Baltimore's Ghost Stories to Tingle Your Spine
Some of Baltimore's long-running ghost stories really don't bear repeating. The old canard about 1812-era sailors pacing the decks of the U.S.S. Constellation has run up against recent revelations that the ship in the harbor was built in the 1860s. As for "Sequin," the blonde in the blue cocktail dress who used to haunt Route 40 East, she's just a local rendition of the same "ghostly hitchhiker" yarn that's told in every state of the union. (" . . . There, on her gravestone, was his sweater!" Yeah, yeah.)
But then someone tells us about the poltergeist in their grandma's house, and we wonder all over again: Might not a strong personality, or a soul in agony, depart this life but leave behind them some sort of disturbance in the ether, a rogue wave of psychic energy that slaps against our consciousness? Surely, if such things occur, they are bound to crop up in Baltimore, where pride, pain, and passion have attended at so many gravesides, for so many years.
It is not for us to judge. As journalists, we merely relate the facts as they have been presented to us...
To this day, no one knows for sure what caused the furor. But by the time reporters began searching for clues in O'Donnell Heights, a community built to house factory workers during World War II, panic had set in. There were dozens of sightings of the "phantom" over a three-week period, and he/she/it was blamed for everything from beckoning to girls from underneath cars to breaking into old ladies' houses. Residents lay sleepless at night, swearing they heard footsteps on their roofs.
The "phantom," believers claimed, had supernatural powers. The scourge scurried across rooftops and pounced down two stories to chase its victims, yet somehow managed to disappear into one of several graveyards that encircled the community. Some swore the unholy specter wore a cape and dressed in black, that the phantom was a figure, as one report put it, who "walks like a drape and runs like a horse." Others raised an eyebrow at such talk. According to The Evening Sun reports of the time, about 200 people reported sightings--on one night--but nobody was actually accosted.
Growing weary of being the phantom's prey, the residents of O'Donnell Heights began to take action. Some sat outside their houses with rifles, waiting. Others patrolled the neighborhood all night. Police also joined in the pursuit. Responding to one call, the cops discovered that a protruding pipe on a school roof had been mistaken for a lurking phantom; another phantom-related call turned out to be only an irate German shepherd, who was stirred up by the neighborhood's late-night racket. And the community's kids, sensing a runaway tale, decided to give it a joy ride, causing mischief that got blamed on the phantom.
Ultimately, the phantom was never caught, though during the ordeal a few teenagers were charged with disorderly conduct. One Sun reporter at the time wrote: "The question of the prowler of O'Donnell Heights however, continued to be not one of phantoms, but of real people reacting to (and possibly creating) the unknown with their imaginations." By the end of July, with the police starting to arrest kids in the graveyards, the neighborhood had quieted down. The last time the "phantom" was sighted, the creature appeared to be headed to Highlandtown.
"Highlandtown?" a bar patron said at the time to a Sun reporter. "Lord help the poor phantom."
At first, there were just minor electrical phenomena, the sort that can be easily explained. Several times, when the Hartzells came home in the evening, they found lights turned off that they remembered leaving on. Ann also noted that the apartment had "definite cold spots." Then, one evening, Andrew woke up from a nap in the bedroom and saw small lights racing rapidly around the ceiling near the walls. The lights left trails as they sped, like tiny comets. Andrew sat up with a shout. "I was thinking it was a dream," he recalls, "but I looked over and saw Alice, the cat, standing and looking at the ceiling intently."
Weirder stuff came later, in the apartment's storage room. Unheated and poorly lit, the room was cluttered with detritus from former tenants; the Hartzells called it "the frozen waste." Ann kept boxes of old papers there, and when a friend died the Hartzells used the room to stash his belongings. One afternoon, Ann got busy tidying the place up, stuffing old clothes and trash into bags, packing valuables into boxes. Then, she says, "Something just freaked me out. I felt uncomfortable. I felt watched."
She headed for the exit, and the door opened toward her. She hurried out, shut the door, and went to sit in the garden. "About two hours later, I heard thumps and bumps and a screechy noise," she says. "I didn't think anything of it, but when I went inside the door to the 'frozen waste' was stuck. I hadn't locked it. When I finally pushed it open, all the stuff I'd sorted had piled up, knee-deep, against the door. The stuff that had been in the garbage bags and boxes was thrown out--it was just an outrageous mess. I moved all of it into the apartment."
She reflects, "I think [the 'ghost'] was pissed off at me for moving things. I always felt it was benign, but it wanted to be left alone. . . . It didn't like changes."
In 1989, the Hartzells moved out and their friend Bob Friedman moved in--but not before performing a sort of quickie exorcism. Borrowing an ancient Chinese technique, Friedman's pal Marty Katz brought fireworks and set them off in the apartment. Friedman lived there for several years without further haunting.
