What does it mean to be a bad mother? Young women across varying cultures
are often explicitly taught by their communities, and more specifically
the older generations of women within their families, how to correctly
perform tasks that are specifically oriented to particular ideas concerning
how to be a good woman, whether it be how to treat a husband, how to cook,
or how to keep house. However, when it comes to the issue of having and
raising children, communities and families across the globe appear to
have a rather uniform belief as to what is means to be a bad mother. Often,
these two issues are taught by example; however, while the first is often
explained with a hands-on approach, the second is often dealt with in
a much different manner-- the telling of motherhood related ghost legends.
The specific details within motherhood-related ghost legends vary widely,
depending upon the era, locality, religious beliefs, and families in which
they are told. However, the basic structure of the legends concerning
the death or murder of children are the same: a mother kills or allows
her children to die, she kills herself, and she then haunts the community
in search of her lost children. Throughout my research concerning these
legends, I have come to the realization that there is normally only a
particular motherhood-related ghost legend that is passed down through
the generations of female family members. There are probably numerous
motives behind this transmission; however, I believe its main function
is not only to avoid confusion on the part of the listener, but to reinforce
a sense of credibility on the part of the teller,that makes the legend
sound believable and real. Thus, by conveying the legend or memorate in
this manner, another important aspect of the motherhood-related legend
surfaces: the importance of instilling a family's or community's moral
values concerning child-rearing upon the listener, which Patricia Sawin
elaborates upon in her article "Inscribing Morality on the Landscape:
Deviant Mountain Women in Bessie Eldreth's Ghost Stories," as she
states, "These localized ghost stories comment indirectly but pointedly
on moral behavior and thus make the very place in which one lives a constant
reminder of moral standards. (Considering some of the messages conveyed,
it will also become clear why daughters-in-law and an unmarried female
researcher should receive this indoctrination)" (79).
The first time I heard a murderous motherhood-related ghost legend was
when I was thirteen, and visiting my grandmother in Bozeman, Montana.
My mother had just told my grandmother that I had started my first menstrual
cycle, and the legend was told within the confines of a discussion of
sexuality. The form, and context, in which my grandmother chose to convey
the legend is not exclusive to my family. Rather, utilizing relative information
or occurrences to construct a framework around the legend appears to be
a common method of transmission. Pamela Jones furthers this notion of
the link between women's lives and the motherhood-related legends in her
article "There Was a Woman": La Llorona in Oregon as she discusses
and interprets the reasoning surrounding how she came across such legends
while working with immigrant Hispanic women at a WIC center : "WIC
discussion topics are intimate: ... Because the WIC interview deals with
basic life issues, it is not a long leap to the discussion of legends;
the same anxieties underlie both" (197).
Upon doing research for this project, I asked my grandmother to repeat
the motherhood-related ghost legend that I had heard as a child. However,
before she began, she stated, "I'm glad you asked because I know
that getting married is something that is probably in your near future,
and even though your not thinking about kids, I think you should hear
this anyway." Thus, motherhood ghost legends not only serve the purpose
of expressing moral issues related to the raising of children, but these
legends seem to be told at particular transitional times in a woman's
The following is the motherhood-related ghost legend that my grandmother
told to me over the phone, upon my request for this paper. However, what
is interesting is that this version is almost identical to the one that
was told to me a little over eight years ago, thus proving how important
accuracy and consistency are when telling these forms of legends. In an
attempt to replicate the legend more accurately in written form, I decided
to utilize the orthographic conventions that can be found with Ellis'article,
"The Fast-Food Ghost: A Study in The Supernatural's Capacity to Survive
Key to orthographic conventions:
( ) = softly spoken
>< = higher pitch and tone <> = lower pitch and tone
- = slight pause *conversational*
Grandmother: (Well) - when I was a little girl,
we used to live in that big house on Broad Street near the fish hatchery
-- >remember<, [pause] the one that grandpa and I showed you and
your brother when you came up to visit us in Bozeman two years ago?
Cindy: >Yeah<, I remember. The one with the wrap-around deck,
Grandmother: <Uh huh> [pause] Well, your great grandpa used to know
a bunch of people that worked at the fish hatchery that was right outside
of town, and >my< mother used to have all the women in the family
over for lunch - once most of us kids were going to school. [pause] Ya
see, there were nine of us, (ya know), and it was kinda hard to have people
over and have a good time when we were all there [pause] too much chasin
Cindy: I can imagine.
Grandmother: (Well), all the older women folk would come over and sit
around and talk about all the happenings over at the hatchery. [pause]
Ya see, it was kinda a new thing then, and people were still pretty impressed
with the whole contraption. [pause] (Anyway), most of the time they would
talk about how weird it was going to be, not gettin fish from the streams
anymore. [pause] I suppose they thought it might taste different or something.
