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Oh, say, can you see ghosts at fort? Walking war dead spotted throughout the year, some say

Once darkness cloaks the home of the "Star-Spangled Banner," the mood changes along the banks of the Patapsco River. And what a creepy thrill it would be on Allhallows Eve to race along the sea wall in the guise of a spook.

Indeed, some swear you'd pass through ghosts who run the ramparts all year round.

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"It's different after hours," says Paul Plamann, a veteran ranger at the park. "Here you are on this green oasis of solitude, surrounded by the city. You can let your imagination go."

Plamann calls the supernatural reports "happenings," and while he hasn't seen any apparitions himself, tales of walking war dead used to lie at the quickened heart of an annual candlelight Halloween tour.

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Held in the late 1970s, the tours were discontinued, Plamann said, because "it seemed like the supernatural was taking over the historical. We didn't want to become known as the haunted fort."

The stories surround the specters of Levi Clagett, an unfortunate American lieutenant at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, and Pvt. John Drew, who committed suicide at the fort in 1880 after being arrested for falling asleep on guard duty.

On Sept. 13, 1814 -- during the battle in which Francis Scott Key wrote the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- artillery officer Clagett was manning a gun on bastion three, one of the five points that jut out from the star-shaped fort. It is now known as Clagett's Bastion, for that is where he and a sergeant named John Clemm were killed instantly when one of 1,500 bombs launched by British warships made a direct hit.

Several people have reported seeing a man dressed like Clagett on bastion three -- they described a military man in a uniform only used briefly by the Americans -- and were dumbfounded when told that there were no actors in costume on the grounds that day.

A weirder example of invisible spirits roaming the peninsula known as Whetstone Point involves a psychic and a Hasidic Jew. In the late 1970s, Warren Bielenberg was director of visitor services at the fort and was befriended by a local psychic named Dorothy Bathgate.

Bathgate would wander the grounds with staffers after hours and pick out spots where bodies had been piled up in the old days, places where mortuaries once stood and other facts that were impressive but easily researched with a little bit of effort.

Once, up on Clagett's Bastion, Bathgate described a scene of wounded bodies, including one man with a beard. "We scoffed," says Bielenberg, "In the War of 1812, beards were not permitted."

A few years later, a fort staffer came upon an obituary of a Jewish merchant who served at Fort McHenry during the British bombardment. The merchant was a Hasidic Jew who did not have enough money to buy his way out of the service and, because of religious freedom, would not have been forced to cut his beard. The obituary said the man was wounded on Clagett's Bastion during the Battle of Baltimore.

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"About 70 to 80 percent of the things she said were substantiated later on," says Bielenberg, now a ranger in Omaha, Neb. "I had a hard time believing some of it, but I have no other way of explaining it."

In the years after the suicide of John Drew, at least a dozen visitors to the fort have reported seeing a man in a soldier's cape pacing endlessly back and forth along the same outer battery where Drew was derelict in his duties nearly 120 years ago.

Once, in the presence of Bathgate, Bielenberg couldn't stand not being able to see what so many others had and blurted out: "John, if that's you, send us a message."

"I'll swear on this until the day I die that there [came] a tap like a fingernail at the window of the guard house," says Bielenberg. "It came from 15 feet in front of me, and I couldn't see anything making the noise. Darn right there are ghosts at Fort McHenry."

Pub Date: 10/31/96


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