On Some Long holiday night when it's brisk and the moon hangs low, take a drive along a Maryland country road -- the ghosts of Maryland's past might come out to meet you.
Two years after John Surratt died in 1862, his widow moved to Washington. She occasionally visited the house he had built in the small tobacco farming community that later bore their name, but she never returned to live in the wooden, two-story home. Mary Eugenia Jenkins Surratt, a broad and square- faced woman with steely gray eyes, traveled to Surratts- ville in Prince George's County for the last time on April 14, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. On July 7, 1865, less than three months later, Surratt, along with three other convicted conspirators, hung from the gallows at Fort Lesley McNair, the first and perhaps best-known woman to be executed in the United States. Mary Surratt never was allowed to take the witness stand during those muggy July days to rebut evidence linking her to the assassi- nation of the 16th president. But 126 years later, it's not unusual to find historians jumping to the defense of the 42-year-old widow who ran the boarding house in Washington where John Wilkes Booth roomed. Even more intriguing, however, than those who claim Surratt was denied a fair trial and was the victim of anti-Confederacy hysteria, are those who claim that scholars are not the only beings trying to vindicate her name.
"If anyone among the condemned had the makings of a ghost, it was Mary Surratt," wrote Hans Holzer of his trip in November 1967 to the Surratt home. During that visit, he says in his book, "Window to the Past," he and a former resident of the house listened as a psychic "spoke" to some of those who visited the home when Mary Surratt was alive.
Before Holzer's visits to the home, which now bears a Clinton mailing address, there were rumors of other sightings of the widow, dressed in black, at the Old Brick Capitol and on the grounds where the old Arsenal Penitentiary once stood. One legend has it that a boxwood tree sprang up at the site of the scaffold, growing as a monument to her innocence.
In his book, Holzer recounts how Phyllis Amos, who as a child lived for eight months with her family on the top floor of the Surratt home in Surrattsville, listened to the tales her mother and the other occupant of the house, Ella Curtain, told about the "floating woman." In April 1955, according to Holzer, Amos had an experience with the visionary figure.
"(She) was in bed in her room, wide awake. Her bed stood parallel to the room where the conspirators used to meet . . . so that she might have heard them talk had she been present at the time," Holzer said. He claims the bedroom was only a few steps away from a large room where Booth and some of the other conspirators reportedly met before Mary Surratt moved her boarding house to Washington. It is also here that Booth supposedly returned to get supplies during his escape attempt after the assassination. "Suddenly, she (Amos) received several blows on the side of her face. They were so heavy that they brought tears to her eyes.
"Mightn't she (Mary Surratt) have been drawn back here after her unjust execution to seek justice, or at the very least be among surroundings she was familiar with?" Holzer asks.
Since Holzer's visit, the Surratt home has been restored to its original state. Members of the Surratt Society, who now run the house as a museum, deflect most questions about any new sightings of ghosts, preferring to discuss the historical importance of the structure.
But still, on a recent celery-crisp day when the snow lay thin on the gravel path, a visitor couldn't help but wonder about the hollow clinking of the chain against the unadorned flag post.
Almost a Beltway loop away in Montgomery County up above Seneca Creek stands the former home of a more jovial spirit.
Major Peter, they call him; his summer home is Montanverde.
Now there are a lot of things people could say about Major George Peter, son of the first mayor of Georgetown. He married three times, fathered 16 children and was elected to represent a state in Congress that wasn't his principal residence. His 1815 election to a Montgomery County seat was contested on the grounds that he was a resident of Georgetown, but he kept the office. He was a bit of an adventure seeker -- General George Washington sent him home when he tried to join the forces of the Whiskey Rebellion at the age of 15, but he later commanded the light horse artillery in the Battle of Bladensburg.
What people usually say now about Major Peter, who was born in 1779 and died in 1861, was that he liked a party and he liked his toddy, so much so that he would throw his glass into the fireplace after drinking a toast.
The major, in fact, still likes to take a nip from time to time, they say.
"None of us believed in ghosts at the time, but what we heard wasn't attributable to rain or snow," says Frank Harman of Georgetown, whose family has owned the house as a summer home since 1916.
Harman and his mother, who has since died, heard separate incidents of what sounded like crashing glass. They thought a bird had broken a window or an ash tray had flown off a table, but each time they found nothing when they checked for glass fragments.
Later, Harman's father also heard the sound, but it was not until a routine visit to a neighborhood store that the family discovered the existence of Major Peter and his legendary glass throwing. The clerk asked the older Harman if the major were still breaking glasses in the fireplaces. It was then the Harman family learned that Major Peter's ghostly antics were well-known throughout the Seneca area.
"The story fully accounted for the sounds," says Harman, who now rents the home. These days, Harman reports, the major is quiet.
Up and over the hill, with a view of Sugar Loaf Mountain and Montanverde, sits another Peter home, Montevideo.
It was old John Peter's ghost who frightened the children from the one-room Seneca School House across the field. The children often ventured up the steps of the then-deserted manor in the early 1880s, only to run away shrieking.
There's little lore about old John Peter, the farmer who is more formally known as John Parke Custis Peter, great-grandson of Martha Custis Washington and nephew of the major; and there is even less known about what would make the school children scream and run.
But what's lacking in lore about the man himself is made up in a little scandal the locals like to tell about his wife and his mother and the house that is now owned by Austin Kiplinger, editor of the Kiplinger Washington Letter and Changing Times Magazine, and his wife, Mary.
It seems the two women never had the most harmonious of relationships, but when John Peter died suddenly of tetanus at the age of 49 after pricking himself with a rusty nail, his wife, Elizabeth Jane Peter, did something that shocked the older Mrs. Peter.
She married, and she married less than a year and a half after her husband's death, and she married the Protestant minister who was a tutor to the Peter children during John Peter's residence at Montevideo. It was, at that time, a tizzy of a scandal.
Local legend has it, and historian Roger Farquhar repeats it in his book, "Homes and History of Montgomery County, Maryland," that at that point Mrs. Peter swore she would never again return to the manor "until she came in her coffin and was buried at night by torchlight without any services in the old manor house." Mrs. Peter was buried at the family plot at Montevideo at night after a 30-mile, torch-led procession from her house in Georgetown.
On some nights, it is said, flashes of light can be seen sparking from her grave.