Usually a ghost story is just that - a story. It is intended to raise a few eyebrows and elicit some shivers.
But organizers of Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City tour have been
working to bring new life to stories of the afterlife, searching for
connections between the tales they tell visitors and real people from the
Some stories have taken on a life beyond the tour, such as the grisly,
century-old murder of a Main Street shopkeeper that inspired tour guide Mark
Croatti and two colleagues to "reopen" the case on their own time.
The majority of the ghost stories on this year's tour - which is held every
weekend in October and November - are "connected to history and real people
who lived and died in this town," said Croatti, who took the lead when the
Howard County tourism office needed to rewrite the tour.
The revamping was necessary after Melissa Arnold left her job as head of
the tourism office and took the copyrighted stories from the previous ghost
tour with her. With just a few public accounts to build on, Croatti
interviewed business owners in historic Ellicott City and collected many new
tales of strange sounds, unexplained happenings and ghostly apparitions.
But for a story to make it on the tour, "there has got to be some sort of
connection to a person who died, usually under serious circumstances," said
Croatti, an Annapolis resident who teaches state and local politics at the
University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
For example, the noises, voices, footprints and poltergeist activity
reported by employees at the Tiber River Tavern raise questions about the rape
and murder of a woman in that building in the 1920s, when it was a barn. And
the Bean Hollow coffee shop, where voices and strange sounds with no apparent
source were caught on tape, was once a funeral parlor.
"We pride ourselves on saying we have at least a source," said Marty
Schoppert, another guide who helps search for real-life connections in old
Whether that source is convincing is up to the people on the tour. "I hope
to provide what we feel is a factual account of something and you have to
decide," said Schoppert, who lives in Mount Airy.
The new approach seems to be successful, especially as people get into the
Halloween spirit tomorrow. The tours have drawn 300 participants each weekend
compared with 300 a month last year, said Rachelina Bonacci, executive
director of Howard County Tourism Inc.
One story that caught the attention of Croatti and Schoppert is about
Daniel Shea, found dead in his blood-splattered Main Street store with 25
slashes on his face, head and body in February 1895. His one employee, Jacob
Henson, was convicted by a jury and lynched by townspeople. Shea was white;
and Henson was mulatto.
Questions about the case inspired the two men to enlist the help of
Croatti's cousin Karen Case, a forensic psychologist, and dig deeper into
accounts from the time.
"This case has always fascinated me," Croatti said. "It has no ghosts, but
it makes for a great story on a dark night."
The case also proved to be a lesson in how difficult it can be to
reconstruct the past.
"It is really needle in a haystack," Croatti said. "Little exists before
According to a summary written by Croatti and Case, Henson was sent by Shea
to buy beer and returned to the shop on the night of the murder. Shea's body
was found the next day by police - who were tipped off by a resident who said
he heard a scuffle the night before - and an ax with blood on it was found by
the back door. The police arrested Henson at his father's home in western
What followed next is the subject of conflicting newspaper reports and
public records compiled by the researchers. A distraught Henson apparently
offered numerous written confessions, but his story kept changing. He said he
had fought with Shea and hit him in self-defense - sometimes claiming he used
a long metal stove shaker (which was never found) and sometimes saying he used
the handle of the ax. He said he did not mutilate the body.
At one point, he said a white man was there with him. In another
confession, he said he stole money that was on the store counter, but it also
was never found.
Stories differ on whether Henson was mentally impaired, as his father and
others said, or whether he was a bright, hardworking young man with a good
A jury found Henson guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. His
nervous behavior and contention that he struck in self-defense inspired Gov.
Frank Brown to visit Ellicott City to look into the case, Croatti said. But
before that could happen, a mob stormed the jail, took Henson from his cell
and lynched him.
Schoppert, using his experience as a retired police officer, looked at the
accounts and said, "I'm satisfied in my own mind and heart that there was no
rush to judgment."
Croatti and Case are not convinced, asserting Henson was not adequately
defended by his lawyers and at least should have been convicted of a lesser
crime because first-degree murder involves planning the act.
All three researchers agree that the case could have come out differently
if it had been subjected to modern methods of investigation, forensic science
"It deserved another look," said Croatti, who continues to refine his work
with Case and hopes to publish their findings someday.
In the meantime, Croatti, Schoppert and Case are considering turning their
attention to another mystery. They have been invited to spend the night at the
Tiber River Tavern to see if they will experience anything otherworldly.
Schoppert is not sure they will find anything, noting most unexplained
phenomena happen when you least expect it.
But, he said, "You have to have an open mind and just follow a trail where
Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City ghost tours are held Friday and
Saturday nights through Nov. 29. Tours leave from the county tourism office
entrance behind the post office on Main Street at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Tickets
are $8 for adults and $6 for children and seniors. Call 410-313-1439 for
reservations or go to www. vi sithowardcounty.com.
Eerie tales - based on facts