[pause] But sometimes they would talk about Martha Hollings - the lady
that drowned her two little babies in the fishery runs one night.
Cindy: The lady you told me about when I was little? [pause]
Grandmother: Yeah [pause] (Well) this woman was just a good for nothing
around town, ya know. She had two little ones that she would let wander
around in the yard while she chatted it up with the hatchery workers.
[pause] My mother told me that she used to get all dolled up, and sit
out front of her place down near the hatchery, and just wait for `em to
come by. Ya see, [pause] her husband used to drive trucks up to Kalispel
and Butte during the week, so she could pretty much do what she pleased.
Cindy: (Uh huh)
Grandmother: (Well) >supposedly<, Martha was tired of havin the
kids in the way while she was lookin for a new husband - Ya see, she figured
it would be easier to skip out of town with a man if she didn't have em
under foot (not like she took care of them much in the first place).
Cindy: (Uh huh)
Grandmother: (So), one night--(I think my mother said it was in the early
spring) - Martha took the little ones down to the hatchery runs, and drown
them both [pause] leavin them in the run, figuring the fish would eat
em away <or something>. [pause] (Supposedly) she just held em under
the water, one at a time until they stopped movin. (Well), in the morning
she supposedly got all dolled up again, and sat on her front porch waitin
for the hatchery men to come by >like nothing ever happened<. [pause]
(Well), they came alright, - but they came carryin her two dead babies
Grandmother: Yeah, [pause] and Martha just went off the handle. [pause]
She started cryin, and throwin her arms in the air - I suppose she never
expected something like that to happen, and what she did just hit her
all at once, and she ran in the house. [pause] (Supposedly), the men eventually
left, and sent the sheriff over to talk to her. [pause] But when he got
there, he found Martha on the floor of the kitchen, with a knife in her
chest. [pause] (Supposedly) her husband was due back the next day, and
she realized that she couldn't explain away what happened.
Grandmother: But what is funny is after all the rigmarole of the whole
thing - people down at the hatchery used to hear what sounded like a woman
wailing, or crying. [pause] My mother told me that it was Martha, lookin
for her little ones, hopin she could find em, and start all over. [pause]
I remember hearin it myself, when I was about your age - and it sure scared
Cindy: >Oh my gosh<
Grandmother: (Yeah) [pause] (Well), I >surely< don't understand
how she chose a man over em - but she did [pause] and I guess she's payin
The notion of the linking a woman's promiscuous actions
to the neglect and the eventual death of her children is not exclusive
to my grandmother's story. In fact, it tends to be quite a popular aspect
of this legend throughout many cultures. However, this form of linkage
is especially noticeable in motherhood-related ghost legends from Hispanic-based
cultures. For example, in Soledad Perez's article "The Weeping Woman,"
she relates a story where children die because of their mother's male-related
issues: "The children were always hungry and cold because their mother
was too busy going to parties and dances to take care of them. Finally
one of the children dies and later the other died too" (128). The
possible reasoning behind this could be the expression of the effects
of immoral behavior; however, another possibility specific to both these,
as well as my grandmother's legend, could be religion and its doctrines
that discuss bad parenting.
However, regardless of the form of religion, whether it is Buddhism, Protestantism,
or Agnosticism, there tends to be a strong emphasis on what is morally
right and wrong. Thus, when it comes to motherhood-related legends that
are being told to young women, it seems appropriate that religious-based
values concerning promiscuity might find their way in. For example, Catholicism
appears to be the primary religion within Hispanic cultures, as well as
the religious foundation that my grandmother grew up with. Thus, this
not only explains my grandmother's emphasis and subsequent commentary
upon the actions of the woman in her story but also implies that her own
beliefs can be explained by understanding the link between religious belief
Thus, the motherhood-related ghost legends that are produced from these
communities and families tend to not only utilize a form of reprimand
for the supposedly illicit behavior but also carry with them the notion
of a penance for wrong conduct. For example, at the end of Perez's legend,
the teller states, "Her soul is doing penance for her sins"
(128). Furthermore, my grandmother, using rather indirect language, also
makes the Catholic-based religious connection, as she states, "[A]nd
I guess she's payin for it". Thus, by the teller's expression of
their view concerning the behavior of the woman, not only are they implicitly
describing to the listener that promiscuity is wrong, but that doing this
as a mother is selfish and can lead to the loss of children.
