Hal Roth - February 2009

Old News from Delmarva:
Where Have All the Ghosts Gone?
Hal Roth

   I was talking to an elderly lady one day and had just remarked to her that I don’t hear many stories about ghosts anymore. “What do you think happened to them?” I asked.
“Ghosts like the dark, I guess,” she stoically replied. “They just mostly went away when we got electricity.”
    The legendary Baltimore newspaperman, literary reviewer and political commentator H. L. Mencken once announced his conviction that 92 percent of the people in Maryland believe in ghosts, and our folklore provides abundant evidence that spirits once ran rampant on the Delmarva Peninsula, yet I find comparatively few ghost stories published in our journals of old, and many of them are humorous in nature.
    Here is a small collection I have clipped over the years.

   A True Ghost Story: – The Rev. Dr. Baker is and has been for thirty years the rector of a prominent parish on this Peninsula. He is a resident of the town of Camden, in Delaware, and has – or had some twelve years ago when this happened – a mission charge in the village of Venice, sixteen miles distant, and between these two places he was constantly on the road. About six miles from Camden was the country residence of Judge Silverton, a well-known and venerable parishioner of the worthy doctor. This gentleman had been dead about six weeks when Dr. Baker happened to be returning from Venice to Camden one afternoon in a carriage with Mr. Alden, a prominent citizen of Venice. It was in broad daylight, just about sunset and not far from Judge  Silverton’s gate, when a carriage, drawn by a white horse, passed them rapidly from behind and was soon out of sight.
   “That fellow must be in a hurry to reach Camden,” remarked the doctor.
   “Did you notice anything particular about that vehicle?” inquired his companion.
   “Only that it moves very quietly. I heard no sound as it went by.”
   “Nor did I,” said Mr. Alden, “neither rattling of wheels nor noise of hoofs. It is certainly strange.”
    In a few minutes the matter was forgotten and the two drove on, conversing about other things. They had proceeded about half a mile, when suddenly the same horse and carriage again passed them from behind, and again in the same absolute silence, notwithstanding the narrowness of the road. Nothing was seen of the driver except his feet, the carriage curtains hiding his body. There was no crossroad by which a vehicle in front could possibly have got behind without making a circuit of many miles and consuming several hours. Yet there was not the least doubt that this was the same conveyance which only a little while previous had passed on before, and the two gentlemen looked at each other in blank amazement and with a certain suggestion of awe, which prevented much discussion of the matter, especially as the horse was to all appearances the well-known white one habitually driven by the deceased judge. Another half mile brought them in sight of Judge Silverton’s gate, when for the third time the ghostly team dashed by – again from behind – in the same mysterious silence. This time, however, in full view, into the judge’s gate. Without a word of comment the doctor quickened his horse’s speed and reached the gate only a few yards behind the silent driver. Both Mr. Alden and himself peered eagerly up the long, open lane leading to the house, but neither carriage nor wheel track was visible, though it was still clear daylight, and there was no outlet from the lane, nor could any vehicle have possibly, in the time occupied, accomplished half the distance. In the simple language of Pliny, “nothing worthy of note followed.” The peculiar features of this strange incident are that it was equally and simultaneously evident to two witnesses, both entirely unprepared for any such manifestation, and differing widely in temperament, habits of life, mental capacity and educational attainments, and by mere accident making this journey together, and that to this day both of them – witnesses, be it noted, of the most unimpeachable credibility – attest it and fully corroborate each other, but without being able to suggest the slightest explanation. – 1882

   In the December 24, 1887 edition of the Denton Journal there is an interesting history of the Caroline County Court, which contains this story about the courthouse ghost.

   The courthouse is believed by some to be haunted, and this makes it interesting, too, from another point of view. Years ago, a deputy in the clerk’s office who went into politics was grievously defeated and one morning was found lying behind his desk dead, with a gaping wound in his throat and a razor tightly clenched in his right hand. That he still makes nocturnal visits to the places that once knew him is a fixed idea with many, and there are dozens of Dentonians whom all the wealth of Ormus or of Ind [see note at end] would not induce to clamber up the winding stairs and enter the big office at midnight alone. It is claimed by those who have had the good, or bad, fortune to view his ghostship that he never assumes a standing posture, but seemingly floats along with his head thrown back, the eyes closed, the face pallid and the throat stained with blood flowing from a deep cut, while the razor, yet reeking with his life-current, is poised in the phantom hand. One of these believers one snowy night awoke Clerk Gadd from a beatific dream, in which he had been tendered the nomination for State’s Comptroller, with a story that he had seen the ghost balancing himself behind the window above the courthouse door, while tongues of flame danced all around him. Investigation, however, revealed nothing more than a gigantic potted plant in the window seat, which the colonel had purchased for his wife, and the glare from the red-hot stove in the office. But the seer yet maintains that he was vouchsafed a glimpse of the ghost.

