Walk along the shores of Indiana Dunes National Park and you may get a glimpse of a pale, lithe, naked woman diving into the waters of Lake Michigan and running along its shores.
For years, people have reported seeing the ghost, whom they believe to be one of the area’s most famous legends.
And now, the National Park Service wants you to walk in the footsteps of the woman the ghost may have been.
Ghost hunters in and around Ogden Dunes and Gary, Indiana, believe the ghost is that of Diana of the Dunes, a 1920s-era woman who lived in the park. And while accounts of spectral beings skinny dipping in the lake are fascinating tales to tell around campfires, the real story of Diana of the Dunes is far more interesting than any ghost story.
Diana of the Dunes was the name given by the press to a mysterious young woman whom fishermen said bathed in the lake and ran through the sand to dry off. Once stories of a girl living alone and skinny dipping in Lake Michigan reached the press, reporters flooded the beaches looking for her.
It didn’t take long for the myth to form – reporters claimed she was the daughter of a doctor who fled society. They dubbed her “Diana of the Dunes” after the mythological Roman goddess. They described her as a hermit, foraging for food. They hounded her for interviews. They made her a local celebrity.
But the real Diana, was more complicated than that. According to Diana of the Dunes, the true story of Alice Gray, written by Janet Zenke Edwards, Diana’s real name was Alice Mabel Gray. The daughter of a laborer, Alice had three brothers and two sisters, as well as a very close relationship with her mother. At the age of 16, she entered the University of Chicago where she became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and graduated six years later with “honorable mentions” in astronomy, mathematics, Greek and Latin.
After college, in 1903, she went to work for the U.S. Naval Observatory as a mathematician, but left the post two years later to take graduate courses at the University of Gottingen in Germany. She returned a year later and was employed as a stenographer at the University of Chicago.
By 1915, she’d become dissatisfied with her work. She disdained wage-earning labor, calling it slavery, and loathed the need to constantly work to support herself in Chicago. Some reports indicate she may have had a love affair with a professor at the University that went badly.
Later that year she left Chicago and headed for the Indiana Dunes, taking up residence in an abandoned fishing shack she called “Driftwood.” There she lived peacefully, living off fish and berries in the park, and making trips into nearby cities to purchase supplies and borrow books from the nearby library.
After fishermen reported seeing her in the waters of Lake Michigan, the story eventually got to the ears of Chicago reporters. After all, women didn’t just walk off and live alone on a beach in the early 1900s – they didn’t even have the right to vote yet. Newsmen went to the shore in search of an interview.
Whether those interviews ever happened or not, aren’t clear, but on July 23, 1916, the Chicago Examiner ran an article about Alice. Her reason for living alone amongst the dunes? “I want to live my own life – a free life,” she reportedly told them.
Within weeks, dozens of news articles told the world about “Diana of the Dunes.”
“Cleaving the water like a milk white dolphin came a mermaid. She made the shallows, rose up out of the water, then like a fabled nymph, flitted off into the shadows,” wrote one report with the Lake County Times in 1916.
The stories turned her into a celebrity. People wanted to know whether the well-educated, city-dwelling young woman could make it in such stark conditions. Visitors flocked to the area trying to see her on the dunes or view her shack from tourist boats on the lake, Edwards wrote. Gray tried to avoid them as best as she could. Her celebrity, though, did more than create an interest in her lifestyle, it created an interest in the dunes.
As more people moved to the area and developers built more houses closer and closer to the dunes, Diana began to publicly speak out about the need to preserve the dunes and the natural landscape she so loved. In an editorial, and in a talk to the Prairie Club in Chicago, Alice told of the virtues of saving the natural beauty of the dunes.
Had her story ended there, the romantic vision of a rebellious woman living life on her own terms would have wrapped up quite nicely.
Instead, Alice took up with a man named Paul Wilson, Edwards wrote, a local fisherman and carpenter with a dark history of run-ins with the police. Wilson earned money crafting handmade furniture he sold to local residents and tourists. The couple moved into another home on the dunes; this one called “Wren’s Nest.”
Although Alice referred to Wilson as her husband, no record of their marriage has been found, historian Richard Meister said. Things turned from good to bad for the couple around 1922, he said. It was then that a body was discovered near “Wren’s Nest.” Authorities suspected Wilson, with one deputy, Eugene Frank, accusing the couple of breaking into nearby cottages and stealing fish. The couple confronted Frank and a fight ensued.
Wilson was shot in the foot. Alice suffered a skull fracture. After they recovered from their injuries, they returned to find “Wren’s Nest” had been ransacked and a manuscript Alice had been working on was missing. Charges were brought against Frank, but they were dropped when Alice and Wilson failed to show up in court. Wilson was also eventually cleared of any wrong doing in the case of the dead body.
With the area becoming more developed, and their popularity growing, the couple decided to move to Texas, opting to float down the Mississippi on a 20×24 raft salvaged from a steamship. For unknown reasons, however, they returned to Ogden Dunes a few months later, Edwards wrote, asking for permission from the land owner to return to their beloved “Wren’s Nest.”
In 1925, Alice was diagnosed with kidney disease, but opted not to receive treatment. She died on February 8 of uremia poisoning. Her tombstone in the Oak Lawn Cemetery at Gary, Indiana read “Alice Gray Wilson.”
Alice’s legacy, however, lived on. In 1966, Indiana Dunes became a unit of the National Park Service, said Kim Swift, director of education for Indiana Dunes National Park. In 2019, it became the Indiana Dunes National Park.
To honor the Alice’s legacy, this year the park launched the Diana of the Dunes Dare. Visitors to the park are encouraged to walk along the three dunes Alice may have walked.
On June 5, as part of National Take A Hike Day, the park hosted more than 50 visitors who came to walk the trail and enjoy the park.
Whether Alice went to the dunes to find a place to live, to find solitude or to leave society is up for interpretation, Swift said.
“We just don’t know,” Swift said. “She was fairly successful. She obviously could take care of herself and find work. She had family including a sister in Michigan City. In terms of what drove her here, I’m not sure we know… I’m not sure we’ll ever know the real answer. So many of her journals were lost when they had that altercation with Deputy Sheriff Frank.”
We’re not even really sure that she went skinny dipping in the lake, Swift said.
“The press at the time was really enamored with that part of it,” she said. “But Alice didn’t adamantly say she didn’t do it, and she never said she did.”
Whatever the reason, Alice left society and for nine years to live a life like no other. Now, if the ghost stories are true, it seems Alice has returned to her beloved dunes and lives peacefully alone in nature again.