Haunted Harbors of the Chesapeake Bay

The bay is an ideal haunting ground

Elnicki Wade

When you cruise the Chesapeake Bay and hear a bump against the side of your boat, do you wonder if it's an unmarked crab pot? Or could it be a chance encounter with a ghost ship? And when you see a glowing orb in the mist, could it be a distant lighthouse beacon, or a restless spirit roaming the marshes?If you have a preference for the paranormal, the bay is an ideal haunting ground for encounters with the supernatural. Rickety Victorian houses, isolated coves and historic battle sites set the stage for stories guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Even if you don't believe, Chesapeake folklore will add to your arsenal of spooky yarns to spin after you tie up at the dock and the sun goes down.

In the spirit of Halloween, here are four mysterious tales to spark your imagination. Explore the spirited locations if you dare.

A Witch's Double Ducking

In the early 1700s, the bay was a vast wilderness reluctant to be tamed. Settlers battled frigid winters and scorching summers that could wipe out farmlands and villages. Most of them were devout Christians who prayed for help against unpredictable natural elements and feared that witchcraft could topple their communities and tarnish their souls.

At that time, Grace Sherwood lived with her husband and three sons on a farm near the mouth of the Chesapeake on what is now Virginia's Lynnhaven Bay. She was a beautiful, headstrong maverick who was often the target of the townsmen's wistful glances. Female neighbors circulated rumors that Grace was a witch, and accused her of blighting gardens, causing livestock to die, and influencing the weather.

After eight years of badgering and slander, Grace was charged with witchcraft and sentenced to trial by ducking, the practice of tossing an accused witch into a river or lake. If she sank she was innocent, but if she floated she was guilty. On July 10, 1706, Grace was pulled out of jail and paraded down a dusty road to the bank of the Lynnhaven River in front of onlookers. Officials bound her thumbs to her big toes and flung her into the river. She treaded water long enough to untie the ropes and swim safely to shore.

Soaking wet, she glared at the meddling spectators while dark storm clouds gathered overhead. She pointed a dripping finger at them and shouted, All right, all of you po' white trash, you've worn out your shoes traipsin' here to see me ducked, but before you'll get back home again you are goin' to get the duckin' of your lives. Thunder crashed, the heavens opened, and a ferocious rain washed the horrified crowds off the roads and into the ditches. Afterward, Grace was convicted of witchcraft, served her time, and returned home to live to the ripe old age of 80 in what is now called Witch Duck Bay.

A Six-Fingered Sea Captain's Revenge

Take your boat up the bay's Pocomoke River and you'll discover an old mansion called Cellar House high on a bluff between Snow Hill and Pocomoke City. It's located on a remote track of land with bald cypress trees lining the shore, their gnarly roots digging deep into the marshlands.

A French sea captain with six fingers on his right hand built the house in the early 1700s as a wedding gift for his bride. At the time, Pocomoke City was a bustling port, and the captain managed a fleet of ships that traded in the Caribbean. Lonely and isolated, his wife became involved with a young man in the nearby village. One night the captain arrived home unexpectedly and caught the two lovers together. A vicious fight broke out. The young man was wounded, but he and the wife managed to escape. The wife was pregnant and her new beau died from his injuries a few months after the incident.

After the child was born, the wife decided to return to Cellar House and beg forgiveness from her husband. One evening, a man with a raft transported her and the baby upriver to Cellar House. Unfortunately the raft capsized, and the man and baby drowned. The wife swam to shore and dragged herself to the front door of Cellar House, pleading for mercy. The sea captain's heart was enflamed with rage, and he dragged her up to the bedroom and stabbed her to death with a knife. He left her on the blood-stained floor, gathered up his valuables, and took to the high seas with his crew, never to be seen again.

On rainy evenings, locals hear the cries of a baby and report sightings of a mysterious light in the swamp near Cellar House, which they believe is the wife's ghost holding a lantern while searching for her child. Visitors who park near the house have found a six-fingered handprint on their cars when they leave.

The Light Is Out, but the Ghosts Are In

On the southern tip of Maryland's western shore, where the Potomac River flows into the bay, stands Point Lookout regaled by many as the most haunted lighthouse in America.

