Haunted History: In Search of the Real Story Behind the Disappearance of Lucy Keyes

Lori Lamothe

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(Enrique Meseguer/Pixabay)

If you’ve ever found your child after a frantic search at a park, this ghost story is for you.

According to the legend — which I recently stumbled across on Amazon Prime— Lucy Keyes set out after her older sisters one fine spring day. It was 1755 when the four-year-old hurried out the door of her farmhouse at the foot of Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts. Her sisters weren’t far ahead and the path to their destination, a nearby lake, was about a mile away.

Lucy never did catch up with them. She vanished without a trace and her absence drove her mother mad. The broken woman spent the rest of her life wandering the woods, shouting her daughter’s name over and over. Even after her death, Martha Keyes went on searching for the lost child. To this day, people report hearing her spirit calling “Lucy! Lucy!”

The child’s ghost never says a word in return. But if you look hard enough, you just might see her tiny footprints in the snow.

How much of the tale is true?

As it turns out, quite a lot. You can make up your own mind about the ghosts but much of the legend is based on fact.

Even more than 250 years later, however, the mystery of what happened to Lucy remains unsolved. Some claimed a disgruntled neighbor murdered the child then led searchers away from the spot where he hid the body. Others said the Mohawks kidnapped her. Still others believed she drowned in Lake Wachusett or lost her way in the vast forest that surrounded the Keyes’ farm.

While it’s not possible to know what really happened, history does provide a few clues. I’ll lay out the facts and let you draw your own conclusions. If you’re like me, you may end up more confused than you were when you started reading. Because the facts in this case conceal more than they reveal.

A Christmas Eve wedding

When I began researching Lucy’s disappearance, I hunted down an 1893 copy of Lucy Keyes, the Lost Child of Wachusett Mountain. Despite the fact that Francis Blake wrote his history more than a century later, he managed to find several sources who knew people in the area at the time Lucy went missing. His little book, along with snippets from archival documents, is the closest we can get to the truth.

According to public records, Martha Bowker married Robert Keyes on Christmas Eve in 1740. Martha was 20 and Robert 29, a bit older than usual, but they soon started a family. By the time they moved to the eastern slope of Mount Wachusett in 1751, they already had five children. They would go on to have five more in quick succession while trying to carve out a living as farmers.

Robert was a blacksmith by trade but there were so few settlers in the area he couldn’t support himself that way. In 1749, he bought 200 acres from a man who had received a settlement from the General Court in return for being held captive by Native Americans when he was a soldier.

At the time it was common for the court to grant such petitions based on little to no evidence, so the exact nature of Benjamin Muzzey’s “long and cruel captivity” remains another mystery. The town of Princeton did not yet exist, so the only reference point in the legal document is the mountain itself.

‘It was wild country’

It was untamed country, “abounding in large areas of woodland” and the Keyes had no neighbors. Several miles to the south lay the “Wilder Tavern” for the few travelers to Nicheawaug and not far from that lay another tavern run by Abijah Moore “for entertainment of man and beast.” Another family may or may not have begun to build a sawmill in the area. There was only one dirt road nearby, which followed an old trail, and connected with the road to Moore’s tavern.

Amidst such intense isolation, did the large family draw even closer together? I imagine them gathered around their kitchen hearth on Christmas Eve the year before Lucy disappeared. Maybe Robert gave Martha a quick kiss under the mistletoe for their anniversary as she baked a pie. Maybe the busy parents even stole a moment alone after she fed 2-year-old Phebe and laid her down to sleep. As the roaring fire dwindled and the last candle flickered out, did they have any idea what lay ahead? Instead of the usual nativity tales, did one the older boys try to scare his little sister with a holiday ghost story?

As he tried to sort fact from fiction, Blake described Princeton children who grew up hearing such ghost stories by the fire. The only difference is that they were about Lucy and her mother.

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(Colter Olmstead/Unsplash)

‘Day after day and week after week, searching’

Four months later, on April 14, Martha sent her two eldest daughters, 9-year-old Patty and 7-year-old Anna, to gather sand from the shores of Lake Wachusett. Many women used sand to scrub their homes in those days, so that may have been why she sent the girls. Like a typical younger sister, Lucy decided to tag along. But Patty and Anna were too far ahead of her.

