Do you believe we coexist with the spirit world? Read on to discover iconic landmarks in Delaware where ghosts reportedly roam—and make themselves known to visitors./Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Rumor has it that spirits—many disturbed like a headless horseman and former inmates—still roam these locales in Delaware.
Based on books, national TV programs and the number of ghost tours this time of year, Delaware has no shortage of things that go bump in the night. Perhaps that’s not surprising, considering that the state boasts historic properties, a grim Civil War prison and a treacherous, shipwreck-laden coastline. From north to south, here are a number of places that are reportedly home to mischievous spirits.
Rockwood Museum: Mary and the Mysterious Men
Built between 1851 and 1854, the Rockwood mansion was initially the retirement home of Joseph Shipley, a distinguished merchant banker who designed the house to resemble an English country estate. But as anyone who’s seen it can attest, the ornate Gothic Revival architecture has all the makings of a classic haunted house—complete with a pet cemetery.
Over the years, staff have seen the spirit of a man in a red smoking jacket and the ghost of Shipley’s great-niece Mary Bringhurst, who was 100 when she died in the home in 1965. “Sometimes you’ll smell lilacs, which was one of her favorite perfumes,” Louis “Dr. Lou” DiMieri, a parapsychologist, told a CBS reporter in 2017. Her old bedroom occasionally dips in temperature, he added.
The basement is supposedly home to a spirit called The Shadowman, and some have seen the ghost of a dog. Other unexplained occurrences include floating orbs and the disturbing sound of shoes on the stairs.
News about the possible hauntings became so widespread that in addition to the CBS segment, the property appeared on the SyFy show Ghost Hunters in 2015. The museum plans to hold ghost tours this Halloween season, pending COVID-19 restrictions.
4651 Washington St. Ext., Wilmington; 761-4340, nccde.org/431/Rockwood-Park-Museum
Cooch’s Bridge: Delaware’s Grim Battleground
By September 3, 1777, about 4,000 British and Hessian soldiers had marched from Maryland into Delaware. Unbeknownst to them, about 800 militia and Continental Army soldiers waited in ambush. The goal: Slow the British advance to Philadelphia and collect information.
Initially, the Americans were victorious. Then the British pushed back, driving their enemy from Aiken Town, now Glasgow, over Iron Hill to the Welsh Baptist Meeting House. There was severe fighting at Cooch’s Bridge, a property along the Christina River named for the Cooch family.
Out of ammunition, the Americans retreated, and the British took Philadelphia on September 26, 1777. Many Delawareans who fought at Cooch’s Bridge wintered with Gen. George Washington at Valley Forge.
Before the battle, American sentries reported seeing an ominous white spectral horseman. They fired, but the apparition was unharmed. Legend has it that he was a British soldier wearing armor underneath a white sheet. One sensible sergeant aimed high and put a shot in the rider’s head. That, as they say, was the end of that.
The story of the specter appeared in a 1975 issue of The Morning News, but it is not the most famous ghost tale attached to the brutal battle, which took place along present-day Old Baltimore Pike.
On foggy, moonless nights, a headless British soldier is said to wander along the road near the haunted battle site, looking for the head a cannonball struck from his shoulders. Since the Americans did not have cannons, he would have encountered friendly fire. (No wonder his spirit won’t rest.) Others maintain that the ghost is American Charlie Miller, who was decapitated by a British cannonball. Regardless of the theory, many locals believe the area to be haunted by the tormented spirits who died during times of war.
Today, the Pencader Heritage Museum’s collection includes the painting The Ghost of Cooch’s Bridge. Visit the facility to learn more about the only Revolutionary War battle on Delaware soil.
2029 Sunset Lake Road, Newark; 584-4570; pencaderheritage.org
The Dickinson Mansion: The Penman of the American Revolution
Poplar Hall, the former home of John Dickinson, is considered by many to be one of Delaware’s most haunted houses. The home witnessed many years of war and destruction. After it was built in 1739 by Judge Samuel Dickinson, a British raid caused damage in 1781 during the Revolution. The house was again nearly destroyed in 1804 by a devastating fire.
While John Dickinson, “The Penman of the American Revolution,” only lived in the home for two years, many people claim he now refuses to leave. The state of Delaware owns the house and surrounding plantation, operating them as a museum with guided tours. Many people have reported strange sounds coming from the study of John Dickinson, namely the sound of a quill pen scratching across parchment paper. Other activity reported around the house and grounds include orbs in photos, strange cold spots and unexplained sounds echoing through the halls of the mansion.
