By Ellie Pratt
Southern Maryland is a place teeming with legends of ghosts, witches and all manner of strange things. Although they may seem silly at times, Julia King, a professor of Anthropology at St. Mary’s explained that: “Ghost stories help us work through some of the anxieties that we as a society have–sort of cultural anxieties… They also show that even though we think we’re a very literate 21st century culture, we still have our oral traditions that we tell and work out through ghost stories.”
One of the most famous examples of Southern Maryland ghost stories is Point Lookout. Formerly a prison camp during the American Civil War, this is the site of over 4,000 deaths of confederate soldiers. According to Edwin Warfield Beitzell in his book “Point Lookout, Prison Camp for Confederates,” “The tale of the camp is a horrid story to tell. It is a story of cruel decisions in high places, a story of diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid and typhus, of burning sands and freezing cold in rotten tents. It is a story of senseless shootings by guards.”
In her book, “Archaeology, Narrative, and the Politics of the Past: The View from Southern Maryland” King says that although it cannot be scientifically proven that Point Lookout is haunted by ghosts, “Telling stories about ghosts at Point Lookout has become a important way of talking about and actively remembering Point Lookout’s difficult past.”
Many have reported paranormal activity in or around the lighthouse, with the Point Lookout Lighthouse Preservation Society even compiling all of these documented hauntings on their website. Screams, strange whispers and even far off drums can be heard in the recordings collected on the site, in addition to interviews with those haunted and photographs of blurry figures, shadows, and strange lights.
The legend of Moll Dyer, a woman accused of being a witch in 1698, is another prominent story in Southern Maryland culture. According to legend, St. Mary’s County had been consumed by sickness and crop failure for a few months, and the townsfolk were looking for someone to blame. Unfortunately, the older single woman living alone in the woods became their scapegoat, and she only just managed to run to the woods when they burned her home to the ground.
The story goes that as she lay dying from hypothermia, she gripped a nearby boulder and burned her handprint into it, cursing the town and all those who had done this to her. According to The Washington Post, after it was found in 1968, the rock lived at the Old Jail in Downtown Leonardtown before being moved to Tudor Hall in early 2021, where anyone can go visit to see the strange handprint left in the rock.
Like with Point Lookout, King stated that this story can tell us something about how we remember a difficult past: “Moll Dyer is another sort of anxiety . . . the story has a lot to say about– in that period– women who live alone and who may be ascribed certain powers that are not necessarily looked on favorably by the community.”
In her St. Mary’s Project titled “Ghosts and the Creation of Place,” Sabrina Graham notes that “ghost stories in St. Mary’s were utilized as a way of creating place through the establishment of community identity.” According to her research in the community, “ghost stories were used to forge a personal connection with history just as much as they were used to interpret it.”
So, although ghost stories might be considered meaningless entertainment most of the time, they have many uses from a way to cope with loss and grief to a way to remember–or to change–an unpleasant past. Overall, they provide an amazing amount of insight into our own cultural values and community, which can be seen in our very own local legends.