As grand today as when it was constructed over a century and a half ago, the Ashton Villa is a prime example of opulent antebellum southern architecture. The family that once inhabited it was one of the most powerful in Texas during its formative years, and many believe its most flamboyant member still resides there.
On the island of Galveston, one of the first brick residences in Texas is still standing, almost unchanged, among the surrounding strip malls and other trappings of modern society. This three-story 19th century palace, with an elaborate, multi-level iron veranda, is easily identified as the custom-built home of a man with an abundance of wealth and a famous fondness for showing it off.
That man was James Moreau Brown, a slave owner and tycoon who secured his spot as the fifth richest man in Texas by opening the first hardware store in Galveston, capitalizing on the demands of the shipping industry in the growing port town. The villa, which he designed and commissioned in 1859, was a gift to his wife, Rebecca Ashton and remained in their family for three generations, playing a key role in nearly every major historical event in the area.
History of Ashton Villa
Use During the Civil War
Ashton Villa was used as a Confederate headquarters and hospital for soldiers of the Confederacy throughout much of the Civil War, though it changed hands more than once, along with Galveston as a whole, and was briefly used as a Union headquarters as well.
On June 19th, 1865, later to be known as “Juneteenth,” Union General Gordon Granger marched on Galveston with 2,000 troops to announce an end to the war and enforce the freeing of the slaves. He made this declaration from the ornate wrought iron balcony of the Ashton Villa.
In spite of their role in the war, the Brown family retained much of their wealth and influence after it ended. Former Union General and U.S President Ulysses S. Grant himself visited the villa in 1880 and is said to have enjoyed brandy and cigars with Brown in the Gold Room. Some reports say this room also hosted the formal surrender of the Confederate forces of the southwest.
In 1900, five years after Brown’s death, a historic hurricane swept across Galveston Island, killing 6,000 and leaving the town nearly uninhabitable. The villa was one of the only buildings to survive, thanks to its sturdy brick structure, suffering only water damage to its basement and first floor.
The younger Brown daughter, Mathilda, is said to have sat at the top of the stairs, watching with fascination as the floodwater passed the tenth step.
Inheritance and Restoration
James and Rebecca both lived and died in the Ashton Villa, as did their two daughters after them, though their three sons moved out and established households elsewhere. After the younger daughter died in 1926, the house passed to her daughter, who sold it for use as a Masonic meeting hall and office building.
When the house faced demolition in 1970, it was purchased by the Galveston Historical Foundation and restored as a museum.
Unfortunately, public tours have been discontinued, and the villa is now only accessible as a rental space for weddings and other large functions. However, any spirits that graced the museum’s once-popular ghost tours are presumably still inside, behind the building’s elegant brick façade.
Ghosts of Ashton Villa
The Texas Princess
The family’s elder daughter, Rebecca “Bettie” Brown, is the best known spirit in the villa. Renowned for her beauty and nicknamed “The Texas Princess” while alive for her ostentatious and extravagant habits, Bettie loved to travel, collect rare and expensive objects, carriage race on the streets outside the villa, and throw lavish parties for her friends.
She also openly smoked cigars, a scandalous habit for a woman of her time, and was known for making dramatic entrances to her parties with kittens riding the train of her dress.
Since her death, she has most often been spotted in her day room, or at the top of the stairs leading into it, dressed in a stunning turquois gown and holding an ornate Victorian fan. The chest of drawers in this room has been missing its key for decades, but will often be found locked one day and unlocked the next.
Bettie’s bed also tends to unmake itself almost as soon as it’s made, and the ceiling fans in her favorite parts of the house turn on by themselves. One manager of the villa in the ‘90s once found the alarm blaring for no apparent reason, and later discovered that day was Bettie’s birthday.
The Browns’ younger girl, Mathilda “Tilly” Brown-Sweeney, is less well-known and often mistaken for her more famous sister, but if the stories hold true, her spirit has left its own distinct impression on the villa.
Many guests have reported seeing a woman playing the piano in the Gold Room and assumed it to be Bettie, but Bettie never learned how to play. Tilly, on the other hand, was an accomplished musician who loved to entertain her family and guests and fits the description of this mysterious spirit well.
Described as a sweet, shy woman in life, Tilly returned to the family home to seek shelter for herself and her children from her abusive marriage to Thomas Sweeney. To many, it seems she holds the house as a place of refuge and solace to this very day.
A disembodied man’s voice has also been heard in the Gold Room, arguing with a woman. Though some have speculated that this pair may be Tilly and Thomas Sweeney, it seems unlikely that Thomas would have been allowed in the Ashton Villa after his truly violent nature came to light, while the family was in the process of helping Tilly sue for divorce.
The more probable theory is that the voice belongs to one of Bettie’s many suitors, reproaching her for her lifelong refusal to marry and abandon her independent, globetrotting lifestyle. That his persistence remains this long after all involved parties have died shows a true strength to these lingering specters.
While the ghosts of the Ashton Villa may be difficult to reach unless you have a wedding to plan on the property, the edifice itself still appears much the way it did in 1859, a notable historical curiosity well worth dropping by for a look.
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