Shrouded in legend and mystery of Annie Palmer, the White Witch, the Rose Hall Great House is by far the most famous of Jamaica's Great Houses. As the years pass, it has become difficult to differentiate where reality begins to disolve into the shrouds of fantasy. What makes it particularly difficult is that story of Annie Palmer is not a complete fiction that overwrites history, instead, it builds on a foundation of reality that is stretched at the edges into the realm of fiction.
Sitting about 180ft above the shores of the Caribbean sea, Rose Hall commands an unobtructed view of the ocean located about 1/2 mile away. It is an imposing structure and hard to miss when traveling along the main road that connects Montego Bay to Ocho Rios. The grounds, located on the southside of the main road, are immaculately manicured quickly rising from the gates of the property up to the Great House.
James Hakewill (1778 – 1843), an English born architect and engraver, created a compilation of twenty-one drawings and notes while living in Jamaica for approximately two years in 1820. His work was published as as book called "A Picturesque Tour of the Island of Jamaica", in 1825. His historical sketches and notes give a view of life in Jamaica in the years 1820 and 1821, and the following is what he said of Rose Hall.
Rose Hall, the property and residence of John Rose Palmer, Esq, is situated on the seaside, at nearly equal distance from Montego Bay and Falmouth. The house of which we give a view is justly considered as the best in Jamaica, and was erected about fifty years since by the uncle of the present proprietor, at the expense of £3,000 sterling [JGH: equivalient to over £7 million today - Bank of England Inflation Calculator ]. It is placed at a delightful elevation, and commands a very extensive sea view. Its general appearance has much of the character of a handsome Italian vila. A double flight of stone steps leads to an open portico, giving access to the entrance hall, on the left of which is the eating-room, and on the right the drawing-room, behind which are other apartments for domestic uses. The right wing, fitted up with great elegance, and enriched with painting and gilding, was the private apartment of the late Mrs. Palmer, and the left wing is occupied as servants’ apartments and offices. The principal staircase, in the body of the house, is a specimen of journey in mahogany and other costly woods seldom excelled, and leads to a suite of chambers in the upper story.
This estate, and the adjoining one of Palmyra, descended to the present proprietor from his great uncle. Rose-Hall estate has about 200 acres in canes, about the same quantity in grass, and about 250 in ruinate; the Negro grounds are on Palmyra estate, which is a more seasonable situation.
Palmyra estate contains about 1,250 acres.
The produce is shipped at a wharf at about two miles and a half distance. On the two estates are 252 negroes, and 276 head of Cattle.
The story of Rose Hall begins with an Englishman named Henry Fanning from the parish St Catherine, who in 1746 in preparation for his marriage to Rosa Kelly, bought 290-acres of land in the parish of St James . This purchase became the core of the estate that later became known as Rose Hall. Rosa, his intended wife, was the daughter of the Rector of St Elizabeth, Rev. Dr. John Kelly and his wife Mary, both Irish immigrants living in Jamaica.
Henry and Rosa were married in 1747, but he died a few months later leaving everything to Rosa. His estate at the time of probate in 1748, shows a total value of £6085.94 Jamaican currency of which £3738.25 was the value of 72 enslaved people; 53 male, 19 female, no children.
Three years later in 1750, Rosa remarried a wealthy land owner in St. James, named George Ash. He began building the Rose Hall Great House shortly after their marriage, but died in 1752 shortly after the house was completed. The origin of the name of the Great House and its property, Rose Hall, is not clear. Some believe it was named after Rosa while others believe it was named after the Rose family, to which George was closely associated. Interestingly, Rosa Ash was listed in the Jamaican Quit Rent books for 1754 as the owner of 825 acres of land in St James, the same year that Henry Fanning, her previous husband, also appears as owner of 410 acres of land in St James. It is unclear, if Henry's entry was an error and is in fact a part of Rosa's 825 acres, or in addition to it.
A year later, and for the third time, Rosa remarried, this time to Norwood Witter, a plantation owner and widower from Westmoreland. It is apparent from various sources that Norwood was more interested in her wealth and what she could bestow on him. The marriage was an unhappy one that drained her wealth, leaving her with considerable debt. Norwood died in 1765 and was buried in Westmoreland.
In May 1767, she remarried for the fourth time, marrying the Hon. John Palmer, the Custos of St. James Parish. He was a widower and owner of the neighboring Palmyra estate which was located in the hills behind the Rose Hall estate, accessible via a bridle path through the woods. John had two sons from his previous marriage living in England when he married Rosa. Their marriage lasted 23 years, until her death on May 1st, 1790. Rosa left everything to John, who commissioned the famous English sculptor, John Bacon to produce a beautifully sculpted monument in her memory. It is today on prominent display in the St James parish church (see inset). John Palmer died seven years later in 1797.
