Baltimore's phantom of 1951

Way Back When

History: The sightings of the phantom ended as suddenly as they began, but the cause was never discovered.

October 30, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Whazzat noise, you ask, as the stillness of the night is momentarily shattered.

It could be just about anything this time of the year, you tell yourself, or anyone else willing to listen to your feeble explanations.

An overactive imagination? A tree scraping against the house? A creaky iron gate? A loose shutter? Is it something in the attic? The wind moaning through the trees, perhaps?

Who knows, and who really wants to investigate as a certain weakness spreads through the lower knees and the heart begins to slightly race?

Well, my friends, because it's Halloween, and that may really be the ultimate explanation for the plethora of supernatural happenings and odd goings-on, gather around the fireplace, dim the lights and pour a tall glass of apple cider.

And allow me to tell you about the Phantom of O'Donnell Heights, who, during a two-week period in the summer of 1951, terrorized the southeast Baltimore neighborhood and raised the hair on the necks of its residents.

In early July and for the next three weeks, the appearance of the black-robed prowler who was described by residents as having a "horrible face," and a "hump on his back," caused community-wide sleepless nights.

Residents said the phantom was able to vault like a "gazelle" over 6-foot-high graveyard fences trimmed with barbed wire at nearby St. Stanislaus' Cemetery, where he reportedly lived.

It was said that he could vanish as quickly as he materialized, behind the gravestones of the cemetery. While his footsteps were heard on numerous rowhouse rooftops, when he hit the ground, he never left a footprint, said witnesses.

"He has a horrible face and is dressed in black. He walks like a drape and runs like a horse," said Myrtle Ellen Bennett, 14, of the 1400 block of Gregor Way, who told The Sun that she had encountered the phantom up close twice.

Several residents told police who were sent in to arrest and capture the elusive phantom that he was seen one night hiding under an automobile and hissing to children, "Come here, little girl. Come here, little boy."

Frightened residents stayed awake all night and took to their front porches and back stoops with an arsenal of weapons that included 12-gauge shotguns, butcher knives and heavy sticks.

"It was just after midnight yesterday morning and throughout the project people waited -- in nervous groups on porches and behind drawn shades for the phantom to strike," observed The Sun.

Residents, too afraid to venture to second-floor bedrooms, slept on the first floors of their homes, as police cars prowled the neighborhood.

"My husband is beginning to talk in his sleep for the first time in his life," Mrs. Melvin Hensler of Gusryan Street, told the newspaper. "He and the children are all sleeping on the floor up at his brother's house right now," she said.

William Buskirk, a Fait Avenue resident, decribed his midnight encounter with the man in black.

"I was walking along the 1100 block of Travers Way with several of my buddies when I saw him on a roof. He was a tall thin man, dressed all in black. It kind of looked like he had a cape around him. He jumped off the roof and we chased him down into the graveyard," he said.

Lynn Griffth, of 1217 Wellsbach Way, told the newspaper, "One night I heard someone playing the organ in that chapel. It was about 1 o'clock."

As word spread through the city, phantom, sightings increased.

Traffic jams developed on O'Donnell Street, with youths being arrested for disorderly conduct in cemeteries where they had staked out positions hoping to catch a glimpse of the phantom. One overzealous teen-ager even fell into an open grave from which he had to be extricated.

Suddenly, the phantom was everywhere at once

"I don't know. The other night my son saw him at one place at the same time another person was seeing him somewhere else. He couldn't be both places at once, unless he had wings," said Ruth Proffitt of Cavendish Way.

And then the sightings ceased as quickly as they had begun.

Explanations were less than scientific, and city police were unable to make an arrest as O'Donnell Heights slowly returned to its normal pace.

"It's my idea that when this thing is cleared up it'll turn out to be one of these young hoodlums who has got the idea from the movies or the so-called funny papers and is trying to act it out," proffered George Cook, a resident of Gusryan Street.

Some say the phantom was last seen fleeing toward Highlandtown.

"He won't last a day or two up there," cracked one local O'Donnell Heights phantom-expert.

And he hasn't been heard from since.

But there's always tomorrow night.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.