COLMAR MANOR – Shots rang out here. Politicians — those who resolved their quarrels with the discourse of drawn weapons — died here. At the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, a bullet silenced any dispute.
But is this spot, host to at least 50 duels in the 1800s, haunted? Thirty years ago, a book on Washington ghosts made the claim. Local historians now say the legend is nevermore.
Maryland’s more prominent supernatural stories, it seems, have obscured any legend surrounding the bloody grounds.
“All it is right now is a grassy little piece of parkland,” said Maryland historian Susan Pearl. She knows of no ghosts.
The scrap of land lies between IHOP and Fort Lincoln Cemetery, behind a historic marker, just before the District line in what is now Colmar Manor. In John Alexander’s 1975 book, “Washington’s Most Famous Ghost Stories,” he told of a boy there who saw the vanishing figure of an old man, head bowed, dressed in black.
“Those who have had occasion to walk across it,” wrote Alexander, “have often told of fog-shrouded shadows of men of another era.”
But the staff at the Surratt House in Clinton – another supposedly haunted Maryland locale – say they’ve never heard of these dueling shades. Neither has Mark Opsasnick, who has written about Maryland’s Goatman, a half-man, half-goat that legend has it roams Prince George’s County.
And paranormal investigator Scott Fowler knows little on the topic, though he says Bertha’s Mussels, a restaurant in Baltimore, could still be quite haunted.
Many of those who had kept abreast of local lore, said Diane Stultz, a former Bladensburg resident, have passed away. With them has gone the mystique of the town’s grisly landmark.
The grounds’ unique history, however, has not been lost.
“It’s one of those things,” said Lester Sweeting, former president of the Prince George’s County Historical Society, “anybody who’s lived in Bladensburg has heard of it.”
This is where Maine Congressman Jonathan Cilley had his leg ripped open in 1838, after he and Kentucky Congressman William Graves (who was standing in for a friend Cilley had insulted) each fired two shots without hitting their mark. Graves’ third left Cilley dead in seconds, and spurred a public outcry that eventually ended sanctioned dueling.
This is where Commodore Stephen Decatur was fatally wounded and fellow Commodore James Barron was forever disgraced, after Barron shot Decatur, ending a long-brewing dispute.
On this land, a final duel took Gen. Armistead Mason’s life, after he rejected Col. John McCarty’s initial requests to settle an argument by either jumping off the Capitol building or standing on a keg of lit powder. And on this land, Daniel, the son of Francis Scott Key, died at the hands of a fellow midshipman.
The site is, as one 1858 Harper’s Magazine article described it, “as forsaken a looking spot, and one as little likely to be sought by man, for any purpose whatever, as would probably be encountered in a summer day’s journey . . . This narrow cow-path was the ‘field of honor.'”
But reports of duelists’ spirits, tortured by a tragic end, are no longer validated.
George Callcott, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland who used to teach Maryland and U.S. history, said he’s never heard of any hauntings there.
“I think historians have to be pretty skeptical people,” said Callcott, “and not very keen on ghost stories.”