John died in 1797, in the same year that he remarried. The month of death is unclear; Hanover parish register shows it as October, and Trelawny's shows April. His new bride was twenty years old from Trelawny named Rebecca Ann James. She was well provided for after his death with an annual income of £1,680 sterling (£2,800 Jamaica currency) from the proceeds of the estates for the duration of her life. Both Rose Hall and Palmyra were placed in trust for John Palmer's sons and their heirs, but the property was never claimed by them and they did not have any heirs to claim it when they died. So, upon their deaths and by the terms of their father's will, Rose Hall and Palmyra reverted to the Hon. John Palmer's grand nephew, John Rose Palmer who moved to Jamaica in the same year to take charge of Rose Hall.
John Rose Palmer married Annie Patterson who was 18, soon after returning to Jamaica and taking charge of the estates. Annie Mary Paterson was the daughter of John Paterson Esq. and his wife Juliana, of the Baulk, near Lucea. It is during this time period that the story of the White Witch of Rose Hall was born, and it is John Rose's new wife, Annie Palmer nee Paterson, that became the subject known as the White Witch of Rose Hall. Strangely, almost as many people were equally convinced that the story was in fact about Rosa Palmer, whose monument is still prominently displayed in the Parish church.
Rose Hall had fallen into disrepair but things rapidly changed after John Rose took ownership of it. The mansion was restored and replenished for the arrival of his new bride and in 1820. They were married on March 28th, 1820 at Mount Pleasant, St James, the home of Annie's mother and her step father, Captain David Boyd. Ann's father had died before Annie's birth. John brought his new wife, Annie, to the newly restored mansion.
John Rose died seven years later, leaving assets totalling £1100 and a debt of £6000. The Rose Hall and Palmyra estates were in arrears on the annuity payable Rebecca Weekes, the widow of Hon. John Palmer, his great grand uncle who left him the estates. Annie sold whatever claim she had to Rose Hall and Palmyra estates to a Dr Bernard of Bristol for £200 sterling in 1830, and moved to Bonvista, St James, with the help of her Aunt, Ann Robina Brown and her husband William Augustus Dickson (q.v.), where she died in 1846.
Rose Hall is without doubt, one of Jamaica's most enduring Duppy (Ghost) stories. It carries all the required ingredients of mystery, jealousy, murder, illicit affairs and the occult. The story has been around since 1868, evolving over time through a tapestry of events, controvery and oral accounts that ultimately takes shape into folklore mixed from truth and fiction stirred by popular debate.
The story began with a pamphlet published by the Falmouth Post in 1868, called "Legend of Rose Hall", by John Costello. The story became the topic of a popular public debate in 1895, when the Kingston Daily Gleaner, published a series of letters to the editor about the story published in the pamplet. These letters were published over the months of May through August in 1895, the catalyst being a letter from a Gentleman from Kingston, who after visiting the monument of Rosa Palmer, expressed doubts that such a woman could have done the crimes outlined in Costello's pamphlet published twenty-seven years earlier. This letter prompted a response from a John W. Broderick who claimed to have been the overseer under Mrs Palmer, and a series of rebuttals and confirmations from multiple respondents.
What follows is the text from the original pamphlet followed by digitized images of the more relevant letters that were published in the Gleaner in 1895. Digitized images of all the letters along with atheir transcription, are available on our sister website, Jamaica Time - The Mystery of Rose Hall.
The following text is taken from the content of the pamphlet that was published in 1868 by the Falmouth Post. It appears to be the first known publication of the story of what is now known as the White Witch of Rose.
In the Parish Church of St. James, Montego Bay, is a marble monument of the purest white without speck or blemish. A broken pillar, an overturned lamp, a dead tree, a declining headstone, a setting sun, and a skull artistically grouped together are all its ornaments. They are few and simple, but beautifully and delicately carved and sculptured. It is one of those monuments that attracts attention and pleases the eye. The superscription purports that it was erected to the memory of Mrs. Ann Palmer who was exemplary in all the social relations of life, as a daughter dutiful, as a wife affectionate and loving, as a parent kind and tender, that after a long and lingering illness, which she bore with the most Christian patience and resignation, she was removed from this to a better and happier world.
