Old portrait frames a Falmouth tale of believe it or not

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FALMOUTH — When Kurt and Elizabeth Klebe bought their home on Falmouth Road 11 years ago, they did so in large part because of its historical significance.

It’s a 1738 home – dating back to before the Revolutionary War – built by one of the town’s earliest residents, James Merrill.

Merrill would raise 11 children in the house, and later build houses around the town for them, a few of which still stand.

“We have a wonderful example of things that survive,” Kurt Klebe said of the home.

But as it would turn out, the home came with a rather unusual occupant.

A 19th century painting of a woman named Mary Jane Merrill hangs in the home, in a room facing the front yard; the Klebes call it Mary Jane’s room. The portrait is surrounded by a legend that at times dips into the paranormal.

According to Elizabeth Klebe, the painting survived a fire in a barn that once stood on the property. It was then brought inside and placed in the attic, where legend says it moved around on its own; people would go up to the attic and find the painting had inexplicably moved to a new spot.

The portrait was hung inside the main house for display by previous owners, and the Klebes said they will never move it again.

“The legend was, bad things would happen if it was moved,” Elizabeth Klebe said.

Those bad things included water or fire damage, such as a well going dry, or flooding, or the fire that destroyed the old barn.

Additionally, the Klebes said Mary Jane’s eyes have been known to follow people around the room.

“I don’t feel like anything’s watching you,” Kurt Klebe said. “That being said, we’ve been here 11 years, and haven’t taken it down.”

The Klebes, who believe they are are the fifth family to live in the house, said they haven’t personally experienced anything remarkably supernatural involving the painting – although Kurt Klebe did say that on the first night they moved into the home, a fuse blew in the older part of the house where the portrait hangs.

He said it was the only time anything like that has happened in the room.

The Klebes, who have been Falmouth residents since 1994, bought the house at auction, which was where they first learned of the portrait’s folklore, Elizabeth Klebe said. A condition was attached to the sale of the house: the portrait had to remain.

And the Klebes plan to keep that a condition if they ever sell the home.

“If we leave, (the portrait) stays,” Elizabeth Klebe said.

The portrait also contains what looks like bullet hole, through Mary Jane’s head. There is a corresponding hole in the wall behind the portrait that’s been patched, and also two similar holes in a ceiling nearby.

“The portrait has been blamed for bad luck,” Kurt Klebe said.

According to Marge Devine, former president of the Falmouth Historical Society and a Merrill descendant, Mary Jane Merrill died in 1857 when she was 50 years old. She had married Leonard Merrill, the great-grandson of James, Devine said, and most likely lived in the house.

Devine said Mary Jane is buried in the McGregor Cemetery on Falmouth Road, although Leonard is not buried with her.

“I remember well (the) picture hanging on a wall when I was very young,” Devine said in an email. “Her eyes, I thought, followed me around the room. I was so young I believed she watched every move I made.”

The Klebes were drawn to the house by its historical connection to the town – although they said they love the lore surrounding the home and portrait.

Elizabeth and Kurt said they each grew up in old homes, and since there aren’t many houses predating the Revolutionary War, and they feel “lucky to be the stewards of one,” Kurt Klebe said.

“It’s important to connect people with that history,” he said. “You can get a feeling of what life was like then.”

And while the folklore of Mary Jane Merrill’s portrait may never be validated, the legends and stories will likely live on. Elizabeth said people have knocked on their door just to ask about the portrait.

“One of the great things about historic houses is no one knows (everything),” Kurt said. “You get to pick and choose what you think is correct.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Kurt and Elizabeth Klebe in front of the portrait of Mary Jane Merrill in their Falmouth home. The story goes that if the painting is moved, inexplicable things happen in the house.

The portrait of Mary Jane Merrill, complete with what is presumed to be a bullet hole.

The Klebe’s Falmouth Road home, built in 1738 by James Merrill.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.