Saying goodbye to Maryland is never easy, sometimes even for the dead. From the alleyways of old Annapolis to the frontier graves of Frederic and the battlefields of Antietam and Monocracy to the bones of Edger Allen Poe, The Old Line State has spent nearly 400 years collecting her ghosts. Those restless spirits and their stories are out there, waiting to be uncovered.
The Restless Shade of Edgar Allan Poe
In 1831, an unknown writer by the name of Edgar Allan Poe left New York on a ship bound for Baltimore. Baltimore, The Monumental City, was the pinnacle of modernity, she boasted not one, but two steamboat lines, the Nation’s first railroad, the fledgling B&O and a thriving publishing industry; surely the young scribe’s very heart pounded at the town’s vitality. Tragically the city’s charms were lost on poor Poe as she shared with him only its darkest side.
Poe arrived in Baltimore to find the city in the grips of a cholera plague and his older brother Henry gravely ill. The family’s poverty offered little reprieve from the brutal epidemic, but sadly his brother was not so fortunate. At the tender age of 24, Henry succumbed to his disease and a fair measure of strong drink. His corpse was found in an alley between Exeter and High streets, not far from where Edgar would meet his own mysterious fate.
The younger Poe fiercely grieved the death of his beloved brother and mentor and, prone to black moods as he was, the loss pushed the tragic poet further into despair. Poe walked the city’s slums, awash in sorrow and the ravages of disease, unaware that, while Baltimore had exacted from him a terrible price, she had also given him a dark gift. The poet left Baltimore, fled, really, to continue his writing in Richmond, Virginia where he achieved some small measure of fame, but the memories of Baltimore and the epidemic would haunt him, inspiring his legendary stories, The Masque of the Red Death and King Plague.
No one knows why, or even how he left Richmond -- perhaps he was called by some vile force, drawn inexorably to his terrible fate – but one can imagine his heart was a flood of dread upon his return to Baltimore. On October 3rd, 1849, Poe was found at the door of a tavern just blocks from his old Baltimore home. He was disheveled, wearing another man’s clothing, and overcome by madness. It had been six days since he’d left Virginia, but the poet could give no account of where he’d been, murmuring only, “Reynolds,” a riddle in one word.
Poe lingered for four more days, but never regained his sanity. His cause of death was listed as, “Congestion of the brain,” but many at the time believed he’d been murdered. Though a memorial now stands over his remains in Baltimore’s Westminster Cemetery, he was interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave, but perhaps there is some small part of the man that doesn’t lie in that cold, black earth. Overcome by delirium, some say a shred of Poe escaped that night, fleeing the few blocks to his old residence at 800 W. Lexington Street. The house is now The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum, and it may be Poe’s home once more. Visitors to the museum claim to have felt the poet’s ghostly hand upon their shoulders, felt a chill as he passed on his lonely rounds or heard the scratching of his quill, his ghost penning one final mystery while he awaits the return of his brother.
The Frozen Witch of Old St. Mary’s
It’s hardly a surprise that Maryland’s first county holds her oldest ghost. In Southern Maryland, every school boy and girl knows the story of old Moll Dyer, the tormented crone whose restless spirit has haunted the dark and lonely corners of St. Mary’s County for over three centuries, but few know her tragic tale.
The oldest written account of Dyer’s demise dates back to the August 18, 1892 edition of the St. Mary’s Beacon. The fragile old paper at the St. Mary’s Historical Society recounts her legend, how much of it is true, who can say? But records show a woman by the name of Mary Dyer immigrated to Maryland in 1677, a time when superstitions ran roughshod through the fragile young colony and witch trials ruled in St. Mary’s County. Then, in 1697 or 1698, Maryland was struck by a “great epidemic.” The nature of that terrible affliction has been lost to history, but legend has it that poor Moll Dyer paid for that plague with her life.
According to the old timers, Moll Dyer was an odd old hag who lived alone outside of sleepy Leonardtown. She was tall, and beautiful once, but age and isolation had left her bent and ugly and the colonists found her old world ways queer. They claimed she cavorted with devils and called her a witch or worse. When the crops failed the townsfolk blamed poor old Moll. When the floods came, they blamed Moll. Heck, if the dog ran away or the bread turned to mold, they’d spit her name and curse, “It’s old Moll Dyer’s wicked work!” They hated her, but they feared her. When the plague struck the colonists knew it must be Moll and, this time, their anger over came their fear.
