Jamaican Family Search Genealogy Research Library


By Geoffrey S. Yates

Assistant Archivist, Jamaica Archives, c 1965

The melodramatic legend of Mrs. Annie Palmer of Rose Hall and Palmyra in St. James, a woman of unknown origins and of sinister beauty, who was murdered by her slaves as a retribution for her wickedness, is widely known and implicitly believed in Jamaica.

It is frequently retold in magazine articles, and visitors to the island are regaled with lurid stories of debauchery and death which are alleged to have taken place at this once splendid plantation house.  Sometimes the scene of Mrs. Palmer's murder is transferred to Palmyra, a nearby property.

There have, however, always been bold spirits who have mentioned the conglomeration of inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and over-writing which bedevils the whole affair.  It is behind these spirits that I shelter when I come forward to brave the belief of the public and state categorically that neither Mrs. Rosa Palmer nor Mrs. Annie Mary Palmer was ever murdered by slaves at Rose Hall or Palmyra, that there is no evidence that either of them was involved in debauchery or unnatural cruelty, and that the commonly held tales of luxury and ___ers are without any foundation whatsoever.

For this, I rest my case on official archival evidence which has never before been examined in detail.  I must also state that neither was Mrs. Palmer ever known to her slaves or contemporaries as "The White Witch of Rose Hall."  This title was invented by H. G. DeLisser for his novel which was published in 1929, almost 100 years after the abolition of slavery.

Ruined splendour

Rose Hall, as we know it in it ruined splendour, was built by the Hon. John Palmer, Custos of St. James, somewhere between 1770 and 1780, at approximately the same time as Colbecks Great House and most other plantation residences of Jamaica.  It was built on the site of a previous residence which was also known as Rose Hall, after its mistress Rosa Kelly, daughter of the Rev. John Kelly and Mary his wife, of St. Elizabeth.

Rosa Kelly was the Hon. John Palmer's second wife, whilst he was her fourth husband, and they had been married 25 years when she died in 1790.  Her monument in the parish church at Montego Bay is well-known.  Let me say here that there is no breath of suspicion that either Rosa or John Palmer was a murderer or murdered.

Shortly after Rosa's death, the Hon John married a young bride, Rebecca Ann James, of a prominent family in that past of Jamaica.  In 1797 the Hon. John died at his Brandon Hill residence.  Almost immediately Rebecca went to England, where she married Dr. Nathaniel Weeks of Barbados and eventually died at Sidmouth in Devon in late 1846 or early 1847.

During all those years, we must remember, Rebecca enjoyed a handsome annuity from Rose Hall and Palmyra under the marriage settlement, and it was this annuity which was the  ---g charge on all the profits and proceeds from these estates.

Lived on credit

Like many other rich planters of the period, the Hon. John Palmer lived on credit, which was fine as long as the sugar boom lasted.  His wealth was more apparent than real, and the more he spent on building and furnishing Rose Hall, the deeper he floundered into debt.

Eventually, in 1792, his creditors foreclosed, and he was forced to mortgage Rose Hall and Palmyra, moving to his more modest house at Brandon Hill, where, as we know, he died.  To cut a long story short, the merchants, Messrs. Hibbert and Co., sold out their interests and the properties fell into the hands of the Court of Chancery.  It was this court which was responsible for administering such properties by means of officially appointed receivers.

The receivers saw to the administration of slave labour, providing such plantation supplies, food, clothing, medical attention, (such as it was in those days), doled out punishment if necessary, sold and shipped the sugar and rum.  They were responsible for submitting accounts which were officially lodged with the Court, and which survive in the Jamaica Archives at Spanish Town.

In all these accounts, there is no mention of money being spent on repairing or maintaining either Rose Hall or Palmyra Great House.  The receivers, who were men of prominence, such as the Hon. William Miller, Custos of Trelawny, and William Heath, a solicitor, had their own houses.  We can therefore assume that Rose Hall and Palmyra were empty, except for housekeepers, from 1792 onwards.

In all this legal embroilment centring round properties in debt, however, the real owner still retained some kind of title.  In 1818, John Rose Palmer, the great-nephew and heir to the Hon. John, came to Jamaica, obviously with the intention of trying to wrest Rose Hall and Palmyra from the hands of the Court of Chancery, so that he might enjoy such profits as were left after the payment of Rebecca Weeks' annuity.

His brief life in Jamaica was signally unsuccessful for although he managed to become appointed official receiver to his own estates, he was so hard up that he was compelled to mortgage the receivership to Henry Martin Ancrum of London!  I make these points to emphasize the fact that, although he may have had a case for claiming he was the true heir, he did not own the slaves on Rose Hall or Palmyra, nor could his wife, whilst he was alive, as they would belong to him by law.

Now, who is going to lend money for orgies whilst the properties are in the hands of lawyers?  And what receiver is going to allow a woman to carry on, as Anna Mary Palmer is alleged to have carried on, when he must endeavour to make the places pay?

Nothing peculiar

In November 1827, John Rose Palmer died at Rose Hall, aged 42.  In those days of fever and rudimentary medical care there is nothing peculiar about this.  During his brief life in Jamaica he had served regularly in Montego Bay as a J.P.; in 1824 he was appointed to administer the neighbouring estate of Running Gut whilst George Whithorne Lawrence, the owner, was absent in Scotland.

When his death was reported in the Royal Gazette and in the Kingston Chronicle some four or five days after it took place, his obituary read "His intrinsic worth, kind heart, and generous disposition obtained him the esteem of all his acquaintance, but to his family, and those friends who had the pleasure of being intimate with him, his loss is irreparable."

Even allowing for a measure of hyperbole, it is obvious he was quite a prominent citizen.  It was his wife who was supposed to have murdered this well-known man, and to have lived on at Rose Hall enjoying the embraces of her lovers until she in turn was murdered.

But can anyone, who has ever read a detective thriller, suppose that such a murder at such a prominent place could have escaped detection and the attention of the newspapers of the day?  Where is the evidence?  And who was the supposed criminal anyway?  The answer is there was no murder, no motive and no evidence.

Was it really Annie?

Annie Mary Paterson, upon whom a malicious and unjust fate has bestowed such an evil and unmerited reputation, was born in the autumn of 1802, the only child of John Paterson, Esq., of The Baulk, near Lucea, and Julian his wife.  Her paternal grandparents were Dr. John Paterson, a Scotsman who had settled in Hanover, and Deborah McKenzie his wife.

On the death of Dr. Paterson, the Hanover parish register noted he was "universally regretted."  Her maternal grandparents were the Hon. William Brown, a Scotsman and Custos of Hanover, and Mary Kerr James his wife, of Kew near Lucea.

John Paterson married Juliana, the eldest Brown daughter, in 1801 but died at the early age of 24 before his daughter Annie Mary was born.  The young girl was brought up by guardians, including her mother, her grandfather, her uncle and later her stepfather, for in 1812 Juliana Paterson married Capt. David Boyd, a retired naval officer and professional planting attorney.

William Brown died in 1817, Mrs. Boyd in 1832, and Captain Boyd in 1842, so that Annie Mary was not alone in the world even after she was married.  Her mysterious and unknown origin, her training in voodoo-these must be abandoned in favour of upbringing on a property normal for her time and class.

We do not know how and when Annie Mary met John Rose Palmer, but on March 28, 1820, they were married at Mount Pleasant, St. James, then the home of Capt. And Mrs. Boyd, Annie Mary was 17.  The young couple, so we are told by the Royal Gazette, were married again in England, on their honeymoon.  This was not unusual as sometimes doubt was expressed as to the validity of marriages in those days.

After returning, the couple moved to Rose Hall, not to a life of luxury but one of money worries, as so often to newly-weds Annie Mary did not enjoy her married life for long for John Rose Palmer died seven years later, some £6,000 in debt. His personal possessions, including £350 worth of plates and some debts owing him totalled a mere £1,137.15. 10 1/2d.  What was his wife to do?  She had no money, no real claim to the estate, no slaves, nothing.

Seek shelter

She left to seek shelter elsewhere, and eventually sold out whatever rights she may have had in Rose Hall and Palmyra for £200 sterling to a Dr. Bernard in Bristol.  This was in 1830.  However, Rose Hall was empty before this, as we know, for a variety of reasons.

In a Rose Hall Estate Journal quoted by Shore in his "In Old St. James" (1911) and now, alas! Of unknown whereabouts, but perfectly genuine, there were from the first week in January, 1829, to December, 1832, one slave attending the Great House and two with Mrs. Palmer.  This first slave must have been a housekeeper or caretaker, for Mrs. Palmer was elsewhere.  She was not at Palmyra, for as we know that too was empty except for a housekeeper,  Mary Ann Hill, whom the receivers sold to her own husband, Frederick Earl, for £45 in 1833.

The two slaves may have been allowed by the receivers to accompany Mrs. Palmer to her new abode.  However, according to officially enrolled slave returns, she had in June 1829 four slaves, Cymir aged 30, Sarah Smith aged 30, and Sarah's two children Alexander and Charles aged 6 and 8 respectively.1  

In 1833 she is listed as being at Bellevue, St. James, with 8 slaves.2   Bellevue and Bonavista3 are both shown by the Jamaica Almanacks as belonging to the Bernard family, and may well have been both part of the same property, as both names mean "Beautiful View."

In 1842, William Augustus Dickson, a Scottish merchant of Lucea, and her uncle by marriage, left a will which stated "my settlement in St. James called 'Bellevue' I leave to Mrs. Palmer for life."  It is not clear how he obtained Bellevue4, nor how Annie Mary acquired the slaves.  Probably Dickson obtained land at Bonavista or Bellevue from the dissolution of the Bernard family estates when they got into trouble, and left his niece in charge.  In any case, she was a connection to the Bernards, one of whom had bought up her rights to Rose Hall and Palmyra.

Annie Mary Palmer, for she never married again and had no children5, was not destined to live to a ripe old age.  In 1846 she dies at Bonavista, near Anchovy, and was buried in the church yard at Montego Bay by Rev. T. Garrett on July 9.  No tombstone has survived to mark the spot.

By her will, which may be seen in the Jamaica Archives, she left everything-which cannot have amount to much as it was not specified-to Giolia Mary Spence, her goddaughter, aged two, the child of Dr. and Mrs. Patrick Spence of Montego Bay.  This, then, was the true end of a woman-allegedly murdered twelve or more years before by her slaves-long after the abolition of slavery.


How then, did this monstrous legend grow up?  For an examination of the printed sources I should draw my reader's attention to an article by Miss Glory Robertson of the West India Reference Library entitled "The Rose Hall Legend:  was it really Annie?"  in the Jamaica Historical Society Bulletin of December 1964.

Briefly, all the commonly accepted sources are confused and contradictory, and Roby, in his serious "History of St. James" (1849) does not mention it at all.  Nowhere in the official archives of Jamaica is there anything I have yet discovered which links either Rosa or Annie Mary Palmer with any form of crime, debauchery or unnatural death.

It was a Rev. Waddell who first mentions the strangling of a Mrs. Palmer at Palmyra in 1830.  Being an abolitionist, he would be inclined to accept evidences of the iniquities of planters.  There was indeed a 'bilbo room' or punishment cell at Palmyra which had been repaired by the reviewers for years after his visit!  This he did see when he preached at Rose Hall and visited Palmyra after Mrs. Palmer had left.

As Rosa was not murdered and Annie Mary Palmer was still alive, who could it have been whom he was told was strangled?  Probably he was told some confused story by a slave or plantation hand talking patois, which he did not understand correctly, and which related to some murder which took place perhaps a 100 years before, when such things were more likely.

Legend grows rapidly, smothering facts and attaching itself like a vine to places where it does not belong.  Statements are made only a few years after events have taken place, which on examination are found to be untrue.

Somewhere, a far-off tale of murder has become attached to Rose Hall and Palmyra and to the two Mrs. Palmers who lived there.  Hearsay rumours were taken as gospel truth, and once the legend was given currency, by James Castello in his pamphlet of 1868, it stuck.  Because it was in print, it became believed as true and then people started to look for blood stains and ghosts and saw them.

Delisser gave the legend far wider currency in his novel "The White Witch of Rose Hall" than did Castello.  The legend throve, the facts disappeared.  Now it has become so firmly established-and I frankly admit it is a good story-that a film is to be made of it.  Rose Hall has been bought and is to be restored at a cost of some £300,000.  Is it too much to hope that when all this money is spent, some tiny portion will be set aside to let Jamaica and her visitors know the true tale of Rose Hall?

Notes from Jamaican Family Search:
1This ties in with the 1831 Almanac where she is shown with 4 slaves previously reported (doubled to 8 for not filing a return in 1830.)  Her name is listed as Anna M. Palmer.
2See 1833 Almanac, number still doubled from 4 to 8.
3For the names of the proprietors of Bonavista, see the following Almanacs:  1818, 1826, 1828, 1831, 1840.   
4See 1840 Almanac.
5See also 1845 Almanac.

This article was provided to Jamaican Family Search by Frederick DuQuesnay from his scrapbook.  It supports his conclusions in his article on the Rose Hall Great House.

© 2013. Jamaican Family Search hereby grants you a limited license to copy and use the materials provided on this site solely for your personal, non-commercial use. No other use of the site or materials is authorized. You agree that any copy of the materials (or any portion of the materials) that you make shall retain all copyright and other proprietary notices contained therein. Posting of materials on other Web Sites is strictly prohibited.



Plan of this website

Help - Frequently Asked Questions

Jamaica Almanacs Slave-owners, Civil & Military officers, Magistrates etc.

Items in the Samples Directory

Items in the Members Directory

Transcriptions from Registers and Wills (Church of England, Dissenters, Civil Registration)

Jamaican Roman Catholic Church Registers - transcriptions

Jamaican Methodist Baptisms - transcriptions

Jewish births marriages deaths - transcriptions

Slaves and slavery in Jamaica

Photographs, maps, prints, etc.