Goosebumps — that's what a week at the beach offers, from a welcome dip on a hot day to a twilight prowl through the eerie haunts of the shore’s favorite towns. Some, like Lewes, Del., and Ocean City and are awash in spooky lore, some of it centuries old and anchored in grim history. Both offer creepy evening tours for vacationers seeking an other-worldly look at their summer digs.
In its 96 years, the Shoreham Hotel at Fourth Street has witnessed three deaths, making it a linchpin of the OC Ghost Walk, a 1-½ mile tour along the Boardwalk in the historic district. Half a century ago, in the basement of the Shoreham where a bar then stood, a murder occurred. Now a storage area, that cellar is said to give the hotel staff the willies, said Mindy Burgoyne.
“Doors slam and stuff flies off the shelves,” said Burgoyne, who founded the tour in 2013. “Employees are terrified to go down there.”
Some years back, she said, a paranormal investigative team from Pittsburgh checked out the Shoreham:
“The team leader deliberately locked himself in the basement that night. He ended up panicking, screaming and begging to be let out.”
Nearby stands Henry’s Colored Hotel. Now shuttered, it was a beacon for African Americans and celebrities in the days of segregation. Here slept folks like Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Come night, Burgoyne said, the spectral sounds of music, though faint, have been heard from within. And an elderly woman, perhaps the apparition of longtime hotel owner Pearl Bonner, has been seen standing on the porch — waiting, it is said, for guests to arrive.
Then there is the Life Saving Station Museum — once the real thing — now reportedly haunted by the spirit of a young boy.
“About 10 years ago, a child, about 4 years old and wearing a shirt and shorts, walked into the museum at closing time. Employees expected his mother to follow, but she never came — and when they turned around, the boy had disappeared inside,” Burgoyne said. “They searched every room, but he was never found.”
Soon after, workmen painted the steps leading to the attic. The next day, at the top of the stairs, the staff found a child’s footprint tracked from the paint.
There are nine stops on the OC Ghost Walk, a 90-minute trek that starts at the Inlet and ends at Fourth Street. It’s one of 11 Chesapeake Ghost Tours, an 11-town junket on the Eastern Shore that Burgoyne organized after years of research.
“I’m not a ghost hunter,” said the 59-year-old travel writer who grew up in Howard County. “My theory is that the ‘other’ world is around us all the time. It’s not that the paranormal is more present in Ocean City than, say, Columbia. But there are historic areas where high concentrations of emotional energy can wear away at the thin veil between the two worlds and make that passageway a little more porous.”
Just north, outside Rehoboth Beach, sits the peaceful town of Lewes, whose 17th-century roots scream of foul play and shadowy goings-on. Each week in summer, the Lewes Historical Society offers a 90-minute tour of several tortured dwellings, led by Marcos Salaverria, its director of education.
First up on the Lewes Legends Tour: the Rhys Holt House on Second Street, built in 1665 by Dutch settlers and now the oldest standing house in Delaware. In 1699, Salaverria says, in a home nearby a woman named Susan Johnson was found dead at the foot of her stairs. Her husband was arrested for murder. At the trial, Johnson’s naked corpse was laid out on a trestle table in the Holt House (then a tavern) as evidence for the 12-woman jury. Their verdict: accidental death.
Apparently, the deceased disagreed. In 2010, Salaverria said, paranormal investigators armed with a ghost box (a device said to record electronic voice imprints left by spirits) entered the Holt House to converse with her ghost.
“What they heard was one word, repeated three times: ‘pushed … pushed ...pushed,’ ” Salaverria said. “I listened to the recording; it sounds like a snake’s hiss, long and slurred with static, like, ‘pussssshhhhed.’ ”
Less than two blocks away stands the Cannonball House, its foundation scarred by a British bombardment during the War of 1812. More than 100 years later, tragedy struck when the home’s owner, an elderly widow named Susan King, burned to death.
“Newspaper reports [from 1917] said a spark from the fireplace caught the hem of her dress and engulfed her in flames — but that she made it to her bed before dying,” Salaverria said.
Four years ago, the historian chaperoned a group of Cub Scouts who were spending the night in the Cannonball House. Each had been given a ghost box.
“About midnight, as I was telling the story of how the woman died in bed, one lad’s box lit up and repeated the words, ‘WRONG WRONG WRONG,’ ” Salaverria recalled.
“What does that mean?” the boy asked.
Salaverria wasn’t sure. “It was reported that she made it back to her bed,” he explained.
Just then, the historian said, “another lad’s box lit up and said ‘HALFWAY.’ So I said that maybe the burning woman only made it halfway to bed. Then a third box lit up and said, ‘EXACTLY.’ ”
Last year, Salaverria met up with a scout from that night who told him, “I’ve never walked past the Cannonball House the same way since.”
The historian understood:
“What haunts my memory is that electronic voice saying that single word — ‘exactly.’ The tagline is, where does history end and imagination begin?”
Ocean City Ghost Walk
When: Saturdays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 or 8 p.m.
Where: Starts at Ocean City Inlet
Length: 1.5 miles (one way), 1 ¾ hours
Rates: Adults $20; children (8-12) $15; under 8 free
More information: chesapeakeghostwalks.com
Lewes Legends Tour
When: Wednesdays at 6 p.m., July 11 through Oct. 16
Where: Starts at Second and Mulberry streets
Length: 1.2 miles, 90 minutes
Rates: Adults $10; children and students free. Advance sales only. Flashlights recommended.
More information: historiclewes.org