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Frederick, Maryland Folklore and Ghost Stories

Updated on December 3, 2013

Frederick County, Maryland: Tales of Weird Birds and Ghostly Soldiers

I grew up in both Rockville, Maryland and Frederick, Maryland; and spent the majority of my youth in Frederick. Hence, I was exposed to a certain amount of historical lore and folktales about the city and county of Frederick--some the sort of thing you mostly hear around campfires, or at sleepovers near spooky old churches.

We had plenty of stories about ghosts, haunted houses, happenings of the Revolution and Civil War, and a giant birdlike creature resembling a pterodactyl. One thing we didn't have, however, is any reference to a being known as the "Blair Witch"; or really, anything close to the "Blair Witch Project" backstory. More will be said on that subject later, once I check to see if the tiny town of Burkittsville is still getting Blair Witch tourists...

A Special Note (Tuesday, December 3, 2013): I have it on good Frederick Facebook authority that the once-beloved Frederick Towne Mall, where I spent many pleasant hours of my youth perusing bookstores and record stores, visiting friends who ran a small musical instrument shop, and sipping chocolate sodas at Friendly's Ice Cream Shop, will soon be taken over by Frederick, Maryland's THIRD (count 'em) WalMart! That is just pathetic...sad...shameful. Trouble is, the old Mall (as we used to call it, as distinguished from Francis Scott Key Mall, the so-called "new mall") has been essentially defunct for the past several years, and something had to be done with the huge retail space. Sigh...

Tales that Frederick Kids Tell in the Dark, and More Besides

They get better all the time...

The story of the Hessian Barracks in my hometown of Frederick, Maryland is one of the first remnants of local lore I recall hearing as a kid. It was either at a slumber party, or gathered with other Lutheran youth campers around a bonfire, or both. The story goes that the present site of the Maryland School for the Deaf included a prison installment during the Revolutionary War that specifically held Hessian mercenary prisoners of war, captured from the British side. The tamer version holds that visitors to the campus at night hear cries and groans from ghosts of the Hessian prisoners who continue to inhabit this location. The more lurid version claims that the barracks caught fire one night and killed many of the prisoners; and that the ghosts of Hessian soldiers caught in the blaze can be heard at night screaming for help. Personally, I've never heard any such thing, either way; then again, I've never visited the MSD campus at night.

The Old South Mountain Inn, out in Boonsboro, has a reputation for harboring paranormal energy. It's best known for hosting visits by George Washington at various times in his career; and it's continued as a renowned restaurant and catering facility to the present day. My family had dinner there a few times while we lived in Frederick. According to at least one folklorist, a negative spiritual entity took up residence at the Inn sometime in the 1870's, until it was successfully banished or exorcised by a couple of women spiritualists. The Old South Mountain Inn continues to prosper, in any case; so perhaps the vibes there now are of a more wholesome variety.

The story of Barbara Fritchie, immortalized in John Greenleaf Whittier's poetry, includes connections to both the American Revolution and the Civil War. When she was a teenager, young Barbara Hauer (her maiden name) is said to have lent her personal tea service to a neighbor who was throwing an afternoon tea for then-General George Washington. Eight relatively uneventful decades later, Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson headed a march through the city of Frederick in 1862. The 95-year-old Barbara Fritchie was sick in bed at the time; but some anecdote or other has her flying her Union flag out her second-story window to protest the presence of enemy forces. This story somehow got around to the poet, Mr. Whittier, who penned the poem "Barbara Fritchie" in 1864, two years after Mrs. Fritchie's death. Today, her little house on Patrick Street is a well-known tourist destination (my mother even took a turn running the place at one time); and some more recent anecdotes claim that her ghost has been spotted haunting the place. I visited there a couple of evenings during my Mom's tenure in local tourism; and did get a slight jump once upon seeing one of Barbara's original dresses propped up on a rocking chair in her darkened bedroom. If Barbara is haunting her house, though, she's likely rather perturbed at the fact that her first floor has been turned into a perfectly dreadful, touristy giftshop.

