In Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, while working in a private home, Mrs. Mary Johnson was badly injured in a fall. At the age of 82, with few resources at her disposal, neither Mary nor her husband, Peter, could care for themselves. During the next two years, the couple was housed in three different poorhouses, living at Fitchburg and Tewksbury before moving to the Worcester City Farm. At Fitchburg, Mrs. Johnson had begun telling stories about her secret war past, and at Worcester, folks began to take her seriously.
According to Mary, she had served honorably in two branches of military service, most notably a stint during the Civil War. Combat was reserved for men only, but Mary openly shared the details, insisting her story was true.
Before I continue, understand that there is at present no clear, crisp ending to this story, at least not to my satisfaction, but it’s a remarkable story nonetheless. Mary’s tale has been noted in very few sources, including some books that butchered the facts while only citing snippets. But as I discovered, it’s a mystery well worth a look.
When an 85-year-old poorhouse inmate begins telling stories, it would be easy to shrug it off as the ramblings of early dementia, especially when a woman declares that she was a Union soldier in the Civil War.
But Mary Johnson’s stories had a ring of truth. Her caretakers realized that if she had in fact served, a pension might remove the Johnson’s from their position as wards of the state. When the Worcester Chapter of the American Red Cross was notified, they sent Eleanor Vashon, executive secretary, to interview Mary. That meeting temporarily conferred celebrity status on Mrs. Johnson when the media picked up the story.
As Mary told it, she was born Mary Murphy in Plattsburgh, New York in 1840. Having lost both parents by the time she was eight, Murphy was adopted by the Benjamin Hill family. During the next decade, they lived in more than a dozen places in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, where they finally settled.
She recalled living in Westminster in what Mary referred to as the General Mills Nelson house (actually the home of native General Nelson Miles). They also lived near the old stone mill in Fitchburg (to confirm, there was one), where she and stepbrother Thomas Hill worked, learning how to create chair seats.
The war soon changed everything, but having lost her original family, Mary clung to what had given her comfort and a sense of belonging: “Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Tom enlisted in the army. He went to Camp Groton, Ayer, which is now known as Camp Devens.
“My home life was unbearable and lonely with Tom gone, for I loved him devotedly, as though he were my own brother. I followed him to Camp Groton. I started my journey at midnight, and got as far as Whalom Marshes, now Whalom Park [an amusement park], where I was picked up by a group of men who were traveling in a barge to Camp Groton.
“The men rolled me in coats and blankets and got me into camp. I asked to see Col. Davis or Lieut. Pratt, but this was refused. I was then taken at my request to my brother, Tom. After a while, Tom and his companions agreed to enlist me as a man and keep the secret.
“… I was taken to New York, my hair was clipped, and I was given a uniform and enlisted as Saul Hill, 18 years old, of Co. B 53rd Massachusetts Regiment. I went to Missouri and served during the remainder of the war, about a year and a half. I was given $110 when I enlisted and $110 when I was discharged. I remember Capt. Corey well.” [Captain Jonas Corey.]
She also gave details on the Battle of Antietam and others she participated in, and showed powder marks and a scar on her fingers, courtesy of a bullet wound.
Through existing records, some of that information should have been verifiable. Mary also claimed to have enlisted in the navy at Key West (shortly after her army discharge) and served for nearly six more years.
At one point, she described landing at Montreal, and an encounter with a woman who said she was Queen Victoria. (Victoria never visited Canada, but her son, Prince Arthur, was there at the time.) Shortly thereafter, she left the navy and spent time at a convent in Quebec.
To research this story, I took the position of trying to disprove Mary’s claims. I knew she didn’t meet the queen, but I had to concede that the person she mentioned could have claimed to be the queen. From my perspective, though, that part of her story remained in the untrue category.
The same “prove or disprove” mission was undertaken by Eleanor Vashon after interviewing Mary in 1924. Several parties were involved: a pension attorney; the Massachusetts adjutant general; the Daughters of Veterans; the Convent of St. Rock, Quebec; the Canadian Red Cross; the Tewksbury Hospital; and acquaintances of Mary with whom she had shared the unusual story of her life.
The Red Cross managed to confirm that Thomas Hill indeed served in the Massachusetts 53rd, but found no record of a Saul Hill in the same outfit. They did find a Joseph Saul, and considering Mary’s age and her earlier jumbling of General Nelson Miles as Mills Nelson, the similarity was noted as a possible link.
In February 1925, an unusual signing ceremony was held at the Worcester City Farm. After being sworn in, Mary’s signature was applied to a letter describing her military service. It was sent to Washington, and a reply wasn’t long in coming. Federal researchers confirmed that several records of Joseph H. Saul supported Mary’s story.
An official pension application was the next step, after which the government would research her story fully and make a determination.
Existing records indicate that several applications were made (which is not unusual), but it appears that her request was ultimately denied. None of the applications contains a certificate number, which would normally appear if a pension was granted.
Those results confused me. Finding what you need in various archives is not always easy. I did manage to locate the names of Thomas Hill and Joseph H. Saul in the 53rd. Among the multiple enlistment dates are November 25, 1862 for Thomas and 9 December 1862 for Saul (Mary), which matches the story of Mary following Thomas when he joined the army. Both parties shared the same discharge information as well: “Mustered out on 2 Sep 1863 at Camp Stevens, Groton, MA.”
Census records were spotty, but the 1900 listing of Peter Johnson, Mary Johnson (his wife), and Benjamin Hill (noted as Peter’s father-in-law) in the same household confirmed her link to the Hill family and further supported her story. I was becoming a believer.
Among the pension applications was one with the heading, “Mary Hill Johnson, alias Joseph H. Saul,” and another with, “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.” Neither contained a certificate number, which indicates no pension was granted.
Digging further produced another document, a full record of Joseph H. Saul’s service―including his death in 1912 at a veterans’ facility. The basis for Mary’s claim was that no records of Saul existed after his military service because he was, in fact, Mary Hill Johnson. So now, Joseph H. Saul’s detailed death record quashed every bit of that claim.
Or so I thought. Persistence left me stunned at the next discovery, days later: a second Joseph H. Saul had enlisted at the same place (Gardner, Massachusetts), and with the same birth entry (“abt 1844”). But this second Joseph H. Saul enlisted in November 1864, two years after the first Saul. Further jumbling the picture: it appears that the records for both Sauls are mixed on the official listing under “Military History” from the veterans’ home where he died.
All things considered, it looks like Mary was being truthful. It seems a bit much to believe that an 85-year-old woman, with no access to public records, could have concocted a story with such accuracy in the details and so much supporting evidence.
It is documented that others have pulled it off in the past, and it looks like Mary Hill Johnson of Plattsburgh is part of an exclusive club. But I’ll keep digging for more evidence.
Photos―Above, Mary Hill Johnson; Below, Civil War Pension card with entry “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.”
Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.