What Haunts the Patapsco Female Institute?

The Patapsco Female Institute, at least what’s left of it, is haunted of course, like any self-respecting ruins would be.

I got two VERY interesting photographs almost as soon as I was out of the car. I shared these on a paranormal enthusiasts site (Haunted Nation), and the comments and interpretations were quite interesting:

  • one of the ghost is running with something in its hand ; dam good catch; in the hand looks like a hammer; now at the wall I see at least 7-faces one a little girl; you may have more,
  • The second one almost looks like ectoplasm 🙂 cool catch
  • I see spirits there in 2 of your photos
  • Do you see the guard? He is in there on the left top side
  • A distorted face like in pain, suffering, definitely holding a hammer

I’ll be honest, usually when I post VERY cool (in my opinion) photos, they are usually dismissed as nothing much. But what I wondered could be a camera malfunction (albeit, it’s never, ever done that before) was taken quite seriously. No other photos that night were as interesting, although the opportunity to photograph the ruins in the moonlight night was a joy.  

The building started out as a girls finishing school, but then became a private home, a hospital/nursing home, a resort hotel, and a theater, and then was being renovated to be a nursing home, before being abandoned in the 1950s.


I believe this photo was taken in the early 1960s.

The Patapsco Female Institute was built high above Ellicott City — a visible reminder to the town below about the importance of education. Originally, the slopes between the school and the small town were void of trees: it would have been a very visible message.

A photo of the school in its hey day — late 1800s, judging by the style of dress.

From its opening in 1837 to 1891, when it closed, the Patapsco Female Institute served as a girls finishing school, offering courses in foreign languages, music and dance, English and arithmetic, botany, chemistry, geography, history and philosophy. Just before the Civil War, enrollment swelled to 150 girls, between 12 and 18 years old.

During the decades the school was open, it had a number of headmistresses or headmasters, including a well-respected educator at the time, Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, and then later, Robert Archer, a West Point graduate.


Through his influence, more girls from the southern states began sending their daughters to the school. But with the onset of the Civil War, this left the school with $30k in uncollected fees from families in the Confederate states. The school never regained its peak, never collected these debts, and this started the school’s decline. Three decades later, the school closed. Diaries of a few of the students show that many of the girls enjoyed their time at the school.

In the 1890s, the building was converted to an upscale summer hotel, called the Burg Alnwick Hotel, an escape for those who could afford it from the heat of Baltimore, where summer days were spent shooting clay pigeons, strolling the grounds, enjoying carriage rides, riding horses, swimming in the swimming pool, and other such past-times,


Fourteen years later, the hotel closed and the property was converted into a private dwelling for one of the descendants of the Ellicott brothers, who had established the mills and the mill town in the valley below the school. During World War I, the building was converted into a hotel for injured veterans, then became a theater in the 1930s, until WWII shut it down again.


Again it became a private home, although the owner planned to convert it into a nursing home. Local ordinances demanded that flammable materials — wood — be stripped from the building, and doing so apparently left only the stone shell. The conversion never happened, as the owner died. Eventually the property passed to a university in Ohio and was essentially abandoned in the 1950s to continue its deterioration undisturbed.

But in 1965, the Friends of the Patapsco Female Institute began trying to preserve what’s left of the building and lobbied Howard County to obtain the property, which it did. However, it wasn’t until 1995 that the grounds were re-opened to the public as a park and event venue. Now, Shakespeare in the Ruins and other theatrical and musical performances take place in the summer and the grounds are open for tours between 1 and 4 p.m. on most Saturdays and Sundays between April and November. It is a popular setting for weddings and other formal events. In addition, periodically, organized ghost hunts are held.

The most popular of the ghost stories is that a young student, unhappy with being at the school, unfortunately caught pneumonia, and died before her parents were able to get there. It is said she still wanders the halls and the grounds, weeping. Indeed, photographers have captured images of individuals in third floor windows — in places where humans today simply could not be.

