Eric Mills - Kissing Ghost of the Wilderness - March 2006:
The Kissing Ghost of the Wilderness
Many’s the weird, unexplained tale of morbid phenomena on the Eastern Shore. The Gross’ Coate sightings. The singular bizarreness at White Marsh. Big Liz. The Foxley Hall phantom. Apparitions flit in and out of our reality, in the spaces where psychic scars never heal, and the dead touch the living. The Shore, gothic, remote, old, is squirming and swarming with the spirits of the dead. They walk this damp, marshy world, and to the lonesome traveler, the unsuspecting sleeper, they make their cold translucent presence known.
But of them all, there is one, the one – the ghost who kisses the living upon the lips – she resonates most profoundly with lovelorn sorrow from beyond the grave.
Who was she? What was her name? No recounting of the haunting ever deems to mention it, and graveyard records fail to give forth their secrets. There are significantly divergent versions of the ghastly circumstances leading up to the eternal presence of death here, but through all the accounts there is this constant: The man who dares venture slumbering in this room, be he foolish, reckless, or depravedly necromantic, this man’s warm lips will be pressed upon by the long-dead lips of a sad young beauty, deceased these centuries. It is a cold kiss, this is, as befits a kiss of death.
The estate has always been known as the Wilderness. A generously proportioned old manse of white brick, it gazes out past a vast greensward to the banks of the Choptank. The house’s original section is circa 1785; the addition, circa 1815. The Wilderness is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has known many owners. It is built on an old Indian site.
Jim Outten is caretaker at the Wilderness, like his father and grandfather before him. Jim was born on the property, and in his years here has seen the Wilderness change hands numerous times.
He has been here when others awoke screaming in the night, he was born and raised and has worked his whole life on this storied property, as did the other Outten sentinels down through the long years, here where there have been those who spoke of miasmic visions. “I don’t believe that kind of stuff,” the caretaker insists. “But strange things have happened here that I can’t explain….”
Just before last Thanksgiving, for instance, there occurred what will go down in Wilderness lore as the Tea Stand Incident. There is upon the estate a prized 17th-century teapot. Nobody – nobody of flesh and blood, that is – was in the room where the teapot resides, when clattering noises were heard emanating from there. Upon investigation, the teapot was found relocated to a tabletop. The tea stand, meanwhile, had been transported to the far end of the chamber – and smashed.
The how and wherefore of such violent action by the invisible culprit remains a phantasmagoric enigma – like so many others that hover over this spectral nexus. Was the tea-stand smasher that selfsame kissing ghost, making a rare descent from the haunted boudoir, spurred by some sudden inexplicable spasm of rage? Or was it another spirit entirely, a fellow traveler in the dimension of shadows? Whichever, this latest unnatural occurrence was merely the most recent in an unending skein of disquieting mysteries here trailing back through the haunted ages.
Daniel Martin (1780-1831) inherited the Wilderness from his father in 1808. Daniel Martin’s father has been characterized in the popular press as “an adventurous and successful sea captain … the story is told that when he returned home he would bring enough coin to cover completely a large dining room table with Spanish dollars a foot deep.”
Son Daniel it was who added the wing to the original house. And it was Daniel who twice served as Governor of Maryland, in 1828-1829 and again in 1830-1831.
The odd circumstances of Governor Martin’s death are mentioned by Oswald Tilghman in his History of Talbot County: “He was at his home in Talbot … he dreamed three nights in succession that he saw his mother on board a beautiful sailing ship … on the broad Choptank river. She told him that on the third day following her first appearance to him, he would be called home at the hour of noon, on the morning of the third day. It is said, that when at the breakfast table, the Governor, with tears in his eyes, related his strange dream, the family laughed at the idea of his deep concern … At half-past eleven o’clock he mounted his saddle horse and rode out into his harvest field… Just as he reached his overseer and attempted to speak to him, he fell from his horse dead, at noon on July 11th, 1831.”
Thus the nauseating trauma of one’s own death foreseen. But such inordinate eeriness was not necessarily new at the Wilderness. For, back in 1808, back when the young governor-to-be had first become the man of the manor, some dimly recalled, grim fatal tragedy already had occurred.
The stories abound, stockpiled over the years, of sick nocturnal encounters in that room in the old wing. As aforementioned, details vary. But the nightmare always culminates in a kiss.
In his 1944 classic Rivers of the Eastern Shore, Hulbert Footner relates the oft-told tale: “The Wilderness has a ghost. It appears that one of the early Martin proprietors, upon returning home from a ride to inspect his farms, found that his young wife had died suddenly during his absence. The poor woman cannot rest quietly because she was deprived of an opportunity to bid her husband farewell, and any man who sleeps in the chamber where her husband used to lie, will be awakened in the night by the soft kiss of a beautiful young woman.”
In other versions, the husband is the one who dies. But it must be noted that, in either gender-death version, it is always the woman who haunts.
The way Jim Outten remembers it, the man was in the militia and got called out in a hurry, on which dire exigency it is no longer known. The man was killed. And he had departed in such great haste that he failed to give his wife a goodbye kiss. “They’d just been married two or three days, a short while,” says Jim.
The wife still waits, for a husband who’s dead, for a kiss never tasted.
According to another variation, the husband and wife had a bitter, explosive argument. The husband left in anger. The ensuing throw from the horse killed him.
The wife blamed herself, blamed her anger and vicious words that drove him from the house, blamed these for his death. The guilt enslaved her long past her own demise. She continues to return to the room where the Martin proprietor slept, she hovers in hope of forgiveness, in need of love.
Over the years, there have been dozens of men, guests of whichever current landlord holds sway, who have spent the night at the Wilderness in the room, that room, and have reported being awakened by a vivid feminine spectre, leaning softly forward to deliver a long, lingering kiss.
For more than 25 years now, the Wilderness has been owned by the Ravenals, who have lovingly restored the ancient estate and smartly appointed it. It is not so unusual that the Ravenals haven’t experienced the kissing ghost. What is unsettling is that one of them suffered through a terrifying encounter with an entirely different ectoplasmic entity – in the same room.
Of course, judging by the astral spirit’s modus operandi, young Cornelia Ravenal, being female, would not have been subject to a kissing-ghost visitation anyway. But what happened to her that mortifying night ranks as one of the most uniquely twisted encounters yet to be chronicled here.
It was in the late 1970s that Cornelia, then a teen, decided to try to spend the night in there. She went in, got in the bed, rested her head on the pillow, and slept.
One eye opened.
The tall grinning man had a black mustache. He winked, in moonlight suspended, and Cornelia screamed. He was drifting, floating about the dark room. When they finally got in there to her lying there screaming, the rocking chair – the rocking chair! – was shoved down upon her on the bed.
She didn’t sleep in there anymore that year.
She described the man to Jim Outten. He was taken aback. Cornelia had just described, in precise detail, J. Ramsey Speer, proprietor of the Wilderness in the 1930s and ’40s.
What was he doing there? In the kissing woman’s room? In her room?
Is the spirit some sort which represents itself as the opposite sex to either sex, depending on who sleeps there of a given night?
Or are the ghosts all here in temporal layers, all of them wandering, talking, waltzing, in varying stages of period costume, laughing and singing morosely, mocking us, the living, as they pass us on the field and in the hallway?
Why do they like this one room, this focal point for the other world, this eldritch corner of time and space? What Indian secrets lie half-asleep here, sifting upward to dance in the fever dreams of us, here, now?
If you’re kissed, is your life ever the same afterwards?