The lighthouse was erected in 1830, but things started heating up during the Civil War. In 1862, Union forces built nearby Hammond General Hospital to treat wounded soldiers. In 1863, the U.S. government added a prison camp for Confederate soldiers, the largest of the Civil War, intended to house 10,000 men, and conditions were miserable. Men froze to death, food spoiled and wells became contaminated. Overcrowding led to smallpox and other diseases. By the time the camp closed in 1865, more than 50,000 prisoners had been contained there, and 3,000 to 8,000 had perished.

As if that weren't enough to stir up a bubbling paranormal stew, Point Lookout also witnessed several dramatic shipwrecks. In 1864, the U.S.S. Tulip exploded offshore, killing 47 crewmembers. During the gale of 1878, a steamship sank north of the point and 16 passengers were lost.

Lighthouse keepers lived at Point Lookout for 135 years, but the era of human inhabitants ended in 1965 when the Navy bought the lighthouse, installed electronic alarm systems and placed an automated light offshore. Today the lighthouse is part of a Maryland state park. Rangers and visitors regularly report encounters with guests from the other world, including deceased wives of lighthouse keepers, victims of shipwrecks and Civil War soldiers. Ghost hunters flock to the site to witness mysterious lights, odd smells, cold spots, sounds of moaning, voices whispering and boots marching. One renowned ghost specialist recorded 24 voices at Point Lookout. The most frequent sighting is of a Confederate soldier dressed in rags dashing across the road. Perhaps his soul is still trying to escape the camp?

Ghosts and Guinness

The epicenter for supernatural activity on the bay is Baltimore. The gallows at Fort McHenry, the haunted deck of the U.S.S. Constellation, and the grave of Edgar Allen Poe are just a few of the city's spooky spots.

But if you want to experience an evening of ghost inhabitations (and maybe a few libations), hit the cobblestone streets of Fells Point, a waterfront neighborhood full of 18th-century buildings. The Horse You Came In On is Baltimore's oldest saloon and the only Maryland bar to stay open before, during, and after Prohibition. The Horse's other claim to fame is being Poe's last drinking spot before his mysterious death. The Cat's Eye Pub has a Wall of Death displaying photos of previous owners and patrons who have passed. Their spirits like to knock pictures off the walls and shove glasses around the bar. An energetic ghost occasionally sets a heavy boxing bag in motion when all the windows are closed. And Bertha's is home to tasty mussels as well as ghosts who appear at tables and follow guests down the stairs. The neighborhood has plenty of ghostly places and you never know who will be sitting next to you.

Boaters' Superstitions


Beware of three and four-day weekends! Fridays are an unlucky day to set sail, because Jesus was crucified that day. Thursday doesn't bode well, because it's the day of Thor, god of thunder and storms. Forget about departing on the first Monday in April that's when Cain slew Abel. But you can change the mojo of unlucky days if you sneeze and turn your head to the right just before shoving off.


Sorry, ladies, but women on board allegedly bring bad luck, because they distract the crew from their duties. But topless gals are acceptable company, because their breasts calm the seas. That's why a bare-chested female figurehead with its eyes wide open mounted to a ship's bow can guide the ship to safety. Redheads of any gender fetch bad fortune, but you can reverse your fate if you speak to a carrot-top before he talks to you.


Gold hoop earrings, the symbol of sailors who have traveled around the globe, are believed to prevent drowning, and jewelry made of coral wards off lightning and hail. Tattoos became such a hallmark of superstition by the 19th century that 90 percent of the U.S. Navy wore them. Inking the North Star on your skin helps guide the way home. Tattoos of pigs and poultry were popular in pre-refrigeration times. Live animals were brought along to feed the crew, and the crates holding pigs and chicken often floated after ships sank, so those livestock images were used in tattoos to ensure that sailors wouldn't drown.


It's okay to sing, dance, and drink, but don't ever whistle on a boat. You'll summon bad weather by whistling up a storm. Spitting or tossing a coin into the waves brings good fortune, because those are considered tributes to Neptune. Never enter or leave a boat with your left foot, or you'll be courting disaster. Don't knock a bucket overboard, or luck will go out with it. And don't mess around with gulls, albatrosses, or other seafaring birds, because they are believed to carry the spirits of dead sailors. To remove the bad luck incurred by killing an albatross, a sailor would wear the lifeless bird around his neck until its flesh rotted away.

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