By the time the family realized what Lucy had done, it was already too late. Volunteers from as far as 30 miles away “collected immediately” and “in companies traversed the woods, day after day and week after week, searching for her.” Records state the searches were “systemic” and continued long after hope was lost. A group of local men surmised the child had drowned and dragged the lake in their search for her body.

Despite their efforts over a period of months, searchers found no trace of Lucy.

Lake Wachusett, with Mount Wachusett in the distance.(Lori Lamothe)

Lucy’s father, a legendary hunter in the region, refused to give up. Not only did he ceaselessly canvas his farmland, but he also traveled far and wide to find “the lost child.” In fact, he traveled so extensively and for so long that 10 years later he petitioned the General Court for money to help pay his expenses. He said he had spent so much — even selling off large parcels of his land — to locate Lucy that he was virtually impoverished.

The court denied Robert’s petition but that didn’t stop him. He eventually heard the tale of two traders who met a woman living with a Native American tribe near the Canadian border. She spoke little English but told them she once lived near ‘Chusett Hill.

That was all Robert needed to hear. After his fellow citizens collected money to pay for him to bring Lucy home, he headed North. Unfortunately his hopes came to nothing.

‘The mother was brought to the verge of insanity’

Martha was devastated. Just as the legend says, the grieving mother would go out into the woods night after night calling her daughter’s name:

“The mother was brought to the verge of insanity by the loss of her little girl, and for a long time after her disappearance, she always went out at night-fall and called Lu-cy! but the echo from the aged forests was the only answer.” — from the notes of Prof. Erastus Everett

Martha never forgot Lucy. Until her death 34 years later, Blake tells us “she had not recovered from the effects of this bereavement.”

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The graveyard where Martha Keyes is buried. Oddly, her husband’s grave is missing.(Lori Lamothe)

The story doesn’t end there, however. The Brooklyn poet Erastus Everett still had a role to play. When he visited Princeton on its 100-year anniversary to read a poem in the town’s honor, someone showed him a well-worn 1827 letter that suggested Lucy’s disappearance had a much darker side. Everett tracked down the woman who had written it and tried to verify the truth of its contents.

Though the original letter was lost, Everett gave Blake a second letter that the woman in question, Cornelia Brown of Kansas Territory, wrote him in 1859. Cornelia — who was known in her lifetime as “a woman of marked intelligence, of integrity and personal worth” — describes growing up half a mile from where Lucy’s sister Patty lived when she married.

She goes on to say she heard Patty tell the tale of her sister’s disappearance countless times, as well as share other information that corroborated the tale she passed on in her original letter.

The deathbed confession

The tale goes as follows: a man named Littlejohn, who was a neighbor of the Keyes, confessed on his deathbed that he murdered Lucy out of a desire for revenge. When the Keyes visited Littlejohn to reconcile after a property dispute, the man agreed and pledged friendship. He couldn’t let bygones be bygones though, and he killed the child by bashing her head repeatedly against a log. Later, he hid her body in a hollow log then volunteered to lead the search to prevent her discovery. After dark he returned to his hiding spot and moved Lucy’s corpse to a hole under a large stump. To passersby, no body would be visible.

The following day searchers turned up a lock of Lucy’s hair, which made Littlejohn so nervous he left town. But he never forgot what he had done and wanted to set things right. He ordered a Mrs. Anderson, who was in his sick room in New York, to find someone who would write his confession out and send it to Princeton. He entreated her to include the location of the stump and type of tree it was so Lucy’s bones might be unearthed and laid to rest.

Mrs. Anderson eventually located a Mrs. Whitmore, who was indeed a Princeton native. Mrs. Whitmore in turn requested that Cornelia write her sister, Mrs. Hager, who still lived in Princeton. Cornelia knew Mrs. Whitmore well and was convinced she spoke the truth as she had heard it.

