Tales based on fiction - and facts, too

Usually a ghost story is just that - a story. It is intended to raise a few eyebrows and elicit some shivers.

But organizers of Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City tour have been working to bring new life to stories of the afterlife, searching for connections between the tales they tell visitors and real people from the past.

Some stories have taken on a life beyond the tour, such as the grisly, century-old murder of a Main Street shopkeeper that inspired tour guide Mark Croatti and two colleagues to "reopen" the case on their own time.

The majority of the ghost stories on this year's tour - which is held every weekend in October and November - are "connected to history and real people who lived and died in this town," said Croatti, who took the lead when the Howard County tourism office needed to rewrite the tour.

The revamping was necessary after Melissa Arnold left her job as head of the tourism office and took the copyrighted stories from the previous ghost tour with her. With just a few public accounts to build on, Croatti interviewed business owners in historic Ellicott City and collected many new tales of strange sounds, unexplained happenings and ghostly apparitions.

But for a story to make it on the tour, "there has got to be some sort of connection to a person who died, usually under serious circumstances," said Croatti, an Annapolis resident who teaches state and local politics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

For example, the noises, voices, footprints and poltergeist activity reported by employees at the Tiber River Tavern raise questions about the rape and murder of a woman in that building in the 1920s, when it was a barn. And the Bean Hollow coffee shop, where voices and strange sounds with no apparent source were caught on tape, was once a funeral parlor.

"We pride ourselves on saying we have at least a source," said Marty Schoppert, another guide who helps search for real-life connections in old newspaper articles.

Whether that source is convincing is up to the people on the tour. "I hope to provide what we feel is a factual account of something and you have to decide," said Schoppert, who lives in Mount Airy.

The new approach seems to be successful, especially as people get into the Halloween spirit tomorrow. The tours have drawn 300 participants each weekend compared with 300 a month last year, said Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of Howard County Tourism Inc.

One story that caught the attention of Croatti and Schoppert is about Daniel Shea, found dead in his blood-splattered Main Street store with 25 slashes on his face, head and body in February 1895. His one employee, Jacob Henson, was convicted by a jury and lynched by townspeople. Shea was white; and Henson was mulatto.

Questions about the case inspired the two men to enlist the help of Croatti's cousin Karen Case, a forensic psychologist, and dig deeper into accounts from the time.

"This case has always fascinated me," Croatti said. "It has no ghosts, but it makes for a great story on a dark night."

The case also proved to be a lesson in how difficult it can be to reconstruct the past.

"It is really needle in a haystack," Croatti said. "Little exists before 1900."

According to a summary written by Croatti and Case, Henson was sent by Shea to buy beer and returned to the shop on the night of the murder. Shea's body was found the next day by police - who were tipped off by a resident who said he heard a scuffle the night before - and an ax with blood on it was found by the back door. The police arrested Henson at his father's home in western Ellicott City.

What followed next is the subject of conflicting newspaper reports and public records compiled by the researchers. A distraught Henson apparently offered numerous written confessions, but his story kept changing. He said he had fought with Shea and hit him in self-defense - sometimes claiming he used a long metal stove shaker (which was never found) and sometimes saying he used the handle of the ax. He said he did not mutilate the body.

At one point, he said a white man was there with him. In another confession, he said he stole money that was on the store counter, but it also was never found.

Stories differ on whether Henson was mentally impaired, as his father and others said, or whether he was a bright, hardworking young man with a good reputation.

A jury found Henson guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. His nervous behavior and contention that he struck in self-defense inspired Gov. Frank Brown to visit Ellicott City to look into the case, Croatti said. But before that could happen, a mob stormed the jail, took Henson from his cell and lynched him.

Schoppert, using his experience as a retired police officer, looked at the accounts and said, "I'm satisfied in my own mind and heart that there was no rush to judgment."

Croatti and Case are not convinced, asserting Henson was not adequately defended by his lawyers and at least should have been convicted of a lesser crime because first-degree murder involves planning the act.

All three researchers agree that the case could have come out differently if it had been subjected to modern methods of investigation, forensic science and psychology.

"It deserved another look," said Croatti, who continues to refine his work with Case and hopes to publish their findings someday.

In the meantime, Croatti, Schoppert and Case are considering turning their attention to another mystery. They have been invited to spend the night at the Tiber River Tavern to see if they will experience anything otherworldly.

Schoppert is not sure they will find anything, noting most unexplained phenomena happen when you least expect it.

But, he said, "You have to have an open mind and just follow a trail where it goes."

Ye Haunted History of Olde Ellicott City ghost tours are held Friday and Saturday nights through Nov. 29. Tours leave from the county tourism office entrance behind the post office on Main Street at 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for children and seniors. Call 410-313-1439 for reservations or go to www. vi