By Dorcas Coleman|
A figure appears ahead of you on the edge of a clearing. It is of a man, bearded, ragged and gaunt. As he draws nearer, you can see that his cheeks are sunken and eyes hollowed, giving the impression they might rattle around in his head like marbles in a box. His clothes – what's left of them – appear to be homespun, of wool, too heavy to be the type normally worn on a warm late summer day. He wears boots, dusty, the leather cracked, and his gait is loose, as if he has been walking for a long time. A canteen is slung across his shoulder. A belt that would normally sit at the waist hangs precariously from sharply angled hips. You find yourself staring and expect to make eye contact as he passes, but he continues to look straight ahead, seemingly oblivious to your presence. As he passes, you catch a whiff of a musty, humus-like scent intermingled with gunpowder.
Though unfriendly, you are impressed by the accuracy and intensity of what you assume to be a historical reenactor. A few steps later, you turn to take another look but he's gone… vanished. You stop and listen but there is no sound, other than the twittering of birds in the trees and your own breath. There is no one there. You feel the blood rush out of your head and your heart starts to race. You think you may have seen a ghost...
If you're in Point Lookout State Park, chances are you have.
Whether you believe in ghosts, apparitions and poltergeists or not, the fact that Maryland's public lands have experienced more than their fair share of tragedy and unexplained phenomena is undisputable. And Point Lookout State Park, located at the southernmost tip of Maryland's western shore, undoubtedly has the most grisly history of any of the state's parks.
Spectacularly lovely, Point Lookout sits on a peninsula at the confluence of the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Today its completely serene panorama consists of lovely stretches of beach and dense stands of loblolly pine. But this was not always the case. While it seems hard to believe today, Point Lookout State Park was once the site of the Civil War's largest prison camp.
The tolls of war
Point Lookout began as part of St. Michael's Manor, one of three manors owned by Leonard Calvert, the first Governor of the Maryland colony. In the 200 years leading up to the Civil War, it became a popular summer resort, complete with beach cottages, a large wharf and a lighthouse. With the advent of the war, people's attentions turned away from recreation and the area's summer resort owners began to suffer financially.
The U.S. Government, needing a hospital to house casualties of the Northern armies, leased the Point Lookout resort; Hammond General Hospital was built and received its first Union Army patients on August 17, 1862. Early in 1863, the authorities ordered a small number of Confederate prisoners confined to the hospital grounds, most being Southern Marylanders accused of helping the Confederacy. Not long after the Battle of Gettysburg, the federal government expanded the hospital's grounds and built a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Point Lookout was close to the battlefields yet isolated enough to make escape difficult. The site became officially known as Camp Hoffman, a rebel camp capable of holding 10,000 prisoners of war. Three forts were erected to protect the prison, one of which -- Fort Lincoln -- still remains.
As the war progressed, additional prisoners were assigned to Camp Hoffman: In September 1863, 4,000 Confederates were being held at the camp; by December, the number had more than doubled to 9,000. By the following June, less than one year after the camp, more than 20,000 prisoners crowded the camp.
Point Lookout was used mainly for enlisted men; most officers were sent to Fort Delaware. During the prison's operation, filth prevailed and wells became contaminated. Men literally froze to death in Sibley tents -- rudimentary structures offering little protection from the elements -- with but one blanket apiece and very little wood. With money scarce and boredom plentiful, the prisoners learned to occupy themselves making trinkets and many other useful articles out of various materials that were subsequently used for bartering purposes.
At the end of the Civil War in April 1865, federal officials began transferring the Confederates south; by late June the last prisoners were gone. In just under two years, out of 52,264 Confederates imprisoned at Point Lookout, between 3,000 and 8,000 men died.
Today, two monuments honor the memory of the prisoners who died there. The first was built by the State of Maryland and dedicated in 1876. The U.S. Government followed suit, erecting the second monument in the early 1900s. In 1965, 100 years following the end of the Civil War, the Maryland State Forest & Park Service began development of Point Lookout State Park. Today the park comprises 1,064 acres.
Let there be light
One of the most well known and reputedly haunted sites at the park, the Point Lookout Lighthouse, still stands. No longer in use, the lighthouse first came into existence in 1830 as a one-and-a-half story wooden and masonry building. In 1883 another story was added to house two keepers and their families, allowing the arduous duties involved in lighthouse keeping to be shared.
Keepers of previous generations did not enjoy the advantages of automatic alarm systems to alert them if the light went out, or mechanical means for ringing the fog bells. If weather was foggy for a week, the bell had to sound constantly, so the whole family had to take turns ringing.
Point Lookout's lighthouse was active for more than 135 years until the Navy purchased it in 1965, after which an automated light was placed offshore. It remained tenanted until 1981.
Who goes there?
