August, 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.
Ghost tours are a good way to get to know a city or town and the people who once lived there. After all, ghost stories start with people and usually a tragedy, a life cut short, or a life unfulfilled.
Ultimately, ghost stories are stories about the human condition — the drama and joys, but mostly sorrows, of our lives.
West Virginia Wailing
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 which led to leading ghost walks around the town.
Rick Garland took over the tours 8 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.
Garland believes that real historical detail adds to the stories he’s sharing, and tries to help folks on his tours visualize what the town looked like during the Civil War. The quaint touristy town we enjoy today is not quite what it seems — or at least, isn’t today what it once was. Where there’s now empty space, there used to be gun factories, hotels, and saloons. Clean paved streets now? Mud, garbage, horse manure, and human waste used to run through those same streets, with a herd of town-owned pigs wandering around to clean up the garbage (but adding their own waste to the vile mix). Sometimes the picture he paints isn’t pretty…
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 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… our guide 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, we were told 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!
Gettysburg is as known for its ghost tours as the battle itself, which caused so much alleged paranormal activity, that it can’t NOT be mentioned. I’ve been on several in this historic town, but there’s at least a dozen different tours, all focusing on something a little different than the 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. The tour takes you past the Shriver House Museum, in which attic several Confederate sharp shooters had been killed during the course of the three-day battle and are still believed to haunt the building.
One of the Gettysburg ghost tours is notable because it walks you over mass graves that the Confederate dead were interred in, and suggests these mass graves still exist below the very blacktop we walked over. There are also buried piles of the limbs sawn off the wounded soldiers, so if you feel a tug at your ankle, our guide warned, then you may want to walk more quickly.
You get to visit the “Reynolds Death House,” to hear 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. Among the reported paranormal activity is that cards have fallen mysteriously inside the building.
Mysterious Happenings in Maryland
Frederick was a bustling colonial town, and 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 the poem), 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 who lives adjacent the cemetery observing three uniformed soldiers kneeling before Confederate gravestones early one morning. These soldiers then quietly disappeared before his eyes.
There’s also an Historic District Tour, which takes you through Frederick’s historic streets, through Court House Square where British loyalists were executed and past the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, where voices of children still giggle through the darkness, and a mysterious woman in grey walks its galleries.
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 tours wind its way through the various bars and spirits begin to fill you up.
Ellicott City offers several ghost tours, including one that 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. Another ghost tour takes you up to the hillside above old Ellicott City to Mount Misery, where you hear about lynchings at the former old jail, the hauntings at a former girls school, and the old County Courthouse.
Very close to Ellicott City is historic Savage Mill, with a ghost tour of its own. 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 is 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. 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 one.
There are a series of 11 ghost tours 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 enslaver — who sympathized with the South — to make an example of what happens to those 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.
Delaware Deeds of Mayhem
The Legends of Lewes Ghost Tour is an hour-plus walking tour that introduces you to the many strange happenings in the historic town of Lewes. From the founding of Lewes in 1631 and the massacre of its settlement the following year, to the unknown sailors’ cemetery at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, some residents never seem to depart.
During the walking tour, you’ll visit the Ryves Holt House to learn how one Lewes citizen gained his inheritance of a bustling tavern, and enter one of the most terrifyingly haunted places in the region: the Cannonball House.
The Ryves Holt House is the oldest extant house in Delaware. There isn’t a plum wall or 90-degree angle anywhere in the house and it is appropriately haunted. Learn about the mystery of the murder hole and why one set of stairs may have solved a 200-year-old murder mystery.
Wicked Washington DC
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.
Tips for getting the most out of your ghost walk:
- Well-behaved dogs are usually welcomed on the walking tours, but call ahead to verify.
- Bring a flashlight. As the streets get darker, having a flashlight to help you along your way — especially since some of the tours bring you down alleys and other unlit passages — can be a life saver.
- 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. When you’re outside for two hours, it can start to get chilly.
- Most ghost tours are family friendly — well-behaved kids who can walk a mile or two are welcome, but most tours recommend that kids be older than 8 (although it varies).
- Check the websites, because many of the ghost tours are available all — or almost all — year round.
- Go prepared to have fun and enjoy the stories!
Although some of the stories can be pretty goofy, 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 location you’re visiting.