake and Ballard took his name.

Pioneer Square

Wikimedia Commons

Pioneer Square is Seattle’s oldest neighborhood and original downtown. That said, the neighborhood has struggled through hard times, getting hit by the Great Fire of 1889, and falling into disrepair during the Great Depression when the neighborhood’s nickname “Skid Row” took on its modern connotation. The neighborhood was named for the importance the area held for pioneers in the Puget Sound area.

Portage Bay

Wikimedia Commons

The small neighborhood that sits north of Capitol Hill on the bay that sits between Lake Union and Lake Washington got its name from the time before the two lakes were connected by water. In 1861, Harvey Pike cut a ditch in order to connect the two lakes, but was unable to do so with the necessary depth to bring ships through. The neighborhood of Portage Bay sits where a rail line used for portaging goods between lakes used to operate. While the lakes were connected before the turn of the century, the name stuck.

Queen Anne

Wikimedia Commons

Queen Anne is named after the glacial hill on which it sits. Queen Anne Hill was originally named Eden Hill by the Denny Party, but it did not develop quickly. When it did start to develop, a number of the first houses on the hill were of the Queen Anne style, leading Rev. Daniel Bagley to ask as a joke whether the area would become Queen Anne Town. Sometimes jokes become real, and in this case the name stuck.

Rainier Valley

Rainier Valley, both a major geographical feature of South Seattle and a neighborhood, takes its name from the area's views of Mount Rainier. The mountain was named by George Vancouver for his friend Peter Rainier, as a reference to Rainier’s size.

Ravenna

Ravenna in 1893, via Wikimedia Commons

This residential community, which is just north of the University District, sits next to one of the oldest parks in the city. Though the land was originally owned by the Bells, it wound up in the hands of George and Oltilde Dorffel. They named the park, which sits in a ravine, Ravenna Springs Park, inspired by the ravine town of Ravenna, Italy.

Roosevelt

The area between Ravenna and Lake City became Roosevelt after a naming contest held in 1927 by the Commercial Club decided to honor President Theodore Roosevelt.

Sand Point

Sand Point, the neighborhood that contains and surrounds Magnuson Park and the former Naval Air Station, got its name from its beach, which juts into Lake Washington. It represents the easternmost point of North Seattle.

SoDo

Wikimedia Commons

SoDo stands for South of Downtown, and it represents the mostly industrial space just south of Pioneer Square. It also contains Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field; many learned the term SoDo as part of the 2001 Mariners’ slogan “SoDo Mojo,” which translates roughly to “the potato south of downtown.”

South Lake Union

Wikimedia Commons

This neighborhood sits south of Lake Union. It must not be confused with the southern portion of Lake Union itself—much like Amazon.com, which is headquartered in South Lake Union, should not be confused with the Amazon River.

University District

Wikimedia Commons

Originally called Brooklyn (still the name of one of the area’s main avenues), the University District took its name when the territorial university, which became the University of Washington, was moved from downtown to allow for expansion.

Victory Heights

Victory Heights, a neighborhood contained within Lake City, disappointingly has never won anything. It takes its name from Lake City Way NE, which in 1924 was named the Victory Highway. At other times the road has been called the Gerhart Erickson Road and Bothell Road.

Wallingford

Wikimedia Commons

The North Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford takes its name from John Wallingford, who moved from Maine in 1888 and purchased a great deal of the land that sits to the north of Lake Union. While present day Wallingford has clear borders, for a while, the area was amorphous, bleeding into both the University District to the east and Green Lake to the north.

West Seattle

Wikimedia Commons

West Seattle is the peninsula that sits southwest of Seattle. Notably, it was on this peninsula where the Denny Party first met the Duwamish Chief Sealth, after whom Seattle as a whole takes its name.

We're slowly working our way across the country. See how the neighborhoods in other cities got their names.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
History
The Sky Was No Limit: The WASP Women Pilots of WWII
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shirley Slade sat on the wing of a plane and looked off into an uncertain future. Slade—clad in her flight suit with pigtails guarding against Texas wind—was posing for the July 19, 1943 issue of Life magazine, and the composition between the aircraft and its operator was a juxtaposition spelled out in the cover headline: "Air Force Pilot."

