Home / Columns / The Legend of Johnny Martino

The Legend of Johnny Martino

October is Italian Heritage Month, and I’m certain the pages around me will be filled with tributes to Italians and to the North End. There is certainly a lot to be proud of and a lot to display. But October is also the month of Halloween. A quintessentially American holiday with roots in the native Celtic religion, Halloween in the North End was a lot of fun. The streets were filled with kids in costumes, and there were so many buildings with so many apartments to get candy. And there were a lot of adults around, as always, to keep things safe. Of course, you still had to watch out for the ghosts …

There were some ghosts in the North End. My sister and some of the other people who lived on Jackson Avenue saw a ghost in the three buildings there from time to time. It would just appear suddenly, standing in a corner or sitting on a chair. My sister saw it as late as the 1990s. The ghost never did anything but appear from time to time. Jackson Avenue is right across the street from the Copps Hill Cemetery.

Copps Hill Cemetery

Copps Hill Cemetery

About 100 years earlier, the Boston Globe reported a ghost and “strange happenings” at 10 Endicott Street in April of 1892. Two families, the Smiths and the Connors (there were still Yankees in the North End in those days) reported that someone was disturbing an upper room by removing clothes from trunks and drawers, and piling them on the floor. The intruder also tore the cover off a sewing machine and turned portraits to face against the wall. There was no other way into the room, so they bolted the windows and door, and stood guard outside. Yet every time they did this, and without hearing a sound, they would open the door to find the room disturbed in the same way as before. The Globe report said that crowds gathered outside the building and the “oldest Northender” at the time said that it was no doubt a ghost coming from — guess where — Copps Hill Cemetery.

Now there just happens to be a ghost story about Copps Hill Cemetery itself, which some people call “The Legend of Johnny Martino” and others call “The Lady in the Little Cemetery,” depending on who’s calling it.

* * * * * * * * *

It all goes back to the urban legend. You’ve heard it: A person makes a bet with friends that they can spend the night in a tomb. In the morning, they are found insane with snow-white hair. Nobody knows what actually happened to them because they never speak again. Some say they are taken to the land of the dead, where they are tortured and tormented. Others say they are frightened by the ghosts they encounter there.

The North End variation takes place in Copps Hill Cemetery. Any man who dares spend Halloween in the cemetery after midnight meets the ghost of a beautiful woman, whom he can’t resist, and whose desire is so great that it draws the life out of him. They find him the next day, his decapitated head covered in snow-white hair, lying next to his ravished body. In the North End, they called her the “The Lady of the Little Cemetery,” because her tomb was in the smaller of the two graveyards that make up Copps Hill.

Everyone in the North End had heard the legend, but nobody paid it much attention to it until, one day in late October of 1975, Johnny Martino had an argument with Danny Magaro about who was the better lady’s man. It all seems silly now, but back then, it really mattered. Johnny had always boasted that no woman could resist him, and he was really on a roll that day, going on and on until he bragged that he could even survive a night with the Lady of the Little Cemetery. Danny shot back that Johnny didn’t have the coglioni to do it. Johnny bet him $300 that he could, and so the bet was on: Johnny would spend the next Halloween night in the Little Cemetery.

And so, a week later, on October 31st, 1975, I found myself walking with Johnny up Hull Street towards the cemetery. I went as a neutral witness — I was friends with both him and Danny. The plan was for me to wait in the groundskeeper’s shed while Johnny went into the little cemetery at midnight. I would go out from time to time to see what was happening and verifying that Johnny remained in the cemetery the whole night.

Now, I really didn’t think anything was going to happen. It would be a boring, dreary, cold night. After all, there was no such thing as ghosts. Yet, as Johnny and I walked up Hull Street, a strange, cold wind came howling out of a sky with jagged edged clouds partially hiding a full moon. It sent a shiver up my spine, but Johnny hardly seemed to notice. He was walking steadily up the hill, paying no attention to the cold, dark day that loomed about us, or to the possibility that he might be walking into a legend. And he was going on and on about the real date he had given up to spend this night in the cemetery.

As expected, the gate was closed, so we climbed the wall and carefully hopped the metal fence.

“Hey Lady, here I am,” Johnny yelled as we walked towards the shed.

“Shh! Johnny,” I said looking around me.

“Jimmy’s scared of ghosts,” he laughed.

