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Tales from the crypt

The Baltimore Sun

Ask any old-timer in Perryman about local history and inevitably the swinging sailor will come to mind.

For years, children who took field trips to the cemetery outside the Spesutia Church of St. George's Parish learned the legend of how an eccentric ship captain named John Clark Monk ordered his crew to transport him there when he died.

Tour guides talked of sailors carrying their captain up a hill from the Chesapeake Bay, filling his boat-shaped casket with rum and hanging it from chains.

It's a bayfaring story that has captured the imagination of many visitors.

After all, Monk's 1820s casket is contained in an underground vault, and visitors can't get a clear view through the large slats that cover it.

When it comes to Monk, it's also difficult to get a clear view of what is fact and what is fiction. But that hasn't stopped his legend from grabbing attention.

Monk scored a mention in the 2006 book "Weird Maryland." And he was the inspiration for the title track of The Swinging Sailor of Perryman - a 2005 CD put out by the Maryland-based traveling "trop rock" band Captain Quint.

"We've opened for Jimmy Buffet quite a bit," said Kevin Johnston, Captain Quint's founder and songwriter. "And a lot of those Parrot Heads have loved learning the story." ("Parrot Heads" is a nickname for Buffet fans.)

Monk's resting place, which is about a two-mile drive from the main gate at Aberdeen Proving Ground, is now a topic for island stages.

"Unfortunately," Johnston added. "There's a lot about the folklore of the captain that just doesn't - pardon the pun - hold water."

One big problem is that at least a few pieces of the swinging sailor puzzle are missing, a local historian said.

"Nobody left any proof - not one bit - that he was actually a captain," said Henry Peden, who runs the library at the Historical Society of Harford County. "Of course, I'm very curious as to why, if he wasn't [a captain], he was suspended on those chains."

Johnston had asked Peden to help him research the captain while he was writing his song. The musician first heard about Monk from a grandmother who used to take Johnston along when she visited the Perryville cemetery to pay respects to a member of an Aberdeen family who helped raise her.

"There are so many missing pieces that I just can't get a handle on it," Peden said. "We really went at this thing. We looked at all kind of records, and there was not one clue."

A naval commission that should have been easy to find doesn't appear to exist, Peden said.

"Maybe as a very young man he could have been a crewmember on a boat," Peden said. "If so, it's before the Revolution."

There is evidence, Peden said, that Monk owned a shop of some sort in Abingdon, which is where Johnston has a music studio.

"Maybe he had some kind of pirate envy or maybe he had a connection to the sea that we never could find," Johnston said.

Peden said he has joked that because Monk "lived right across Church Creek from St. George's, that maybe he went to church in a boat and everybody just said, 'Oh, here comes the captain.'"

But that's pure speculation.

"I deal in facts," Peden said.

Pamphlets and publications over the years have said that Monk's will contained specific instructions for his burial.

"I've seen his will," Peden said. "There's not one word about it in there."

Sometimes, intriguing details persist despite a lack of legitimacy, said Matt Lake, author of Weird Maryland.

"That's the birth of folklore," said Lake, a native of England who has written a couple of books for the "Weird U.S." series.

It was Peden and Johnston who unwittingly introduced Lake to the sailor. Lake said he was in the historical society office flipping through some articles when he overheard the two men.

"On the other side of the table was a conversation in which one guy said to the other, 'Well, maybe it wasn't full of rum. Maybe he was just buried with a bottle of it.'" Lake said. "Several images flash through my mind and I think, 'This is a conversation I need to get in on.'

"Two hours later I was lying face down in a cemetery ... trying to get a tantalizing glimpse of things through cracks in the pavement," he added.

Eventually, Lake stuck a camera through holes between massive stone slats that cover the underground vault containing Monk's casket.

He said he pointed his camera into the dark, "snapping indiscriminately because I couldn't see the viewfinder."

Lake pieced together the images and published it in his book.

Peden said he's also looked around inside the vault with a special camera and said he saw evidence to suggest that at one time the casket did hang from chains.

Monk's grave is in a rather nondescript corner of the cemetery, off Spesutia Road, which has other graves much older than Monk's.

The Captain Quint CD remains in regular rotation on Permanent Vacation Radio, an online station that plays artists such as Buffet, Bob Marley and the Beach Boys with an emphasis on independent artists who "receive limited, if any, airplay on terrestrial radio."

The chilly air that has prevailed in recent days, along with the brown, dry leaves that surround Monk's grave, are in stark contrast to the tropical sound of Captain Quint's song.

The chorus says:

He's the swinging sailor of Perryman.

On his sea legs he'll forever stand.

A man obsessed with one last request.

To never touch his feet upon dry land.

Peden likes the little ditty.

"You're allowed to take a little artistic license when you write songs," he said.

Johnston's song tries to place the swinging sailor in context:

Master of the Mighty Chesapeake, a legend in his own mind.

But who'd have believed that his eccentricities would keeping him hanging round throughout all time?

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