The first time Frank Burbank saw Ethel Hanley, she was standing against a backdrop of white lilacs, her arms holding a great sheaf of the fragrant blossoms, having her picture taken for a high school yearbook.
Ethel would be beginning her senior year that fall, around the year 1900. Frank, a good ten years her senior, was a civil engineering student who had taken a job as a surveyor for Ethel’s hometown of Bucyrus, Ohio, to raise money to continue his education. When he and a co-worker passed the Hanley farm that sunny spring afternoon, Frank fell in love before he even knew her name.
Once they were introduced, he began to pay serious court to her, and, by the time of her high school graduation, had proposed marriage and been accepted.
But there was a hitch in their plans, for Ethel’s father was opposed to their wedding. It wasn’t because he didn’t like or trust his future son-in-law; he felt that Ethel, at seventeen, was too young to be a married woman. He demanded that they wait until Ethel turned nineteen. Her mother had been that age when he married her, and he felt it was only proper.
So Frank returned to his civil engineering studies, and Ethel graduated from high school and worked with her mother, busying herself with the unending chores of a turn-of-the-century farmer’s wife. If she resented her father’s interference in her plans to marry Frank Burbank, she never said so. She might indeed have been resentful had she known those plans would never come to full bloom.
Ethel turned nineteen at last; Frank came home with a brand-spanking new degree and a new job, which he would begin after their honeymoon.
One afternoon when the lilacs were in bloom, the lovers went out for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Frank was driving. The horse belonged to Ethel’s father; it was a new one, of a nervous temperament. As they were crossing a bridge with a stone abutment, something spooked the horse. He reared up, the carriage was slung around, and Ethel was thrown out.
But not clear; instead, she was slammed into the stone abutment headfirst. She died there on the bridge in Frank’s arms.
Ethel was buried in her wedding dress, a few days short of what would have been her wedding day.
Frank, heartbroken and angry with the man who would have been his father-in-law, left town. Finding no peace in new surroundings, he eventually returned to Bucyrus, taking up his old job in the surveyor’s office. Preferring to be solitary, he took long walks through the countryside, and it was on one of these that, passing the Hanley farm, he saw Ethel, standing against the lilacs that surrounded the barn, looking as she had the first time he had seen her. When he approached her, she vanished.
He had finally patched up his relationship with her parents, even with Ethel’s father, who was heartbroken and guiltridden. He saw Ethel many times over the years, walking by the river, or among the lilacs. He once asked her mother if she had ever seen such a thing, and she allowed that she had thought, once, she had seen her dead daughter out by the barn—but persuaded herself that it must have been a trick of the light.
Eventually, after much assiduous courtship on her part, Frank Burbank married an old schoolmate of Ethel’s. Zora, his wife, knew he didn’t love her, although their marriage eventually produced three children. She kept herself busy with social obligations, and never once reproached Frank for his peculiar hobby: collecting and planting lilacs all around the home they occupied rather than shared. Some of them came from the Hanley farm; others from deserted homesteads far out in the country; some from nurseries. They came in various colors, but his favorites were the white ones, for he had first seen Ethel against a backdrop of white lilacs.
On the night of his daughter Joan’s seventeenth birthday party, the girl came to her father with an odd story; she had seen a young girl in a white dress, slipping in and out through the blooming lilacs, but every time she approached her, to invite her to join the party, the girl vanished. After Joan finished her story and returned to her guests, Frank went out into his garden, hoping against hope that Ethel would be there for him.
She was. She stood smiling at him, as beautiful as she had been that first day, so many years before. Frank couldn’t help himself; he rushed forward with open arms. Just as he would have embraced her, she vanished, but she dropped something at his feet.
When he picked it up, he found it was a freshly-broken branch of white lilac, poignantly fragrant, with drops of the early evening dew hanging on the flowers like tears.
The Hanley farm is long gone, and Frank Burbank has been long in his grave. But around Bucyrus, Ohio, they say, Ethel can still be seen, walking along the banks of the river, where, in some places, lilacs still bloom.
The best version of the story of the ghost of Ethel Hanley comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s book HAUNTED HEARTLAND (1991).
The painting “Girl with Lilacs”, by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sophie Gengembre Anderson, obviously depicts a girl much younger than Ethel Hanley, but it has an interesting provenance; for many years, it hung on the wall above a mantelpiece in the home of Lewis Carroll, the man who wrote ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
It seems appropriate to me, though, for this nameless model surely must have grown into a woman as beautiful as was Ethel, among the lilacs, so long ago.