Rose Hall Legend Public Debate - June 17th, 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.

Summary by the Editor of the Gleaner

Kingston-Gleaner-June 17-1895-p-7

Mrs. Palmer of Rose Hall.

It will be remembered that on the 2nd May we published a communication from a Correspondent who, on a visit to Montego Bay, entered Trinity Church and copied the inscription on a marble monument erected to the memory of Mrs. Rosa Palmer of Rose Hall Estate, St. James, who died on the 1st of May 1870. Around this monument a legend appears to have gathered to the effect that the lady to whose memory it was erected was a murderess responsible for the death of her five husbands. In confirmation of this story visitors to the Church are directed to note a splash of blood on the base of the monument and a dark ring on the neck resembling the mark of a rope. In our issue of the 4th of May we published a letter from Mr. John W. Broderick who was at one time an overseer on the Rose Hall estate giving some interesting details with regard to the notorious Mrs Palmer and confirming what had been alleged as to her cruelty and blood thirstiness. Other Correspondents then intervened that there with regard to the identity of the Mrs. Palmer who committed the murder as there was another lady of the same name who was as good as the other was bad. The discussion only served to mystify matters, and we now publish the following communication on the subject :--


Letter to the Editor

To the Editor of the Gleaner.

Sir, I have recently had occasion to refer to the records in order to obtain some reliable account of the Palmer family, with whose names a bloody tradition has long been connected, and which has lately formed the subject of correspondence in your journal. The results I have obtained are so utterly at variance with the severe version of the story, that I have felt it my duty to reopen the question in your columns, with the view of setting the public right, and of removing the obloquy which has for so long a time overshadowed the reputation and memory of one, if not two, unfortunate ladies of that name. The records I have traced are as follows:

1. Marriage of the Hon. John Palmer and Rosa Witter both of the parish of St. James, 5th Jaly, 1767.

2. Burial of Rosa Palmer, wife of the Hon. John Palmer of St. James, 2nd May, 1790.

3. Marriage of John Palmer of St. James and Rebecca Ann James (spinster) of the parish of Trelawny, 10th July, 1792. This marriage took place in Hanover.

4. Marriage of John Palmer of St. James, and Rebecca Ann James (spinster) of the parish of Trelawny, 4th August, 1792. This marriage took place in Trelawny.

5. Death of the Honble. John Palmer of St. James, 19th March, 1797

6. Baptism of Rebecca Ann James, daughter of Richard Haughton James of Hanover and Mary Partridge his wife, born 30th October, 1772, and baptised 13th January, 1773.

7. Indenture of marriage settlement, dated 10th July, 1792, made between the Hon John Palmer of the first part, Edward Knowles, of the second part, and Rebecca Ann James, of the third part; by which "Rose Hall" and " Palmyra" were conveyed in trust to Edward Knowles, to be held to the use of John Palmer during his lifetime; and after his death, charged with the payment to Rebecca Ann James, (in case the then contemplated marriage should take place, and she should survive her husband,) of an annuity of £1,200 currency during her life, in lieu of dower.


8. The will of the Hon. John Palmer, bearing date 2nd August, 1795, and codicil, dated 9th March, 1797. The will recite the settlement of the 10th July, 1792, and states that at the date of execution thereof his wife Rebecca Ann Palmer was "under age." His Executors and Trustees were therefore directed to secure the confirmation of the said settlement, by obtaining from Mr. Palmer, a deed releasing all her right to Dower out of his estate and, if there should be no children of the marriage, he bequeathed to his wife (subject to her execution of such relesse) a further annuity of £1,600 currency, making in all £2,800 sterling per annum, during her life; together with certain slaves, silver, a pianoforte, and other personal property. Brandon Hill Pen, near Montego Bay, was devised to Mrs. Palmer in fee, and the will also left legacies to his sons, John Palmer and James Palmer, to his wife's mother Mrs. Mary Partridge Samuels, her brothers, Richard and Edward James, and her sister Miss Mary Partridge James, and to Miss Vaughan of Bristol a niece of his first wife Elizabeth Vaughan. Rose Hall and Palmyra were to be held (subject to the foregoing annuity) to the use of the children of his then present wife, in default of such children to the use of his sons John and James Palmer, and the survivor of them and their heirs successively; and in default of such heirs, to the use of the eldest or other son of his nephew, James Palmer and his heirs in fee.

9. Indenture of release, dated 24th May, 1797, made between Rebecca Ann Palmer, widow and relict of John Palmer, deceased, first part: John Palmer and James Palmer, both of Great Britain, sons and devises of Hon John Palmer, deceased; second part and Edward Knowles and others, Executors and Trustees of and under the will of Hon. John Palmer, deceased, of the third part. This document recites the settlement of the 10th July, 1792, the marriage of John Palmer and Rebecca Ann James, the death of Hon. John Palmer on the 16th March, 1797, without children begotten by his wife Rebecca Ann Palmer, and the will of said Hon. John Palmer, and Rebecca Ann Palmer, the widow, in accordance with the Testator's desire, executes a release of all dower rights in his estate, in consideration of the annuity of £2,000 sterling and other bequests.


10. Indenture of Lease dated 22nd May 1797, made between Rebeccs Ann Palmer, widow and relict of John Palmer deceased, one part; and the Hon. John Mowatt, of St. James, of the other part, which recites the devise of Brandon Hill to Rebecca Ann Palmer by the will of John Palmer, deceased, and states that said Rebecca Ann Palmer being shortly about to depart this Island for the Kingdom of Great Britain, both come "to an agreement with this said Hon. John Mowatt for the lease to him of Brandon Hill Pen for a term of five years;" and the lease then follows and is executed in the usual way.

