Sister Mary Francis

“What’d I do to you?”

I don’t remember exactly what he did or what he said, but whatever it was, it irritated Jeana, our keyboard player, and she let him know about it. We had enlisted my college roommate Mark Derby (The Derb) to manage bookings for THE SWOON. His efforts met with varying degrees of success, landing lucrative college shows and terrible little American Legion Halls in small-town Minnesota. He brought to the mix a tactless forthrightness which sometimes transgressed the boundaries of our keyboardists’ sense of dignity. It happened once again during a SWOON rehearsal while we were still putting together a new song to be titled “Sister Mary Francis.” Picture the scene in the unheated, unfinished second-story addition to the Gillispie family home in Cottonwood. In the winter, it was so cold up there that we had to light up a kerosene heater at least an hour before rehearsal just to thaw our instruments out. Perhaps while waiting for the room to warm up, Mark made some seemingly innocuous comment which was probably not innocuous at all, thus inciting Jeana’s retort and inspiring his protest of innocence, “What’d I do to you?”

There was something a rhythm to the way he said it that made us laugh. To his amusement, Austin and I dropped the outburst into the new song we were writing on the spot.

Mark Derby inspired another line in the same song when he told us about the time he and some friends visited Loon Lake Cemetery and the gravesite of the legendary witch Mary Jane Terwillegar (1862-1880). It’s a creepy, abandoned, pioneer-era cemetery out there on the great plains near the small town of Jackson, MN. Mary Jane Terwillegar’s headstone indicates she died at the young age of seventeen. An inscription on her headstone bore a sober warning to the living:

Kind friends beware as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare, therefore, to follow me.

By the 1980s, the real Mary Jane Terwillegar had been long forgotten. But the macabre inscription on her tombstone still captured the attention of locals. At some point, a false story about Mary Jane evolved. They said that Mary Jane had been executed for the crime of witchcraft—beheaded actually. You can read about the legend and the debunking of the legend in this article from the Utne Reader.  

Mark Derby’s coworkers at Michael’s restaurant in Worthington believed that anyone who jumped across Mary Jane’s grave by night would suffer an early and untimely death, most likely within the year. Local teenagers dared each other to visit the abandoned cemetery by night and tempt fate by leaping over her grave. Mark himself had visited the cemetery but wisely opted not to leap over poor Ms. Terwillegar’s resting place. This idea of tempting fate by transgressing something sacred entered the new song. The lyrics opened with the inquiry, “Sister Mary Francis, would it be OK if you knew about us dancing on your grave?” This was my nod to the legend. Rather than depicting the pioneer girl as a beheaded witch, I imagined her as a pious and prudish nun, shaking her head in dismay over our risky and risqué teenaged behaviors.

We weren’t the only band to bring the legend of Mary Jane Terwillegar into a song. Unbeknownst to THE SWOON, Megadeth released a track that same year titled “Mary Jane” which sticks to the witchcraft version of the story and includes the gravestone inscription in the lyrics. Contrary to popular belief, Megadeath’s “Mary Jane” wasn’t a song about marijuana at all.

Don’t bother making pilgrimage to Loon Lake cemetery to find Mary Jane’s grave. Vandals have long since destroyed the original grave maker and most of the cemetery too. It’s been a favorite haunt for southwest Minnesota teens in search of a place to drink alcohol while frightening themselves.

Twiliger’s tombstone now located in the museum in Lakefield, Minnesota, to protect it from vandals.

THE SWOON’s song, “Sister Mary Francis,” turned out to be a raucous tongue-in-cheek rollick about the conflict between the basic teenage impulses common to boys and girls and the seemingly unattainable ideals of Christian sanctity and purity. It’s about the losing struggle under the swoon of a siren song which, at the age, sounded as subtle as the siren of a fire engine. Maybe the thrill of naughtiness was like jumping over that grave in the Loon Lake Cemetery—tempting fate and inviting disaster. The lyrics offer no resolution to the quandary. The chorus hopes to heaven for mercy while falling back into a temptation’s arms as if resignation could reconcile the cognitive dissonance.

The shoddy recording went down as a live shot to a Tascam eight-track recorder and mixed down to a cassette, probably recorded during a rehearsal in late 1988. It sounds like train wreck, but it’s the only extant recording we have of that song. I lifted it off a copy of a copy of the cassette and, just for fun, added the revving engine sound effects and filled in some open holes. It’s not pretty, but it’s honest to how THE SWOON really sounded—like a garage band banging away heedless of the consequences, jumping over Mary Jane’s grave.

Thank you to The Derb and to the legend of Mary Jane Terwillegar.

Sister Mary Francis,

would it be OK

if you knew about us

dancing on your grave?

We’re tangled in the starlight.

Desperate cold white wine.

There’s danger in the high tide;

it comes in every time.

Baby is the moon now.

She knows ‘bout gravity.

She walks across the sky now.

She has a grip on me.

What’d I do to you?


There was mercy in the sky.

Mercy, prithee, mercy please.

There was mercy in her arms.

As I am without one plea.

There was mercy in God’s eyes.

Mercy, mercy come to me.

There was mercy in the rain.

Sister Mary Francis,

would you shake your head

if you knew about us

shaking in the bed?

Jack took Jill uphill

to help her understand.

Jack went back; Jill popped a pill.

They climbed the hill again.

Fire engine sirens,

whistles, lights, and bells!

Wax your ears from hearing

or succumb to their spells.

What’d I do to you?

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