The colonists took up arms and torches and set out for Moll’s shack. The poor old woman woke in terror to the jeers of the angry townsfolk, their angry shadows dancing on her shabby walls. Peering through her frost crusted windows, she must have known the mob wanted her blood, but a shade of kindness dwelt among them. Being good and God-fearing folk, the colonists spared her life, but they could no longer bear her living amongst them. The mob chased her away and set fire to her sad little hut.
Certainly it was a kindness to let the old hag take flight, but a pitiful one, for Moll was tired and thin and winter’s icy veil lay thick on the young colony. Into the wilderness she fled cursing her cold bones and the wicked townsfolk who warmed themselves at the blaze that was her home. The plague abated and the people of St. Mary’s breathed easier in the belief they’d seen the last of old Moll Dyer, but a few days later, a boy out searching for his cattle came upon Moll’s mortal remains deep in the forest.
To the horror of the young lad, her body was stiff from the cold. Her frozen corpse knelt on a great stone, one hand on the rock, steadying her icy corpse and the other lifted high in some terrible prayer. Moll spent her final breath on a curse for the townsfolk and the colony that wronged her and, even today, the land where she met her maker remains barren and blighted.
In the center of Leonardtown, out in front of the historic courthouse you’ll find old Moll Dyer’s rock. Some say, if you place your hands were Molls’ shaped the stone, you’ll feel a second, icy pair, gripping your own. Moll’s stone makes a perfect start for any ghost tour of St. Mary’s, but her story is only one of the countless ghosts who roam the county.
The Haunted Gallows of Denton and the Wish that Would Not Rest
In July of 1915, the sleepy town of Federalsburg was in the throes of a crime wave too terrible to describe here. The citizens wanted justice, but it seems injustice would do. Whispers and accusations tore through the town like wildfires and everywhere an accusation landed, two more sprung up in its place. Soon they started raging around poor Aloysius “Wish” Shepherd. There was no evidence against Wish save for his black skin and poverty, but that was enough for the crooked sheriff.
Wish was arrested and, when the townsfolk heard, the Denton courthouse became the center of an angry mob. They thronged at the doors and their shouts for blood rang like darkly tolling bells off the walls of the jail, terrifying young Wish, who was still just a teen. The sheriff gave him a choice: Give a confession or be given to the mob.
With this “confession” in hand, the sheriff wasted no time and a gallows was soon erected outside the courthouse on the shore of the Choptank River. Hundreds came for the spectacle, and again their wicked jeers terrified poor Wish. He didn’t fight his jailors, but clung with all his might to the bars of his tiny cell. Aloysius “Wish” Shepherd was the first man hanged in Caroline County in a hundred years and also the last. While Wish’s mother wept, the jubilant crowd celebrated and even released a commemorative postcard of the grizzly event entitled, “The Hanging of Wish Shepherd.”
For most, even an unjust execution at least brings rest, but not for Wish who is still imprisoned by the Caroline County Jail. When the sheriff returned, he found a hand print where Wish had braced himself in his vain attempt at avoiding the gallows. No matter how hard he scrubbed, the hand print wouldn’t wash away. Over the years, jailors tried to paint over the ghostly print only for it to return a few days later. Finally, 60 years later, they erected a new wall to hide the old one and its hand print. To this day, the door of Wish’s cell refuses to open without a struggle and his apparition appears before inmates and jailors alike, hiding in the shadows of the jail, still unwilling to leave and face the brutal mob.
Mary Surratt: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the Specter of the Hanged Woman
When her husband John passed away, it was up to Mary to take over the family business as a tavern keep and, allegedly, running a safe-house for Confederate spies. While Mary Surratt’s role in the spy ring is still grounds for contentious debate, there is little doubt that Surratt’s heart lay firmly on the side of the Confederacy. When the war ended and Mary’s beloved confederacy was lost, Surratt’s commitment to its evil cause was only galvanized.
