Keeping spirits up at work

Mystery: At Junction Inc., which used to be a jailhouse, workers tell of ghosts, including Ruben, that call the place home.

October 31, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

They report mysterious door slammings and footsteps, lights that turn on and off without explanation and objects that seem to levitate and fly as if thrown by some unseen force.

With no one close enough to touch her, one woman felt something ruffle her hair. Another says she spotted a figure floating outside a window -- a third-floor window. And one man swears he felt something, grainy and cold, pass through him in a hallway.

To the staffers at Junction Inc., a substance abuse prevention and outpatient treatment center in an old stone building in Westminster that used to be a jail, the explanation is simple: The ghost they know by the nickname Ruben is up to his old tricks again.

"I tend to try to talk myself out of the things that happen more often than not, but there's no question what it is," said Patsy Shaffer, 25, a family therapist. "I just say, `I hear ya, Ruben. How ya doin'?'"

Between eerie experiences passed along by Junction employees and clients to the tales spread on the Carroll County Library's annual ghost walk through Westminster, stories abound about the spirits believed to inhabit the 166-year-old building.

Junction employees tell of an indentured servant hanged for murder just outside the old jail. Others tell of an inmate who slit his throat and whose headless ghost wanders the neighborhood around the jailhouse. Records at the Carroll County Historical Society reveal bits and pieces of the tall tales to be true, offering hints about real-life prisoners whose experiences might match up with the storied ghost legends.

Tour guides leading ghost walks through Westminster around Halloween each year tell the story of Big Tom Parkes, a Tennessee native who wandered into Carroll County in 1840 and was locked up on Christmas Eve four years later for disturbing the peace. When the prisoner learned that the sheriff intended to transfer him to a larger, more secure jail in Baltimore, he slit his throat. His headless ghost is said to wander the yard outside the jail, where the sheriff allowed a local doctor of phrenology to decapitate the dead inmate to study the bumps on his oversized head.

In his book, Ghosts and Legends of Carroll County, Maryland, which is sold at the historical society, author Jesse Glass documents a similar story involving an inmate named Big Tom.

But Junction director Liv Myers, who has worked in the old jail building for 25 years, tells a different story altogether. Myers, 49, and her staff have heard about Big Tom, but they say he is not their ghost.

"He's a mean ghost," Myers said of the headless prisoner. "We like Ruben. He's impish and funny. He's whistling all the time. He likes young girls."

They know their ghost's human name was not Ruben. The nickname came from teen-agers who helped clean up the old jail when it was being renovated for Junction and who "chased" the spirit through the building, running from one room to another following unexplained footsteps and the openings and closings of doors.

As the story goes, the ghost Junction employees know as Ruben was a black, 19-year-old indentured servant.

"It was past slavery, but he was indentured to a guy who owned a big farm in the county," Myers said. "The guy was abusing him and one day, Ruben hit him. The guy hit a wall and died. It was really self-defense, though, you know? Because the guy was abusing him."

Records at the Carroll County Historical Society indicate that only three prisoners -- a female slave and two men -- were hanged at the old jail, which closed in 1967.

The first man was Joseph W. Davis, a 24-year-old apprentice of Abraham L. Lynn, a miller who owned $2,500 worth of land near New Windsor, according to the 1870 Carroll County census. Davis, who was white, was convicted in 1872 of beating his employer to death and robbing him of $800. The apprentice was hanged during a windy snow storm Feb. 6, 1874, before a crowd of thousands.

"I never intended to kill him nor did I suppose I had," Davis wrote in a confession published the day after his execution in The Democratic Advocate of Westminster. "I did not know that he had upon his person one dollar, and, therefore, did not kill him for his money. I struck in anger and must have failed to weigh my blows."

Forty-two years after the Davis execution, Solomon Sudler, a young black man, was hanged at the old jail.

Shortly after the New Year's Day murder of a young farmer, William F. Brown, in 1916 near Silver Run, "suspicion at once fell on Sudler, a colored youth, whom Mr. Brown had taken from the Cheltenham House of Reformation about two years ago to work on his farm and about the house," according to an article published in the American Sentinel of Westminster on April 14, 1916, the day of Sudler's execution.

Sudler initially confessed to killing Brown with a stone, but later revealed that he had shot him.

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