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Tales based on fiction - and facts, too

Usually a ghost story is just that - a story. It is intended to raise a feweyebrows and elicit some shivers.

But organizers of Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City tour have beenworking to bring new life to stories of the afterlife, searching forconnections between the tales they tell visitors and real people from thepast.

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 MarkCroatti 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 everyweekend in October and November - are "connected to history and real peoplewho lived and died in this town," said Croatti, who took the lead when theHoward County tourism office needed to rewrite the tour.

The revamping was necessary after Melissa Arnold left her job as head ofthe tourism office and took the copyrighted stories from the previous ghosttour with her. With just a few public accounts to build on, Croattiinterviewed business owners in historic Ellicott City and collected many newtales 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 ofconnection to a person who died, usually under serious circumstances," saidCroatti, an Annapolis resident who teaches state and local politics at theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County.

For example, the noises, voices, footprints and poltergeist activityreported by employees at the Tiber River Tavern raise questions about the rapeand murder of a woman in that building in the 1920s, when it was a barn. Andthe Bean Hollow coffee shop, where voices and strange sounds with no apparentsource were caught on tape, was once a funeral parlor.

"We pride ourselves on saying we have at least a source," said MartySchoppert, another guide who helps search for real-life connections in oldnewspaper articles.

Whether that source is convincing is up to the people on the tour. "I hopeto provide what we feel is a factual account of something and you have todecide," said Schoppert, who lives in Mount Airy.

The new approach seems to be successful, especially as people get into theHalloween spirit tomorrow. The tours have drawn 300 participants each weekendcompared with 300 a month last year, said Rachelina Bonacci, executivedirector of Howard County Tourism Inc.

One story that caught the attention of Croatti and Schoppert is aboutDaniel Shea, found dead in his blood-splattered Main Street store with 25slashes on his face, head and body in February 1895. His one employee, JacobHenson, 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 ofCroatti's cousin Karen Case, a forensic psychologist, and dig deeper intoaccounts from the time.

"This case has always fascinated me," Croatti said. "It has no ghosts, butit makes for a great story on a dark night."

The case also proved to be a lesson in how difficult it can be toreconstruct the past.

"It is really needle in a haystack," Croatti said. "Little exists before1900."

According to a summary written by Croatti and Case, Henson was sent by Sheato buy beer and returned to the shop on the night of the murder. Shea's bodywas found the next day by police - who were tipped off by a resident who saidhe heard a scuffle the night before - and an ax with blood on it was found bythe back door. The police arrested Henson at his father's home in westernEllicott City.

What followed next is the subject of conflicting newspaper reports andpublic records compiled by the researchers. A distraught Henson apparentlyoffered numerous written confessions, but his story kept changing. He said hehad fought with Shea and hit him in self-defense - sometimes claiming he useda long metal stove shaker (which was never found) and sometimes saying he usedthe 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 anotherconfession, he said he stole money that was on the store counter, but it alsowas never found.

Stories differ on whether Henson was mentally impaired, as his father andothers said, or whether he was a bright, hardworking young man with a goodreputation.

A jury found Henson guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. Hisnervous behavior and contention that he struck in self-defense inspired Gov.Frank Brown to visit Ellicott City to look into the case, Croatti said. Butbefore that could happen, a mob stormed the jail, took Henson from his celland lynched him.

Schoppert, using his experience as a retired police officer, looked at theaccounts and said, "I'm satisfied in my own mind and heart that there was norush to judgment."

Croatti and Case are not convinced, asserting Henson was not adequatelydefended by his lawyers and at least should have been convicted of a lessercrime because first-degree murder involves planning the act.

All three researchers agree that the case could have come out differentlyif it had been subjected to modern methods of investigation, forensic scienceand psychology.

"It deserved another look," said Croatti, who continues to refine his workwith Case and hopes to publish their findings someday.

In the meantime, Croatti, Schoppert and Case are considering turning theirattention to another mystery. They have been invited to spend the night at theTiber River Tavern to see if they will experience anything otherworldly.

Schoppert is not sure they will find anything, noting most unexplainedphenomena happen when you least expect it.

But, he said, "You have to have an open mind and just follow a trail whereit goes."

Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City ghost tours are held Friday andSaturday nights through Nov. 29. Tours leave from the county tourism officeentrance behind the post office on Main Street at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Ticketsare $8 for adults and $6 for children and seniors. Call 410-313-1439 forreservations or go to www. vi sithowardcounty.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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