Rose Hall Legend Public Debate - July 23rd, 1895

Continutinuation of the 1895 letters to the Kingston Daily Gleaner about the origins of White Witch of Rose Hall.

The Kingston Daily Gleaner published a letter in 1895 that sparked a controversy over the story and identity of the White Witch of Rose Hall. This public debate went on for several months through the publication of several letters to the Gleaner, catching the attention and interest of the general public and ultimately shaping it into the story we now know.

Letter from Leslie Alexander (employee of the Island's Record Office)

Kingston-Gleaner-July 23-1895-p-7

Mrs. Palmer of Rose Hall.

The Editor of the Gleaner.
Sir,-- Recent indisposition as also removal from one parish to another have prevented my taking part in the above interesting controversy. However, some things happen for the best; had I taken up pen ere this the numerous controversialists had been deprived of the luxury of indulging, ad lib their imaginations. Like the famous charge of the noble six hundred "some one had blundered." I propose to upset much of a tradition of over 100 years' standing; and in doing so I am placed in the unenviable position of having to refute the statements of such respected authorities as Messrs. Richard Hill, J. H. Broderick, C. Plummer and JW. Gruber. My esteemed colleague, Mr. E. N. McLaughlin in his letter published in your issue of the 17th ult. has brought much care and study to the subject, and every item of information furnished from the Ecclesiastical and Island Records is genuine -- disproving many of the statements of the various writers. There two things, however, which have operated against him: firstly, his researches were not carried far back enough, and, secondl -- -like every other writer -- the moment he deserted facts and made demand on the imagination he went adrift.

For the purpose of elucidating much of the mystery which clings to the family history of the famous Mrs. Rosa Palmer I now give the following extracts taken from the Island Records. For convenience I arrange them in numerical order:

I. Liber 16 of Patents folio 174, recorded 20 July, 1719, setting forth that John Kelly had taken Priest's and Deacon's Orders and his vow to conform to the Church of England.

II. Liber 16 folio 239, recorded same date as above: Letters Patent appointing John Kelly Reetor of the parish of St. Elizabeth.

III Liber 18 folio 156, dated 15 May 1727: Letters Patent granting to John Kelly "present Clerk and Rector of St Elizabeth 15 months leave of absence to go abroad owing to recent illness."

IV. Liber 130 of Deeds folio 37 dated 19 January, 1746: Conveyance by Richard Lawrence to Henry Fanning for the sum of £3,000 of 290 acres of land in parish of St. James called "True Friendship" bounding east on Saml. Barritt, west on Benjn. Lawrence, north on the sea, and south on Benjn, and Lawrence Lawrence.


V. "Liber 134 of Deeds fol. 67, dated 21 June, 1746, recorded 24 July, 1748; deed of gift by which John Kelly of St. Elizabeth, Rector for the love and affection which he bears towards his well-beloved daughter Rosa Kelly of the parish and Island aforesaid, spinster, conveys to her all his substance and estate real and personal, moveable and immoveable, quick and dead and in what place now or hereafter, situate." The settler reserved to himself a life interest in the forgoing eatate. The witnesses to this comprehensive document are Edward Fox and John Boyd.

VI. Copy Register. Westmoreland, vol. 1, page 9: "Henry Fanning of St. Catherine and Rosa Kelly of St. Elizabeth married July 16th, 1746."

VII. Lib. 26, wills fol 108:--dated 26 January 1747, proved 10th March, 1747. Will of Henry Fanning described as of St. Catherine Esquire. Testator bequeaths to his "dearest and best beloved wife Rosa Fanning" all his real and personal estate also the benefit of an agreement entered into by him with Lawrence Lawrence of St James concerning a certain parcel of land. Testator bequeaths to Priscilla Metcalf as a memento for the care she took of me when afflicted with a long sickness at Walham Green, England, where I then lodged the sum of £150. All his pecuniary bequests are stated as "Irish money." He appoints his "dearly beloved wife Rosa Fanning sole and whole Executrix. Nevertheless it is my will and pleasure that my honest and sincere friend Mr. John Boyd shall give his assistance to the said Executrix my dearly beloved wife if thereto required by her."