I laughed too, but not as hard as he did. We got to the shed and picked the lock. It was full of equipment but there was enough space to sit down and spread out the blankets we brought with us. We also had a spuckie, cheese and cold cuts, and a bottle of my grandfather’s wine. Johnny made a sandwich and cut it in half while I poured the wine, using two recycled grape jam jars as glasses. I looked at my watch. It was just about 11:15 as we sat side-by-side, eating slowly and taking an occasional sip of wine.

I looked at Johnny from time to time: He was quiet and pensive.

Then, suddenly, he asked me, “So what do we know about this lady?”

I was startled and some of the wine caught in my throat, but I cleared it and then told him what I knew, which was what I had heard here and there from others.

The Lady’s name was Maggie Oaks Walker. She lived in the North End in the 1600s and was the servant to a Puritan shipping merchant named John Weymouth, a dashing and handsome man notable for his mane of snow white hair and his way with the women. They say that Maggie was equal to his looks, and that he fell in love with her the moment he saw her. Some say that she was Irish, others that she was French. But no matter. Since she was neither a Puritan nor an Englishwomen, she was an outsider to the North End. Weymouth’s family threatened to disown him if he dared marry her. Maggie begged him to elope, but he was stubborn and stayed to fight them. At the same time, he refused to marry her unless they approved. So he kept Maggie all but locked up at home, a perpetual virgin because he also refused to sleep with her before he could marry her. He wanted his virgin bride.

But this didn’t stop him from going after prostitutes or otherwise available women in the bars and saloons of the North End waterfront. Even Puritan society had its ‘underside,’ and Puritan or not Weymouth, was a real mascalzon. He would often come home in drunken rages after his liaisons, screaming at Maggie for destroying his life, and then apologize profusely to her in the morning when he was sober, wooing and sweet talking her, making the same promises to leave Boston with her. It was a cycle, and Maggie put up with it because she loved him — and because she had no idea the cycle had other women in it.

They say this went on for 20 years, though that seems like a long time. Anyway, one day, Maggie caught him. It was on October 31st, 1675. Halloween hadn’t been brought over to America by the Irish yet, but many of the sailors and dock workers not only knew about it, but celebrated it along the waterfront, blending it into a kind of preparation for Guy Fawkes Day, which came on November 5th.

Weymouth had never taken another woman home before that night, but had always gone with them to secret places so that Maggie could never find out. Why he altered his pattern this night is unknown. Maybe he was tired of it all; maybe he had a death wish; or maybe he was too drunk to know better. In any case, that night, he stumbled back into his home with a woman. Maggie was upstairs when she heard them, and came down to find Weymouth on his back, the woman writhing madly on top of him. As I said, Maggie was a virgin, but she had spent years fantasizing about Weymouth. The scene hypnotized her and she watched them, and watched and watched. Then, the woman started screaming in her pleasure and she only stopped screaming when Maggie took her head off with a hatchet.

Weymouth was wearing a Jester’s mask for Halloween so all Maggie could see were his eyes as he sat up and stared at her. He was still excited, and with a wave of his hand he invited her to take the place of the woman, whose body now lay motionless beside him. Maybe Maggie thought about it; maybe she didn’t. But what she did was to take another swing with the hatchet, this time at Weymouth’s neck. Her aim was good and Weymouth’s masked head went flying up and out through one of the windows onto North Street. They found it the next day, mask still on, sitting right where it landed the night before, right in front of Cotton Mather’s house. They found Maggie inside with the bodies, and it didn’t take them long to try, convict, and hang her. Just before they pulled the lever, however, she uttered a curse, saying that if she could not get her satisfaction in life from one man, she would find it in death from many. They laughed and pulled the lever.

After they buried her on Copps Hill, things started to happen, strange things. At first, people would hear moans and crying from the cemetery; others reported seeing a woman dressed in a gown walking about in the Little Cemetery. Finally, one night, about 10 years after Maggie’s execution, a cemetery watchman arrive late to put out a lamp he left burning in the shed. They found him insane the next day, hair all white, his body wasted, his mind gone – gone with the brioschi. The next one was a stonecutter who had fallen asleep. They found him the same way: hair all white, body wasted, insane. It happened to about a dozen more men over the next few hundred years. But only on Halloween Night, and only if the man was single and spent the night in the cemetery. They say that Weymouth is the only one who can break the curse, provided he would return to her some Halloween night to satisfy her passion.

Johnny was quiet when I finished telling the story, quiet for a long time. Then he told me to close my eyes.

“Close my eyes?” I asked. It was a strange request but I did it. I heard him rattle around a bit and then he told me to open my eyes.

As soon as I did, Johnny shouted “boo” and thrust his face, covered with a Jester’s mask, into mine.

“Jeez!” I shouted, reeling back.

“I got you!” Johnny laughed, and then told me that he already knew the story and that he had come prepared to meet the Lady.

I didn’t laugh this time but said, “Johnny. Maybe we should get out of here.”

“Jimmy, what’s the matter. You scared.”

“Well…” I said.

“Well…” Johnny imitated me. And he laughed more. Then he stood up: “It’s time.”

I looked at my watch and saw that he was right. It was just a few minutes to mi-night.

Reluctantly and wishing we would leave, I jumped up and walked out the door with him.

I walked with him the steps leading down to the Little Cemetery and stopped.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” I asked. He still had the mask on.

“The bet says I have to stay here alone,” he said. “I’m okay,” he added, reassuring me with a wink that I saw through the mask. “Nothing is going to happen Jimmy. And I’m gonna be three hundred bucks richer tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said and headed back to the shed. But when I got there, I couldn’t stay still. I wrapped one of the blankets around me and I stood looking out the small window of the door. I could see Johnny at the top of the steps, still and staring into the Little Cemetery. He was still for a long time and then he seemed to tense up for a moment, rise on his toes as though he were trying to see something. And then, suddenly, he was gone, walking down the steps into the Little Cemetery. I waited, maybe for about five minutes, maybe a little longer. But that was it. I had to go see what was happening.

The wind had shifted and was now coming from the direction of the Little Cemetery, which was strange because it was set lower than the big one, and enclosed by the walls: This should have blocked any wind. It was hard to walk straight ahead so I had to cut to the left where another part of the school blocked the wind. This brought me to what we called the Sixteenth Outhouse, which was a small, square area next to the school, set down about four feet. I climbed down, and moved to the right to poke my head over the wall. What I saw scared the “you know what” out of me.

Johnny was walking towards Maggie’s tomb. I looked in that direction and, I swear, I saw a woman standing there with open arms. Behind her the tomb door was open wide. Even from the distance, I could see that the woman was beautiful. She was dressed in strange clothes, almost like a costume gown, with a lot of green and purple. Her hair was undone and floated on the wind. I watched Johnny walk up and take one of her outstretched hands, and then follow her down into the open tomb. As the door shut, a huge wind blew right over the wall, knocking me out cold. That is all I saw. The rest I got from Johnny later, in the morning, after I found him, the way he was …

Johnny told me that when he saw the woman, Maggie, appear, dressed just as I had seen her, he was drawn to her. It was at once a physical arousal and the deep desire to surrender to her. Unable to control himself, he walked toward her and took her hand. She led him along a dark passageway filled with staring eyes belonging to what seemed like animals or worse, until they came to a small chamber room. It contained a large bed, a rocking chair, and a bureau with a mirror. On the bureau were three things: a portrait of a man, a hairbrush, and a bloodied hatchet. He paused when he saw the hatchet, and she sensed his fear, sensed it as weakness. She pulled him hard onto the bed, face up. She seemed to float at that point, hovering just above him, smiling down at him — a smile that made him quiver with both lust and fear. She removed his shirt and then she reached up back over her head to undo the clasps on the top of her dress. Johnny went pazzo at that point. He wanted her more than he had ever wanted a woman, and in the way they had always wanted him. It was at that point that Maggie reached for the hatchet.

Still floating above him, she held it lightly in her hand, her face more radiant by the second, but with a look that made him realize where the end of that desire lay. Yet he was still paralyzed, and still insatiably desirous of her. She made it worse by teasing him, stroking his head and his chest.

He could not contain himself. “Yes, please,” he strangled out the words. “Please.”

She smiled at him, but there was not a hint of physical pleasure on her face. Instead, he saw a strange gleam of anticipation. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry, because she moved above him for what seemed like an eternity of endless, almost unbearable pleasure. Every so often, however, she would break her rhythm slightly to reach down and stroke his hair. It was an odd touch, that left his head feeling colder each time. And though he couldn’t see what was happening, he knew that at each pass, his hair was turning whiter and whiter, and that he was getting closer and closer to losing his mind.

