Story & Photos By Tom Behrens
Roberta Marie Christensen in her book, “Pioneers of West Galveston Island,” says the Stewart Mansion on Galveston Island left her in awe-struck silence when she was given permission to tour the building in 1988. “The once beautiful plaster walls, the architecture of the second floor balcony, the Spanish tile work and the four bathrooms — one with marble walls and the living room walls covered with vivid, larger than life murals of pirates. Guarding the entrance way was a huge leering pirate with a three-cornered hat and saber in hand. On the opposite wall was another pirate with a bandana and sword. Looking down from the balcony were five figures, the foremost armed with a machete.”
Before she went much further into her inspection of the once proud mansion, she received one admonishment from the caretaker, “There are ghosts in [this] house. My wife and I hear doors banging and noises in the middle of the night.”
Check the internet and other similar comments pop up: “Don’t go at night…it would be way too scary, especially the bathroom.” “Things go bump in the night.” There are even rumors that the family was killed and put into the walls of the mansion by Stewart himself before he committed suicide. Pretty creepy.
Is the Stewart family encased in the walls of the mansion? Did Maco Stewart Jr. kill his family and put them into the walls of the mansion before killing himself? History doesn’t back that story up. Maybe the teller of that tale read too many Edgar Allen Poe tales. Let’s take a brief excursion back in history about the Stewart Mansion and Ranch.
At one time, the mansion was the main house on the Stewart Ranch. In addition there were two houses for the ranch hands. In 1969, the ranch, minus the mansion, was given to the State of Texas, and became what is now Galveston Island State Park. “The ranch existed on both sides of the existing state highway,” says park superintendent Trey Goodman. “There are remnants that still exist of the old cattle ranch: dip tanks, wind mills and other things scattered around the park.”
Ruth Mathews, a historian working with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department shares more Stewart Mansion history. Galveston was like a prairie in the 1820s-30s. The Spaniards, who were the first to step onto Texas soil, weren’t too impressed with the island and its inhabitants. “The Karankawa Indians were pushed north, [driven] off the island onto the mainland and wiped out,” she says. “The Karankawa were no longer the great people they once were. Now starving and in poor condition.” Also the Spaniards didn’t appreciate the flourishing reptile population on the island, naming it “Island of Snakes.”
The first house built on Galveston Island was built by J.A. Settle in 1846. An 1851 map showed the building just west of Lake Como, labeled Settle’s Post. Colonel Warren D.C. Hall purchased the property from the most recent owner, F.S. Hook. Famed pirate Jean Lafitte was also calling Galveston Island home in the 1800s. “Unsubstantiated stories say that Hall lived within the vicinity of where the mansion would be built. Lafitte lived in what is known now as Pirate’s Cove and would take a boat and come down the bayou to visit with Hall. Legend has it that Lafitte buried his treasure on the grounds west of Colonel Hall’s home.
After a succession of owners, George Sealy bought the property in 1926 and built the mansion — a Spanish-style structure — on the same site of the Hall home that had burned down in December of 1925. Sealy sold the property to Maco Stewart in 1933.
The mansion changed hands again in 1944 when Stewart’s widow, Louise Bisbey Stewart and her son Maco Stewart Jr. donated the residence to the University of Texas Medical Branch where it was used for a number of years as a convalescent home for crippled children. In 1968 George Mitchell and Norman Dobbins purchased the house and 15 acres with the intention of developing the property into a resort complete with lodge, swimming, tennis and golf, but nothing happened. The mansion property is now owned by Stonehenge Real Estate Investment Company in Houston. Their website, www.stonehengecompany.com, says the company has plans to build condos.
Is the Stewart Mansion haunted? Is the Stonehenge Company going to hire Ghostbusters to de-ghost the mansion before they begin development? The Stewarts are not entombed in the walls of the Mansion; the Maco Stewart family cemetery, located on the property, holds the bodies of Maco Stewart, Maco Stewart Jr. and one of his sons. Galveston Island has not given up any Lafitte treasure. However, remember that the caretakers of the property did say, “There are ghosts in that house. My wife and I hear doors banging and noises in the middle of the night.”
Maybe it was just the wind. What do you think?