First State Frights

Delaware has more than its share of things that go bump in the night

Amateur ghost hunters, supernatural hobbyists, and just plain curious tourists have plenty to love in the First State. For instance: a good-natured soul keeps a New Castle cafe staff on their toes; the scent of a bygone baker’s cinnamon wafts through a New Castle home, and the spirit of a widow in Lewes is a stickler about the details of her death.

But any ghost tour of our state rightly must begin with a visit to Fort Delaware, and especially to the Confederate general who apparently is still in solitary confinement there.

The Union fortress on Pea Patch Island near Delaware City was built in 1859 to protect the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. During the Civil War, it housed Confederate prisoners, and it has been attracting paranormal investigators for years. Ghost Hunters has filmed there and YouTube is full of videos shot there by amateur ghost detectives. But far more enduring and locally successful have been the efforts of the Diamond State Ghost Investigators, headed by President Gina Dunham. Since 2009, DSGI has led the fort’s official October nocturnal investigations. (For more on DSGI, see “Normal? Or Paranormal?” on pg. 21.)

Diamond State Ghost investigators captured this photo of a dark apparition at Fort Delaware. Photo Andy Lendway/Diamond State Ghost Investigators

Dunham firmly adheres to the idea that the investigations only work if the team is willing to think critically about the unexplained. “I’m very much a skeptic,” she says. “I try to only recruit people who have that skeptical quality.” If investigators won’t attempt to explain an incident, there’s little value in their results, she says.

Even with such an approach, DSGI sometimes has difficulty rationalizing an experience. Take, for example, Dunham’s story involving Confederate Gen. James J. Archer.

Archer was captured the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg and sent to Fort Delaware. The prison administrators gave him quarters befitting a captured general, sparing him the less comfortable wooden barracks where thousands of enlisted men were housed.  That changed when Union soldiers found out that Archer was using his rank to try to persuade other prisoners to seize control of the fort. As punishment, they put him in solitary confinement, most likely using an empty section of the South Casemates, also known as “the Endicott.”

Dunham’s story takes place in the same section. She was guiding a new DSGI team member through the fort in preparation for that night’s programs. They were the only two in the area, and the room was still naturally lit. Dunham was telling the new member about Archer’s capture and time in solitary, when over the team member’s shoulder, a black shadowy figure came out of the wall, floating a few feet above the ground. It lacked a distinct shape, but it had a surprising density to it; Dunham was transfixed.  “It was the sort of thing where you stare at it because you’re not even sure if that’s what you saw,” she says of the experience.

The figure, she says, disappeared almost as quickly as it came. Thinking their discussion about Archer may have caused the figure to appear, Dunham and the team member picked up the conversation, but it didn’t appear again.

Old New Castle: A Spooky Hot Bed

It wasn’t long ago that New Castle was a town bustling with taverns, bars, pubs and hotels, which

Employees at Café New Castle have experienced ghostly goings-on. Photo Anthony Santoro
Employees at Café New Castle have experienced ghostly goings-on. Photo Anthony Santoro

resulted in a somewhat rowdy nightlife. One place that saw a lot of action was the building where Café New Castle now stands, at 414 Delaware St. Soon after the cafe opened last April, Manager Krista Stanton invited a medium—someone with a supposed strong connection with the paranormal—to conduct a casual investigation of the building. She concluded that, in the early 1900s, two men had a bar fight that ended in the basement of the building and both men died. Now, staff members often hear noises they can trace to the basement, but they have been unable to find exactly what causes the sounds.

According to Erin Redding, general manager of the cafe, there are other ethereal patrons in the building, some of whom make playful nuisances of themselves.

One of the spirits, Redding says, regularly unlocks the deadbolt of a small door in the front bathroom and trips the breakers in the building, which was rewired during the work leading up to the April opening. Redding now checks the bathroom door and closes it whenever she finds it open, but she’s at a loss as to what to do about the balky breakers.

If there’s a pattern to the apparition’s pranks, Redding can’t find it. “It seems like it picks whoever it’s going to mess with for the day.”

During our visit, the phantom’s quarry seemed to be Alexandra Jordan. Just that morning, Jordan was opening the shop alone and heard coughing coming from the basement. Later, as she stood up from a crouch, she felt something untying the back of her apron.

Most activity is harmless, and Redding and her staff actually welcome their spiritual cohabitants. “We definitely feel that there are [ghosts] here and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.

That philosophy seems to extend to the rest of New Castle, which celebrates it ghostly past each October. Hosted by the New Castle Historical Society, the Hauntings in History program features interpreters who lead guests on a walking tour of the town, stopping at notable locations and sharing historical information as well as paranormal anecdotes. This year, the program is scheduled for Oct. 13, 14, 20, 21, and 26-28, with tours beginning at 7, 7:30 and 8:30 each night.

Among the stops are the Dutch House, David Finney Inn, Emmanuel Church and Amstel House, and the latter offers one of the tour’s more popular ghost stories.