I personally have not seen any of these Fredericktonian ghosts. However, for about six months in 1989, I shared a house in Braddock Heights with two other girls, a cat, a dog, and the ghost of an elderly black woman in a white nightgown--the last resident the former lady of the house, still keeping an eye on things. I did not see her in person myself, but one of my housemates did; and one night I was awakened by a ferocious gust of wind that nearly blew me out of my bed. The window in my room was closed at the time; and there were no vents in the wall above my head where any unusual air currents could have entered the room. I still don't know how to explain this phenomenon.

But It's Not All About Ghosts and Monsters...

Frederick County is a Microcosm of American History.

The lore of Frederick County is at least as much about the human as the supernatural. For example, you can't travel far within its borders without finding some landmark named after its most famous resident, Francis Scott Key, the poet who wrote the verses of the U.S. National Anthem (while stranded off the Maryland coast during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812), and a good friend of the abovementioned Barbara Fritchie. There's a local highway, a middle school for students with learning disabilities, and even a shopping mall in Frederick named in Key's honor. His plantation birthplace has been sort of "redistricted" into neighboring Carroll County; but he is, nonetheless, interred at Frederick's Mount Olivet Cemetery; and he continues to be widely associated with Frederick County generally.

The Civil War plays a significant role in local lore as well. Besides Stonewall Jackson's aforementioned march through downtown Frederick, President Abraham Lincoln came up to deliver a pep talk at the train depot; and several major battles affected the area, including the Battles of South Mountain and Antietam/Sharpsburg. Following the Battle of Antietam, numerous buildings were commandeered to serve as hospital stations for wounded and dying soldiers, from homes in Burkittsville to my former longtime house of worship, Zion Lutheran Church in Middletown. I recall reading a chilling quote from one resident's journal from that period, speaking of the pews of the church being filled with the groans of soldier patients, and the sounds of blood dripping echoing throughout the nave.

Before concluding here, I should not fail to mention that the majority of 18th and early 19th settlers in Frederick County were of German origin; and German was the dominant tongue in and around Frederick until the 1840s. After the middle of the 19th century, however, English gained in ascendancy, especially as school textbooks in German were imported with less frequency from the old country. Gravestones from this period show that the German language was in decline from the 1850s onward, as indicated by the frequent misspellings of common German words and proper names. However, German family names are still found in great abundance among Frederick County natives in the present day, even though many of these citizens no longer have much knowledge of their ancestral language, even as to the meaning of their own surnames. Only those locals who have studied German appreciated the anecdote about the last German-speaking pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, a man with the last name of Teufel ("devil" in German). Oops...

Some Video Vignettes of Frederick Lore - Back to the Paranormal...but a tad too late for Halloween!

Just in case you've missed all the haunted highways and such...a newly updated collection of hauntings, investigations, and more...

Now, About that "Blair Witch" Story...

Fictitious folktales die hard...oh, wait...

You DO know that The Blair Witch Project (now celebrating its fourteenth spectral anniversary!) is a work of fiction, don't you? I mean, you did see those supposedly doomed "student filmmakers" making live appearances on The Tonight Show and David Letterman a year or more after "their footage was found", right? Mind you, the film and accompanying promo books did great things for Frederick County tourism; and the tiny town of Burkittsville, population around 170 or so, is still having lots of fun with their "Blair Witch" mystique (it's way more fun than all that dreary historical stuff--unless you're really into Civil War battles and serious ghosthunting). BUT...as I mentioned near the top of this page, while I grew up hearing some interesting tales of ghosts and monsters, the first I heard of the "Blair Witch" was when posters of the film started turning up in my new hometown of Seattle. It's not part of native Frederick County lore (well, it is NOW; but there was nothing like it prior to 1999). Not all of the film was shot in Burkittsville, or even in Frederick County. The story, and the character of the alleged Witch, are not based on anything found in Maryland folklore or history (they may owe a thing or two to the story of the Bell Witch haunting of Adams, Tennessee). The woods of Frederick County do not have dangerous paranormal entities lurking in them. And the events portrayed in the film have nothing to do with witchcraft, in any case.

