The Legend of Hannah Johnson Behind every ghost was a person.


"No more will the winsome maidens repair

to the shanty near the woods

to hear their fate,

for Hannah's work is done."

- Obituary of Hannah Johnson, Tonawanda News; June 28, 1883

The Village of Tonawanda in 1852; the Johnsons' residence circled.

The Historical hannah

For decades, the ghost--or at least the ghost story--of "Black Hannah" (Hannah Johnson, c.1800-1883) haunted the children of North Tonawanda. During her lifetime, she was a Black fortune-teller in a shanty outside the village, reading tea leaves to learn her subjects' fates. But some believe she pulled off an even greater trick: helping other Blacks safely escape from slavery via the Underground Railroad.

Hannah is born as a slave herself in Albany around 1800, in the household of New York Governor Christopher Yates, just after the Gradual Emancipation Law is enacted in New York State. By this act, any Black born after July 4, 1799 would be freed after a period of indenture (25 years for women, 28 for men). Around 1825 Hannah would be legally free. The Erie Canal is completed this same year, and it is believed Hannah comes to North Tonawanda around this time.

Tonawanda town

It is not likely a warm welcome, given the prejudices of the era. One later writer relays that Hannah Johnson is part of a "small colony of Blacks" that settles along the banks of the (canalized) Tonawanda Creek. According to this account, the Blacks' cabins are burned in a raid by locals, and their belongings thrown into the creek. Hannah Johnson winds up in a small shanty with her husband John (and possibly others from the "colony") a little less than a mile from the canal, at the back of a farm lot, just before the ancient, swampy woods. A medicinal sulphur well stands nearby, and by the 1850s a railroad bisects the lot. The property is owned by Dr. Jesse F. Locke (1810-1861), the area's first resident physician.

A railroad goes underground

The idea that Hannah and her husband help others escape from slavery seems to rest on the diverse and fluctuating household inhabitants as revealed on census reports. An 1850 census, for instance, shows a Henry Hall from Virginia (no race given), a Joseph (Black, Canadian, b.1812) and Ann Polly (a female "mulatto" from Ireland b.1820), and a Stephen Smith (Black, Ireland, b.1815). A document produced by the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area offers some measured reflections on Hannah's possible connection to the Underground Railroad.

An ally

Sometime later the ornery John Chadwick takes ownership of the property John and Hannah live on. He proves a great ally to the couple, paying their court costs and granting them a life-long lease (if it angers the neighbors, Mr. Chadwick likely reflected, all the better).

Gently she was carried to her grave

Hannah dies in the summer of 1883. John Chadwick pays for the funeral, and she is buried in nearby Sweeney Cemetery. A large gathering comes to offer their last blessings to the old fortune-teller, who is also remembered in the community for the delectable dishes she brought to old-time village gatherings. Around her shanty, it is said that non-native flowers grow after her death (unusual red trilliums, or wake-robins, grew during her lifetime).

Her exact burial place in Sweeney Cemetery remains unknown.

Renewed interest

By the 1940s, Hannah has begun to fade from residents' memory, though she is never completely forgotten. In the midst of the Civil Rights Era, her story is resurrected and recast in a poetic and affecting 1961 essay by Elizabeth Wherry which appears in the Tonawanda News (below).