Over the decades, there have been numerous reports of paranormal experiences within Point Lookout State Park, but none more so than in the lighthouse itself. These reports eventually reached the ears of the internationally-renowned parapsychologist, Dr. Hans Holzer, along with his team of paranormal psychologists, was the first to investigate the lighthouse some 20 years ago. To this day it remains the only Chesapeake Bay lighthouse to have earned such esteemed scrutiny.
Holzer's team successfully recorded 24 different voices in the building, both male and female voices singing and talking, often using quite colorful language. One comment, "Fire if they get too close to you," was thought to reference the great number of Confederate soldiers imprisoned nearby. A female voice, recorded on the tower staircase and believed to be that of Ann Davis, wife of the first keeper, spoke of "my home." Yet another voice said, "Let us not take objection to what they are doing."
Lighthouse visitors, including Dr. Holzer's team, have experienced very chilly air in parts of the building, along with a rotten smell emanating from one particular room. Oddly, as soon as Dr. Holzer made public his belief that the smell was from the tormented spirits of people held there against their will -- those falsely accused of spying or having Confederate sympathies -- the smell disappeared.
In addition to unusual sounds and smells, many spectral visions have also been reported, such as that of Ann Davis, standing at the top of the stairs in a white blouse and long blue skirt.
Several unexplained images have appeared in photographs, the most well known being that of "The Ghost of Point Lookout," taken during a séance in the lighthouse in the late 70s. In the photograph, Laura Berg, a former lighthouse resident, stands in the center holding a candle. To her left, the foggy form of a man in soldier garb - weapon, sash, one leg casually crossed over the other - appears to be leaning into the wall. Interestingly, this image was not noticed by those attending the séance; it was seen only later, in the photo.
An eyewitness reports
Need more evidence? Consider the following tales related by Ranger Donnie Hammett, longtime manager of Point Lookout State Park, as he personally experienced them.
An initial encounter
The incident I am about to relate occurred on an unseasonably warm day in early March of 1977. I had been a park ranger at Point Lookout for only two months. Although mine was a new job, Point Lookout was not new to me; I had lived my lifetime of 25 years in the Point Lookout area.
I was working the evening shift. It was a weekday and despite the beautiful, warm weather there were few park visitors.
At about 4:30 p.m., I was on the Potomac River beachfront gathering and recording weather data when I noticed an elderly woman standing about 40 yards from me. She caught my attention because she was strangely shuffling along, looking toward her feet. She appeared to be desperately looking for something she had lost in the grass.
After I had watched her for about five minutes, I walked over to offer my assistance. My first thought was that perhaps she had lost her keys. She seemed very distant and our conversation was very brief. I only remember three points she made: she did not need my assistance, she lived up the beach "a ways," and she asked if I knew where the gravestones were that used to be where we were standing.
I remember that for some reason I felt I was imposing on the woman and not wanting to be an imposition, I left to walk 300 yards east to the Chesapeake Bay shore to record more data. About five minutes later, while I was walking back to my truck which I had left parked near the River, I noticed that the woman had disappeared. It was then that I realized the adjacent parking lot was empty. Furthermore, from my vantage point since our conversation, I would have had to have seen any cars entering or leaving the area. None had. I did not conduct a search for the woman though I often wish I had done so.
A few hours later, I asked then park manager, Gerry Sword, if he knew anything about a graveyard near the Potomac River picnic area. He wanted to know why I was asking, so I told him about my odd encounter with the old woman. After Mr. Sword heard my story, he told me that there had once been a graveyard somewhere near where the mysterious lady had been wandering. It was the Taylor family graveyard. It's exact location is no longer known but its former existence is well documented. Records show that one of the individuals buried in the lost graveyard is Elizabeth Taylor. Evidently someone had come across the missing burial site and stolen her headstone. Elizabeth Taylor's grave marker was found in a local hotel by a Point Lookout park ranger.
Some years later my mother, Regina Hammett, and I went to the site where I had talked to the old woman. We searched for signs of a graveyard using metal rods to probe down through the sand. Within minutes we located a rectangular, rocklike form under about a foot of sand. Soon we located several other possible gravestones laid out in regular rows as one would expect. However when we dug up a couple of these objects, we discovered they were concrete foundations of an 1860s Civil War warehouse. The Taylor family cemetery has never been found.
Could the strange woman have been the deceased Elizabeth Taylor searching for the rest of her family?
On several occasions, I have witnessed a man running across the road through Point Lookout. The sightings always took place during the day, on the same section of road, and the man always crossed the road just after my truck had passed, causing me to view him in my rearview mirror. The man was always crossing in the same direction. Other rangers have experienced the same phenomenon while passing in other vehicles at different times of the day and different times of the year.
The first time I saw the man I immediately returned to the crossing site. The man was running, using long strides. He first appeared at the edge of the road adjacent to one of the Point Lookout camping areas. He crossed the road and dashed into the woods on the other side, leaving park property. My first thought was that he was a trespasser fleeing the area. I examined the area but was unable to find any type of path on either side of the road or any evidence of human or animal crossing. I did not get a good enough look at the intruder to identify him or describe his attire.
