Tales of Ghosts on Maryland's Eastern Shore Reveal History and Imagination
Oct 17, 2016 12:00PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
They Only Come Out At NightBy Marimar McNaughton
Heard as whispers on the wind, the rustling of drapes, the flap of wings, the cries of mourners, the crash of unseen objects, Dorchester County Maryland’s haunts only come out at night. From its county seat, across its swamps and rivers, this is said to be the most haunted of the Eastern Shore’s nine counties.
You can almost hear the hollow claps of horses’ hooves, but they’re only echoes from the past. Today, it’s just the low rumble of rubber tires bumping along the brick-lined pavement where landmark Colonial homes and a few stately Victorians anchor the streetscape. Except for modern vehicles, phone poles and utility lines, Cambridge, Maryland’s High Street appears just like it may have 150 years ago, Mindie Burgoyne says.
In Cambridge, as with many 17th century Colonial British towns, the foot of High Street begins at the waterfront threading its way to the highest point of land nearby. Here, far from rising floodwaters, the town fathers built a church, a courthouse and a jail around which the lives of citizens revolved—where babies were christened, couples married, men and women tried and sentenced, then punished, hanged, and buried.
There are many High Streets found in coastal towns along the Eastern Seaboard. There is another High Street on the Eastern Shore in Kent County’s Chestertown, but High Street, Cambridge, is unique, not only for its prominent role in James Michener’s epic novel, Chesapeake, but the two linear blocks from the Choptank River to the town commons, Burgoyne says, is “the most haunted street in the country.”
Burgoyne has retold ghostly stories from all of the nine coastal counties that form Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Yet, Dorchester County, and Cambridge, its county seat, she says, is the most haunted. High Street is where she launched the first of her Chesapeake Ghost Walks. She began by knocking on doors and listening to ghost stories told to her by the owners of historic homes built centuries ago by judges, lawyers, senators and congressmen.
“I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and I’ve been on most of the major ghost town tours in America, but I’ve never seen anything like that, where you have 13 stops on two short blocks,” Burgoyne says.
Also the author of three books of Eastern Shore ghost stories, Burgoyne began her search for answers when she moved from the Western Shore, 14 years ago, into a haunted house in Somerset County’s Marion Station, itself—after the decline of the railroad—a ghost of a town.
“When I walk past a house, I can tell there's something going on,” Burgoyne says. “It finds me. In the next day or two I’ll kind of get the information I’m looking for.”
Led by her psychic intuition, her recent writings are supported by academic research conducted at Salisbury University’s Edward H. Nabb Research Center. From field interviews gathered, the pages of oral history and folklore collections alone number in the thousands.
Among those papers are clippings from The Dorchester News and The Cambridge Daily Banner. Former Dorchester County librarian Gladys Lewis collected the newspapers’ ghost stories written by a young Brice Stump in the 1960s. Now an award-winning photojournalist, Stump’s first ghost story, Big Liz, of Greenbriar Swamp, was published in 1965.
“Greenbriar Swamp is only about three or four miles from where I grew up,” Stump says. “I knew the farmers in the area and...I knew the layout of the land...I think one of the people over there mentioned...Big Liz and I pursued it from there.”
Stump says, even in his early years as an emerging journalist he always rooted his ghost stories in the oral history tradition, interviewing generations of local people who had heard the stories handed down to them by elders.
“I never went for the sensational,” he says. “I always tried to get people who I thought were honest and sincere in giving me the information they had heard growing up.”
When Stump began to research Big Liz he says there were only two sentences published in the local paper. The search for Big Liz has, for decades, been a rite of passage for local teenagers who say they have seen Big Liz’s ghost at the DeCoursey Bridge.
“Big Liz was supposedly a slave during the Civil War who served in the Bucktown area of Dorchester County and accompanied her master to the swamp to bury a shipment of gold for the Confederate forces,” Stump says. “Then he dispatched her so that she would not reveal the location.” Stump uses the third meaning of the word dispatch to imply Big Liz was to put to death by her master. “By the time I came along, the kids were using her as a recreational tool,” he says. “You park your car in the middle of the bridge and you flash your lights three times and honk your horn three times and out from under the bridge would be the apparition of Big Liz. It was told to me...that she carried her head in her hands.”
Another of Dorchester County’s infamous ghost stories predates Big Liz but also involves the demise of yet another African slave, Henny Insley hanged at the Cambridge Courthouse in June 1831 for the crime of hacking her mistress to death. The story, Mindie Burgoyne says, tells a lot about the town of Cambridge.
“I would love to write the story, of the story, of Bloody Henny,” she says. Hanged with a makeshift gallows, Burgoyne says, “They just tied a rope around her neck, tied to a tree, while they had her stand on an oxcart. They put feed in front of the ox and he slowly walked away...it was a long, slow, horrible death.”
It’s been said, some hear the sound of the hangman’s rope scrapping the tree branch, the cries of onlookers, and the whispers on the wind, as if saying: “What are you hanging for?”
