The Hampton mansion, the stately home built in the late 1700s, is considered one the nation's largest and most splendid Georgian mansions from the post-Revolutionary War era. More than 200 years after the mansion was built, visitors continue to flock to the impressive Towson estate.
Some visitors roam the grounds of the historic site to glimpse what aristocratic life in the late 18th and 19th centuries was like for the seven generations of the Ridgely family who resided there, as well as the enslaved African Americans, indentured servants, and industrial and agricultural workers who kept the estate running. Others, especially during the Halloween season, hope to see more than the remaining physical structures of the estate.
They’ve got their eyes peeled for apparitions of the folks who once lived at the estate and whose spirits—as local folklore tells it—never left.
These days, talk of ghosts and supernatural events has been relegated to the fringes of society. Say the word "paranormal" and most people clam up. That made it challenging, initially, to unearth information about the ghost stories related to the Hampton mansion.
The National Park Service, which now manages the mansion, remains mum on the topic. When park ranger Angela Roberts-Burton was asked what she knew about the historic landmark being haunted, she abruptly responded: "We don't discuss it at all."
That wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s, Preservation Maryland oversaw the mansion and guides gave ghost tours there. Later, the gift shop sold a book titled The Ghosts of Hampton, containing stories collected by local author Anne Van Ness Merriam.
A worn copy of the book, stuffed in a manila folder along with a dozen or so articles about paranormal activity in Maryland, is archived at the Baltimore County Office of Planning. The front of the book contains this message to readers: “The following tales were told to Mrs. Merriam by descendants of Captain Charles Ridgely…”
“Of course, it’s all malarkey,” said John McGrain, a retired Baltimore County historian, referring to the stories of Hampton mansion ghost sightings, including that of Priscilla Ridgely, the family’s matriarch; Cygnet Swann, the golden-haired daughter of Governor Swann; and Tom, a long-term butler at the mansion.
Some would disagree.
Consider Bruce Bytnar. The retired park ranger, who worked primarily at Fort McHenry during the early part of his career but occasionally was called to duty at the Hampton mansion, wrote the book A Park Ranger’s Life: Thirty-two Years Protecting Our National Parks. In it is a hair-raising account of a night he spent at the Hampton mansion.
Bytnar had been called on more than one occasion to investigate reports of supernatural activities and ghost sightings at the Hampton House. But it wasn’t until he stayed in the house overnight that Bytnar had his own ghost story to tell.
In 1977, Bytnar and a fellow park ranger were assigned to watch guard at the Hampton mansion during a two-week historic needlepoint exhibit. They slept in a room on the mansion’s third floor. The room next to theirs contained a row of wooden pegs, on which were hung dozens of horse harnesses that the Ridgely family had used for racehorses.
In the book, Bytnar recounts the following experience: “We had just lain down to attempt to sleep when I heard what sounded like footsteps entering the room next to ours…there was a sound as if someone had taken their hand and run it down the wall of horse harnesses, causing them to swing on the pegs. This was followed by footsteps exiting the room…”
Bytnar goes on to tell how he and the other ranger leapt out of bed and into the hallway, to find several of the harnesses swaying on their pegs. Minutes later, in the great hall of the mansion, a large grandfather clock dating back to the early 1800s began to chime.
Bytnar had been told that the clock hadn’t worked in over a hundred years. Not surprisingly, Bytnar and his partner chose to spend the remainder of the night in their park service pickup truck.
Attempts to contact the retired park ranger, who now lives in Southwest Virginia, went unanswered. I did, however, catch up with Ed Okonowicz, a retired professor at the University of Delaware who’s written several books on ghosts.
Although unfamiliar with Bytnar’s book and the experiences he addresses in it, Okonowicz wrote The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories. He says that about 80 percent of the information in his book came from interviews with people who claim to have had supernatural sightings.
Asked if he believes in ghosts, Okonowicz paused before responding: “I think there are strange events that take place,” he said, adding, “I’m interested in ghost stories as they relate to historical events.”