Mrozek has worked at Mount Vernon's Theatre Project since 1986. Throughout his tenure, visiting performers have asked him variations of the same question: "Who was that guy rehearsing in the lobby?" Mrozek himself has never seen the piano player, but he's heard him described many times as a tall, young white man in a vintage suit and tie. One visitor specified that the specter was playing Schubert.
Theatre Project hosts a lot of traveling shows, many of which feature pianists of their own. This, Mrozek says, is what brings on the apparition. "It seems to be invoked," he says, "when other people are using the piano. . . . It seems to be called into duty." Sometimes, the ghostly pianist is seen by a flesh-and-blood pianist; sometimes, the music is overheard from other rooms. "Was that you playing the piano?" is one version of the recurring question.
A fount of neighborhood history, Mrozek notes that the building at 45 W. Preston St. was erected in 1883 by the Improved Order of Heptasophs ("seven wise men" in neo-Greek), one of several fraternal groups that occupied the area a century ago. In the 1920s and `30s it became a rental dance hall comparable to the present-day Martin's West. "My suspicion," Mrozek says, "is that if there's a ghost, it dates from that era."
"No one has ever been frightened," he adds. "They always just assumed it was somebody playing the piano." Somebody alive, that is.
Debbie Wynn, the museum's outreach director, stresses that the strange stories come from "credible sources"--no-nonsense types whom one would not expect to make things up. For example, it was a staff librarian who once emerged from the machine shop, his face drained of color, and declared that one of the power saws had suddenly turned itself on. Someone suggested that a faulty switch was to blame, but the man said no: When he'd gone to turn it off, he'd seen that the machine wasn't even plugged in. He swore he'd never work in that room again.
Another employee told of putting some heavy boxes in one place shortly before closing for the night, and finding them moved across the room the next morning.
Ten years ago, a tour guide at the museum saw a man in 19th-century dress walk right through a wall in the old building. With a little research, museum staff determined that there had once been a doorway at the exact spot where the apparition made its exit.
"There have been times when we've heard giggling--like a little girl's giggle--and we hear our printing press running when nobody's there," Wynn says. "I have no doubt that we are not alone."
Or was she alone?
Glancing up from her duties, she saw a "small, older gentleman in black trousers and white shirt" standing at the top of the stairs leading to the upper bar. He stared down at her. She stared back. When she glanced away for a moment the gentleman disappeared.
"Is there a ghost here, or am I losing my mind!" she screamed, storming down the basement steps. Martin calmly looked up from her paperwork. "Oh, that's just Frenchie," she said. "We don't like to tell the new people about him."
Edouard André Neyt--"Frenchie"--was born near Paris in 1925. It's said that during the Nazi occupation of his homeland, he served as double agent, pretending to work for the Germans while providing assistance to the Allies. After the war, he emigrated to Baltimore and began a lengthy career as a waiter, first at Miller Bros., then the Harvey House (old Baltimore eateries that are now ghosts themselves). For years, he lived in an apartment above Club Charles, which the Martin family has owned since the 1950s (it was formerly called the Wigwam). Frenchie died in the upstairs apartment in 1979, reportedly from the complications of acute alcoholism. Though his corporeal remains lay in a Prince George's County cemetery, many think the spirit of the fun-loving, 5-foot 3-inch-tall Frenchman still dwells on Charles Street.
Martin says she sees Frenchie, who's perennially clad in his black-and-white waiter's garb, so often that she's about ready to put him on the payroll. He's also credited with causing some curious goings-on at the club. The carry-out liquor bottles, dutifully arranged in neat rows at closing time, are often found shuffled about in odd patterns the next day. One evening, McLane-Cook watched a champagne glass fly off a top shelf, hover in the air a moment, and then plunge to the floor--where the delicate glass didn't break. Several bar patrons screamed at the display. McLane-Cook only thought, Oh, it's Frenchie again.
Some have not taken so kindly to Frenchie's tomfoolery. For years, a group of cops and cab drivers held regular poker games at the bar. When Frenchie got off work, he'd come into the club and playfully harass the card players--messing with the cops' hair or trying to sit in their laps. The games continued after Frenchie died--as did, some say, Frenchie's antics. About the time of night when Frenchie would usually have arrived at the club, some of the players reported feeling their hair being played with. One stony-faced poker shark, irate over the beyond-the-grave botherings, pulled out a revolver and fired a bullet into the ceiling.
"Damn it, Frenchie!" the gunslinger yelled. "Leave us alone!"
But if Frenchie's spirit seems friendly, the opposite is true of the Zodiac's linen-clad visitor. His vibe is sinister, some even say evil. Employees report that they often feel like they're being watched, and sometimes find themselves spontaneously overcome with a sense of dread. Many fears center on a flight of rickety stairs that leads to a cluttered third-floor storage room; many workers are afraid to go up there. When the local group the Ghost Hunters of Baltimore visited the Zodiac, one of them said an unseen hand tried to push her across the room and out the door. People also claim to have heard a mysterious voice at the restaurant saying, "Get out!" And not just at closing time.
Recently, Martin got a clue as to who the Zodiac's sourpuss spirit might be. She spoke with an elderly local resident who said that, during Prohibition, the restaurant was a speakeasy run by a man named McKim. He is said to have hanged himself in the basement when his wife left him.
"Maybe [McKim] was really murdered," McLane-Cook speculates. "Maybe he's trying to tell us something."
Duda's co-owner John Flury was not surprised to hear of the encounter. "We've got ghosts upstairs, downstairs, everywhere," he says. The three-story rowhouse's rich history would seem to make it a ripe spot for restless spirits. It was built in the 1850s as the Union Hotel. In the 1880s, it served as headquarters for the Maryland Bay Pilots Association. Later still, it became a seamen's bethel (or chapel) and rooming house. After Prohibition ended, a tavern sprouted on the first floor. Flury's in-laws--the Dudas--bought the place in 1949.
Employees and tenants of the upstairs apartments have seen mysterious vanishing figures of all sorts through the years. When an electrician was upgrading the wiring in the basement--a low-ceilinged, stone-walled space--he saw an older man in a flannel shirt and suspenders. When the surprised electrician spoke to the man, the flannel-clad figure vaporized. The electrician "ran out of the building and locked himself in his truck." Flury says. A co-worker managed to coax the frazzled wiring man back to work, only to have the day bartender--who slipped silently into the basement to fetch some ice--tap him on the shoulder. This time he jumped up, banged his head on the ceiling, and fled for good. "They had to send somebody else out to finish the job," Flury says.
Flury has never seen any ghosts himself, though he has been in the basement well after closing and heard footsteps and scraping chairs overhead. He rushed up to find only a dark, empty room. Perhaps his spookiest moment concerned "Doc," a merchant seaman who lived upstairs for decades. Seems Doc had a favorite song--an obscure polka--that he (and only he) used to play on the jukebox. Some months after Doc's death, in 1980, Flury and some folks were sitting around the bar one evening when Doc's polka inexplicably starting blasting out of the jukebox. When they unlocked the machine, they made a startling discovery: Doc's beloved record was nowhere to be found.
Twenty-seven years later, the mansion was purchased by the Engineering Society of Baltimore, but some say the original residents never left. According to Karen Haun, the Engineering Society's comptroller, guests "quite often" report shadows passing down the second-floor hallway, unaccompanied by visible persons. In the basement, near the bar, a velvet rope cordons off an area not open to visitors; housekeepers, working alone at odd hours, have seen that rope start swinging, as if moved by an unseen hand.
The strangest tales, however, come from Peter Weston, who served from 1990 to '98 as the society's food and beverage director. One morning in the middle of his tenure, Weston left his office to make a routine visit to a colleague who worked across the building. His path took him through what used to be the Garretts' luxurious private dining room. Halfway across, he says, "I suddenly got the impression of a group of eight to 10 people sitting around the table with glasses raised, enjoying a sumptuous meal." He stopped moving. His colleague, glancing in, said, "Peter, you look like you've just seen a ghost."
"I think I just saw several of them," Weston replied, as the diners vanished.
Another time, members of the society's Women's Auxiliary were redecorating the building and called on Weston to move a heavy piece of sculpture from the library window to one of the Tiffany windows near the stairs. At the end of the day, Weston locked up and set the building's alarm, but the next morning, he saw that the sculpture had been returned to its original place. Besides Weston, only Manny Burse, the elderly handyman, was on site. "I got really upset with Manny for moving the sculpture, but he looked at me and said, "I don't know what the heck you're talking about." Weston pressed on, but Burse insisted he hadn't touched the sculpture.
A few years later, Burse tendered his resignation on Christmas Eve, to take effect New Year's Day. But on Christmas, the handyman took sick. "He died on New Year's Eve and never saw a day of retirement," Weston says. A month or so later, Weston was dashing downstairs on an errand and saw Burse sitting in a chair by the main bar, where he'd always taken a mid-morning break. "I said, 'Hello, Manny,' kept going, and then stopped in my tracks," Weston recalls. A chill ran down his spine, and he felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. "I looked back," Weston says, "and of course the chair was empty."
The Club Charles and Zodiac ghosts caught the attention of the cable TV's History Channel, which recently sent a crew to town to film an episode of the series Haunted History. The producers even hired actors to portray Frenchie and the linen-clad man. The program will air on March 9, 2001, at 10 P.M.
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