A dark, damp cemetery, a resident black cat, gravestones bearing old-timey names like Winifred. The only things missing from my ghost tour are the ghosts themselves.
Luckily, Christopher Wright, our tour guide with Chesapeake Ghost Walks, has plenty of stories to keep us on our toes. Literally. As we squish through the wet grass of Whatcoat Cemetery in Snow Hill, a three-century-old town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he tells us that in the days before caskets were enclosed in concrete, the graves would sometimes give way under your feet — hence the oft-repeated admonition to avoid stepping on them.
Perhaps more horrifying than tumbling into a grave was the demise of William Aydelotte, whose final resting place Wright has illuminated with his flashlight. Etched into the weathered stone is the year 1904. That’s when the 21-year-old pharmacology student was found in his Baltimore boardinghouse, his throat slashed by a straight-edge razor that had been mysteriously folded and placed beneath the bed. William had left an unfinished note to his father, John, Snow Hill’s town doctor, that read: “Dear Papa, it is useless to keep me at school. . . .” Although his death was officially deemed a suicide, some (including Wright) believe that William was murdered and that his ghost still roams his childhood home — possibly the most haunted building in Snow Hill — a few blocks from the cemetery.
“This spirit does everything: turns on lights, turns them off, moves things around, lights candles, blows out candles, lights your fireplace for you,” Wright had told us earlier as we stood across the street from the blue-shuttered house. (The apparition also reportedly pops up behind people in mirrors, Wright said, which generated a collective shudder from our group.) The building is now being renovated as a private residence, but locals still call it the Snow Hill Inn, its former B&B name.
Chesapeake Ghost Walks founder and owner Mindie Burgoyne learned about the mischievous Snow Hill Inn ghost while working in the town shortly after she bought the Vance Miles House, her home in Somerset County. The hauntings she experienced in her new house inspired her to write about ghosts in the region and led to her 2009 book, “Haunted Eastern Shore.” In 2010, she began organizing bus tours to explore the ghostly sites in the book. But when Hurricane Sandy forced her to cancel a tour in October 2012, she realized that walking tours were the way to go. Within a year, she’d researched and developed ghost walks for 10 towns on the Eastern Shore, and they’ve been so popular, she plans to expand to more locales. (Her newest book, “Haunted Ocean City and Berlin,” comes out this month.)
“Each guest is left to make his or her own conclusions,” Burgoyne told me. “We simply present the story.”
I’m drawn to ghost tours by a love of history and the slightly verboten thrill of exploring back alleys at night, so my boyfriend and I signed up for the Snow Hill and Ocean City tours one weekend in September.
In Snow Hill, Wright — who looked the part of ghost-tour guide with his handlebar mustache, dark vest and newsboy cap — led us down quiet streets lined with willows and sycamores. We stopped in front of Mapleton, an eerily all-white Gothic-style house where two socialite sisters, Nellie and Annie Payne, held many a garden party in the early 1900s and where piano music can supposedly still be heard drifting from the conservatory. People have also reported children’s laughter coming from the back yard and the overgrown gardens. “We’ll be visiting them later,” Wright said with a chuckle, referring to the sisters’ side-by-side graves.
My favorite stop was the Governor’s Mansion, the circa 1889 home of John Walter Smith, Maryland’s governor from 1900 to 1904. An orphan and self-made man, Smith experienced tragedy when his daughter Charlotte died of tuberculosis in her 20s. After Smith’s death in 1925, his grand, turreted Victorian changed hands and was sold to physician Paul Cohen in the 1940s. When the Cohen family moved in, their daughter reportedly ran upstairs to choose her bedroom. Opening a door, she came upon a man — Smith, of course — sitting in a rocking chair, who told her how happy he was to have children in the house again. (Wright said the housekeepers got wind of this story and nearly quit.)