Mary quickly surrounded herself with like-minded conspirators including her son John, a confederate double-agent, and an actor by the name of John Wilkes Booth. Together, they planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln. Her small boarding house in Washington D.C. became home to the conspiracy, but Mary continued to make frequent trips to her home and tavern in what is now Clinton, MD. She filled the house with weapons as a potential stronghold for the conspirators as they ransomed The Great Emancipator.
Tragically, their plan took a turn darker even than they had intended, and Lincoln was killed. The wicked band’s last stand in the family tavern would never come to pass, but suspicions turned to Mary soon enough. Just hours after Lincoln was shot, investigator’s came to question Mary, when they left, she told her daughter, “Anna, come what will, I am resigned. I think J. Wiles Booth was only an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to punish this proud and licentious people.”
When Mary was convicted and sentenced to death for her part in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, her brave words rung hollow. As Surratt stood before the noose tied in her honor, she was overcome with dread. Surratt struggled against her executioners and begged for mercy. From the gallows, her eyes fixed on the coffin and fresh grave that awaited her -- the last thing she would see before the hood was drawn down over her face. Her sobs and pleas ceased only when the noose tightened.
But even death could bring no peace to Mary. Perhaps her crimes were too great even for the devil himself, and her wandering spirit could find no place other than the old family tavern. Now, the Tavern is the Surratt House Museum, and some say her solemn figure can still be seen walking the museum’s dim halls or staring out from an attic window, awaiting the arrival of Booth and his hostage.
Fannie Richardson and the Love that Would Not Die
Wandering the fields and forests of Antietam, the ghosts of America’s bloodiest day are never far, their bugles blare and rifle shots reverberate across the centuries, doomed men, forever reliving their final, valiant charge. But there is one specter who did not meet her end that day, whose spirit, driven by some tragic sense of duties left undone, retraced her mortal journey across half a continent to linger where her great love was lost.
After what seemed like a dozen lifetimes spent fighting in the Mexican and Indian wars, General Israel Bush Richardson, glad of his hard earned retirement, laid down his pistol and saber to take up the plow. He and his wife Fannie had built a little farm in Michigan where he hoped to toil the rest of his days in peace, but Israel was not a man who could ignore the trumpet’s call of his country. When the Civil War began he laid down his plowshares and once more took up his swords.
By all accounts, Israel was a terror on the battlefield and his men loved him for it. Fighting Dick, they called him, and they would follow him to the gates of hell if he but gave the command and, on September 17, 1862, he did. As the tide of battle hung, wondering which way to turn, General Israel Bush Richardson razed his saber and led their charge down Bloody Lane. It would be the fiercest fighting on this, the bloodiest day of America’s costliest war. The bodies piled high on bloody lane and, grievously wounded, Israel lay watching as his men advanced knowing, though the cost was high, his job was done.
When Fannie heard her beloved Israel had fallen, she left Michigan at once, traveling hundreds of miles across a country at war to be at his side. Israel was convalescing in the Pry House, a small manor on the battlefield that had been converted to a makeshift hospital. When Fannie arrived, she joined the nurses that tended the wounded, but spent most of her time with Israel. They say it was her love and will that kept Israel alive, but when President Lincoln arrived to pay his respects and thank him for his lifetime spent in service to his country, the fight went out of Israel. Duty done, he wanted only rest.
Fannie escorted the General’s body home to Michigan where his remains were met with parades and memorials, then Fannie went home to the farm alone. She couldn’t help but blame herself, perhaps if she’d done more, gotten there sooner, she could have saved him, and Fannie carried this weight to her grave. Some say her spirit carries it to this day. Workman restoring the building saw a woman in a second story window, gazing out across the killing fields, but that floor in that room had long collapsed. Others report a luminous figure alighting the stares, the frills of her dress ruffling soundlessly. Rangers speak of an icy chill falling upon the General’s old room and a woman silently sobbing at the foot of his bed.
Hopefully one day Fannie will realize she’d done all she could and join her Israel for their well earned rest, but until then, she walks the halls of Pry House, devoted to her eternal vigil.