That Cornelia did in fact write her sister an account of the deathbed confession is not in doubt. In 1859, she wrote the follow-up letter confirming that she believed everything in her original letter to be accurate.

“The main points I recollect distinctly and will give them. I was told that Mr. Littlejohn was thought to be dying for three days — at length he arose in bed and speaking audibly, said he could not die until he confessed a murder that he committed many years before. . .” — from the 1859 letter of Cornelia Brown

The historian’s search

Blake, being a diligent 19th-century historian, did his best to investigate. He tracked down descendants of Mrs. Anderson and wrote to Cornelia’s children. He corresponded with the Littlejohn family and got their side of the story. When he presented his findings to the Worcester Society of Antiquity in 1891, he decided the best he could do was designate the tale: “at least not proven.”

Why was he skeptical?

Yes, a man named Tilley Littlejohn had purchased property from Robert Keyes. Yes, he had lived in Princeton as Keyes’ neighbor for years. But there are complications.

For one thing, nobody remembered anything about a property dispute between the two men. For another, the dates are all wrong. Property records show that Littlejohn didn’t buy 67 acres of adjoining land from Keyes until 1759, four years after Lucy went missing.

Could it have been another Littlejohn who killed Lucy for revenge? It’s unlikely, because no other Littlejohn owned property that bordered the Keyes’ farm.

As for other neighbors, Robert and Martha only had one: a very wealthy man named Benjamin Houghton. From what Blake found, it seems clear that Houghton was not the man who confessed to Mrs. Anderson. Meanwhile, Tilley Littlejohn’s descendants proclaimed that he was a wonderful, loving grandfather and father whose reputation was impeccable.

Surely, he was no murderer.

Add to that the discrepancies in dates and locations. Could it be Cornelia got some of the particulars wrong when she tried to remember what she’d written 32 years earlier? Almost certainly.

Even the basic facts don’t match up. Aside from the land issue, Tilley died “of asthma and consumption” in Sterling, Massachusetts in 1793 — not New York. More to the point, Cornelia wrote her letter decades later, not in the late 1700s.

Three little facts

But there are several strange facts that raise questions in my mind. First, Tilley Littlejohn left the Princeton area on April 23, 1755 — just 9 days after Lucy went missing. He enlisted in the company of Captain Asa Whitcomb and marched 150 miles to Albany on the expedition to Crown Point. The enlistment was not planned in advance but was something done spontaneously.

That fits perfectly with the account in Cornelia’s letter.

After six months, Tilley was discharged in late October. The next record is of his marriage to Hannah Brooks in December 1757, more than two years later.

Is it possible the dispute involved the purchase of land, not the land itself? Maybe, but Tilley was only 20, not old enough to legally own property. Could the dispute have involved Tilley’s father? Again, no, because his father Thomas died when Tilley was 10.

Let’s get back to the idea of a land sale. Tilley was listed as being “a servant” of a “Jonathan Wilder” in Lancaster. Blake assumes this meant Tilley was an apprentice to a man named Jonathan Wilder. What if it meant something else entirely?

Remember that the Keyes had two taverns near their boundaries and that one of them went by the name “Wilder Tavern.” A little digging revealed that the tavern was run by a Joshua Wilder. Is it possible Tilley Littlejohn worked at the tavern for Joshua, not “Jonathan.”

The tavern is listed as being “on the road between Lancaster and Barre” and Tilley grew up in Lancaster. And in 1762, seven years after the disappearance and three years after Tilley Littlejohn bought land from Keyes, Wilder sold his tavern property— to Benjamin Houghton.

If Tilley worked at Wilder’s tavern, he would have known the area and may well have led searches. Add to that the fact that he eventually did buy land next to Keyes’ farm. Isn’t it possible he tried to purchase it four years earlier but was rebuffed?

Either way, every man from the area hurried to help search. Certainly Tilley would have done the same at 20. At the very least, that would put him at the scene of Lucy’s disappearance on the same day.

Blake states that Littlejohn was not of legal age to buy land in 1755. This is correct:

Under British common law, full majority was reached at the age of 21. Anyone under 21 was legally an infant. Only persons who had reached majority could perform certain legal actions:
Buy or sell land without restriction

However, research shows that Tilley’s birthday was the following month — on May 26. Thus any purchase in the immediate future would most certainly have been legal.

Envision this scenario: Tilley is 20, about to turn 21, in April 1755. He’s tired of working as a servant in a tavern, wants to buy land of his own. Maybe he already plans to marry Hannah or maybe he just wants to start his life as a farmer.

Robert Keyes isn’t having it. He won’t sell. He explains his decision to Tilley and thinks they’ve settled the matter. They haven’t. Tilley’s angry, frustrated, utterly thwarted. He’ll be a servant for the rest of his life, or so he thinks. He’s following a trail through the woods when he crosses paths with Lucy and rage takes over. Years later, he wants redemption.

As for the discrepancy in his place of death, I found a possible explanation for that as well. While Tilley remained in Massachusetts, two of his sons moved to New York. Could Tilley have confessed during a visit to one of them, a visit during which he fell seriously ill and believed he was dying? Note that Cornelia’s letter falls short of saying the murderer actually passed away:

Littlejohn was thought to be dying for three days

It’s a centuries-old mystery that will probably never be solved.

If Tilley was indeed the murderer, how could he have borne living next to the family he’d wronged so badly? It seems impossible. Yet . . .if he did, what effect would it have had on his soul to hear the dead girl’s half-mad mother calling her name night after night?

In perhaps the greatest irony of all, his own daughter Hannah died in 1764, when she was also four years old, on Tilley’s farm at the foot of Wachusett Mountain. His son Levi, who was six, died the same year.

The lost boy

There is a final piece of evidence, which may be the strangest of all. It baffled even the exacting, methodical Blake.

When researching Lucy’s case, he came across the disappearance of a 5-year-old Princeton boy in 1769. He deemed it “in every respect similar” to Lucy’s. As with the lost girl, the parents, the Maynards, were devastated and searched extensively for their son. In the Maynard family, relatives were certain that a “bitter enemy” of the father had murdered the boy for revenge.

Add to this fact that the boy’s mother was a Keyes and that Cornelia Brown’s father lived close to the Maynards at the mountain. In addition, the lost boy’s father, Artemas Maynard, died in Sterling, the same town Tilley died in. In those days, the two men almost certainly would have known of one another.

The primary difference between the stories is that the boy vanished soon after the family relocated to New Hampshire, not in Princeton.

Blake was initially convinced the mystery could be resolved by admitting that Cornelia’s deathbed-confession story was about the boy’s murder, not Lucy’s. After he held Cornelia’s letter in his hand and read it from beginning to end, he changed his mind:

I was constrained to admit one case probably had no connection with the other, though it is certainly a strange coincidence.

The legend lives on

Did Tilley Littlejohn murder Lucy? Or was she carried off and raised by Native Americans? And what of the other child, the lost boy? Are the two disappearances connected?

Whatever the truth is, the tale of Lucy Keyes lives on in Princeton — and as a psychological thriller that features Julie Delpy, Brooke Adams and Justin Theroux. When filmmaker John Stimpson moved to the area, he couldn’t resist making a movie about the story.

“I hike up there all the time. I can’t say I’ve actually heard her voice,” he said during a recent interview. “But the dogs have sometimes started acting funny, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. My wife and I have certainly had experiences where we’ve both been creeped out.” — John Stimpson

The movie takes a lot of liberties, mostly when it comes to the present-day story, but it has brought the legend into the mainstream. If you want to check it out, you can rent it on Amazon Prime or watch it free on Tubi.

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The Legend of Lucy Keyes, 2005(IMDb)

If you want a more immersive experience, you can always venture onto Wachusett Mountain some windy night. You just might hear Martha’s ghost calling her long-lost daughter. I didn’t hear anything when I walked through the area today, but I am tempted to return this Halloween night.

I’m not sure about the ghost hunting, but there is one thing I’m certain of: grief is the same from generation to generation. Martha’s ghostly cries may or may not be imaginary, but the tragedy of her lost child still echoes.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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