Slade was one of more than 1000 women who had been solicited by the U.S. government to enter an intensive seven-month training course that would make them the first female pilots to enter the Air Force. What had been a boy's club was being forced into a kind of reluctant gender neutrality as a result of World War II and severe pilot shortages. By recruiting women, the Air Force could maintain delivery of aircraft, ferry supplies, and perform other non-combative functions that fueled the war efforts. Collectively, the group would become known as WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots.

While all of these women risked their lives—and more than a few lost them—they were not perceived as equals. Because they were designated as civilians, they were denied military honors and compensation. As the war wound down, men returning from combat jockeyed to take the WASPs' places as active-duty pilots. Occasionally, the women would be used in target practice. It would be decades before the women of WASP would finally get their due.

 
 

America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new policy of rationing. Food, materials, and manpower were doled out carefully, but demand for pilots quickly exceeded the available personnel. By 1942, the Air Force realized they would have to tap into new sources in order to continue their campaign.

Jacqueline Cochran had a solution: A pilot in her own right and a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Cochran knew there was a strong contingent of female fliers who had licenses and had logged air time who could be recruited for support missions. She petitioned the Air Force, including commanding general Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, to approve a training program that would ultimately relocate volunteers to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, submitted a similar proposal.

WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner looks out from her plane while on a Texas runway
WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cochran and Love were up against considerable resistance to involving women in military efforts. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once admitted he was "violently against" the idea (before concluding that none of his concerns came to light and women were an integral part of the effort). Internally, there was concern as to whether women would even be capable of handling a massive aircraft like the B-29 bomber, so superiors hedged their bets by creating two organizations.

Love was put in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS)—an organization to ferry planes—while Cochran was put in charge of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, which did whatever the Army Air Corps required of it. A little under a year later, these two groups were merged into a single organization: the WASPs. This new group demanded that incoming women logged at least 35 hours of flight time before coming to Sweetwater. More importantly, the women would be considered civilians, not military personnel.

Roughly 25,000 women applied; around 1900 were accepted and 1100 completed training. On their own dimes, these women streamed into Texas to begin the seven-month program that taught them every aspect of military flying except for gunnery duty and formation flying. Every day in the barracks included intensive lessons, physical fitness training, and studying. At night, the women would dance, sing, or play ping-pong. Life described their ambitions as "piloting with an unfeminine purpose" and noted that some of the women needed cushions in order to sit comfortably in planes designed for male bodies. Their mascot, a tiny winged sprite named Miss Fifinella, was designed by Disney, and the patch appeared on many of their jumpsuits and plane noses.

According to Life, the Air Force reported that the women were faster on instruments while the men "had better memory for details." But in virtually every way that counted, the magazine wrote, there was no practical difference in ability.

Graduates were dispatched to bases around the country, though the most pressing job was ferrying new aircraft from factories to places like Newark, New Jersey, where the planes would make the jump overseas. The women shuttled 12,000 of these planes during the war. They also escorted military chaplains from base to base on Sundays for religious services and operated test flights for repaired aircraft to make sure they were safe to fly in combat. Sometimes, they'd be tasked with towing targets behind them so soldiers could use live ammunition for combat practice.

Simulated combat may have been nerve-wracking, but it was no more dangerous than the actual flying and the very real possibility that the WASPs would experience equipment malfunction or fuel issues. In the two years the squad was active, 38 women perished during missions. At the time—and for decades afterward—the families of those women were denied many of the basic privileges afforded to the families of their male counterparts. When a WASP died, her colleagues—not the government—would pitch in to pay for her burial. Their families were prohibited from putting a gold star in their windows, a sign of a military casualty, nor were they "allowed" to drape the American flag over their coffins.