   Note: The wealth of Ormus and of Ind was mentioned In Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” “Ormus” was a sixteenth and seventeenth century kingdom located on the Persian Gulf, and “Ind” refers to India.

   Ghostly visitations have led to the resignation of A. F. Hudgins, assistant keeper of Wolf Trap light on Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Hudgins declared that knocks and other noises were heard all over the house, and a young lady, lying in bed, received a slap in the face, and on a light being produced it was found the blow had left the print of a ghostly hand on the young lady’s cheek. Citizens have been aroused over the matter, and watch parties have nightly tried to discover the cause of the visitations, but have failed. – 1882

   Daniel P. Jones, of Lewes, Delaware, asserts ghosts really exist. Two others, a clergyman and a businessman of this little coastal town, who saw a tall white figure glide into an oak tree late at night, confirm his statement. Jones had told of seeing the ghost and invited his two friends to investigate with him. Late that night they saw a white figure gliding across the lot where they were watching, and following it, saw it disappear into a large tree as they blazed away with guns.
Digging through the roots of the tree they found a human skull. It will receive a Christian burial. – 1908

   “Molly,” said Joe Kelley’s ghost to his wife, “I’m in Pargatary at this present time,” says he.
   “And what sort of a place is it?” says she.
   “Fair,” says he. “It’s a sort of halfway house between you and heaven; and I stand it mighty easy after leaving you.” – 1882

    Last week a respected citizen died and was laid out in funeral robes preparatory to internment the next day. That night two watchers sat in the room adjoining that in which the corpse was lying. The door between the two rooms was pushed to, but not latched. Along toward midnight the watchers began, as watchers will, to amuse themselves by telling ghost stories. If there is any place or time when a ghost story can be told with a properly thrilling effect, it is in the “dead waste and middle of the night” in the immediate propinquity of a corpse, which has just yielded up the ghost. So it proved in this instance. As the narrator proceeded with the bloodcurdling recital, he and his auditor instantly turned their eyes toward the door of the room in which the dead man lay. Just then the relator said: “At that minute an awful groan was heard, the light turned blue and there was a smell of brimstone. The door opened of itself, and in walked….”
    Just then the knob of the door to the corpse’s room turned slowly, and the door swung open with a long screech.
    The relator shrieked: “There it does come!” and with a convulsive bound, threw his arms around his companion’s neck. Every individual hair upon the latter’s head became as rigid as a frozen knitting needle, his fingers worked like impaled fish worms, and he gasped out: “Holy Mary, mother of….” Then his white lips became dumb with terror.
    This interesting tableau continued for a few seconds, when the parties, not seeing any spiritual visitor, recovered, in a measure, their presence of mind, and then they discovered that the door had been opened by a draft of air. – 1875

   And how, the reader might wonder, does a draft of air turn a doorknob?

   Jesse Comegys, a harmless lunatic, now confined in an insane asylum, and who is charged with having frightened his wife to death several years ago by rehearsing a ghost story, inherits $40,000 from his father, the late Thomas Price Comegys of Queen Anne County.

   Tipkins aroused his wife from a sound sleep the other night, saying he had seen a ghost in the shape of an ass.
   “Oh, let me sleep,” was the reply of the irate dame, “and don’t be frightened by your own shadow.”

   I’ve heard some strange ghost stories, but this one from the Easton Ledger in 1883 may be the all-time winner.

