Irish Ghosts of America: The ghost of Maid Molly, Forepaugh’s, St. Paul

The Irish servant: Their experience went mostly undocumented, but that doesn’t keep them from hanging around after they die.

There is a restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, called Forepaugh’s. It’s in a Victorian mansion and is named after the man who built it in 1870, Joseph Forepaugh, who was a dry good dealer during the Civil War. In 1892, for his own reasons, Forepaugh took a morning walk, ducked into some bushes, and shot himself in the head. “No reason is known,” wrote the Tacoma Daily News.

Locals think they know, and still speak of it. They say Forepaugh had a maid, often identified as Irish, and her name was Molly. They say Forepaugh and Molly had an affair, and when it ended, Molly killed herself, an earlier suicide that went unrecorded. And they say Molly still haunts the house. In 1998, the website Ghosts of the Prairie claimed that the restaurant’s owner, James Crnkovich, had seen her ghost in antique clothes at an event where the servers were likewise wearing period costumes. She wasn’t one of the servers, though, and she walked down a hall and disappeared.

There’s a lot of stories about Forepaugh’s floating around the web, and, as is usually the case with these things, they are unsourced. I prefer to know where my stories came from, so I’ll ignore those in favor of the frequent mention of the supposed ghost in the local papers. The St. Paul Pioneer Press had a few tales in 1989, but they were … unspectacular. Here’s one:

Several years ago, a waitress had just finished her shift and was preparing to leave. She went to a storage closet under the first-floor stairs, and just as she was about to open the door, she heard three loud knocks from within – such hard knocking that the door rumbled. She summoned help in the classic manner, with a scream, but when the door was opened, no one was inside.

The story also mentions cold spots and flickering candles, but then interviews an employee who had worked at the establishment for almost a half a decade who ruefully confessed that he had never seen anything.

The stories didn’t improve much for years, but in 2003, as reported by the Start-Tribune, a psychic named Gina Booth, cofounder of the Minnesota Paranormal Investigative Group, visited the restaurant and made contact. “I feel very cold,” she declared. “She’s right on my lap. She’s about the age of 4, wearing turn-of-the-century clothing.”

Nobody knows who this spectral child is, and so nobody really makes mention of her anymore. I could find no reference to her in any online site about the restaurant, and so there is a lesson here to budding psychics — if you’re going to meet a ghost in a dark house, make sure it’s one people already know about.

The book “Haunted St. Paul” by Chad Lewis offers up a lot more stories, including an insistence that Molly hung herself from a chandelier on the third floor, which you can now get a table underneath at the restaurant; Lewis says that sometimes the chandelier will sway back and forth, as though a body were hanging from it. He also interviewed staff members who likewise claim to have seen the ghost of Molly, dressed in old clothes and nearly translucent.

Michael Norman wrote of the restaurant in “The Nearly Departed: Minnesota Ghost Stories & Legends,” and interviewed a staffperson who relate a strange story he heard at a dinner. A woman found out where he worked and told him her grandparents had lived in the house. “Crazy things happened when they were there,” she said. Her grandmother had been levitated in a rocking chair. She also claimed a military friend of her grandfather showed up one night, unannounced and in full uniform, even though he was long dead.

There was also a wedding photo where ghostly arms seemed to be reaching out to the bride and groom, and Norman interviewed the photographer, who insisted the photo was real and that there had been nobody on hand who might have provided the reaching hand in the photo. It is my understanding that several years ago somebody stole the photo.

There is, as usual, no evidence that a Molly ever worked for Forepaugh, or an affair, and while Forepaugh certainly killed himself, there is no evidence of a maid who did likewise.

I don’t know why people say Molly was Irish, except that Molly is an Irish name. But, if there was a Molly, it’s not too bad a guess. There’s a marvelous book called “The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930” by Margaret Lynch-Brennan that details the long history of young Irish women coming to America to work in domestic roles. It was a common job for young Irish women — according to Hasia R. Diner more than 60 percent of Irish immigrant women worked as servants.

In 1880, 10 percent of St. Paul’s workforce was Irish, but Irish women tended to be overrepresented as maids, in part because they were an immigrant group who already spoke English, and in part because other immigrant groups had traditions that discouraged women from working outside the home, while the Irish had a long history of female employment in the domestic sphere.

And while Molly’s affair and suicide is undocumented, it is not impossible. There were examples of unhappy affairs ending in suicide, such as the story The Daily People of New York ran in August 22, 1902. They told of one Maggie Keane, an Irish maid, who checked into the Delaware Hotel, attached a rubber tube to the gas jet, placed the other end in her mouth, and climbed into a bed to die. The cause of her suicide? She had frequently visited a man named Opperman, who had no intention of marrying her, and it had ruined her reputation.

It seems unfair that a domestic servant should suffer for these things, and, in the case of Molly, if she existed and has returned as a ghost, should suffer forever.

If it helps any, Joseph Forepaugh’s ghost is also said to wander the building. Although one would expect that were he consigned to spend eternity with his lover, there would be mention of the two of them together. Instead, according to stories, they seem unaware of each other, each knocking around the restaurant on their own time and pursuing their own ghostly agenda.

Perhaps, even in the afterlife, their affair is a secret.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.