Haunted-tour guides weave tales of terror

Tour: Walking groups through various Ellicott City haunts, entertaining guides recount local history of the unexplained.

October 31, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When people are long dead, they need a good storyteller to bring them back to life.

On Friday and Saturday nights in this ghostly season, seven guides roam the streets of historic Ellicott City, sharing tales of unexplained noises, unnatural visitors and unusual visions along with a healthy dose of history from the area once called Ellicott Mills.

"Every story has a source," said guide Marty Schoppert, as he set out Saturday night with a group of visitors on the "Ghosts of Ellicott Mills" tour, sponsored by the Ellicott City Tourism Council.

In fact, Melissa Arnold, the council's executive director, created the tour by pulling together eyewitness accounts, historical records and newspaper reports.

From all of that came accounts of ghosts like young Cecelia in her 18th-century dress refusing to share her townhouse with 20th-century tenants; or the death - still heard on occasion? - of a Confederate solider who tried to escape a local hotel; and the undertaker, long since passed, who might linger in a local restaurant.

Like all the guides, Schoppert began with some local history.

Then he pointed to his clothing: a black frock coat, green bow tie, top hat and walking stick, and told the group his period dress was intended to improve the odds for his own safety.

"It has been many years since a dapper gentleman like myself ... wearing a top hat has been run over by a motor vehicle," he said, earning a chuckle.

The clothes were Schoppert's own touch, as were several jokes and embellishments through the evening.

"We all have our own little things," said guide Mark Croatti. He likes to carry a flashlight and laser pointer to identify buildings. Recently, he has been sharing some fresh ghost rumors he picked up at a local tavern.

The storytellers' backgrounds are varied. Schoppert, of Mount Airy, is a retired police officer who directs security for Carroll Community College. Croatti, of Catonsville, is an adjunct professor at UMBC and other colleges. Other guides include a former dancer, a former picture framer and a middle school teacher.

"It's kind of an outlet for them," said Deborah Ing, the council's marketing specialist.

"I joined the Howard County Tourism Council to have something to do," said Cliff Hughes, 81, who retired from manufacturing in 1984 and then spent 10 years leading travel groups.

Hughes, who gives historical tours all year, said, "I enjoy romancing the stories ... to make them more interesting," That includes telling listeners that, among other famous people, his parents were married in Ellicott City in 1917.

If they love their stories, the guides also embrace the spotlight - even if it is a streetlight on a chilly fall evening.

"I don't mind being the center of attention," said Schoppert, who also performs living history for the U.S. Park Service and played a robber on the first episode of the America's Most Wanted television show.

"When people's interest comes to life ... it renews it for me," said Croatti. As a teacher of state and local history, he said, "it helps to know [an area's] legends, too."

Croatti is drawn to true crimes, which he said are most exciting for the crowd.

Guide Nanette Hunter, of Columbia, also offers historical tours at Patapsco Female Institute and Benjamin Banneker Museum. She likes to focus on specific people among her listeners. "It is a lot easier to see when you've been successful with the kids," Hunter said. "They really will keep coming back and asking you more."

"If you can get them, that's a sure sign" you did well, she said.

Just how scary the tours can be depends on what the listeners are willing to believe.

"I don't try to make [the stories] very frightening, just mystifying, I guess," said Hunter. "It should raise some kind of question in your mind."

Schoppert told his group a good ghost tour should have three elements - a cemetery story, a witch story and an ax murder - "and we have them all."

Pat Derlunas of Joppa was excited by tales of the town witch and her healing potions. The stories reminded her of her grandmother and the older woman's home remedies.

"He's a good storyteller," Derlunas said of Schoppert. She pointed out that her husband has a hearing problem and could understand the guide fine, "so I know he's excellent."

Others have been harder to impress. Hunter recalled one time when a member of the tour seemed distracted at one point, talking during the presentation.

A week later, the same woman returned. She turned out to be a ghost hunter who regularly studied the paranormal. She told the group and Hunter that the previous week she had heard a ghostly voice growling and heckling their guide.

"Maybe it's good I didn't hear it," Hunter joked.

But, she didn't discount the story. "There have been things that we have not really been able to explain," she said.

"Haunting of Ellicott Mills" ghost tours are held every Friday and Saturday night through November. Tours begin at 8:30 p.m. at 8267 Main St. in Ellicott City, at the side entrance. The cost is $8 for adults and $6 for children younger than 12 and seniors 65 and older. Reservations, information: 410-313-1900.

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