Maryland’s Eastern Shore, 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, Shorefolk talked of will-o-the-wisps, or jack-o-lanterns. These mysterious marsh lights appeared at night, hovering and dancing 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 a far less disturbing hypothesis than the evil fairies or the souls of stillborn children that were once believed to be the culprits behind the phenomenon.
In 1712, a woman from 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…” She is accused to have done this “most wickedly & diabolically” and “to the great displeasure of Almighty God & against her majesty’s peace…” Despite such fiendish charges, Viol was acquitted by an Annapolis jury.
From Elkton’s Holly Hall haunted mansion down to Ananias Crockett’s house in Crisfield, and east from Kent Island’s well-known hospitality spooks to Patty Cannon’s old murdering grounds along the Delaware border, ghosts abound. An impromptu poll showed that more than two dozen of my Facebook friends have seen a ghost, though to be fair two of them did admit their sightings were “back in the day” and may have been chemically induced.
Soon after the Bay Bridge opened in July of 1952, Unidentified Flying Objects tried to steal its headlines. 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 appearances. For years, Kent Island 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 had been 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 by a family on Love Point early one summer evening in 1982 when it broke the surface of the water near a group of swimmers 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. Sightings eventually tapered off, although there are still new reports on occasion. 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 the Eastern Shore’s pantheon of legends.