The site of the man's crossing is very near but not in the original Confederate soldier cemetery... used to bury prisoners who had died of smallpox at the nearby smallpox hospital where sick Confederates were held. Had the man been making the same trek during the Civil War, he would have been running in a route taking him directly away from the smallpox hospital.
Reportedly, Confederate prisoners would trick their Union guards into sending them to the hospital and then would attempt an escape through the same woods from which I had seen the man flee. Could the figure have been the spirit of a Confederate prisoner who escaped from the smallpox hospital, only to die in the nearby woods, having himself been infected with the deadly disease as often happened?
Power outages are not at all unusual at Point Lookout. Being located on a peninsula, electricity can only be brought in from one direction. If those lines are interrupted, the Point is left in darkness. Because of this, Point Lookout residents always keep candles and matches available.
One dark and stormy night when the power was out on the Point, Gerry Sword experienced something we have yet to explain.
According to Mr. Sword, he lit three identical candles in a candelabrum in the living room. Mr. Sword left the candelabra for a short time to go to the kitchen to fix dinner. A few minutes later he heard a loud sound come from the room where he had left the candelabra unattended. Being alone in the house, he immediately went to investigate the disturbance. The candelabrum was as he had left it only now there was a marked difference in the size of the candles. One had only burned about an inch, the second had burned nearly four inches. But it was the third candle that is hardest to explain: only about an inch of this candle remained however a section of the candle rested on the floor nearby. Apparently, somehow the candle had been broken. The wick on the length of candle lying on the floor had been lit, but now was extinguished. Inexplicably, the small piece of candle in the candelabra was aflame.
A sixth sense
It is said that dogs can perceive things humans cannot. They can hear things the human ear can't and their superior sense of smell is well known. Perhaps dogs have other senses completely alien to us, senses we could not understand.
Later Mr. Sword moved to a property located adjacent to an old Civil War road that ran the length of Point Lookout. On several occasions, Mr. Sword's German Shepard seemed to ‘see' someone or something traveling on the old Civil War road. Sometimes the dog would sit and watch the invisible traffic go by for lengthy periods of time. Other times the dog would bark and lunge against its chain, as if trying to get at an intruder walking down the road – though none was ever seen.
More eerie tales
Following is a series of encounters experienced and told by Laura Berg, former resident of the Lookout Lighthouse.
Just passing through
Before moving into the lighthouse, Ms. Berg learned of the strange things that happened to the former park manager, Gerry Sword, during the time he lived there. Mr. Sword frequently heard snoring in the kitchen. At times he would hear voices outside of the back of the house but when he checked, there was no one there. Then he would hear voices in the front yard and again upon checking, there was no one to be found. This happened frequently. One evening he actually saw figures of men going through the house! Ms. Berg also learned that numerous fishermen throughout the years had heard calls for help on the water only to discover that there was no one to be found.
In the company of strangers
The first night Ms. Berg spent in the lighthouse, she was awakened to the sound of heavy or old-fashioned boots walking up and down the hall. She also relayed that one of the rooms had a very bad odor at night. Some mornings she heard a female voice at the top of the stairs singing. She never could tell what song it was but it seemed to be a very happy one. Sometimes she heard the sound of men laughing and talking in the south-side living room and whenever she checked for intruders, she never found anyone. She only actually saw something one time... two figures in the basement. They were transparent and Ms. Berg couldn't tell if they were male or female.
Coming to call
Ms. Berg enjoyed family and friends visiting her in the lighthouse. Several of them had strange experiences. One time when her parents were visiting her from Baltimore, her mother was awakened in the middle of the night by someone calling her name – Helen.
Another friend who was visiting her went into the living room alone and saw a woman in a blue dress. Thinking it was another guest, she went to ask Ms. Berg who it was. Both of them returned to the living room but no one was there.
A guardian angel?
Ms. Berg's most vivid memory was being awakened one night and seeing an unusual series of six lights. She thought it might have been a reflection from a boat or a car but when she looked out, all was dark. As she became more awake, she suddenly smelled smoke. She jumped up and raced downstairs and found her space heater on fire. She was able to put the fire out but the entire wire was burnt, as was the wall socket. She realized that if she hadn't been awoken by the lights, the whole house could have burned, with her in it. She felt like someone was looking out for her and that she was safe.
Through the time that Laura Berg spent in the lighthouse she had many strange experiences but she never felt threatened.
These are only a few of the many unexplained phenomena people have experienced while visiting the park. Still not convinced? Perhaps a personal visit is in order.
Point Lookout State Park's Ghost Walk event, will be held on Friday and Saturday, October 26-27. Information/reservations: (301) 872-5688
Dorcas Coleman, assistant editor of The Natural Resource, is also a true believer in the spirits of Point Lookout.
Dorcas Coleman, assistant editor of The Natural Resource, is also a true believer in the spirits of Point Lookout.