 
 

On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were sent home. The war wasn't yet over, but men returning from the front lines were dismayed that jobs they expected to find waiting for them were being occupied by women. Despite Cochran's petition to have the WASPs permanently incorporated into the Air Force, Congress turned her down.

WASP pilots are photographed circa 1943
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pride the women had felt serving their country turned to confusion. By being classified as "civilians," the WASPs found little respect for their efforts. When entering the workforce after the war, some even became flight attendants, as no commercial airline would hire a female pilot.

In the 1970s, the Air Force announced they'd be accepting female recruits for the "first time," a proclamation that angered the surviving WASPs. Their efforts had largely gone unheralded, and now it seemed like the government was wiping them from history completely. Petitioning for recognition and receiving aid from fellow war ferry pilot Senator Barry Goldwater, they were finally granted military status on November 23, 1977.

As the WASPs aged, a handful got the chance to enjoy another honor. In 2010, the women were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts. After flying 77 different types of planes over 60 million miles during wartime and being largely ignored for decades, it was recognition that was long overdue.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
arrow
crime
The Bizarre Death of Bridget Cleary, the Irish "Fairy Wife"
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
The town of Tipperary, Ireland
Amergin, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The policemen had been combing the green yards and fields of Ballyvadlea, Ireland, for a week when they finally found Bridget Cleary. The 26-year-old's body had been wedged beneath several inches of clay and a jumble of thorn bushes, but her corpse showed wounds caused by something much worse than branches: Her spine and lower limbs were so badly burned that parts of her skeleton were exposed. She was naked, except for a stocking and one gold earring, and her head was encased in a sack.

The judge would later describe the events leading up to Bridget's death as demonstrating "a degree of darkness in the mind, not just of one person, but of several—a moral darkness, even religious darkness." It was the end of the 19th century, not exactly the Middle Ages, but those involved in the end of Bridget's life had become convinced that she wasn't really herself—and that a supernatural creature had taken her place.

GONE WITH THE FAIRIES

Bridget was the wife of a cooper named Michael Cleary, and the pair were regarded around town as a relatively happy couple. They shared their cottage, in a remote townland near Tipperary, with Bridget's father, Patrick Boland, and had no children. Michael was nine years Bridget's senior and earned a decent salary; she brought in some extra income by working as a seamstress and egg-seller. By all accounts, they were more prosperous than their neighbors, likely thanks to her resourcefulness. As a literate, independent, and fashionably dressed working woman, she was part of an emerging class in a rural society that had long been based in agriculture and the oral tradition.

It was also a society steeped in legends of the supernatural. Fairy belief, in particular, was pervasive in Irish rural societies at the time, and had long coexisted with Christian doctrine. Children grew up hearing legends of the Little People from their earliest days, and learned how to appease them by leaving untasted food on the table, for example, or saying "bless them" whenever the fairies were mentioned. The fairies were blamed for everything that went wrong—lost items, spoiled milk, bad crops. As one County Sligo man interviewed at the start of the 20th century told an anthropologist, "Nothing is more certain than that there are fairies."

Bridget herself was known to be fascinated by the beings, and to take trips to the most fairy-ridden spots around town. She may have visited such a spot on Monday, March 4, 1895, when she went to deliver eggs to her father's cousin, Jack Dunne, near Kylenagranagh Hill. The area was home to a ringfort, an early medieval circular fortified settlement believed, in Irish folklore, to be a "fairy fort," and thus to be avoided at all costs. Yet Bridget often visited the fort, and she likely spent time there that Monday after delivering the eggs.

It was a cold morning, the mountains still covered in the snow that had fallen the previous day, and after the two- or three-mile walk Bridget couldn't seem to warm up once she got back home. She spent the following day in bed, shivering and complaining of "a raging pain in her head."

That Saturday, her father walked four miles in the heavy rain to ask the doctor to call on her. But the doctor wasn't able to visit until the following Wednesday, and by then her husband had also gone to summon him twice. They should have been reassured by the doctor's diagnoses—"nervous excitement and slight bronchitis"—but it wasn't this ailment that worried Michael. He was convinced that the bed-ridden woman in their cottage was "too fine," in his own words, to be his wife, and that she was "two inches taller" than the woman he had known. At some point, Michael had developed the belief that Bridget had been replaced by a fairy changeling as she passed near the fairy fort on Kylenagranagh Hill.

