ANNAPOLIS — In the days leading up to Halloween and All Saints’ Day, some ghost stories can grow larger than life, becoming tall tales in small towns, much like the story of strange sights on Game Preserve Road in Gaithersburg.
Ghost stories are born after someone sees an apparition or has a paranormal incident, often in places where tragedy once struck. Passed down from one listener to the next, a story can become lore.
Citizens of the Clopper’s Mill neighborhood reported “ a strange scene” near the railroad bridge over Big Seneca Creek, the Montgomery County Sentinel wrote on March 17, 1876. That branch of the railroad came through in 1873.
Witnesses apparently saw a lantern, hoisted up on a post, suddenly go dark and then a bolt of flame, mirrored across the bridge, shot up in the air.
“A body of citizens numbering about fifty headed by several bold and venturesome young men armed with guns who doubtless had fought many battles with imaginary beings and were not afraid of an army of ghosts, proceeded to the bridge to solve the inexplicable mystery,” the Sentinel reported.
Just as the lantern went out, as it had many nights before, the men fired and their shots were answered, though in the moonlit setting the men saw no one else holding a gun.
That was the first written record of an apparition near the railroad bridge on Game Preserve Road in Gaithersburg, according to Karen Yaffe Lottes, co-author of “In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County.”
As the story goes, Yaffe Lottes wrote, during the Civil War a soldier was decapitated by a saber in a skirmish around what is now Game Preserve Road. After the fight, his fellow soldiers hastily buried him in an unmarked grave, even though they couldn’t find his head to bury with his body.
In generations since, many have told tales about the area surrounding the supposed unmarked grave of the headless man, recalling odd noises and apparitions with glowing eyes, according to Yaffe Lottes.
In the same stretch of railroad, Yaffe Lottes wrote, there are also records of freak accidents involving beheadings. In May 1973, a railroad brakeman stuck his head out of the train just as another passed by in the opposite direction. A loose boom from the other train struck him in the head, killing him on the spot. In May 1982, another man lost his head while fleeing the police when he tried to hop a car on a train headed south for Washington.
Yaffe Lottes, working with co-author Dorothy Pugh, gathered ghost stories through historical records and spoke with Marylanders to include in their 2012 book. The goal was to use ghost stories from Montgomery County to tell different parts of county history and attract a younger audience.
“Our goal was not necessary to approve or disprove their story, but to explain why there is a story,” Yaffe Lottes said. “This isn’t to say the stories are true or false, we just had to go with what we were told.”
“It’s not for us to question what they may or may not have experienced,” Yaffe Lottes said. “It’s just one of those things, that I’ll believe it when I see it,”
Though she is not necessarily a believer, Yaffe Lottes said she is more convinced by stories where there multiple accounts from unrelated people of similar sightings at different times.
Oral history, the process of recording an individual’s memories from the past, can connect and ground someone to the local community, Yaffe Lottes said.
It is “always easier to make a connection if the history is personal,” Yaffe Lottes said. “There the small stories can lead you into the big story.”
“A lot of people don’t consider the spoken word as trustworthy as a printed source,” said Damon Talbot, a special collections archivist at the Maryland Historical Society.
But oral history can help create a community consciousness, with recollections being just as worthwhile as a physical record or a printed source, Talbot said.
Ghost stories, Talbot said, are more akin to an oral tradition.
Where oral history is a more formal record, often for research purposes, oral tradition and folklore allow people to pass their stories down through the community.
Bill Hartley, founder and lead investigator of the Baltimore-based Greater Maryland Paranormal Society, said “urban legends and ghost stories go back probably as far as when someone put quill to paper.”
“I honestly believe that every good ghost story has some little grain of salt of truth to it, especially when they’re as old as they are,” Hartley said. But the underlying story gets expanded and “after a while imaginative minds take over.”
“What was just a tragic story becomes a blown up, fantastic story,” Hartley said.
When researching paranormal activity, Hartley said, he approaches the story with a healthy dose of skepticism without dismissing any evidence.
When approaching a paranormal incident, Hartley said, he needs to see hard evidence and explore how much is real versus how much are incidents of people just adopting a story they heard as their own.
“We don’t seek out to investigate urban legends,” Hartley said. “It’s just a good ghost story until I can prove it.”