“Oh, God,” he moaned. “Maggie, please, please,” not knowing if he was begging her to stop or to cut his head off.

She laughed at this, and then laughed more when he tried to pull away from under her. He only managed to turn his head, but that was enough to give him a good look at the portrait on the bureau. It was a medium-sized painting of a man, with the name J. Weymouth inscribed on the bottom of the frame. The paint had faded somewhat, but the image was clear enough for Johnny to make out the face staring at him: his own face, older perhaps, but the same face Johnny saw every time he looked in the mirror. All at once, it seemed as though 300 years passed before his eyes and he saw himself in their house, as it had been that night, with Maggie holding the hatchet above him. He also saw how much she had loved him — loved Weymouth — and how hard the years alone had been for her. and he saw the terrible anguish she felt for killing him. Johnny saw it all and understood. That was Johnny’s specialty: seeing the heart of a woman and understanding. It’s what made them love him.

“Maggie,” he said. “Take off my mask.”

Maggie paused, hearing something in his voice. She stared at his eyes, uncertain and then anxious. Then, quickly, she reached down and pulled the mask off Johnny’s face. It was as if, Johnny said, she had seen a ghost. The ghost of the man she had loved.

She gasped, weakened, and suddenly he felt his power return. He brought his hands up to grasp her waist and to take control of her now. This too was part of Johnny’s specialty. And for the first time in her life, Maggie felt the pleasure that she had only dreamed of while alive, and only cursed while dead. And so when the moment came, she collapsed on top of him into dust.

After lying there with remains of dust and bits of tattered clothing all over him, exhausted and disoriented, Johnny managed to grab his clothes and crawl out of the tomb and stumble to one of the trees.

That is where I saw him when I woke up, maybe an hour after I had been knocked out and collapsed against a tree. I ran to him and I noticed the white hair as I got close. He was sobbing quietly and his body was cold. I pulled him to the shed and wrapped him in the blankets, forcing some wine between his lips. This revived him a little, and he hugged me tightly when he saw me, crying deep but quiet tears. When he stopped after a long time, he told me what had happened – what I have just told you. And then, after a long time more, when the clouded sky was just turning a morning shade of gray, I helped Johnny to home. I don’t know what he said to his mother.

I went home, collapsed and slept till the phone woke me up. It was Danny who told me to meet him and some of the others down at the club. When I got there, I told them what happened. They didn’t believe me — at first, that is — until they saw Johnny a few days later walking up Charter Street. His hair was white as snow — a snow that looked as though it had fallen on his head from a deadly winter storm, frozen forever where it lay. His eyes were as dark and intense as ever, but the same storm that had struck his hair had also struck his eyes, leaving behind something shadowy, something you could almost see moving inside them, if you dared look for too long. We went right up to him, asking how he was, where he had been. But he just looked at us blankly, said nothing and kept walking. Another time, Danny tried to give him the money, but he stared at it uncomprehendingly.

Then he stopped coming out, or hardly ever. He continued to live with his mother, and he came out once in a while, walking the streets with that hair and those eyes, saying nothing. But he came out less and less as the years went by, and then only on Halloween night. He would walk the streets of the North End till about 11 p.m., and then he would climb up the wall and fence into the cemetery. And then he would come back over and down the morning after.

We still wonder about him and what happened and what Johnny told me. We tried to make sense of it. Some thought that maybe Johnny was a reincarnation of Weymouth. Others thought he just happened to look Weymouth, who may have been one of those Latin looking Englishmen left over from the Roman times. And some thought that Johnny’s luck with women had finally run out — or that Maggie’s ghost had taken in that luck for herself, freeing herself finally. Maybe Johnny goes back because he thinks Maggie will return some night. Maybe she does. Or maybe he is just crazy.

I suppose someone could follow him into the cemetery to see goes on there on Halloween Night. I won’t be the one.

* * * * * * * * *

Now maybe this story is true, or maybe I made it up. I’ll just say this: if the characters resemble any people living or dead, it is either pure coincidence or it is because I did a lousy job changing their names and characters to protect the innocent. And I’ll say this too: if you want to find out if is true, go up to the Little Cemetery on Halloween Eve to see. Let me know what you find … if you can.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.