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  • Writer's pictureWalter Kowalski

Bettie Brown & the Ghosts of Ashton Villa

Ashton Villa
Front Entrance of Ashton Villa

Is it any surprise that houses tend to have a high concentration of ghosts? Home is where the heart is, after all, and it’s where many of us dream of being when we’re out and about accomplishing daily tasks. It only makes sense that we’d want to spend our afterlives in a space that we so enjoyed while living. Have you ever wondered about where some of the most notable ghosts of Galveston roam? Well, you’re in luck. Some of them are situated in Ashton Villa, and we have the whole story for you below.

History of Ashton Villa

Ashton Villa was built in Galveston over the course of 1859 to 1861. It’s a beautiful, sprawling mansion that still stands tall today, and you might first be taken by its impressive façade before you even know the history of the home. It’s a notable building for a few different reasons. First of all, it was one of the very first brick residences built in the state of Texas. It’s an elaborate design, too, with a multi-level veranda enclosed with intricately shaped iron. Your first thought upon seeing the home might be that it was fit for a king, and indeed, it was built to accommodate quite the accomplished man.

James Moreau Brown made his fortune by capitalizing upon the growing shipping industry in the area. As one of the few established port towns at the time, Galveston received quite a bit of traffic in the 1800s. Brown thought that offering products that might routinely be needed in an area where so much shipping took place would be a good idea, and so he opened up the very first hardware store in the city. His hunch was correct, and the store was wildly successful. Thanks to his efforts and the store’s happy customers, Brown quickly became the fifth richest man in the state. And, as a gift to his wife, Brown decided to build a beautiful home to house her and his growing family.

And that’s where our tale really begins. Construction on the home was completed in 1861, but the family moved in on New Year’s Eve Day in 1859. The family at that time consisted of James, his wife Rebecca, and their three children – Moreau Brown, John Brown, and Bettie Brown. The family quickly settled into Ashton Villa and grew by two more children shortly after, with Charles born in 1862 and Mathilda born in 1865. It was in this expansive and extravagant home that the family thrived, however they were not the only individuals to enjoy the space’s amenities.

During the Civil War, Ashton Villa was utilized as the headquarters of both the Confederacy and the Union. Its location made the home perfect for the job, and it was filled with varying levels of the armed forces for several years. And when June 19th, 1865 arrived and brought with it the end of the Civil War, it was from Ashton Villa’s ornate balcony that the Union’s general Gordon Granger made the announcement and officially freed the slaves in the area. For their part, the Brown family was able to retain the majority of their influence and wealth even after the war ended and even hosted Ulysses S. Grant, then the President of the United States, for cigars and brandy in 1880.

The Civil War was not the only notable event in Ashton Villa’s history. Five years after James died in 1895, a massive hurricane hit Galveston Island. The town was almost uninhabitable thanks to the sheer amount of damage it caused, and 6,000 people lost their lives. One of the only structures still standing at the end of the storm was Ashton Villa. The water is said to have reached the tenth step of the home’s grand staircase, where Mathilda sat and watched the rising flood in fascination. While the building’s basement had to be filled in order to stabilize the structure, it suffered only water damage and was home to the Brown family until 1926, when it was sold by Mathilda’s daughter to be used as a Masonic meeting hall.

That’s not the end of the Brown’s story in the home, of course. They wouldn’t be some of the most notable ghosts of Galveston if it were.

Bettie Brown

Bettie Brown was the older daughter of the Brown family. Raised in a rather privileged environment, Bettie became known as the Princess of Texas. She was bold – far bolder than most women in her time – and loved traveling. She visited many different countries and collected countless little treasures along the way, and she often traveled on her own. She was a social butterfly when she was home, regularly throwing grand parties from Ashton Villa and making rather eccentric appearances (one account mentions a particularly memorable evening when she strode in with kittens on the train of her dress). Bettie never married, rejecting the idea of giving up her independence, and instead focused on seeing the world and painting. She always returned home the villa, however, and by all accounts loved the home dearly.

Miss Bettie Brown, courtesy of The Houston Chronicle

Today, Bettie’s apparition can often be seen in the ballroom of Ashton Villa, clad in a beautiful gown with her golden hair gleaming. It is said that she sometimes performs acts of mischief around the house like turning on lights and ceiling fans and locking and unlocking the chest of drawers in her sitting room.

Mathilda Brown

Another well-known ghost of Ashton Villa is Mathilda Brown, the family’s younger daughter. Though she left after she married, Mathilda ultimately returned to her childhood home with her own children after fleeing an abusive marriage. She saw the building as a safe haven in which she could heal and raise her children without fear, and that’s exactly what she did.

She also loved to play the piano for her friends and family, a pastime at which she was particularly skilled, and allegedly still plays today. Caretakers have mentioned hearing beautiful music played while they were alone in the home, and visitors have reported the same. It appears that Mathilda decided the villa would remain her sanctuary even after her death.

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