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Diana of the Dunes: A Lake Michigan Ghost Story With A Basis in Reality

1900s | April 9, 2019

Actress Angie Dickinson swimming outdoors in 1961, perhaps channeling her inner Diana of the Dunes. Source: (photo by Pierluigi/Mandadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

In the early 1900s, a Lake Michigan fisherman spotted a naked woman swimming in the waters off the dunes of northern Indiana. Other people in the area also reported seeing a naked woman, sometimes swimming in the Great Lake and other times, running nude along the beach. It turned out that she was a Chicago woman living the reclusive life of a hermit in a shack on the beach. Her life would be fascinating enough, but many area residents believe that she still roams the beach long after her death as a ghostly figure known as Diana of the Dunes. 

Reports of a sea nymph in Lake Michigan in 1915. Source: (themarinefoundation.org)

A Sea Nymph in Lake Michigan?

Reports of the pretty, young, naked woman along the dunes of southern Lake Michigan began to circulate through the tiny lakefront towns of the area, including Chesterton, Miller, and Ogden Dunes. Naturally, the local residents were curious about the sightings of the woman they nicknamed Diana of the Dunes, after the mythical goddess. What they found when they investigated the reports was a 34-year-old Chicago-area woman who chose to leave city life in favor of the simple hermit life on the shores of Lake Michigan. 

Alice Mabel Gray, the Diana of the Dunes. Source: (galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com)

Her Name was Alice Mabel Gray

Although she lived like a hermit in a driftwood shack near the beach, the woman they called Diana of the Dunes was not entirely reclusive. Her name was Alice Mabel Gray and she was an educated and intelligent free spirit. Born in 1881 to a Chicago doctor and his wife, Gray earned a bachelor degree from the University of Chicago in 1903 before working for the U.S. Naval Observatory. She left this job to continue her education as a graduate student. She grew dissatisfied with the demands of city life, which she felt stifled the promotion of educated women. She spent more and more of her time escaping from the city to the quiet, undeveloped shores of the Indiana Dunes. 

Gray beside her beachfront shack. Source: (galleries.apps.chicagotribune.com)

The Move to Hermit Life

According to reports, Gray permanently moved to the dunes in October of 1915. She packed up a few of her belongings and moved into an abandoned shack near the beach. She survived on fish and berries and spent her time reading and writing. She was a frequent visitor to the library in Miller, a short walk from her shack. She occasionally traveled back into Chicago to visit the museums and art galleries there. 

Source: (indianadunes.com)

Reporters Came Knocking

Hermits living alone in the Indiana wilderness were commonplace in 1915, but a young woman living the reclusive life was a novelty. As stories about Gray, the Diana of the Dunes, spread, reporters from Chicago area newspapers came knocking on her shack door, eager to interview her about her unconventional life. At first, Gray granted interviews and spoke to reporters. She eloquently and articulately explained that she wants to live a life of freedom. She also spoke of her desires to keep the sand dunes of Lake Michigan in their natural state. 

Leveling the sand dunes to make way for a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, in the early 1900s. Source: (encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org)

An Advocate for the Dunes

Steel-production factories in nearby Gary, Indiana, were building their facilities on the lake shore, destroying the fragile dunes ecosystem, much to Gray’s displeasure. Gray used her notoriety as Diana of the Dunes to promote the protection of the Indiana Dunes. She even spoke at the Chicago Prairie Club’s annual event at the Art Institute of Chicago on April 6, 1917. In her speech, she spoke of the need to create a state park to prevent the development of the dunes. Her efforts directly lead to the establishment of the Indiana Dunes State Park. 

Alice Mabel Gray. Source: (nwitimes.com)

A Troubled Romance

Despite living as a hermit, Gray found romance with a drifter named Paul Wilson in 1920. Wilson moved into Gray’s shack with her and the couple had two daughters together. By all accounts, however, Wilson was a violent man who frequently beat Gray. He was also in trouble with the law. When the body of a man washed up on the lake shore not far from their shack, Wilson was the prime suspect in the murder. He was eventually acquitted. 

Source: (chicagotribune.com)

An Untimely Death

Just after the birth of her second child, Alice Mabel Gray died in her beach shack in 1925. The cause of death was reported as uremic poisoning, brought on by repeated punches to the abdomen. Paul Wilson fled Indiana after Gray’s death and her daughters were taken into protective service. That would be the end of the story of Diana of the Dunes, except that reports of a naked woman swimming in the lake and walking along the beach continue to circulate. Is it the ghost of Diana of the Dunes? 

Source: (977theriver.com)

A Ghostly Swimmer

From the 1920s until present day, people have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a beautiful young woman at the Indiana Dunes. She is often seen running along the beach and disappearing into the water. The locals believe that Alice Mabel Gray still roams the lakeshore, unwilling to leave the pristine beaches and sand dunes that she loved so much. She is even honored at an annual festival, the Diana of the Dunes Festival, held in Chesterton, Indiana. 

Tags: 1900s | diana of the dunes | ghost story

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.