   Castle Haven, in Dorchester, on the Choptank, is a fine old estate and manor house, commanding one of the most conspicuous sites in all Maryland. The tall and imposing house and the stately Lombardy poplars on the lawn can be seen for miles up and down the river, and they loom up as conspicuous objects from the opposite Talbot shore. Castle Haven, as an estate and residence, goes away back into colonial times and, like some other old places, has hanging about it some weird and fascinating stories.   Mr. Philip Lecompte is the occupant of Castle Haven. He is a practical man, interested in farming the estate and thinking infinitely more of crops and stock than ghosts and spirits. But the ghost has again been about, all the same, and has given an indubitable manifestation of his presence. One day last week Mr. Lecompte was having dinner prepared in his kitchen, using a very heavy No. 9 cook stove. While the dinner was preparing and the stove was covered with boiling pots and kettles and other cooking utensils, Mrs. Lecompte went out, leaving no one in the kitchen. When she went back a few minutes after, she found that the stove had been turned over and was then with its legs in the air, while the pots and kettles and other cooking utensils were in the proper places on the stove, but were resting on the floor. The fire in the stove was burning as usual, the boiling water in the pots and kettles stayed in and kept on boiling, nothing had fallen off the stove or was disarranged while it was turning over, and there sat the stove, completely reversed, with its feet uppermost. The stovepipe remained in its place on the stove and in the chimney and was drawing as usual, but it had to be taken off before the stove could be righted. This strange occurrence is a wonder to Castle Haven and the whole neighborhood around.

   Burrsville now owns a real ghost. The ghost in question was seen some nights ago by two responsible citizens and was shaped like a colt, calf, dog, or some other animal, but had no head. One of the men caught it, but allowed it to resume its course after a short tussle. Bob and Joe, two good authorities on ghosts, after considerable research and hearing the evidence of both parties who saw his ghostship, pronounced the thing either a “voperation” or an “assirrea.” – 1894

   And sometimes a “ghost” isn’t a ghost at all. This 1870 tale was borrowed from the Baltimore Sun.

   A night or two since, just as the clock on St. Patrick’s Church, corner of Broadway and Bank Street, had struck twelve, three young men, while returning to their homes in the vicinity of Canton, were suddenly interrupted by an incident which, though of rare occurrence, is nevertheless not without precedent. They had been freely imbibing of that which at last “biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder,” and their steppings were infirm and unstately. Their voices were hilarious, and the sounds they gave out were the only ones which broke upon the silence that reigned over the great city. On reaching a point a block or two east of Broadway, their jubilations were suddenly arrested by the appearance in the distance of an object which caused their cheeks to blanch with fear and each particular hair to stand on end. Mirth and joy gave way to alarm and trepidation, as a black steed of massive build, surmounted by what seemed to be a female with long, black hair flowing to the breeze and contrasting strongly with the white garments in which she was clad, approached the now trembling trio of midnight bacchanalians. Thoughts of ghosts and goblins seized upon every mind, and as it was just the hour that the graves are supposed to give up their dead, and their skinny occupants visit this mundane sphere, these young men concluded that the vicinity was no place for them. They, therefore, stood not upon the order of their going, but went at once and gave the nocturnal equestrienne a wide berth. The affrighted youths communicated their fears to a gentleman encountered a short distance off, who determined to ascertain the true character of the seeming apparition. He soon overtook the object of his pursuit, and nearing the horse, felt assured that the rider was a female, and although presenting a ghostly and unnatural appearance, clad in her snowy garments and at so an unseasonable hour, he made so bold as to address her. She gave no reply, but upon his seizing the horse and halting his motion, she at once aroused, and although chagrined at being found in the streets en dishabille, without hesitation offered an explanation. She resided some distance beyond Canton near the Philadelphia Road, and had been long subject to fits of somnambulism, and that night, while laboring under its influence, had wandered from her bed chamber to her father’s stable, saddled and mounted the horse and rode she knew not whither, until thus suddenly interrupted. The gentleman gallantly proffered to accompany her to the paternal roof, but with grateful thanks she declined the courtesy, and turning the horse around, gracefully galloped back to her home. The sound of the horse’s hoofs had scarcely died away in the distance when the gentleman heard the hum of voices and saw quite a party approaching. It proved to be the young men who had so recently fled in terror from the scene. They were heavily reinforced and armed with sticks, stones, bricks and other weapons of assault and defense, and inquiring diligently for that “d____d ghost.” The gentleman quickly quieted their apprehensions when he told them that it was a delicate young female, who, while in a state of somnambulism, had so filled their souls with terror. With countenances indicating that they experienced, in its keenest sense, the chagrin so intimately associated with that well-known word “sold,” they vanished ingloriously around a corner and were soon lost to sight.

   If you have any old news to share, you can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com.