This photo (a photo of a printed out photo in a plastic sleeve)
was taken the night before by ghost hunters; there seems to be
someone in the upper right window. But there’s no platform
for a real person to be sitting or standing on. It’s just empty space.

Despite the building’s history as a school, a nursing home, a hotel, a private home, and a theater, there’s no records of anyone dying on the property. Could a student have caught ill and died? Certainly. It’s not an event that would likely have made the local papers.
Light up cat toys are a common ghost hunting tool. I’m not going to pretend that I choose this photo for
any reason other than I liked the pretty color patterns it was making on the wooden slats.

Given the school’s location in a southern state pre-Civil War, it’s also likely there could have been enslaved individuals working at the site, although again, there are no records verifying that, and the individuals who started the school — the Ellicott brothers — were Quakers and opposed to enslaving people.

The ruins today are stabilized and preserved.

We began our ghost hunt, which was sponsored by Howard County Parks and Rec, by walking around the building and photographing it, inside and out. The group — there were 13 of us — were provided a tour of the building, during which we learned its history.

The kitchen hearth and bread oven.

After the tour, the Parks and Rec folks demonstrated some of the ghost-hunting equipment that was made available to the group, and then we were allowed to wander off and see what we’d find and experience.

My friend and I went first to sit on the school’s front steps. We were one of the first groups to set up, and immediately we pulled out our dowsing rods — I just had a hunch. 
The EMF meter — that blur of color by Lisa’s feet —
frequently lit up during our dowsing rod session

The rods were quite active. It’s kind of funny — some nights there’s just nothing. The dowsing rods just stay still as can be. This night was completely different. The rods seemed to indicate that there was the spirit of a student there; she had been quite happy at the school but had died there (no further information). She indicated she was the only spirit talking to us, but later seemed to indicate that there were other spirits within the ruins. A few times the electro magnetic field meter lit up, quite vehemently.
The blue light faded in and out peacefully when no one was close by or asking questions. 
The window used to be a doorway, and there’s evidence that steps led down into the cellar.

Later, we moved to a different area, but didn’t get much activity, so we moved to a spot overlooking a space in the cellar that may have been a cold food storage area. One of the ghost hunt leaders had set up a motion detector, which lights up in blue (neutral), green or red, and which could be used to conduct “conversations.” We began asking questions, but the blue light quickly turned to red. We asked whether it wanted us to leave. It turned green. 

We asked it to turn red if it did NOT want us there. It turned red. We asked it to turn the light green to confirm it wanted us to leave. It turned green. We thanked the spirit and left the area.

After the ghost hunt, we chatted with a few of the others who were taking part in the evening, and they indicated that they’d had similar experiences at that particular spot. While researching this article, I came upon a video of Inspired Ghost Trackers, who talked about a rather stern spirit focused on the kitchen area (which isn’t far from the cold storage cellar) who rather insists on keeping a strict, orderly kitchen. I wonder if that’s the spirit we made contact with who wished to be left alone.

As at other purportedly haunted locations, we captured numerous orbs. Orbs are controversial within the paranormal enthusiasts circles, with many debunking orbs, unless they’re actively glowing, as dust motes, bugs, or camera flash circles. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, since I’ve photographed in the dark in my own home (which should certainly have plenty of dust motes to reflect camera flashes), but I never seem to catch orbs. 

Likewise, I just stayed in a VERY old farmhouse: again, a place I’d expect a lot of dust-caused orbs. Nothing. Yes, we did catch a few orbs at the Patapsco Female Institute, but there’s an asterisk — the ruins are open to the elements, and in late May, bugs are likely (although it was a week before the cicada invaded). So I can’t rule out bugs. You never can, when you’re photographing outside.

It seems as if the Patapsco Female Institute is very active, with a number of spirits haunting its walls. Definitely a place I’d like to return to! For more about daytime tours of this fascinating place, check out a previous article.
Getting there: 3655 Church Rd, Ellicott City, MD
Hours: Please check the Howard County Parks and Rec website for future ghost hunt events.