September and October are the season most folks check out ghost walks and ghost tours — one of my favorite activities! Ghost tours are always intriguing — they’re a little bit of sight-seeing, a little bit of ghost story, and usually a lot of history. It’s a good way to get to know a city or town and the people who once lived there. Ghost stories start with people and usually a tragedy, a life cut short, or a life unfulfilled, but ultimately, ghost stories are stories about the human condition — the drama and joys, but mostly sorrows, of our lives.
This ghost tour round-up starts, appropriately, in Harpers Ferry, with a tour that’s billed as the oldest existing ghost tour in the United States. The Harpers Ferry ghost tour began more than 40 years ago when a local restauranteur, Shirley Dougherty, opened “the Old Iron Horse” restaurant in an old home along Potomac Street. She and her employees all experienced a variety of apparently paranormal events, from the sound of something tumbling down the house’s stairs to a ghostly lantern on the fireplace mantle in one of the two dining rooms. Fittingly, the first stop of the tour is the site of her restaurant, now a private residence.
Spurred by the events she was experiencing in her own restaurant, Dougherty eventually collected a variety of ghost stories throughout Harpers Ferry and published a book, A Ghostly Tour of Harpers Ferry. That soon led to leading ghost walks around the town.
Rick Garland took over the tours 5 years ago, and is a historian at heart — as well as a musicologist, vocalist, pianist and historical story teller, all attributes he brings to the ghost tour — and so he has researched to fill in some of the gaps in Dougherty’s stories, helping explain — as much as possible when the subjects of the stories can’t speak back — the WHY behind the stories. If the story talks about the sound of a body tumbling down the stairs? Well, in that building during the Civil War, Union officers shot a Confederate spy who was trying to flee his pursuers and hide on the second floor. As he ran up the steps he encountered the Union officer, who shot him at point blank range and he tumbled, mortally wounded, down to the bottom of the steps. Although we can’t know for sure that’s the explanation for the sounds of something tumbling down the stairs, it’s definitely plausible.
If you look carefully, there are a dozen or so orbs in this photo of the oldest extant building in Harpers Ferry. The orbs didn’t show up in any other photos. (The orbs show up a little better when I reversed the image, below.)
Ghost tours usually aren’t terribly scary, but they can be terribly entertaining, and the ghost tour in Pittsburgh didn’t disappoint. Never mind the Northside, or the Southside — it takes you to the dark side. Our guide for the evening was Haydn Thomas, a vivid story-teller who emphasized all the right words and held the pauses for the perfect, most frightening effect.
The ghost tour starts at the City Building and led us through downtown Pittsburgh, past the Old Morgue, where young men of old had faithfully followed the somewhat morbid tradition of bringing their Prom dates. There’s actually a pretty funny story about a corpse that refused to act dead… Thomas regaled us with stories about the Old Jail, the new Federal Courthouse, and various buildings along the way, telling us stories and weaving us through the streets.
The scariest of the stories wasn’t even supposed to be on the tour. At the end, Thomas threw in one last story, as we faced one of the inclines Pittsburg is famous for. At the top of the Monongahela Incline, there’s a dark presence that haunts an apartment building on the corner, opposite the incline landing. No thanks, I’ll pass on taking that incline up the bluff!
Frederick offers an interesting ghost tour of one of its local cemeteries, Mount Olivet Cemetery, where you can hear about such local notables as Barbara Fritchie (who didn’t actually wave the flag over the Confederate troops, despite what the poem said), as well as Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. This tour is noteworthy because it leads you through a cemetery at night — nothing creepier than that. One of the ghost stories featured the ubiquitous lady in white, skitting around the tombstones on the darkest nights. Another, more touching, was about one homeowner observing three uniformed soldiers kneeling before Confederate gravestones early one morning. These soldiers then quietly disappeared before the homeowner’s eyes.