Also, I have always been curious as to why the woman, Martha, in my grandmother's
legend, decided to murder her children in the hatchery runs. I knew that
there must have been some sort of reasoning behind the use of water; however,
I wasn't sure why until I discovered that many other legends utilize water
as an aid in the death of children. For example, in Jan Harold Brunvard's
book The Baby Train - And Other Lusty Urban Legends, he mentions,
"A version I heard in New Zealand earlier the same year said the
event [the neglect of children] occurred during the First World War, and
the woman did not trip and die, but returned upstairs to find the two
youngsters drowned in the tub" (70). Thus, a broad explanation, which
is alluded to in the above statement, can be utilized to encompass almost
every instance of water in motherhood-related ghost legends: the notion
that water tends to have a strong association with the domestic, whether
it be for cooking, bathing, or washing. Thus, it would seem highly probable
that water is used in these stories because it is something that women
can relate to because they intimately understand its power within everyday
life. Taking advantage of the knowledge can lead to a loss of children
and the woman's capacity to be a mother.
However, another reasoning behind the utilization of water within these
stories can be explored in religious terms, as well. For example, in many
religions, water often has a form of supernatural power, whether it is
to heal, exonerate, or mores. A twist on the helpful supernatural aspects
of water, though, can be seen in motherhood-related ghost legends which
often view water as evil or harmful. For example, an informant in Pamela
Jones' article "There Was A Woman: La Llorona in Oregon," alludes
to the religious-based ill-effects of water within a legend that is loosely
related to the La Llorona cycle: "There was a girl that was told
by her mother not to take a bath on Good Friday in Lent. The girl ignored
her mother and took a bath anyway. A few days later the girl died"
The final and most prevalent aspect that links varying versions of motherhood-related
ghost legends together is the fact that almost all of the mothers die
and come back in ghost form to search for their children. As a child,
I had assumed that this aspect of my grandmother's ghost legend was unique
to her tale, and the connotations that came with it were structured just
for me. Yet, through my research, I found that not only is this aspect
prevalent throughout similar tales but that the connotations that arise
from it--a renewed maternal feeling on the part of the mother after her
death--seems to be a consistent message throughout almost all of the versions.
For example, George Carey, in his book Maryland Folklore, relates
the motherhood-related ghost story of a Venton woman on the Eastern Shore
of Maryland: "When my aunt died, about a month after she died, her
little daughter, Hilda, was out playing in the old woods here ... When
Hilda came, she was so tickled she didn't know what to do and she said,
'Grandma, I seen Mom out there and she said when she goes back she's going
to take me with her'" (40). Also, Bess Lomax Hawes in her article
La Llorona in Juvenile Hall interviewed numerous young girls who tell
similar stories where murderous ghostly mothers go searching for their
dead children. For example, a young inmate named Debbie states, "She
[La Llorona] had two kids who she threw in the L.A. River and killed.
She would never have peace, so she killed herself. She looks for her kids
in hospitals, Juvenile Hall, and any place there are pregnant girls"
Thus, by recognizing, and studying the numerous versions of murderous
motherhood-related ghost legends, I have come to better understand the
one that has been passed down through my family. I no longer view my grandmother's
legend as just a story about a woman who doesn't know how to take care
of children, but as a reminder of how not to act as a mother and what
can happen to me if I do. Furthermore, I now realize how widespread certain
aspects within my grandmother's tale are and the reasoning behind why
she, as well as the many other women tellers, decide to incorporate them
into their versions. Thus, because of the commonality between all the
versions of motherhood-related ghost legends, they can be viewed and understood
for what they really are-- a global, woman's teaching tool that helps
younger generations of women understand how to be, and not be, good mothers.
Harold. 1993. "Horrors." The Baby Train: And Other Lusty
Urban Legends." W. W. Norton & Company: New York: 70-71.
Carey, George G. 1989. "Legends." Maryland Folklore.
Tidewater Publishers: Centreville, Maryland: 39-42.
Hawes, Bess Lomax. "La Llorona in Juvenile Hall." Western
Folklore Vol. 27: 153-170.
Howard, Helen. Personal interview. October 24, 1999.
Jones, Pamela. 1988. "There Was a Woman': La Llorona in Oregon."
Western Folklore. Vol 47(3): 195-211.
Perez, Soledad. 1998. "The Weeping Woman." The Best of Texas
Folk and Folklore. Vol. 26: Eds. Mody C. Boatright, Wilson M. Hudson
and Allen Maxwell. 127-130.
Sawin, Patricia E. 1995. "Incribing Morality on the Landscape:
Deviant Mountain Women in Bessie Eldreth's Ghost Stories." North
Carolina Folklore Journal. Vol. 42(2): 75-90.