Wright also left the supernatural realm: He told us, for instance, that Snow Hill was the site of the first Presbyterian congregation in the United States, established in 1687, and that the nearby Pocomoke River is said to be the deepest river for its width in the United States and the second-deepest in the world after the Nile. (It’s up to 45 feet deep and less than 100 feet wide.)
At the end of the tour, Wright encouraged us to post any intriguing photographs to the Facebook page Haunted Eastern Shore, where an active community shares purported ghost pictures.
The next evening, about 30 minutes down the road in Ocean City, we met tour guide Alison Mickels at the reportedly haunted Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, on the town’s buzzing boardwalk. Not too long ago, Mickels said, a museum visitor screamed when she supposedly saw a dripping, slicker-clad ghost with a “dead man’s pallor” staring up at her from the bottom of one of the museum’s lifeboats. “The eternal world is all around us, and the veil is very thin,” Mickels said.
The museum is also home to Laffing Sal, the giant — and some would say creepy — electronic doll that used to sit in front of the Jester’s Funhouse on the boardwalk from the 1940s to the 1970s. My mother, who came along for the tour, remembers being terrified as a child of the towering figure in a pink dress that would shake and cackle whenever someone approached. You can still push a button to make Laffing Sal chortle, but employees report that she also has a mind of her own: She’s said to make noises at random times, especially when people are leaving.
Dodging tourists, we carefully crossed the busy streets — “We don’t want to become a ghost story ourselves,” Mickels said — and arrived at the vacant Henry Hotel, built in 1895, a few blocks from the boardwalk, for black visitors and workers in then-segregated Ocean City. Famous performers such as James Brown and Duke Ellington stayed here, but the brown-shingled hotel has fallen into disrepair; the owners are hoping for funds to turn it into a museum. Tourists photograph a lot of “ghosts” here: On the Facebook page, you’ll see a frankly eerie shape of a man in a white shirt and overalls in the shadows of the hotel porch (Burgoyne said that the person who took the photo claims no one was on the porch). There are also reports of rocking chairs that move on their own, a common theme in Ocean City hauntings.
After nearly two miles’ worth of ghostly tales, we ended our walk at the Shoreham Hotel on the boardwalk, home to a neatnik ghost — a 23-year-old guest who accidentally fell from a top-floor window to her death in the 1980s and is said to keep her room eternally spick-and-span.
I’m still a skeptic, but I have to say that the idea of a ghost that cleans your room sounds pretty out of this world.
Dell’Amore is a writer and editor for National Geographic. Her Web site is www.christinedellamore.com.
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Snow Hill is about 137 miles from Washington. Take U.S. Route 50 east to Maryland Route 13 to the Rte. 12/Snow Hill Road exit into town. Ocean City is about 23 miles from downtown Snow Hill. Follow East Market Street toward East Green Street. Turn left onto U.S. Route 113 north, then merge onto U.S. 50 East, which feeds into Ocean City.
River House Inn
201 E. Market St., Snow Hill
A B&B near the Pocomoke River and a stop on the Snow Hill tour. A room with two twin beds starts at $160.
Oceanfront Plaza Hotel
Boardwalk at 12th Street, Ocean City
Steps from the beach. An oceanfront room is $89 from Oct. 19 through the end of the year.
Harvest Moon Tavern
208 W. Green Rd., Snow Hill
Tasty cream of crab soup and a range of comfort food. Entrees start at $9.99.
Shenanigan’s Irish Pub & Grille
309 N. Atlantic Ave., Ocean City
Emerald Isle specialties in a building known for spiritual phenomena. Entrees start at $11.79.
Chesapeake Ghost Walks
5775 Charles Cannon Rd., Marion Station
Delve into the supernatural in one of 10 Eastern Shore towns: Denton, St. Michaels, Princess Anne, Pocomoke, Ocean City, Cambridge, Crisfield, Snow Hill, Berlin and Easton. Walks are generally held Wednesday through Saturday evenings year-round, but times and dates vary based on location; check the online tour calendar. Each walk is limited to 25 people. Tickets are $15 for adults and $9 for kids and must be purchased in advance online.