Local author finds that Baltimore is a ghost town

WAY BACK WHEN

October 30, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding -

Riding - riding -

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

Nothing puts me in a Halloween mood more than the opening lines of poet Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman. It sets the tone for a time of year when we're all just a little more attentive to those unexpected sounds that summon us from our slumbers at the witching hour.

For Ed Okonowicz, the Cecil County author, semi-retired college professor, freelance journalist and storyteller, this is a busy time of the year.

His birthday is also Halloween Eve - he will turn 57 today - which may have something to do with his interest in those restless spirits condemned to walk the earth, unable to free themselves of the traumatic events that keep them from passing to the next plane.

Okonowicz goes to places most people would take pains to avoid, collecting tales of the macabre, apparitions and other strange sightings. He relishes rummaging through forgotten weed-grown cemeteries, creepy dark attics and cobweb-strewn cellars.

Since 1994, he and his wife, Kathleen, have self-published more than 20 books of ghost stories - like Horror in the Hallway, Terrifying Tales of the Beaches and Bays and Phantom in the Bedchamber - scaring the dickens out of late-night readers for years.

They have even written about haunted antiques, a category of collectible that has yet, as far as I can tell, made its way onto Antiques Roadshow.

The geographic focus of their "Spirits" series is Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and southern Pennsylvania.

Their latest addition to the canon is Baltimore Ghosts: History, Mystery, Legends and Lore, which focuses on events and legends associated with historic sites.

Okonowicz, in an interview from his Elkton home, said his only ghostly experience was seeing his dead father's head on someone else's body.

"It happened two weeks after his death in 1971, and occurred on the sidewalk outside of our Wilmington rowhouse where I grew up. And the passenger in my car also saw it and said, `Did you see that? It was your father,'" Okonowicz said. "It was my one and only experience with a ghost and I guess you can say it's a keeper."

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1969, and a master's in communications in 1984 from the University of Delaware, and spent several decades there teaching feature writing, storytelling and folklore. He still teaches at the university while maintaining a busy writing and lecturing schedule.

"I grew up in the Polish section of Wilmington, and as a youngster began reading Edgar Allan Poe and other tales of terror. The nuns at my school said, `If you keep reading those weird books, you're going to grow up to be weird.' Well, I guess I'm weird then," he said, laughing.

During the early 1970s, while serving in the Army at Fort Holabird, Okonowicz had heard a few Baltimore ghost stories.

His first stop was the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, whose files he combed, and then he started visiting sites and talking to people.

He has included several old chestnuts - the vanishing hitchhiker, Black Aggie, the phantom of O'Donnell Heights and the underground chambers of Federal Hill - that have amused Baltimoreans for generations.

Okonowicz has explored reported sightings aboard the Constellation, at the Amity Street home of Poe, Green Mount Cemetery, several Fells Point restaurants and in the catacombs of Westminster Hall and Burying Ground at Fayette and Greene streets.

He nominates Fort McHenry and its surrounding 43 acres as perhaps the most haunted site in Baltimore.

"Fort McHenry makes Fort Delaware, where 30,000 Confederate prisoners were kept during the Civil War, look like Candy Land. There have been sightings at Fort McHenry where gallows once stood and on its earthworks, sallyports and barracks," he said.

Okonowicz says his strangest encounter took place in the basement of a Wilmington rowhouse where he had been summoned by an even stranger owner to come inspect a voodoo doll. Five tombstones lined the cellar wall.

"I always say, you never know who's living next door to you," he said, with a faint laugh.

A devout Roman Catholic, Okonowicz takes precautions and relies upon the comfort his religion affords him.

"An Italian barber friend of mine who knows a priest gave me a bottle of holy water, which I carry with me. I sometimes have my medals blessed before I go on a call," he said.

One of his favorite stories involves legendary Patty Cannon, a Delaware serial killer, who in the early 1800s owned a tavern near the Mason-Dixon Line, into which she lured her victims - estimated to be between 17 to 50 - and then dispatched them with arsenic.

"I've even held her skull in my hands," said Okonowicz of the grizzly relic that through a series of odd events ended up stored in a hatbox in the Dover, Del., public library. "The night before her execution she cheated the hangman by taking a dose of arsenic which she kept hidden in the hem of her dress."

Does he do anything special after one of his ghostly inspections? "Yeah, I keep checking out my rearview mirror when I'm driving home," he said.

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