About ten miles from Montego Bay on the main road to Falmouth you come to the remains of what formerly was a magnificent gateway. A loose wall of stone now usurps the place that the richly carved mahogany gate once closed. The brazen pintals are all that remain of the massive hinges. The sculpture that adorned the marble pillars on which the huge gates swung to and fro is broken and defaced, while ornaments that adorned the top have entirely disappeared. Rust has put her iron hand upon the place. A few years more and the scanty remains will have disappeared. Formerly the magnificent gateway led to an avenue of trees, selected for the beauty and fragrance from the endless variety which luxuriates in a southern clime: the coconut with its fringy leaves, always graceful and always beautiful; the giant cotton, the king of the forest, from whose huge limbs countless streamers of parasitical plants hung pendent are exposed to the breeze; the palm with its slender speckle of most delicate green; the spreadid mahogany with its small leaves of the deepest dye; and there also the ever-bearing orange with its golden fruit and its flowers of rich perfume. Neglect, too, has been here, and the avenue once so trim and neat is overgrown with weeds and bushes, so much so that the remains of the ancient road can scarcely now be seen.
About half a mile within the estate you see a stately mansion, prettily situated on the top of a gentle slope. The first thing that strikes you is its magnitude, the next the imposing appearance of the flight of steps leading to the main entrance to the mansion. These are 14 feet high, built of large square stones (hewn) and so arranged that the landing-place serves as a portico 20 feet square. A few brass stanchions curiously wrought and twisted serve to show what the railings have been, but the few remaining are tarnished with verdigris, and broken, bruised, and twisted in every direction.
Massive folding doors of solid mahogany, four inches thick, with panels formed by the carver's chisel, in many a scroll and many a device, upheld by brazen hinges, which, fashioned like huge sea monsters, seemed to bite the posts on which they hang. These doors are in front of the main hall, a room of lofty dimensions and magnificent proportions. A hall 40 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 18 feet high, formed of the same costly material as the doors, carved in the same manner out of solid planks, and fashioned in curious and antique forms, while the top is ornamented by a very deep cornice formed after the arabesque pattern. The floor is of the same expensive and highly polished wood.
Three portraits in richly carved frames and painted by a master hand immediately attract attention. Indeed, they are almost the sole occupants of this lofty room, for of furniture there is scarcely a vestige, and the fine coloured wood of the floor, base, and doors, once so highly polished, is now damp and mouldy. The gilding which formerly adorned the frames is tarnished and dull, but the pictures themselves are fresh and fair, and the colours are as bright and vivid as on the day they came from the painter's easel. They form a strange contrast to the neglect and decay of all around, and carry the mind back to the time when the originals lived in the old mansion, when instead of damp and mould and decay all was bright and gorgeous, and India's riches glistened in profusion round the now bare and mouldering walls. One of these portraits represents a hard and stern-featured man, clothed in the scarlet and ermine robes of a judge. Another is of a, mild, benevolent-looking, gentlemanly, person, dressed in the fashion of the older times, with powdered hair, laced cravat, lace ruffles, velvet coat. The other is of a female of about five or six and twenty, and if the painter has not flattered her she must have been of exquisite beauty. Like the raven's wing is her hair, falling in thick clustering ringlets, unconflned by comb, down upon her alabaster neck and shoulders of purest white, her brow high and commanding, her eyes dark and expressive; a smile plays sweetly round her rosy lips, and the expression of her countenance is pleasant, but at the same time her eyes and brow show great determination of character. She is dressed in bridal robes. A wreath of orange-flowers round that fair, high brow contrasts well with her dark locks, while the small, fairy-like hand is in the act of putting aside the large bridal veil thrown loosely over her person. The panel of another picture is there, but the picture itself is gone.
On the right side of the hall are two doors leading into bedrooms. In the farther one is an old-fashioned bedstead made of ebony and with tall posts and very low feet. The wood is quite black and old, but very elaborately carved. This is the only object of interest, as the rest of the furniture is simple and modern. Examining closely the floor of the dressing-room, the entrance to a subterranean passage, now closed up, is seen. Opposite the main door are two others, fashioned in the same costly and expensive manner, which lead into another hall of rather smaller dimensions than the banqueting-hall, at one end of which is erected a magnificent staircase, which still remains, and though neglected and mouldy seems to show what the rest of the mansion must have been.