Letters testamentary granted in the above to Rosa Fanning March 10th, 1747. Two Inventories, one for St. Catherine and one for St. James, were returned in this Estate. At the foot of the latter appears the following peculiar but valuable bit of information:m"NB--W. Fanning died January 28th, 1747."

VIII Liber 35, fol. 76, dated 15 July, 1752, proved 26 January, 1764: Will of George Ash described as "of St. James, planter." Testator leaves the sum of £300 to his brother Luke Ash and the residue of his real and personal estate to his dearly beloved wife Ross Ash in fee." Appoints his wife Rosa Ash sole Executrix.

No Inventory returned on this estate Letters testamentary granted 26 January, 1764 to Ross Witter.


IX. Lib. 151 fol. 225, dated 12 May, 1753, deed of settlement made between "Rosa Ash of St. James widow" of the 1st part Norwood Witter of Westmoreland, Esquire of the 2nd part and John Boyd of St. Elizabeth, planter and Luke Ash of St. James, planter, of the 3rd part." Deed recites that Rosa Ash is seized of "Rose Hall" in St. James and other lands; further incites intended marriage between Rosa Ash and Norwood Witter. By this deed "Rose Hall" is settled upon the special trust that said Rosa Ash is to receive "into her own hands the rents and proceeds.". In a schedule of personalty attached is mentioned a Bond of Lawrence Lawrence to secure payment of the sum of £750.

X. Liber 35 folio 177 dated 28 September, 1764, proved 9 March, 1765: Will of John Boyd described as "of St. James, Esquire." Testator bequeaths a mourning ring each of the value of one guinea to "Rosa Witter wife of the Honorable Norwood Witter, William Gale of St. James and John Kelly of St. James, Practitioner in Physick." His property called "Dunluce" near Montego Bay to his wife Mary Jane Boyd residue of his estate to his "two beloved daughters Ann Boyd and Rosa Kelly Boyd as tenants in common." Testator appoints his wife Mary Jane Boyd, his brother-in law, Thomas Freeman Samms, John Palmer, and John Kelly Executrix and Executors of his will and guardians of his daughter Rosa Kelly Boyd and the same parties except Rosa Witter) guardians of his daughter Ann Boyd. Testator recites the settlement of the 12th May 1753 made on the marriage of Rosa Witter by her then name of Asli" in which he is Trustee and appoints John Kelly and John Palmer to succeed him and carry out the said trusts.

Letters testamentary in this estate granted to John Palmer and John Kelly 9th March, 1765.

XI. Liber 36 folio 42, dated 16th April, 1763, proved 10th February, 1766:--Will of the Honorable Norwood Witter described as of St. James, Testator bequeaths to each of his sons William and John "of Westmoreland Esquires" the sum of £50 to buy them a mourning ring: residue of Estate real and personal unto my wife Rosa Witter her heirs, and assigns for ever in compensation and satisfaction of several large sums of money I have at sundry times received from her and on her account. Appoints his wife Rosa Witter sole Executrix. The witnesses to this will are Hugh McCormick, John Kelly and R. Cargill.

Immediately following the will is a Renunciation of the Executrixship by Rosa Witter, dated 9th January, 1766. The wording of the document is a degree strong: "I do as much as in me lies renounce and refuse, &c"

No letters testamentary granted to anyone in this Estate.

By Inventory returned 17th January, 1767, by the above Testator's Administrator William Witter, the estate is sworn at £7,856. At the foot thereof occurs this note:-- "N.B. Sundry slaves on Rose Hall Estate said by William Witter to be the property of the Honble. Norwood Witter Esquire deceased, refused to be shewn by Mrs. Rosa Witter who has possession of them."


