The Chesapeake Bay has as long a history as any region in this country. Some of the first Europeans to visit the continent set foot here. Before that, the bounty of the Bay and its watershed served as a popular stomping ground for various native tribes.
Being unique the world over, the Bay has attracted many a visitor who chose to stay, and some who even death couldn’t drive away. Anywhere people have lived for long periods of time is bound to have legends of ghostly apparitions and the Bay is no exception. Tales of ghoulish spirits abound along the length of the Chesapeake, but perhaps nowhere is the supernatural realm more active than in St. Mary’s County.
Located at the extreme lower end of the Western Shore of Maryland, St. Mary’s County is nestled between the Patuxent River to the north and the Potomac to the south. Its location and scenic beauty has made it a prime stop-off point ever since Capt. John Smith explored the peninsula in 1612.
Unfortunately, one of the things that makes it so attractive is also a drawback. The very tip of St. Mary’s County where the waters of the Potomac flow into the open Bay creates some rather tricky currents. Point Lookout Light–more description than a name (look out!)–was placed at the tip in 1830 in an attempt to stave off some of the shipwrecks and various sea tragedies for which the area had become known for, often to no avail.
Perhaps the most famous shipwreck off Point Lookout was that of the Express. In 1878, the steamship Express out of Baltimore was caught in the fierce winds and waves of a hurricane. The steamer was being beaten around by the storm when a young crewman named Joseph Haney attempted to row ashore in search of help. He never made it, and neither did the Express. The ship eventually sank off Point Lookout, taking with her the lives of 22 passengers and crew.
Almost 100 years to the day of that terrible event, young Mr. Haney reportedly finally made it to shore. Point Lookout State Park manager Gerald Sword, who lived in the lightkeeper’s house at the time, was shutting the place up in preparation for an approaching storm when he caught sight of a man in a sack coat and floppy hat walking slowly toward the house.
Sword immediately went to greet the man at his porch. But when he opened the door, he watched the man float up into the air, straight through the porch wall and disappear into the night. While researching the strange event a few days later, Sword came across a description of a man in a newspaper article about the Express a century earlier. The description of Joseph Haney perfectly matched the ghostly apparition Sword had seen on his front porch.
The visit from Haney was far from the only unusual occurrence at the lighthouse. Over the years, the building’s various residents and visitors have reported numerous unexplained noises, foul odors emanating from some rooms and lots of disembodied voices. The building attracted so much attention that a group of paranormal investigators including the producer of the late ’70s television classic of supernatural studies, “In Search Of…”, spent some time there.
By the time the group’s work was done, they had collected a large body of evidence of the unexplained. The party left the lighthouse with over five hours of audio taped voices, including comments such as, “fire if they get too close,” and “get off my pier”. In addition to the tapes, the group produced a photo of a seance within the building which included, in the background, what appeared to be a headless Confederate soldier in full dress uniform standing against the wall.
The lighthouse isn’t the only area around Point Lookout that has had experiences with the unexplained. During the Civil War, the Union set up Hammond Hospital on the Point, to treat victims of smallpox and later, to serve as a prison camp for captured rebels.
The prison camp area, then called Camp Hoffman, housed some 52,000 prisoners between 1863 and 1865. Conditions at the camp were horrific. Prisoners were crowded into makeshift tents with little more than the clothes on their backs and one thin blanket each to protect them from the elements. Food and firewood were at a premium and disease ran rampant in the overcrowded prison. Smallpox, malaria and tuberculosis were just a few of the mix of deadly contagions that claimed prisoners’ lives.
Officially, it is said that nearly 4,000 Confederates died at Camp Hoffman, but some estimates run that number as high as 14,000. The bodies of the dead have been buried, dug up and buried again on at least three separate occasions. At one point, grave diggers were even paid based upon how many skulls they could fit into a 25-square-foot hole.
This kind of treatment can make for some restless spirits. Not surprisingly, ever since the camp was torn down shortly after the war ended, people at Point Lookout have reported sightings of Confederate ghosts.
One of the most common is the running man. On one particular stretch of road not far from where Hammond Hospital once stood, various drivers have reported catching a glimpse of a man in uniform running across the road behind them. They always see the man in their rear view mirrors and he always heads in the same direction, away from where the hospital once stood.
During the Civil War, some Confederate prisoners would try to be clever and trick their captors into sending them to Hammond with the intention of escaping once there. Some did, but many also contracted smallpox or malaria from the actual patients there and escaped only to later die of the disease while lost in the forest somewhere. There are those who believe the mysterious running man is one of those unfortunate souls.
Then there are the spirits doomed to wander, searching for their unmarked graves. Elizabeth Taylor may be one of those. Long ago, the Taylor family owned a large portion of land around Point Lookout and, as was the custom with many families in those days, they had their own family cemetery.
Over the years, however, the grave markers on the Taylor cemetery were moved, destroyed or otherwise lost. Various people have reported seeing and even speaking to an old woman near Point Lookout frantically searching for something. In some cases, she has even asked strangers for help in finding a relative’s headstone. Not long ago, a park ranger from Point Lookout found an old grave marker in a local hotel room of all places. The name etched on the stone was Elizabeth Taylor. Was that mysterious old woman the ghost of Taylor seeking her family’s final resting place?
Point Lookout isn’t the only place in St. Mary’s County with ghosts. A giant boulder sits in front of the St. Mary’s Historical Society in Leonardtown that has a very interesting history in its own right.
In 1697, local townspeople burned down the cabin of a Molly Dyer, branding her a witch and driving her off into the forest on the coldest of winter nights that year. She was later found frozen to death, her body lying on that very stone. When they pried her from the rock, impressions left by her knees and one of her hands were clearly visible and remain so to this day, over 300 years later.
The ghost of Molly Dyer has been seen repeatedly near where her cabin once stood. The stone, however, has a life of its own. Some people, when they get too close to it begin to feel sore and uncomfortable. It also seems to have an aversion to being photographed. Cameras often malfunction when trying to take images of Molly’s handprint, or the film of those images simply fails to develop properly. Molly Dyer’s lasting revenge, possibly?
North of Leonardtown is the tiny little town of Hollywood, home of another restless spirit, dwelling in a place called Cry Baby Creek. During World War II, a young bride was left, like so many others during that time, pregnant and alone while her husband went off to war.
When the war had finally ended, her husband was making his way anxiously back home to see his family once more. He stopped along his journey to call his bride and tell her of his approach. The woman was so excited that she threw on a coat, bundled up the baby against the chill and started along the road to meet him.
The husband, just as excited, especially since he was about to see his child for the first time, was driving a little too fast around a particularly sharp curve in the road at the exact moment his wife was walking the other way. With no time to react, his car struck the woman, killing her instantly and throwing the baby into the air, over the side of the bridge and into the creek that flowed beneath it.
Even after a frantic search, no trace of the baby was ever found. To this day, people crossing that bridge tell of seeing a young woman rushing back and forth, looking for something by the creek and of hearing the strange sound of a baby crying coming from the waters below.
And the list of the unexplained goes on. Wherever there is a tragedy or torment, ghostly spirits or unexplained phenomena seem to follow. The Chesapeake Bay–particularly Point Lookout and St. Mary’s County–with its rich history and equally long list of horrors, tragedies and evil deeds, is a breeding ground for such tales.
Remember, the next time you hear strange noises or voices where there are no people, it may not be your imagination. It just might be a long lost resident still trapped in the tragedy of their loss.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween