Legend has it a murdered child haunts East Lake Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Could there be truth behind the chilling tales? Or are the stories nothing more than myths inspired by horrific murders that haunt Birmingham to this day?
On December 4, 1888, two boaters discovered a young girl’s body in Birmingham’s East Lake. The body belonged to May Hawes (left), the seven or eight-year-old daughter of railway engineer Richard Hawes, and a coroner determined she’d been murdered.
Soon after the grisly discovery, authorities began searching for May’s father who had recently traveled to Mississippi to marry a young woman. The only problem? Richard was already married to May’s mother, Emma, and both Emma and May’s sister, Irene, were missing.
As luck would have it, soon after the inquest, a local newspaper received a telegram announcing Richard’s marriage in Mississippi. The telegram also listed the newlyweds’ train itinerary, and authorities arrested Richard Hawes when his train stopped in Birmingham. Richard’s new wife was reportedly “prostrate with grief” when she discovered her husband was not single as he’d claimed and was accused of murdering a daughter he’d never told her about.
Shortly after Richard’s arrest, police discovered Emma and Irene Hawes’ battered remains in the Lakeview Park waterway (now drained and part of the Highland Park Golf Course). Both had been beaten and weighted down with railway ties. A jury ultimately found Richard and two accomplices guilty of murder, and Richard was publically executed on February 28, 1890.
Some witnesses have seen the drowned child floating above, or just under the water, while others have spotted her caressing the lake’s geese. It’s these stories, and others, that prompted locals to dub May Hawes the “Mermaid of East Lake” or “Child of the Lake.”
Her spirit is so well known within Birmingham that locals gather at the lake on Halloween to place lighted Jack-O-Lanterns along the shore and toss flowers into the water (right). They say May prefers carnations.