XII. Lib. 13 fol. 307 dated 1767: Letters of Administration granted to "John Fagan of the parish of St. Catherine principal creditor of the estate of John Kelly, late of St. Elizabeth, Rector, deceased, intestate."

XIII. Lib. 55 fol 99, dated 31 March, 1777, proved 8 June, 1790:--Will of Rosa Palmer wife of the Honorable John Palmer, senior, of St. James: Testatrix, describes herself as being in perfect health, mind and memory, thanks be to God for the same:" recites power under deed of settlement on her marriage with John Palmer dated 4 May, 1767. Testatrix bequeaths unto her "cousin. Edward Kelly of St. James, planter, £500: unto may uncle Robert Mackey of the County of Cutrin in the Kindom of Ireland, £100; also £100 to each of the children of the said Robert Mackey. I give and bequeath unto each of my cousins Mary Campbell and Rosa Todd the daughters of my deceased uncle Edward Kelly, £100: unto my son-in law (six) John Palmer, junior, £500: unto my god-daughter Rosa KellvyBoyd, £100: unto my dearly beloved husband John Palmer (who is most deserving thereof) I give devise and bequeath all the residue of my estate real and personal."

Neither inventory, letters testamentary or administration in this estate recorded.

By way of supplement to the above extracts I must add that the only wills of any Kellys of the female sex found are those of Ann and Mary, 1777, by reading over which I feel sure that neither of these testatrices is in any way related to the Rev. John Kelly of St. Elizabeth. In my searches among deeds in the name of Ash and Kelly I cannot find any conveyance or settlement by which either Gorge Ash and his wife, or John Kelly and his daughter Rosa acquired "Rose Hall." I am therefore afraid to create this missing link by saying that the 290 acres called "True Friendship" acquired by Henry Fanning in 1746 (Vide supra No. IV) are one and the same place only re-christened on his marriage with Rosa Kelly. Such a speculation belongs to those of your readers who know the old boundaries of Rose Hall estate. The records in the General Register office for the parish of St. James ceased at the year 1770, cutting off every chance of tracing further the family history of Mrs. Rosa Palmer. I have had to rely solely upon those of the Island Record Office. My fourteen years' service in this office told me where I would spot the wanting records, and I am glad to say that I have found them amid our musty and dusty, yet valuable books which contain an unbroken record from the year 1661 (5 years after the settlement of Jamaica by the English) down to the present year.


Having exhausted my searches I shall now draw the next reasonable conclusions from the information obtained, endeavouring to steer clear of romance or legend. I say then:

1. That Mrs. Rosa Palmer of Rose Hall was the daughter of the Reverend John Kelly, Rector of St. Elizabeth (1719-1767)

2. That she was unmistakably Irish, from her name as well as the names of her uncle, cousins, &c.

3. That her first husband was Henry Fanning of St. Catherine whom she married at some church in Westmoreland proper (1746).

4. That the deed of gift by John Kelly in 1746 was made with the intention of upsetting or taking precedence to any future testamentary document, ergo a humbug. This presumptive piece of evidence is borne out by the letters of administration granted to John Fagan in 1767 vide supra No. XII

5 That the "honest and sincere friend and adviser John Boyd" was a type of our modern "village lawyer" ready to make and witness any document. This is borne out by the fact that he is a witness to John Kelly's deed of gift and figures prominently in Fanning's will and the deed of settlement in 1753. Something reciprocal to a fair degree made him create Rosa Witter guardian of his daughter Rosa Kelly Boyd, that same tendency causing her to stand god mother anterior, and also accounts for the bequest in Rosa Palmer's will.

6. That the Boyds, Kelleys, and Palmers were known to each other and must have been intimate years before any intermarriage.