The Scent of Cinnamon

Throughout its centuries as a private home and museum, Amstel House residents and visitors have reported seeing “The Lady in Blue.” The Lady’s identity is hard to pin down, though tour guides make the case for several women without stating who they believe she might be. According to Dan Citron, executive director of the Historical Society, they prefer to leave the final call to those who take the tour. One of the portraits in the house is of a woman in a blue dress, however, and that is usually evidence enough for tourists.

Citron also shared a story of more recent origin.

"The Lady in Blue" allegedly haunts Amstel House in Historic New Castle. Photo Anthony Santoro
“The Lady in Blue” allegedly haunts Amstel House in Historic New Castle. Photo Anthony Santoro

Shortly after moving into an older house on Harmony Street roughly a decade ago, a family heard clanging coming from the basement. They explained it away as the sort of noises old houses make when they settle. But something that was harder to explain, since it has nothing to do with a house settling, was the strong smell of cinnamon. When they went outside to locate the source, the smell was gone, but as soon as they re-entered the house, it was back. They asked around, and neighbors told them the house used to be a bakery, with baking ovens located in the basement.

“They were happy to live with their ghosts,” says Citron, “but they were worried they’d gain weight because they’d always be wanting pastries.”

South of the Canal

Haunted attractions are by no means limited to north of the C&D Canal. The people of Lewes take an active interest in their ghostly past, and the Lewes Historical Society hosts the Lewes Legends Tour, a program similar to New Castle’s October tradition. The Lewes tour runs every Wednesday beginning in July and concludes Oct. 18.

According to J. Marcos Salaverria, the Historical Society’s director of education, interpreters who lead the tour prefer to treat ghost stories much like historical events. They won’t tell a story for which they can’t find supporting evidence.

Salaverria himself witnessed an incident in 2014 in the Cannonball House, which is allegedly inhabited by the ghost of Susan Roland King, an elderly widow. In March of 1917, she was found dead in bed in her back room. She was badly burned and people assumed the small fire in her fireplace jumped into the room after she’d fallen asleep.

Recently though, new evidence of a slightly different scenario has surfaced. “Additional documentation from the Philadelphia Examiner spoke of an old woman who’d passed away while blackening her pot [a method for cleaning older cookware],” says Salaverria. “The chemical she was using caught and she burned to death in a chemical fire.”

The Ghost Box

It was while Salaverria was recounting the story to a visiting Boy Scout troop during a midnight field trip to the Cannonball House that they had an apparent run-in with King. The group was using a “ghost box,” a device with red and green lights and a pre-recorded electronic voice that ghosts are supposed to be able to manipulate to communicate.

As Salaverria was telling the group that King had died in her bed, the ghost box interrupted, lighting up red and repeating “Wrong!” three times. When he said maybe she didn’t make it to bed, the box said, “Half way.” At this point, Salaverria says, the Scouts were wide-eyed, and one of them suggested she may have died right there on the floor. The box lit up green and said, “Exactly.” With this, one of the Scouts moved away and said, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

Lewes is also a favorite investigative spot for Wendy Robinson and Jenn Dalgarn, lead and co-lead investigators, respectively, for Delmarva Historic Haunts. They’ve gotten great results at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, due in large part, they believe, to the history of the location.

“The way the currents between the river, bay, and ocean interact would wash bodies from shipwrecks ashore there,” says Robinson.  “The townspeople would return the bodies if they could identify them, but they’d have to bury those they couldn’t.” 

Eventually, the Delaware River & Bay Authority moved into the area and renovated and extended the land for the terminal.  A historical marker now commemorates the lost souls along this historic waterway.

During one of DHH investigators’ trips to the Lewes terminal in 2012, they got some of the most striking video evidence of any place they’ve visited, and it was in a room they hadn’t planned to cover.

The sunroom at the Lewes terminal isn’t particularly paranormally active, although some ferry workers and local police officers have reported incidents. On the day DHH people investigated, they decided to focus on other, more haunted areas of the terminal. In the interest of being thorough, however, they covered the sunroom with two of their closed-circuit cameras, but they didn’t expect to catch much.

While the rest of the team was elsewhere in the terminal, two investigators watching the CCTV system noticed some activity in the sunroom. They radioed their teammates to check if anyone was in the area, but every response came back negative.

They’ve since put the video on their YouTube channel, hoping for some community feedback. To find it, search for DHH2011, then go to “Camera 2 & 6 Review Cape May Lewes Ferry Investigation” in the 2012 Season playlist.

Not every Delaware ghost tale involves hauntings and grisly deaths. One legend has it that Henry McCracken, a river pilot who lived in Lewes in the 1800s, was caught in a storm while coming down the Delaware River, forcing him out into the Atlantic. He dropped anchor, saving him and the crew. His will specified that he was to be buried with the anchor in St. Peter’s Episcopal Cemetery in Lewes.

“McCracken’s good luck anchor is poking out of the ground.” Salaverria says, and visitors are encouraged to touch it in hopes that the luck will rub off.