Remembering Kent Island on Halloween

This is an excerpt from my book Remembering Kent Island: Stories from the Chesapeake available online and at the area’s finest book stores, liquor stores, antique stores, drugstores and cupcakeries.

Kent Island, like most places with a long history, has its share of legends that are scoffed at in the light of day, but aren’t as funny after the sun goes down.

In the old days, Islanders talked of will-o-the-wisps or jack-o-lanterns. These mysterious marsh lights would appear at night, hover and dance in the near distance, luring the observer towards them. They were said to protect treasure but to follow was to court certain death and a watery grave. Children and lost travelers were particularly susceptible to their glamour. Science suggests decaying bacteria beneath the marsh’s wet soil release gasses create the heatless blue or white illuminations, which is far less disturbing than the evil fairies or the souls of stillborn children that were once believed to be the culprits behind the phenomenon.

If the will-o-the-wisps are protecting treasure, perhaps it once belonged to pirates. No proof exists that any of these seagoing troublemakers ever landed on Kent Island, but any child growing up on our shores and marshes can see how the place would make a great pirate destination. The horizons are broad, yet there are still nautical nooks and crannies where a villain might hole up. The ground is soft and wet. Up the Chester River, along Walsey Creek in Queenstown, Blackbeard’s Farm carries the name of the infamous pirate who many believe could have buried untold troves in the area.

In 1712, just six years after the formation of Queen Anne’s County, a woman from neighboring Talbot County was prosecuted in Maryland’s last witch trial. Charges against spinster Virtue Viol included using sorcery to “waste, consume and pine the body of a certain Elinor Moore…” and to “…lame & render speechless” the same. She did this “most wickedly & diabolically” and “to the great displeasure of Almighty God & against her majesty’s peace…” Despite such fiendish charges, an Annapolis jury acquitted the Eastern Shore woman. There are no recorded accounts of witchcraft on Kent Island, although there has always been whispered speculation. One woman who lived on Newtown Road in the 1930s and 40s was said to be a practitioner of the black arts, but made biscuits so tasty some of the youngsters took the chance of turning into a frog or hard crab to eat one.

Ghosts abound. There are numerous private homes on the Island where residents, both past and present, will tell off the record stories of sightings. Most folks who have been around awhile know where these houses are and are not surprised when reports of supernatural occurrences circulate. Many of these properties had previous uses in other times, hotels or funereal homes. It goes the other way too. Old farmhouses have been converted into commercial properties and seem not to have shaken off owners long expired from this mortal coil. Generations of staff members from the various restaurants that have operated out of one particular location know about the apparition named Sarah. As the abandoned Love Point Hotel deteriorated, its reputation for being haunted blossomed. On Romancoke Road, near Batts Neck and the Elks Lodge, there have been reported sightings of a well dressed headless horseman in white shirt and black tie. One old Islander identified the haunt to Trudy Truitt Guthrie as “Mr. Griff Hubbard. I would have known him anywhere.” Even without his head, apparently.

Soon after the Bay Bridge opened in July of 1952, Unidentified Flying Objects tried to steal its thunder. Over several nights during that sticky hot summer, UFOs were spotted from the Lower Shore to the seats of power in Washington D.C. Though no mention of the events can be found in local newspapers, the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun both featured articles on their front pages. These mysterious events were seen by hundreds, if not thousands of people, including air traffic controllers, commercial airline pilots, and military personnel.

Even gory urban legends make an occasional appearance on Kent Island. For years teenagers heard about a young couple who “ran out of gas” near Piney Creek. The boy went to get gas, but never returned. The girl fell asleep in the car despite an odd scratching on the roof that went on throughout the night. In the morning it was discovered a homicidal psychopath had hung her eviscerated boyfriend over the vehicle and the scratching was his fingernails.

Certainly, the most celebrated phenomenon in the modern era has been the reports of a mysterious 30 to 40 foot long Chesapeake Bay serpent, affectionately named Chessie. Seen at various times and places, the Chessie frenzy was concentrated in the waters surrounding Kent Island during the 1980s. After numerous reports over a couple years, the creature was videotaped early one summer evening in 1982 by a family on Love Point when it broke the surface of the water near a group of swimmers 200 feet offshore. The three minute tape has been scrutinized by various experts with no clear consensus as to what it shows. It was enough to draw national attention, however, and several media organizations, including network newscasters cast the spotlight on a Chessie, who possessed either the bad manners or good sense not to again accommodate the cameras. By 1985 Chessie was spotted with a companion and entrepreneurs were offering Chessie Cruises. After a while, sightings tapered off, although there are still occasionally new reports. Naysayers speculate witnesses are actually seeing such natural phenomenon as detached oil spill containment equipment or displaced marine animals, and a 1980 photograph was ultimately identified as a stray manatee. Others believe Chessie could be anything from a mutant eel to a surviving prehistoric monster to an escaped giant anaconda. Whatever Chessie is, he or she is a star in Kent Island’s pantheon of legends.

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