The hanging took place in an area once equipped with stocks, stockades, and a whipping post reserved for corporeal punishment and executions. But Henny Insley is listed as the only person to have been executed in Dorchester County between 1607 and 1976. A fountain now marks the site of her end.
“It’s a bad place,” Burgoyne says, “bad, bad karma there, also near where they had the slave auction block. Many, many stories of angst, and anger, and horror, and execution.”
Directly across the street at Christ Church cemetery stories of salvation and redemption are told; among them, the tale of the ancient yew tree. More than 200 years old, the tree’s roots have encroached on the headstone of Ann Weller who died in 1817. When the wind blows, the tree is said to sing; and when a hand is placed on the bark of limbs and trunk, the tree is said to vibrate.
Fellow Eastern Shore habitué, fiction writer, and columnist Helen Chappell says, some gravesites were excavated and moved to the cemetery. Family plots, she explains, were customarily tucked in the fields behind homes. But as farms were auctioned or sold to others, new farmers lost interest in plowing around gravesites. Instead they were known to chain the headstones, pull them out of the ground and throw them overboard, Chappell says. Then they plowed over the graves.
“So you have a lot of angry ghosts all over the place,” she says.
As a young girl she encountered her first angry ghost in a farmhouse that, too, came with its own family plot. During the Depression, her father, who graduated medical school in Pennsylvania and practiced in Kennett Square, bought three contiguous farms in Dorchester County at East Ross Neck—purportedly land granted to the first owner by King Charles II—in all, about 1,800 acres, she says, on which her father raised Hereford cattle. There was an English country house on the property and the two-story home was only used as a seasonal retreat for Chappell’s family members when they came to the Eastern Shore to hunt and fish.
“The house we lived in had a ghost,” she says. “Everybody felt it. My mother, who was not sensitive to anything, felt it. She spent the night down there by herself and swore she’d never do that again,” Chappell says.
“There was a cemetery on the property and that was supposed to be haunted. I don’t know if my brother was trying to scare the bejesus out of me, or what. There were supposed to be lights in the cemetery going back and forth at night. The house was supposed to be haunted by somebody who was buried there. I was a little kid. It kinda felt like somebody was watching me all the time. I didn't want to be in a room by myself because I was afraid someone would be there when I turned around.”
Chappell’s father told his family there had been a fire and the cook or the maid had been trapped in the kitchen and burned alive.
“The thing that freaked me out,” Chappell begins, “we would get up early in the morning, like 5 o’clock, to go fishing, and I would hear the flapping of wings flying through the house.”
Audible sounds are a common way for spirits to interact with humans, Mindie Burgoyne says.
“Every October we open up our house for ghost tours. Because I’ve written so much about my haunted house people want to stop and come in. Once, I had one girl who said, ‘My mother is Mary of Mary’s Ghost.’”
Mary’s ghost haunts Old Salty’s, a Hooper’s Island restaurant, about 25 miles southwest of Cambridge. Located on a remote finger of land on Fishing Creek, sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Hongo River, the restaurant is housed inside the old Hooper’s Island schoolhouse.
“When Jay Newcomb put his restaurant there, things started to happen,” Burgoyne says. “In fact, it’s still happening.”
On more than one occasion, staff members have seen a specter enter the dining room, then vanish; heard unexplained crashing noises; found missing items in unlikely places; and felt drapery billow in a windless banquet hall. Mary, who worked in the restaurant for decades, has said when she is alone in the banquet hall, the ghost has called her by name.
Along the desolate stretches of road that ring the marshlands and connect crossroads to the county’s small hamlets, many have reported sightings of another spectre, the Golden Hill girl.
Helen Chappell, who collected ghost stories about 20 years ago, says, “I’ve never seen her, but I’m told she’s dressed like the 1920s...very well dressed. It’s like Resurrection Mary, she’s there and then she’s not there. When you get closer, she disappears.”
Set near Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Chappell’s story was documented in November 1971 and reportedly told to Lilly Todd of Cambridge (born in Golden Hill), by her husband, and later archived at the Nabb Research Center. That version places the story at Slaughter Creek Bridge. On foggy nights a woman allegedly comes out of the water and calls to travelers to follow her, crosses the bridge, and vanishes into the water.
It’s not hard to imagine. Attributing his one and only sighting of the supernatural to the possibility of methane gas, Brice Stump describes nightfall in the remote area.
“When it gets dark, it’s dark. There are no streetlights, no town lights, no convenience stores, just pure darkness,” he says. These were the atmospheric conditions during which he witnessed the Ghost Light of Shorter’s Wharf, sometimes called Cal’s Light, which appears not far from a rural cemetery.
“I have to admit, it was everything they said it was,” Stump says. “This ghost light was said to travel for miles across the cemetery, through people’s yards. When I was a boy, to get to Cambridge on that Bucktown Road, you had to cross the Transquaking River, which had a very high bridge, and still does. When I was going to Cambridge one night, at the top of the bridge, I happened to see the light coming across the marsh. I grew up down there, so it could have never possibly been a boat or a car; there are no roads. I thought: What could that be at this time of night? It moved extremely fast. That story’s always been a subject of interest,” Stump says. “The people down there believe in it, heart and soul.”