As with other towns, including Ellicott City before the July 2016 flood and Annapolis, Frederick also offers a haunted pub crawl, during which you can drink and be scared, all at the same time. I imagine the stories start sounding more credible as the tour winds its way through the various bars.
Ellicott City’s ghost tour takes you along the historic main street of this former mill town, covering both modern day ghosts and the ghosts of Confederate prisoners of war, shot dead while trying to escape down an ally of steps. It was on the Ellicott City tour that I fell in love with ghost walks!
Those are rain drops, not orbs.
Very close to Ellicott City is the ghost tour of historic Savage Mill. Led by Marty, this tour details the somewhat sordid history of a 200-year-old working mill, where children labored at quite young ages before Federal labor laws took effect. For many years, the mill operated around the clock, seven days a week. A number of mill workers died, right there on the premises. Marty recounted children sliding down banisters, but falling over, landing three stories below, quite dead. Shop owners closing up late at night often hear the sounds of children running up and down the hallways, still trying to grab a few moments of fun. One playful ghost trips modern-day shoppers as they climb the stairs, always at a particular step. This particular tour is notable because most of it is inside: so whether it’s a dark and stormy night, or just too danged hot or too danged cold, you can enjoy the tour in comfort.
Humor is as much a part of these ghost tours as the hauntings. A ghost tour in Annapolis leads you past the State House to St Anne’s Episcopal Church churchyard and then along the historic streets. At the churchyard, however, you get to hear about “Joe Morgue,” who is said to haunt the graves he dug and was obsessed with during his life. There was a Monty Pythonesque story about Joe Morgue and his digging a grave for a man in a diabetic coma. The man woke up while being carried in his coffin, and the funeral was subsequently cancelled, to the great happiness of all but Joe. This happened several times, each time Joe dutifully and somewhat gleefully digging a grave for him, and Joe became more and more obsessed with the man, stalking him and accusing him of cheating death. Eventually the man died for real, but on the theory he’d already dug him more graves than he’s dug for any other man, Joe refused to dig him another grave.
One of the stops on the Annapolis ghost walk is the well-known Brice House — now a Masonic Lodge. Not one, not two, but 16 ghosts are said to haunt the Brice House — what an unhappy and unlucky family! From Thomas Brice, who’s servant is believed to have clubbed him to death, to a girl-child who starved to death in a secret room, there’s a ghost of every size and flavor. It was here that four photos I snapped in rapid succession revealed three orbs. The first and last of the four photos have no orbs at all — are these orbs evidence of paranormal activity? I’m not a big believer in orbs — so I will let you decide for yourself, although as I’ve explored some of our region’s historic buildings, I’ve caught a number of spooky photos, including some orb-laden ones.
Gettysburg is as known for its ghost tours as the battle itself, which caused so much alleged paranormal activity, and it can’t NOT be mentioned. I’ve been on several in this historic town. Some are better than others.
One tour took us up Baltimore Street toward High Street, then down High Street past an old school and the old jail, then back to Baltimore Street. We heard about several ghostly soldiers, a lonely ghost who wanted to attend a party, and several others. Ironically, with nary a word, we walked right past Shriver House Museum, where earlier that day I’d caught a really strange mist, which changed from photo to photo, in the attic. In this same attic, several Confederate sharp shooters had been killed during the course of the three-day battle.
One of the Gettysburg ghost tours is notable for the dramatic and noticeable absence of ghosts. I kept waiting for the spooky ghost story. … yep, still waiting. However, our tour guide very dramatically told us about the mass graves that especially the Confederate dead were interred in throughout Gettysburg, insinuating that these mass graves still exist below the very blacktop we walked over. And at the very least, she said, there were mass graves of the limbs sawn off the wounded. If you feel a tug at your ankle, she warned, then you may want to walk more quickly. Okay, the tour gets creepy points for that!