Everything about it, rails, balustrades, mouldings, is carved out of sandal-wood, and so highly finished and exquisitely designed is this piece of architecture that a late Governor-General offered a large sum (£500) for the staircase as it stood, to be taken clown and sent to England. This staircase leads to the upper rooms, eight in number, but these, though well proportioned, seem small in comparison with the rooms below. From each end of the portico, which extends the whole length of the back part of the house, ran in semi-circular slopes two suites of rooms each three in number. Those on the right have all decayed and tumbled into ruins, and you can only trace their foundations ; those on the left are still entire though supported by many a prop, while the yawning walls and gaping floors show the time of their fall is not far distant. The first of these rooms was a billiard-room, the second was devoted to concerts, and the third and farthest from the house was a bedroom. These rooms were fitted up in European style with hangings and plastering, and consequently exhibit in a greater degree, by the broken plaster and fluttering paper, the desolation and ruin of the whole place. And of the other apartments which are ceiled with wood, the bedchamber has some of its furniture remaining; a, handsome bedstead, old-fashioned, quaintly carved with ebony inlaid with other woods, still remains tottering in one corner ; this, with a few broken chairs, serves to show that time, not the robber, has been the plunderer.
Such is the abode of that Mrs. Ann Palmer whose virtues are recorded in the Parish Church. In this splendid mansion of Rose Hall, surrounded by all the luxuries which wealth could afford, this dutiful daughter, this affectionate wife, lived and died. Let us return to the bedroom we first visited. On that bed lay in dying agonies the original of that stern-featured man in ermine robes whose portrait hangs in the hall. He died in his prime, in full youth and vigour ; he died by poison administered by the hands of his wife ; he died while his wife looked on his last agonies with a calm brow and serene countenance, and unheeding his groans ; he died while his wife was urging her slave, her accomplice and paramour, to hasten the effects of the lingering potion and put an end to the dying man's struggles by smothering him with pillows. And what became of this accomplice? Ask the old negro whom you see basking in the sun there before the door, and who has numbered more than a century of years ; he will tell you of a slave gagged, tied, and flogged until he died, while his mistress stood by callous to his dreadful sufferings, unsoftened by his awful agonies, and, with an unmoved brow, quietly watching him while he yielded up his existence. That slave was the negro paramour of the woman of so many Christian virtues, and she murdered him to prevent his disclosing her shame and crime. Thoug'h suspicion might be excited, yet death comes so suddenly and unexpectedly in this climate that the decease of Mrs. Palmer's husband was easily accounted for. And if anyone dared to think there was foul play the high rank and great influence of the parties engaged forbade suspecting persons to give utterance to those suspicions, and the fearful vengeance she had taken on her slave was a terrific warning to her own household to keep a discreet silence, Time wore on and the deed was forgotten.
The Parish Church is filled with a gay and gladsome crowd ; a band of four hundred negroes, neatly dressed in new clothing, lines the streets leading to the sacred edifice ; a cavalcade of horsemen approach in front and the procession is graced by ladies of high position in society, Plumes are floating, silks fluttering in the breeze, and amidst noise and tumult, shouts and cheers, the bride and bridegroom approach the altar, Kneeling before the rails we see a female of commanding appearance and of great beauty, her high forehead, Grecian nose, small mouth, black eyes, and hair adorned with a wreath of orange-blossoms point her out as the original of the portrait we admired in the banqueting-hall of that stately mansion, and by his fine, open, benevolent countenance and rich Court dress we easily recognise her partner. The nuptial rite is ended, and amid the discharge of cannon, the firing of musketry, and the shoutsof the populace, the gay and glittering- throng returned to the splendid mansion of the bride. And there was another page turned in the history of that dark-haired lady's life.
Ascend that wide and costly staircase; on the left side of the upper hall we come to a door firmly locked and barred. Pushing back the stubborn bolt, we enter a room more damp, more mouldy, more neglected than any we have been in yet. A heap of musty feathers matted together by decay show the remains of a bed, and a few scattered fragments fluttering from the posts of the bedstead show that rich hangings, had once been there. A few dark spots upon the floor and near a corner a larger stain, an old portrait much torn and dilapidated, having the eyes entirely cut out, are the only objects that attract attention. Here another dark tragedy was performed, another deed of blood was committed, and another dark page of crime and wickedness was turned in the life of that dark-haired, high-browed lady.
The hand of death was fast closing the eyes of that gay and gallant bridegroom; he seemed to have already done with the world; his hands refused their office, his tongue no longer obeyed his will. When dismissing her second paramour and accomplice from the room, she, not contented with seeing her victim perish before her eyes, taunted him with her infamy and upbraided him with his dishonour, and avowed that she had been the cause of his death, that she had drugged his cup, that she had poisoned his meat, and that no earthly power could stay his fleeting breath. Pier taunts and reproaches roused the decaying energies of the dying man ; his tongue obeyed his will, and loudly his shouts echoed through the vast mansion that his wife had poisoned him. Terrible was the scene that now ensued. To stop his cries, to hide her guilt, his wife stabbed him with a knife that lay near. Collecting all his energies, the dying man rose from the bed, a dreadful struggle ensued, and when the horrified attendants burst open the door the man was seen lying dead in one corner of the room, weltering in his blood, and his wife lying beside him profusely bleeding front a wound received from her husband in their last deadly embrace. The stain on the floor above' alluded to was caused by the blood that flowed from the murdered husband. The world was told a tale that in the last moments of her husband, amid the delirium and frenzy of death, he had risen from his bed, first attempted to destroy his wife, then stabbed himself to the heart. He was buried and the fatal room closely barred and locked, whilst the only emotion his wife showed was removing that old dilapidated portrait from the banqueting-hall, averring she could not bear to see her father, for it was his portrait, and he was reproachfully looking at her.
The next few years of her life were passed in retirement, shunned and deserted by the world. She spent her clays in her splendid mansion with the paramour for whom she committed so enormous a crime, and whom she afterwards married. He was an immigrant, a mechanic, a rude and unlettered man, but with passions as fierce and temper as fiery as her own. Bitter were the quarrels and fearful were the strifes and contentions between them. lie disappeared, it was said he left the country, and though her former life showed she was capable of every wickedness, and though it was more than hinted she could have told a tale of his departure, yet it is also said she doted on that worthless villain with all the love and all the affection which only a woman can bestow, and that she mourned his loss long and bitterly. We have seen her affection as a wife, her tenderness as a parent we can only glance at. One only daughter she had, the offspring of her first husband, and her she consigned to a fate worse than the most dreadful death.
The next page of her history is almost a blank, and little is known of it. She married him whose name she bears; but these last nuptial rites were celebrated in a manner widely different from those of her youth. No glittering cavalcade, no crowd of admiring friends, no multitude of exulting retainers, were summoned to add joy and eclat to the festive scene. The rite was solemnised in solitude, almost in obscurity. The name of the bride had become a scorn and reproach, a byeword and opprobrium among men, and she no longer dared to meet the glance or to obtrude herself on the notice of society. He she now married chose her for her wealth alone, and having obtained that, warned by the dark whispers concerning the fate of his predecessors, he voluntarily banished himself from the society of his bride and wisely sought safety by flight, and a continued absence from the house of his still beautiful but fearfully dreaded wife. What would have been his fate had he remained may be guessed from the expressions his wife was heard to utter with muttered voice and frowning brow as she paced in terrible gusts of passion, which the absence of her husband provoked: " If I survive him, I will have a fifth, I will do it "—a dark and ominous foreboding. Left now alone to her own dark passions, her life was a continual prey to them, and as if these were not sufficiently strong, but perhaps also to drown the stings of remorse, she added the intoxicating bowl and the stimulating draught. Her nights were spent amid drunken orgies, scenes too disgusting to describe, while her days were spent in inflicting the most tyrannical cruelties and dreadful tortures upon her slaves, who were alternately the. companions of her evening orgies and the victims of her morning remorse. One page more of her history. She that had looked calmly on the sufferings of others, she that had shortened the lives of three husbands, she that had seen unmoved the agonies of her fellow-mortals while they were cruelly scourged to death, had now in her turn to behold others mock at her, and in the clay of retribution her entreaties were disregarded, her prayers unheeded, and her supplications made a mockery of. Her companions were her murderers. Through the subterranean passage she had used for her own wicked purposes they entered her apartment. Her cries and screams were heard, but those were so common in that mansion that they passed unheeded and little or no attention was paid to them, and though some suspicion might be aroused, yet her life was so much to be dreaded that her domestics cared not to interfere. In the morning her body, flung carelessly on the bed with staring eye- balls, livid countenance, and twisted throat, showed plainly the deed of violence that had been committed during the shadows of the night. A grave was dug and she was buried in sight of the house she had stained with so many crimes. This was the end of that Mrs. Ann Palmer whose virtues are so conspicuously recorded in the Parish Church ; this was the long and lingering illness which she bore with so much fortitude and resignation.
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And so goes the Legend. It is clear in the opening passage that there was a clear case of mistaken identity of the perpetrator of the crimes if any were ever committed. The opening paragraph states:
In the Parish Church of St. James, Montego Bay, is a marble monument of the purest white without speck or blemish... The superscription purports that it was erected to the memory of Mrs. Ann Palmer
But the actual text of the inscription states it was erected in memory of Rosa Palmer. A different woman in a different century. Herein lies the the basis of the debates... to whom does the story refer? Curiously, the veracity of the story about murders received much less commentary.
Next: The letters published by the Gleaner in 1895, including John W. Broderick's, who claimed to have been the overseer under Mrs Palmer and the source for much of the pamphlet published in 1868.