11. Indenture of settlement, dated 23rd May 1797; made between Rebecca Ann Palmer widow of the one part, and Edward Knowles of the other part by which said Rebecca Ann Palmer settles Brandon Hill in trust (subject to the above lease to Mowatt) to her own use during her life, and thereafter to her right heirs in fee.

12. Will of James Palmer; dated, at Bristol, England, 16th August 1797: proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury 13th August, 1806.

13. Will of John Palmer; dated at Bath, England, 6th April 1818: proved as above on the 13th October 1818

From these various records I gather that the Hon. John Palmer was thrice married, --first to a Miss Vaughan of Bristol, who probably never came to this country; next to Miss Rosa Witter of St. James in 1767; and after her death to Miss Rebeeca Ann James of Trelawny. (Why the last marriage was twice celebrated is not clear) The wives with whom we have to do were both natives of this country, and both appears to have been childless. There is no absolute proof that Rosa Witter was a spinster when she married Mr. Palmer; but I am disposed to agree with Mr. Hill on that point the name was a not uncommon one in St. Elizabeth and Westmoreland at that period as the registers show, and it is probable that she was born in one or other of those parishes. I have not been able to find a certificate of her baptism or birth.


John Palmer had two sons: John and James, probably the issue of his first marriage. They were both resident in England at the time of their father's death; and had reached their majority, as evidenced by their becoming parties to Mrs. Rebecca Ann Palmer's Deed of Release, executed two months after Mr. Palmer's death. The fact that the father made them, under his will, devisces in remainder of his estate may be accounted for by the fact that they were already settled in England, and not alikely to return to Jamaica: and therefore were sufficiently provided for by the legacies of £2000 apiece which he bequeathed them. No record of their births has been found.

Mrs. Ross Palmer pre deceased her husband; and the inscription on the Montego Bay monument no doubt correctly sets forth her virtues and qualities. Indeed on this point there seems little if any difference of opinion, among the various writers and controversialists.

Coming new to the third wife, Mrs. Rebecca Ann Palmer, the first thing evident is that, so far from her being a servant of the former Mrs. Palmer, or "an Irish Emigrant," she was the lawful and eldest [d]aughter of Richard Haughton James, of Hanover, and later of Trelawny (whose birth, marriage and death I have also traced,) and therefore that she belonged to one of the most respected families then in the Island. She married Mr. Palmer, as a spinster, at the age of 20 years, and was his honoured and "beloved wife" for a period of five years; when he died, leaving her childless. The munificent provision made for her by his will, is the best proof of the esteem and regard Mr. Palmer entertained for his wife; and this is further borne out by the legacies left to every member of her family, including her mother, (who had evidently contracted a second marriage after the death of Richard Haughton James.)

On the death of Mr. Palmer, his widow readily complied with the conditions of his will; and two months after she is seen to have arranged her affairs in consequence of "being shortly about to depart this Island for the kingdom of Great Britain." Having released all claim to Rose Hall and Palmyra, she could not possibly have returned there; and the manner in which she disposed of her own property, Brandon Hill, would seem clearly to indicate that she intended to reside permanently in Great Britain. No record of her death in Jamaica has been found.


John and James Palmer the sons who were resident in England at the time of their father's death, (vide extract from Mrs. Palmer's Deed of Release) continued abroad until their death. James Palmer died at Bristol, England, between 1797 and 1806; and John Palmer at Bath, England in the year 1818. Their wills mention no wife or lawful child and the presumption is that they never married. This being the case Rose Hall and Palmyra reverted under their father's will to the son of his nephew James Palmer, as therein provided. That nephew was John Rose Palmer. In an old Jamaica almanac for 1811, these properties are described as belonging to John Palmer deceased" which would indicate that there was no heir in possession at that time. I find a record in 1820 of the marriage at St James of "John Rose Palmer" and Annie Mary Patterson', and in an almanac for 1823 "Jouh Rose Palmer" as mentioned as the proprietor of Rose Hall and Palmyra.

So far for the family biography and I think that even the most prejudiced reader must agree with me that neither of the ladies whose history I have tried to trace could by any possibility be identified as the sanguinary heroine of the Rose Hall and Palmyra drama; nor is there the faintest clue remaining by which the tale could be traced to any kind of source


It is obvious that events so startling as those embodied in the legend, could not have occurred in any latter generation of the same family without supplying ample data in the way of names, places and dates to such writers as the Hon. Richard Hill and others, who were comparatively old men twenty-five or thirty years ago, and therefore if they happen d at all we must go back to an earlier generation far up in the 18th century at least, in order to find any positive trace of them. Mr. Hill supposes Rose Hall to have been built in 1760, seven years before Mr. Palmer's marriage with Rosa Witter, after whom the property is supposed to have been named, and if this be conceded, it will be at once seen that the whole story reaches vanishing point when it is traced back to that date. In spite therefore of Mr Hill's usual correctness and reliability, and of the corroborative testimony which has from time to time been brought forward, there appears to be no alternative but to place the whole story in the list of those mythical events, which have been so numerously evolved out of the imagination of a superstitious and peaceful people.

For my own part I am inclined to believe that the accidental circumstance of a blue vein being noticed in the marble monument at Montego Bay about the th[r]oat of the sculptured figure of Miss Rosa Palmer (which I have never seen) together with the interregnum caused by the temporary disappearance of the family after the death of the Hon. John Palmer, has, by the face of a too vivid fancy, aided by the threads of some forgotten tale of the old blood-shedding days of Jamaica, been woven into the legend which has come down to us; but I am quite convinced that the legend has no more connection with the Palmers of Rose Hall and Palmyra, whose history I have tried to trace, than it has with the man in the moon. I am, etc.

Trinity Villa, Spanish Town, June, 1895


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