She also took us to the “Reynolds Death House,” told us a lovely and sad story about how an officer — Union General John Reynolds — died there, leaving his fiance inconsolable. This building, also known as the George George House, is where Reynolds’ lifeless body was taken after he suffered a fatal wound the first day of battle, July 1, 1863. The house is positioned between Cemetery Ridge, the stronghold of the Union Army of the Potomac, and the Lutheran Seminary, where General Lee’s Confederate forces had amassed — thus situated on “no man’s land” during the time of the battle. Apparently cards have fallen mysteriously inside the building.
But still no ghost. None. Not Reynolds’ ghost, nor his fiance’s ghost, have ever been seen there at the Reynolds Death House, although our guide did dare us to look in the windows to see whether we might see a ghost (we didn’t, to our disappointment and relief). We walked past a portion of a local cemetery, where our guide told us to take photos into the dark as very often, people catch orbs and the like. But no story. No ghost. No orbs. Just darkness.
There are a series of ghost tours being offered on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, by Chesapeake Ghost Tours, run by author and ghost story researcher, Mindy Burgoyne. On a cold, crisp day I went on the Tubman Trail Ghost & Graveyard Bus Tour, past many of the sights Tubman might of seen in her day. Although the landscapes remain (nearly) the same, the ghost stories are from various time periods, and even in the mid-day hours, are sure to evoke a few goose bumps.
It is in this landscape, of the marshes and the scrub woodlands and farm fields, that Burgoyne spins her stories about Big Liz, an enslaved African American who was quite probably a Union spy; she was murdered by her master — who sympathized with the South — to make an example of what happens to slaves who dare defy the plantation owners. The bus tour takes you all over Dorchester County — a great way to spend a cold afternoon. Chesapeake Ghost Tours also offers ghost walks for Ocean City, Berlin, and a number of other lovely, scary, haunted Eastern Shore towns.
Our nation’s capital has its fair share of hauntings as well. On the Capitol Hauntings Ghost Tour you get to hear stories about places that are the backdrop for where America’s history happened: the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court Building, the National Library of Congress, among others.
You’ll hear about people who somehow played a part in the history of the United States, for example, Joseph Holt, Judge Advocate General of the United States Army, involved in prosecuting the case against those who ran Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison for Union prisoners of war.
So some of the stories are pretty goofy. But it doesn’t matter. The trick to enjoying a ghost tour is to go in good fun, enjoy the story telling (who doesn’t enjoy hearing stories?), enjoy the stroll (it’s better than sitting on a couch!), be prepared for a fright or a cold breeze on your neck, and have fun all while appreciating the historic town in which you’re walking.
If you are really into ghosts and such but want to avoid the tours, then I recommend picking up one or several books of Gettysburg ghost stories. My favorites? The Ghosts of Gettysburg series by Mark Nesbitt. He was a park ranger that started to collect ghost stories, including his own experiences working in the battlefields, and then published them. These books have maps to all the locations of the stories and are not expensive. So pick up a few books and go out ghost hunting on your own after dark. There are so many books being published by Gettysburg-based paranormal hunters, so you may want to sample a variety.
The battlefield is open to the public until 10 pm every day. In late July and early August you will have a good hour of total darkness, and even more as the sun sets earlier in the fall. Some of the more active ghostly points of interest are Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Spangler’s Spring, and The Wheatfield. Don’t trespass after the park is closed, and certainly be considerate of residents living in the buildings you stop by.
Going on a ghost tour may leave you with the sense that you know the place a little better — one reason why I enjoy them so much, regardless of whether the stories are true, or even whether you believe in ghosts.
Despite the stories of death and mayhem and the undead, ultimately ghost stories are stories about the thwarted hopes and often cut-short dreams of real people, and in hearing these stories, you’re hearing about local history, of the people who lived and died in the cities and towns where you’re now walking.
Know before you go: Well-behaved dogs are usually welcomed on the walking tours, but call ahead to verify. Wear comfortable walking shoes — you’re doing a lot of standing and listening, but also some walking, often a few miles all told. Most tours last between an hour to two hours. Dress for the weather, as well.
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