"ARE YOU BRIDGET BOLAND?"

It is likely that this idea was planted in Michael's head by his confidante, Jack Dunne. According to Irish historian Angela Bourke, who has researched the case extensively, the 55-year-old Dunne was a charismatic man rumored to have the power of divination. He was known in the area as a seanchaí, a sort of storyteller well-versed in fairy mythology.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the doctor's visit, a priest visited. He wasn't overly concerned about the illness, but decided to administer the last rites in case it worsened. The ceremony emphasized the fact that Michael could lose his wife, which distressed him even more. He talked to Dunne, who urged him to act immediately, or the "real" Bridget would be lost forever. "It is not your wife is there [sic]," the older man reminded him. "This is the eighth day, and you had a right to have gone to Ganey"—the local "fairy doctor"—"on the fifth day."

The cooper duly visited Ganey following morning. He came back with a mixture of herbs that needed to be boiled in "new milk," the nutrient-rich first milk produced by a cow after calving.

That night, Michael forced the bitter concoction down Bridget’s throat while Dunne and three male cousins pinned her down in bed. Relatives outside the house heard someone—likely Michael—shouting, "Take it, you witch, or I'll kill you!" The men threw urine at her and shook her, yelling, "Away with you; come home Bridget Boland, in the name of God!" Other relatives and neighbors came and went, witnessing her ordeal and hearing her screams, but were too scared to intervene. Michael asked his wife to answer her name three times: "Are you Bridget Boland, wife of Michael Cleary, in the name of God?" The men then brought her to the fireplace and held her over the grate—ordeals by fire were known to drive out the fairies—while they repeated the questioning.

By midnight Thursday night, the ritual seemed to be completed. Bridget was "wild and deranged," according to her cousin Johanna, but her husband seemed satisfied, and her relatives thought there had been some sort of catharsis. The following morning, at Michael's request, the priest said mass in Bridget's bedroom in order to banish the "evil spirits" that were left in the house.

"IT IS NOT BRIDGET I AM BURNING."

An image of fairies from fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
Fairies from "The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley"
British Library, Europeana // Public Domain

On Friday, March 15, for the first time in 11 days, Bridget got out of bed and dressed in her usual, fashionable clothes "to give her courage when she would go among the people," as Johanna later told the magistrates. Several family members had joined them in their cottage for tea later in the day when an argument erupted. Bridget had asked for some milk, which had rekindled Michael’s suspicions; fairies are known in folklore to yearn for fresh milk.

Bridget was probably exhausted, and she didn't want to be questioned any more. "Your mother used to go with the fairies and that is why you think I am going with them," she told her husband. Michael was furious. He demanded that she eat three pieces of bread and jam—perhaps to reinforce his control over her—asking her to say her name again. She answered twice and ate two of the three pieces, but when she hesitated for a moment with the third, her husband flung her on the ground and threatened her: "If you won't take it, down you will go."

Michael jabbed his knee into her chest, forcing the bread and jam down Bridget's throat. He began tearing off her clothes, leaving only her chemise, then grabbed a hot stick from the fire and held it close to her mouth. He struck her head against the floor, then set her chemise alight. Within a few minutes, he had also poured paraffin lamp oil over her, encouraging the flames.

As her body was burning, Michael said in front of shocked relatives: "She's not my wife. She's an old deceiver sent in place of my wife." Relatives yelled at Michael to put out the flames, but Bridget "blazed up all in a minute," according to their later testimony. They huddled in fear in a nearby bedroom, the flames soon barricading their way.

Once the flames had died down, Michael wrapped her body in a sheet and shoved it in an old bag. Then he left the house, locking Bridget's relatives inside with the corpse. They waited for about an hour, praying. When Michael returned, he was wielding a knife and threatened to kill Bridget's cousin Patrick Kennedy if he didn't help him bury Bridget's body. "Come on out here now," he shouted. "I have the hole nearly made." The two men carried the body to a boggy area about a quarter-mile uphill from the cottage, and buried it in a shallow hole. Back in the cottage, Michael made the rest of the family swear they wouldn't tell the authorities.

ON A WHITE HORSE

The following morning, an agitated Michael arrived at Drangan church with Dunne. Dunne wanted Michael to speak to a priest, but when the priest saw him kneeling in front of the altar—weeping, tearing his hair, and asking to go to confession—he thought he wasn't fit to receive the sacrament. He spoke to Dunne instead, who hadn't been at the cottage at the time of Bridget's death, but told the priest that Michael had claimed to have burned his wife the previous night. "I've been asking them all morning to take her up and give her a Christian burial," Dunne added. Bewildered, thinking them both insane, the church minister reported their conversation to a police sergeant.

For the next few days, the police searched for Bridget and questioned her friends and relatives. Even though Michael spoke about emigrating or committing suicide to escape the law, he still hoped his "real wife" would come back: For three consecutive nights starting the day after visiting the priest, he waited at the ringfort on Kylenagranagh Hill, where he believed she would appear, galloping on a white horse. He said he would only have to cut the ropes that bound her to the animal so she would be his forever.

On Wednesday, March 20, the Royal Irish Constables issued arrest warrants for eight people from Bridget's circle, as well as Denis Ganey, the "fairy doctor." Two days later, police found Bridget's body. The prisoners were brought before the magistrates on March 25, ushered in by the angry screams of a crowd who had learned of the case through extensive press coverage. On July 5, 1895, after a two-day trial, Michael was found guilty of manslaughter and imprisoned, along with Jack Dunne, Patrick Boland, and four of Bridget’s cousins, including Patrick Kennedy. The judge ruled out a verdict of murder, explaining they all had acted out of genuine belief.

Michael was released in 1910, after which he boarded ship for Montreal. Dunne served a three-year prison sentence before returning to the area, where he kept working as a laborer. "God knows I would never do it but for Jack Dunne," Michael had reportedly said not long after burning Bridget. "It was he who told me my wife was a fairy."

ILLNESS—OR INFIDELITY?

During her illness, Bridget was visited by her aunt, Mary Kennedy, and told her, "He [Michael]'s making a fairy of me now. He thought to burn me about three months ago." Her words suggest this wasn't the first crisis of its kind.

Although we can only speculate about the couple's disagreements, there were rumors in Ballyvadlea that Bridget had a lover. Contemporary newspapers reported Michael saying his wife "used to be meeting an egg-man on the low road" [sic], but the rumors pointed to young caretaker William Simpson, who had visited the Clearys' cottage with his wife the night before Bridget’s death. In his court testimony, Simpson explained he had arrived as the four men were restraining Bridget, and he had asked them to leave her alone.

Although Michael and the other people involved in the killing were never formally psychiatrically assessed, a 2006 article from the Irish Journal of Medical Science suggested that Michael may have been suffering from a psychotic state known as Capgras syndrome, which involves the belief that a person has been replaced by an impostor. The authors suggest Michael "may have developed a brief psychotic episode" as he struggled to deal with his wife's illness, sleep deprivation, and the recent death of his father—news of which had reached him in the middle of his attempted "cure" on Thursday night. In Capgras syndrome, the socio-cultural context of the sufferer determines the nature of the impostor, which can be another person or even a supernatural being, such as an alien or a fairy changeling.

In her discussion of the supernatural beliefs related to the case, Bourke notes that the message of fairy legends is that "the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society's rules." Bridget Cleary was ambitious, independent, and childless; a modern woman. She didn't conform to the patriarchal norm, which may have made her appear, to some in her life, as closer to the fairy realm than to their own.

Even today in Tipperary, her story hasn't been entirely forgotten. The local children have a nursery rhyme that runs: "Are you a witch or are you a fairy, / Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?"

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios