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Mary Becker Greene was born in 1869, grew up to become one of America’s first female river pilots, and still has an active interest in the steamboat line she co-founded as the bride of Captain Gordon C. Greene in 1890. Which is sometimes disconcerting, because she died in 1949 at the age of 80 in her cabin on the Delta Queen, the riverboat she called home and which she piloted as captain.
She has been seen on numerous occasions aboard the Delta Queen, and while it sometimes startles guests, it does not make the crew uneasy. In fact, many of them claim it helps them sleep better at night. Why? Because Mary is a benevolent, even helpful, spirit. Mike Williams, the first mate, says, “I don’t get a feeling that she’s a troubled spirit. I think she is quite content with what she is doing, just absorbing the energy of people who have been here.”
He describes being awakened by an urgent whisper in his ear as he slept alone on the vessel during its annual refurbishment period in 1982. Thinking someone else had boarded, he followed the sound of a slamming door to the engine room, where he discovered river water rushing in from a broken intake pipe for the steamboat’s boilers. Repairs were effected, but he says, “Had I not been awakened by whomever or whatever, the Delta Queen might have had a big problem. I’m convinced that there’s a benevolent, gentle old lady who keeps an eye out on the boat. I’m sure it’s Capt. Mary Greene.”
On another occasion, when the vessel was under way in the middle of the night, Williams was contacted by the new purser, a charming young girl, who was concerned about a guest. An elderly lady had called to say she was ill and feeling cold, so the purser asked Williams, who has medical training, to check on her. Not only did he find her stateroom empty, it was unoccupied. Returning to the purser, he found her frightened, having been startled by the sight of an old woman staring at her through a window. Williams offered to walk the purser to her cabin, and as they passed a painting of the late “Ma Greene,” the purser exclaimed, “That’ s the lady I saw!” Today, Williams and the former purser are married and they often tell people that Capt. Mary Greene introduced them.
This vibrant woman, who spent 59 years on steamboats, including 52 as a captain, captivated passengers with wild tales of river life and even danced the Virginia reel with them two days before her death. She was such a colorful presence in life that today whenever something unusual occurs aboard the Delta Queen, folks take it as a sign that her spirit remains on the riverboat she called home.
Phyllis Dale, a Delta Queen entertainer, recalls following an elderly woman in a long green robe through one of the steamboat’s lounges. “She turned the corner and so did I, but suddenly she wasn’t there anymore.” The entertainer mentioned the experience to the Delta Queen’s master, who then enlightened her about the boat’s ghost.
Marcie Richardson, Delta Queen “riverlorian” (historian and teller of tales), remembers encountering the apparition just after joining the Delta Queen as a guest pianist. For three consecutive nights, from the corner of her eye, she saw a woman in a 1930s dress drift by. Whenever she looked up, the woman had always disappeared. After the third sighting, Richardson thought perhaps the woman was sleep-walking or ill, so she reported the incidents to the cruise director. He pointed out a portrait of Capt. Mary Green, whereupon Richardson exclaimed, “That’s her!”
The cruise director responded, “She died in 1949.” ...