7. That Rosa Kelly's next or second husband was George Ash.

8. That her third husband was the Hon. Norwood Witter of St. James. (1752-53.)


9. That Mr. Richard Hill is perfectly wrong when he makes out that Rosa Palmer was a sister of Norwood Witter.

10 That at the time of the marriage with Witter (1752 53) Rose Hall belonged to Rosa Ash (vide supra No. IX.),

11. That Richard Hill is again wrong when he states that Rose Hall was built in 1760.

12. That Ross Witter née Kelly had a brother, John Kelly, a "Practitioner in Physick," (vide supra No. X.).

13. That this brother is a witness to Norwood Witter's will along with two other Irish names.

14. That Norwood Witter was a wi ower or had children at his marriage with Rosa Ash. This is borne out by his will as he then (1763), say ten years after his marriage, makes certain bequests to his sons William and John, "Esquires." Infants (in law) are not generally thus addressed nor would they be entrusted with the administration of a father's estate for which fact vide supra foot note to No. XL

15. That Norwood Witter by his will confesses considerable indebtedness to his wife and would by a vague hint let us into the secret that he had considerable facilities from moneys received "on her account."

16. That no wife who lived on amicable terms with her husband would renounce executership in such emphatic words, nor would she refuse to show the appraiser of her deceased husband's effects a portion of his personality, namely: certain slaves. (vide supra foot note to No. XI.)


17. That Rosa Palmer by her will vide supra No. XIII. reveals much of the Irish portion of her family history, and lastly

18. That even if at her death (1790) she was not on the best of terms with her husband, at the date of her will (1777) she at least professes great respect for him in such terms as "dearly beloved" and "most deserving" etc.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy; "this I say in the best spirit to the controversialists. To my mind there is something striking and at the same time commendable in the manner in which these gentlemen have each earnestly put forward the respective details within their and their father's and grand-father's memory. On the other hand I cannot help saying that if such old and respected authorities have made such grave errors as to dates, names, etc.. concerning the famous Mrs Palmer of Rose Hall" the legendary and romantic side the subject may be equally incorrect and quite unreliable. As an example of incorrectness take the positive way in which Mr. Plummer would identify his "bad Mrs Palmer." Harmless and artless Rebecca Ann Palmer was under age when she married the Hon John Palmer and presumptive evidence would make out that she died abroad. She was furthermore most unIrish; and if any one had a will of iron and the temper of a devil" the 19th century should certainly if there is a reasonable doubt, give the benefit to the illustrious Mrs. Rosa Palmer the Irish emigrant. No doubt Mr. Broderick had recently read the play scene in "Hamlet," only substituting "molten lead" for cursed hebenon," His next speculation assigns the professions of "military officer," "Clergyman" and "Barrister" to Mrs. Palmer's husband. For my part in -- the absence of better proofs -- I am inclined to ignore the "bloody stain floor and pedestal" the "beautiful negress" the death by "smothering" and the "blue vein." With a child-like aptness this legendary lore was received years ago: with like zeal, has our, generation repeated it believing every word. We all, more or less, love the mysterious. I am sure that if all the children in this world were empanelled as jurors to pronounce upon "Jack and the Bean-stalk" they would certainly return a verdict of "True!" The pamphlet by Castillo takes the palm for incoherence and rhapsody: there is not in it one single clue or datum to help even the most careful enquirer; and the tale in the "Leisure Hour" for December, 1876, so alters names, dates and places that its historical work is considerably minimized. When we find the "Dictionary of National Biography" ante-dating deaths, &c. "Burke's landed gentry" guilty of omissions and commissions what wonder if year after year the "Jamaica Handbook" gives the wrong date of death of a Bishop, the post-dating of a ceremony or constitutional change: Indeed if the writer of "Jamaica at Chicago in 1893" can blandy tell us that Col. Colbeck "died amid great applause" -- through incorrect reading of a tomb stone -- nay, if Lawrence Archer and Roby mistake a cameo of Marcus Tallius Cicero for the medallion portrait of a local barrister, why marvel if the history of Mrs. Rosa Palmer of Rose Hall is "out of joint". Thanking you Mr. Editor for space.--I am, &c.,

Jubilee Villa, Malvera P.O.
16 July, 1895.


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