Hot holiday seller tracks Maryland's weirdness

WAY BACK WHEN

Back Story

January 06, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

It's hard to believe that a Christmas gift phenomenon this year was a recently published 251-page book titled Weird Maryland, written by Matt Lake, a transplanted Englishman.

"We were wiped out of them by Christmas, and I understand the first press run is already totally sold out," a clerk at Border's in Timonium reported the other day.

Waldenbooks in Towson Town Center offered a similar assessment. The one copy it had remaining for sale was gone before noon Thursday.

So what is all this weirdness about? Two New Jersey guys, Mark Moran and Mark Sceurman - who are known as The Marks - teamed up in 1989 when they began publishing Weird N.J., a newsletter.

They filled the newsletter with local unwritten history, tales of ghosts and haunted houses, folklore, and the just plain strange, such as abandoned tunnels, overgrown Charles Addamesque cemeteries or Nike missile sites left over from the nation's Dr. Strangelove years.

They expanded their horizon several years ago and began publishing hardcover books using the newsletter's format - which is still published - and came up with such heavily illustrated titles as Weird U.S., Weird New Jersey (in two volumes),Weird Michigan, Weird California, Weird N.Y., Weird Texas and Weird Pennsylvania.

There are other weird books for other states - too numerous to mention here - but it's safe to say that they've produced or will produce a weird book for just about every state.

Moran and Sceurman, who edit the books, seek out writers like Lake. They also include material from correspondents, who send in tips about odd happenings or goofy roadside relics.

"We knew Maryland was a hotbed of weirdness," Moran and Sceurman note in the book's foreword. "Contained in these pages are a vast array of unique places, sites, and stories that make Maryland the fascinating and just downright weird place that it is."

"I make no apologies for calling Maryland weird. If you take issue with the description, just grab a map and look at the outline of the state," writes Lake.

"It's geometrically perfect along two sides (courtesy of Mason and Dixon), and the rest of it consists of six thousand miles of squiggles (courtesy of Mother Nature's mountains and coastline). And there's a little square notch carved out of Maryland to accommodate the only chunk of the United States that isn't a state - the District of Columbia," he writes. "I'd say that's weird enough for most people."

And to add to the state's reputation for weirdness, Lake cites its official state drink (milk) and its official sport (jousting).

Regarding Maryland's nickname - the Free State, which came about when Prohibition was tepidly enforced by local government officials including Gov. Albert C. Ritchie - Lake observed that "it's a state that likes its booze" and "doesn't like being bossed around. It's the fierce independence of the place that makes it such a haven of weird."

Lake doesn't disappoint. Some of his tales are downright creepy, such as one recalling late-night visitors who traverse the rooms - many of them still filled with medical equipment - and a morgue whose doors are wide open and waiting for dead patients who will never appear in the abandoned Glenn Dale Hospital in Prince George's County.

The Henryton Center in Carroll County, which once treated African-Americans who suffered from tuberculous and was converted to a mental hospital before closing in the 1980s, is known for faint unexplained lights that seem to appear in its windows during the witching hours.

Want to know the name of the state's spookiest road? Lake suggests a trip over Governor's Bridge Road that goes from Bowie toward Annapolis.

He says the road is "soaked with creepy legends," including those surrounding an ancient, spindly two-lane iron bridge spanning the Patuxent River.

"Over the years, it has been featured as the scene of all the gruesome legends you can imagine, ranging from babies being tossed from moving vehicles to traffic accidents so grisly that they turn passengers into hamburger," he writes.

Lake enjoyed his visit to Baltimore's American Dime Museum - now open by appointment - whose archived treasures and eclectic sideshow oddities include a 10-foot mummy, hoax creatures, a winged monster and several presidential death masks.

"The museum's curator, impresario, and chief carnival barker, Dick Horne, told us, with typical carny bluster, that he's always been interested in `anything obscure and in bad taste," writes Lake.

Lake was also attracted to the Mount Royal Tavern, the fabled Bolton Hill watering hole, and its ceiling, which is an "almost perfect replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This is indeed a bizarre sight in a cheap city bar," he writes.

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