Diana of the Dunes: Indiana’s Most Enduring Ghost Story

Posted on: June 1, 2019, by :

Alice Gray, the woman who inspired the legend.

By Jeff Turner

The sightings are largely similar, with little variation. They started as early as 1915. That was when local fishermen and others in the area now known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore reported seeing a naked woman swimming in Lake Michigan, sometimes running along the beach afterwards to dry off. She eventually caught the attention of journalists from nearby Chicago who were curious to know more about this beautiful young woman’s peculiar presence in a largely uninhabited area. No one knew who she was initially, this young woman living a hermit-like existence. Locals eventually started calling her “Diana of the Dunes.” Diana is the Roman goddess of “the hunt,” often associated with nature and the wilderness, making it a fitting name selection for this mysterious woman. But who was she really? And why do people still claim to be seeing her even in the present?

In reality, the woman’s name was Alice Mabel Gray. She was born in Chicago in 1881 to a family of means, her father a doctor. She was very intelligent and well-educated, graduating from the University of Chicago, where she specialized in astronomy, mathematics, Greek, and Latin, a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She was viewed by many as a free spirit, a nonconformist, growing up during a time in American history where women did not yet even have the right to vote (the 19th Amendment wouldn’t be ratified until August 18, 1920). Her eyesight began to deteriorate when she was in her twenties, according to multiple accountings of Gray’s life. As a result of this, she decided to relocate to the area outside of Chesterton, Indiana now known as Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. This decision may also have been motivated by a desire to escape the confines of city life and to be able to live a more carefree existence. The Indiana Historical Society’s official periodical Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History tells of how her parents used to take her to the beaches of Lake Michigan as a girl, and that she developed a great love for the scenic area.

Gray was thirty-four when she made the move to a small fisherman’s shack in the Indiana Dunes country that she christened “Driftwood” in 1915. According to History Daily, she sustained herself on fish and wild berries, and despite suffering from vision loss, spent much of her free time reading and writing. For almost five years she lived alone in Driftwood, drawing in reporters from Chicago. A woman living such a reclusive life shut off from the modern world was unheard of back then, and made her a bit of a local celebrity. She strongly opposed land developers who were encroaching on the area where she had taken up residents, her efforts cited as being directly responsible for the area being named a State Park, and earlier this year a National Park.

Things changed however when she met an unemployed drifter by the name of Paul Wilson. Wilson was reported to be a man of ill repute, violent, who had had multiple brushes with the law, and was a “suspected murderer,” some believe. Despite his moral failings, Gray and Wilson became romantically involved, may even have married. Perhaps she found a kindred spirit in the man, or wanted companionship. The couple had two children together. It was not to end happily for Gray however. Wilson was reportedly emotionally and physically abusive towards her. And shortly after the birth of their second child, Gray died of uremic poisoning, which is said to have been brought on by repeated blows to her back and abdomen inflicted by Wilson. Wilson disappeared shortly after her death for parts unknown, and Gray is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Gary.

It was in the years following her death that reports began circulating about a naked woman who could be seen swimming in Lake Michigan and running along shore who would subsequently vanish without a trace. It just so happens that these sightings are in the same area where Alice Gray lived from 1915-1920, before meeting Paul Wilson. Could this mysterious disappearing woman be the ghost of Alice Gray, haunting the same beaches and shores she so loved while she lived? There’s really no way of knowing for sure. Though maybe after the abuse she suffered at the hands of Wilson, the same connection she had to this area that prompted her to leave the trappings of city life for a simpler existence has anchored her spirit there. Or maybe it was the invention of people familiar with Alice Gray’s life seeking to provide a bittersweet ending to her story, a more likely explanation.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter either way. For through the legend of Diana of the Dunes, Alice Gray lives on.

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