CAMBRIDGE -- The grisly object she pulled from the water may not have belonged to a human after all, but Dawn O'Neal says it will be awhile before she goes crabbing again off the county dock on Elliott Island.
During an outing in Dorchester County, Ms. O'Neal was pulling her crab line out of the water when she saw it was tangled with an unattended string tied to the dock. When she brought both lines to the surface, she recoiled in horror.
Dangling next to her chicken bait was a severed appendage with five fleshy digits.
"It looked to me like it was a hand," said the 24-year-old Delmar, Del., resident, who said she and her family often travel to the Chesapeake Bay shores to catch blue crabs.
Minutes later, Victoria Lee Johns, who was crabbing from the same dock, pulled up a second unattended line to discover another severed appendage, apparently the right-hand mate of the one Ms. O'Neal had found.
"I just dropped it," said Miss Johns, 21, who lives in Towson. "I was pretty shocked."
Not until Deputy Sheriff Timothy R. Ebeling, who came to the dock after Ms. O'Neal called 911 to report the find, took the "hands" to Dorchester General Hospital was the gruesome mystery at least partly unraveled.
"What kind of animal it is I haven't the foggiest," Dr. Christian T. Evans, a staff radiologist who X-rayed the appendages, said Thursday. "But they're not human or ape, I can categorically say that."
Dr. Evans said the five digits resemble human fingers, but X-rays show that the "thumb" bone is aligned perpendicular to the index bone. It is not, he said, an "opposing" thumb as in human hands. Additionally, Dr. Evans said, each appendage contains a small padlike bone on the inner side of the digits that probably was used to keep balance when the animal walked.
"It would imply some type of four-legged animal," Dr. Evans said.
Dorchester authorities speculated that the "hands" may have belonged to an animal -- possibly a bear -- that was killed by a hunter outside Maryland and brought to the Eastern Shore where the appendages were used as crab bait.
Dr. Evans said the tips of the digits appeared to have been cut by a sharp tool, possibly to remove the claws, which are prized by some hunters.
Elliott Island residents who spoke with the Dorchester County Sheriff's Department gave rise to the bear theory, but said little else.
"These people are elusive and don't want to talk about it," said James W. Phillips, the department's chief of operations.
Lynda Schemanksy, 33, of Baltimore, who was crabbing from the dock with her friend Miss Johns last Sunday, said the women saw other crab lines tied to the dock but chose not to pull them out of the water. "We didn't want to pull up a head," she said.
Ms. O'Neal said she and her family will return to Dorchester to crab, but they will stay away from the county dock. "It scared me," she said. "I don't want to pull up anything like that again."
Weekend crabbers -- known locally as "chicken neckers" because of their preference for poultry parts as bait -- are known to try a variety of meats to lure crabs to their lines. But handlike baits are unusual.
"It's a new one for me," Mr. Phillips said.