'Ghost writer' collects history that chills bones

February 20, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

The moon played hide-and-seek above the eerie shadows cast by drifting clouds. Black Aggie's eyes, deep-set under her cowl, glowed hot and red; her spectral hand beckoned the cowering figures. Most fled, screaming. But others, more daring, remained -- and died in her icy embrace.

Or so legend has it.

Chains rattled and shrieks rent the air on the wooded hilltop near Reisterstown. A shadowy figure swayed in the moonlight. John Berry, hanged for murder in 1752 and left to rot, was bemoaning his fate.

Legend says so.

These and other legends and ghost stories from Baltimore County keep Donald D. Darrah of Cockeysville busy in the county Historical Society's library.

As a volunteer, Mr. Darrah, 77, has spent a decade on a card catalog of important people, places such as Spook Hill near Prettyboy Reservoir, things and events mentioned in the library's growing collection of books, records and publications.

But he became the society's "ghost writer" in 1983, after "a very studious-looking young fella about 11 or 12 came in and asked if we had any ghost stories."

Mr. Darrah said he knew several stories and gave the lad what material was on hand. But he recalled seeing other stories and decided to start a separate record of them. He has listed 35 tales so far.

Mr. Darrah said he hopes to see the research computerized and collected in a single volume. "But not by me. I've got enough to do now," he declared.

Joan H. Wroten, society president, said "it is very likely" the society will publish an anthology of local legends and ghost tales as a result of Mr. Darrah's work.

"It's something that tickles the imagination and makes history come to life. And it's something that appeals to children," Mrs. Wroten said. "When older people tell the stories, they are recalling the memories of yesterday, and it lends an air of mystery to it."

In local folklore, a visit to Black Aggie on her throne in Pikesville's Druid Ridge Cemetery -- and the nerve to sit on her lap at midnight -- was a rite of passage for generations of young people.

The bronze figure, actually a seated angel titled "Grief," marked the family graves of Gen. Felix Agnus, publisher of the Baltimore American, who died in 1925. The statue, a copy of one by Augustus St. Gaudens for the Henry Adams family plot in Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery, was removed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in 1967.

The Historical Society's files relate the tale of a would-be fraternity brother who took the dare and was left sitting on the statue. After midnight, a night watchman heard a piercing scream and found the youth dead -- scared to death.

And there was the sorority girl found dead in Black Aggie's embrace with a knife in her heart, so the tale went.

Even though the statue has been gone for 25 years, the legend endures. "You'd be surprised at the number of calls we still get every week about Black Aggie," said Lillian Mosley, Druid Ridge manager.

Another legend began nearly two centuries ago, when a young visitor to Hampton House, the Ridgely mansion in Towson, dreamed of an old man with a scythe chasing her through a

wheat field. As she fled across a stream, he shouted, "I'll have you yet, my golden-haired beauty."

"When?" she asked.

"Tomorrow night before the ball," he replied.

The party assembled the following evening, but the woman, a Miss Swann, failed to appear. A maid found her in her room -- dead -- collapsed as she combed her long blond hair. As years passed, visitors reported seeing a young woman in the room -- still combing her hair.

On Berry's Hill, in Soldier's Delight near Reisterstown, the woods have resounded with eerie moans and the clank of chains for more than 200 years.

It was there, in January 1752, that John Berry, 20, was hanged and his body left to rot in chains near the scene of his crime. He had masterminded the ax murder of a farmer's wife by two female accomplices, who were hanged at Joppa, then the Baltimore County seat.

Such punishment was reserved for the most heinous offenders, and the execution site has been known ever since as Berry's Hill, a source of local legend and site of a new nature center.

In the Essex area, Stemmers Run was named for a pirate, Capt. Ulrich B. Stammer (or Stemmer), who built a mansion beside the waterway in the 1790s when it still was navigable, says a legend in the society files.

Captain Stammer sailed his ship up the run and moored it near his home, on what now is Race Road. Local folk called him the "Merchant Prince." No one knows when he died, but his widow haunted the house after her death because the old pirate had another wife and children in the West Indies, according to legend.

His descendants left the house about 1850. In 1929, the Georgian brick dwelling with two wings was moved and rebuilt on Caves Road, in the Caves Valley, and now houses a publishing company.

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