In the 19th century, nuns became one of the center points of old ghost stories. Visit any small town that was around at the turn of the 20th century and you’ll likely find record of one ghost story or another told by locals that made reference to a ghostly nun. And it’s little surprise, given the important role nuns played in so many communities. But of all of the legends around today, there are none quite so chilling as the legend of the headless nun.
It all started around the 1800s in the town of Miramichi, New Brunswick and a noble nun by the name of Sister Mary Unknown (or sister Mary Inconnue). Sister Mary was said to be a woman of honor who wanted the best for her community, which makes her death all the more tragic. Of the different versions of how she died, there is some inconsistency with different people saying it happened at different times and in different ways. Official records on the matter are difficult to track down, and it’s still not completely certain if the origin story of the headless nun are centered around a real event or if they are simply the trappings of an old urban legend designed to scare visitors and travelers who lingered there too long.
Sister Marie was said to have died one of a few ways. Some say she was beheaded by a madman who went on a rampage, killing the nun and hiding the head in the woods. Still others suggest it was two sailors who committed the ghastly deed. The sailors, according to accounts, were looking for a vast treasure that had been hidden somewhere nearby the town.
In those days decapitation was sometimes employed by murderers to hide the identity of their victims. In the days before DNA evidence and dental records, sometimes facial features were all that was available in small communities to identify the dead. This was particularly troublesome in large cities where a murder might take years before a positive identity was discovered. Add to this the short period between death and burial and limited communication, and it soon became clear that many cases relied on circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts – many of which were often conflicting.
The legend says that the ghost of Sister Mary Unknown has been making the rounds throughout the area, looking for her long lost head. It’s said if ever she does find it, she will be able to disappear and find peace. But in the mean time she trudges through the crushing desperation of attempting to locate her lost head. As chilling as it is, it is most certainly a sad story as well.
The story is, in some ways, similar to other stories of headless ghosts, however. Most famously, the headless horseman of Washington Irving’s imagination in the 1820 story Sleepy Hollow. But while the headless horseman of Irving’s story was a bit more terrifying and proactive, the headless nun was being spoken of for years before it became a famous literary legend.