While some scenes of the film were shot in and around Burkittsville, Maryland, the bulk of the forest trek scenes were actually filmed at Seneca Creek State Park in Montgomery County, Maryland, about 40 miles southeast of Burkittsville. The park made the film settings seem much more isolated than Burkittsville actually is. Part of the Great Seneca Creek provided the view of that "same f***ing rock" that our ill-fated filmmakers kept running into. After all, if they'd filmed in the woods outside Burkittsville, there would have been far too many roads to cross; it's not that far removed from civilization. If they'd walked far enough, they would have ended up either in Middletown, or perhaps Harper's Ferry (if they'd walked in southerly circles); or worse, somewhere a little too close to Camp David. I suspect the Secret Service would know if any spectral witches (or student filmmakers) had wandered unauthorized onto federal government property.

The woods and mountains of Frederick County are really quite beautiful, and attract countless visitors, local and otherwise, every year. The nature trails and mountain overlooks are second to none in gorgeous scenery and peaceful ambience. The most dangerous things you're likely to find in these woods are copperheads; and then only in summer and early fall. I've hiked and picnicked in stretches of these woods many times without incident. I also attended a Lutheran summer camp called Mar-Lu-Ridge several times as a child; it's located in Jefferson, well within driving distance of Burkittsville. We never had a problem with the ghost of Elly Kedward up there either. Maybe the religious imagery scared her off.

In watching and analysing The Blair Witch Project, I eventually realized that what the characters with cameras experienced in the woods was not, in fact, witchcraft per se; but a malevolent fairy abduction, straight out of Irish folklore. I spent my third year of college in Ireland, and took a class in Irish folklore and mythology, in which I learned of the concept of being "led astray" by mischievous (or outright evil) fairies. In the film, the students' experiences of disorientation, walking long distances in circles, an invisible presence, and disembodied voices mimicking familiar ones, are all hallmarks of fairy abduction, according to folk tradition. Alas, the students were not aware that there is a very straightforward antidote to this condition: one is supposed to take off one's coat or jacket, turn it inside-out, and put it back on again. This breaks the enchantment, as the fairies no longer recognize their victim. Too bad Heather, Michael and Josh didn't read up on their fairy lore before pursuing the Blair Witch into the woods...

Mountainous Maryland Tales for Sale - For all you cultural anthropologists of the mid-Atlantic...

Map the Aforementioned - A new module that I'll try to decipher, for a bit of visual stimulation...

A markerOur first Maps Feature: Blair Witch Central--where else?? -
Burkittsville, MD
get directions

The more the merrier, for mountainous Maryland...

Help Along the Folk Process! - Are we missing any good folktales or haunted hotel links? Post 'em here!

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    • Vic Dillinger profile image

      Vic Dillinger 2 years ago

      Good for you for calling out the b.s. on the Blair Witch. There are still some idiots online who think she was real and write about her as if she once actually walked the earth (sorta like Bigfoot, also not real).

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I live in neighboring Montgomery County and have a friend who is a "ghost hunter" in Frederick. He invited me on a few of his excursions, but I chickened out. Nice, well written lens.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      I always knew Blair Witch was purely entertainment, but it still scared the heck out of me.

    • Meloramus profile image

      Meloramus 6 years ago

      Great lens - I enjoyed reading about the rich history in your area.

    • jptanabe profile image

      Jennifer P Tanabe 7 years ago from Red Hook, NY

      Cool stuff here! Glad to learn so much about Frederick and its ghosts and other attractions!

    • MacPharlain profile image

      MacPharlain 7 years ago

      Thanks for sharing all this great Frederick folklore!

    • GhostWalker LM profile image

      GhostWalker LM 8 years ago

      Just wanted to say great lens I rated it a 5

    • profile image

      bailong329 8 years ago

      I use to like ghost stories when I was a kid. I am 26 now and I still like them only because they tell a lot about the culture back when the stories were born. The blair witch project I thought was an entertaining story, and was pretty original for a horror flick. I think they went a bit too far with making it look like it could have actually happened but then again I think that was the first time anyone used that method of filmmaking before so I guess it turned into a myth by accident. I would like to hear some more sources of Ghost Stories especially about the Witches. OUTSIDE OF SALEM I mean. Also where they got most of the ideas in the movie from.