Can't Hardly Wraith
Elkton's Ed Okonowicz Has Turned Ghost Story Collecting Into Historical Storytelling
Fells Point at 3 a.m. might be plenty scary, but at high noon the neighborhood looks like it's gone back to normal. Storyteller and author Ed Okonowicz knows better, though. Day or night, Baltimore's original red-light district still teems with restless souls on an eternal pub crawl. There's the Cat's Eye Pub, where a bartender speaking ill about now-deceased owner Kenny Orye got bopped on the head with Orye's falling picture. There's the Whistling Oyster, where bar patrons have spied slaves in Colonial costume sweeping up the hearth. And then there's Bertha's, home to a whole host of haunts, from a woman in a big hat to a little girl-maybe a prostitute's daughter, from when the building was a brothel-skipping in place upstairs. It's all detailed in Okonowicz's recent book Baltimore Ghosts (Myst and Lace Publishers), a compendium of some of the most popular ghost sightings in the city.
"One of the things about Baltimore as a whole, and Fells Point in particular, is that it's one of the spots that has such historical background and significance," Okonowicz says. "Some people believe that if you maintain someplace exactly as it was at sometime in the past that things, entities from another dimensions, might blip in because they feel comfortable. And Fells Point, with some of these historic structures-granted, at front level they're pubs and shops, but if there's an essence to this ghostly phenomena, then what better place to be than a setting that's much like it was 100 years ago?"
For a guy who's written more than 20 self-published books, mostly on supernatural and regional lore, Okonowicz isn't a spooky guy. Seated on a park bench on the Broadway pier, he looks no more intimidating than a slightly lost out-of-towner taking a breather between tourist attractions. It's only after listening for a while that the casual listener starts to discern the Sahara-dry wit shimmering beneath the surface of his slightly droning voice.
"I was a PR writer for the University of Delaware, and you know PR writing-to stay sane, you've got to do something creative," Delaware native Okonowicz says about his transformation from bored freelancer to paranormal expert and founder of small press Myst and Lace. "In 1992 I accidentally got into interviewing a storyteller, and I thought the storyteller was so fascinating I went to see her perform, and as a result of that, I took a storytelling graduate course at Cabrini College."
Storytelling programs often revolve around themes, and Okonowicz quickly noticed there was always a dearth of material around Oct. 31. "You have a theme program-Valentine's Day, love stories, patriotic stuff, and everybody starts asking for ghost stories," he says. "So I started to look for local ghost stories."
After wisely figuring that small regional weeklies would run a request for ghost stories as a news item-"I didn't have to buy ads"-he was quickly inundated with inquiries from people eager to talk about their firsthand spectral encounters. The eventual response was so overwhelming Okonowicz had enough material to publish more than a dozen volumes of regional ghost lore over the next decade, including an anthology of stories about haunted antiques titled Possessed Possessions-a book that earned him a slot on a the Learning Channel special of the same name in 2005, where he crowded around a table with psychics like James Van Praagh and examined suspect curios for evidence of possession.
While casting around for the subject for his next book ("In self-publishing, you have to keep coming out with new books on a regular basis"), Okonowicz realized the lack of ghost books about Baltimore, a relatively popular tourist destination, was a tremendous oversight. While initially suspicious the city would yield enough material for an entire book, Okonowicz soon found he was overwhelmed with material again. "You could have spent half of a book on Fells Point alone," he beams.
"When I put the book together," he continues, "there were certain places that were absolutely obvious that you had to put in that a native or anyone visiting would say, %u2018Gee, what an idiot, he missed this.'" While Okonowicz had to skip over notable spooky spots like Todd's Inheritance (a stretch of Sparrows Point farmland that served as a vital battleground during the war of 1812) and the Club Charles (watering hole of the spectral bar hound "Frenchie"), Okonowicz made certain to include major stops such as Edgar Allan Poe's house and gravestone, Fort McHenry, and the U.S.S. Constellation.
Of course, for locals, there's no haunted attraction more imposing than "Black Aggie," the hooded statue that was once mounted over a grave in Pikesville's Druid Ridge Cemetery. "Isn't it amazing?" Okonowicz shakes his head, his tone slightly flabbergasted. "I do about a hundred or so talks a year. The minute I go into a room, I don't care if I'm in Salisbury, or Carroll County, or Delaware, the minute I say %u2018Black Aggie' you hear"-he shifts his vocal tone to approximate a hysteric local-"%u2018I'm from Baltimore! I've been to Black Aggie!' She is not just a legend, but an icon."
Each chapter of the book recounts the sightings-like, in the case of the Constellation, the dismembered body of condemned sailor Neil Harvey "floating across the decks of the ship"-with a follow-up paragraph about the location's historical progress up to the present day. When this reporter suggests the "ghost" aspect of the book is just a sugar pill to get people to read about local history, Okonowicz wholeheartedly agrees, recounting how a colleague of his increased attendance for his history tour of Elkton from 12 to 220 people by mixing in some spirit lore. "I do these ghost tours," he says. "It's 60 percent history and 40 percent ghost. You say %u2018ghost history' and people don't hear the %u2018history.'"
"I'm not into the ghost hunting," he explains. "I talk at ghost conferences and I end up getting leads from them about interesting places-but they want to put a ghost in a jar. They want to solve the mystery. And, to me, that's the worst thing that can happen. I guess, to someone's who's into that need to find a rational answer, it's interesting. But to me, I just want the stories." ★
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