340 Kits Hummock Road, Dover; 478-2769; history.delaware.gov/john-dickinson-plantation/
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Lum’s Pond State Park: A Victim’s Last Cry
Lums Pond is a popular destination for campers, picnickers, paddlers, bikers and hikers. Few, however, know about its resident ghost. According to Delaware Public Archives, a runaway girl met her end in the 1870s when she encountered a murderer. So, if you hear high-pitched screams and muffled shouts near the Swamp Forest Hiking Trail, you might wish to turn the other way.
The woman’s unfortunate demise isn’t the only spooky campfire story you can tell in the park. Its namesake is John Lum, who ran a millhouse along the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Visitors have reported seeing the miller and his son roaming the grounds and hearing the phantom sounds of a water wheel.
1068 Howell School Road, Bear; 368-6989; destateparks.com/PondsRivers/LumsPond
Woodburn, The Governor’s Residence: A Persistent Homeowner
The Woodburn ghost is so well-known that Delaware.gov devotes an entire page to him. The old spirit’s origins date back to Charles Hillyard III, who built the circa-1798 Georgian house. Son-in-law and daughter Dr. Martin W. and Mary Hillyard Bates purchased the home from his estate.
In 1815, the Bateses were entertaining a Methodist preacher at breakfast when the hostess asked him to lead them in prayer. He suggested they wait for the other guests. Puzzled, she told him there were none. The preacher, however, had passed a man in a powdered wig, knee britches and a ruffled shirt. He’d seen Charles Hillyard III.
Since then, others have also seen the ghost, who during his life loved his wine. If you leave him a glass at night, it will be gone by morning, many have vowed. Governor Sherman Tribbitt’s wife, Jeanne, decided to test the theory by pouring a glass for Hillyard on several occasions. Alas, it was still full in the morning. At some point in the past 200 years, perhaps Woodburn’s ghost discovered a 12-step program.
151 Kings Highway S.W., Dover; 739-5656; woodburn.delaware.gov
Crabby Dick’s: The Memorable Maid
People who love blue crabs head to Crabby Dick’s, which serves Delaware’s favorite crustacean with a waterfront view. Paranormal enthusiasts, however, head to the building because it’s reportedly haunted.
John Buchheit is a believer. In 2005, shortly after Buchheit and Dale Slotter purchased the old Delaware City Hotel for Crabby Dick’s, Buchheit slept in one of the rooms and dreamed a chambermaid told him to leave. A year later, Nancy Myer of Court TV’s Psychic Detectives channeled a spirit who said a former maid named Sandy was haunting the building. For more things that make you go “hmmm,” a restaurant customer recalled that a maid had died in the hotel. The ghost is said to flick the lights on and off to keep people from the fourth floor.
If you see a face peering down at you from an upper story, relax. It might be one of the dummies Buchheit moves around the hotel during Halloween. But do take a second look. It might be Sandy.
30 Clinton St., Delaware City; 832-5100; crabby-dicks.com
Fort Delaware: Misery Loves Company
The mere mention of the intimidating fortress on Pea Patch Island once instilled fear in Confederate soldiers’ hearts. It was “spoken by all who have been confined there as a perfect hell on earth,” wrote the Confederate prisoner who counted himself lucky to be interned in Ohio.
After battles in Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the prison population topped 12,000. In all, more than 2,650 people died here. Many fell victim to the 1864 smallpox epidemic, but prisoners also succumbed to poor living conditions. It’s no surprise to paranormal enthusiasts that a place like this is widely considered one of the most haunted places in Delaware.
There are so many ghost stories surrounding the fortress that local author Ed Okonowicz wrote the book Civil War Ghosts at Fort Delaware. He noted that some people have seen men in damp gray uniforms wandering around the coastline on misty nights. The lost souls are likely the escapees who drowned in the Delaware River’s swift current. Okonowicz long led ghost tours on the island, and he reported that many participants heard strange noises and saw a man in a cloak carrying a lantern.
In 2014, park historian Laura Lee was camping on the island with a Boy Scouts of America troop when she heard steps approaching her quarters. When she went to investigate, she was alone. But in the meantime, someone had balled up the sleeping bag she’d carefully spread on a bed.
Fort Delaware State Park offers ghost tours. Check the website for details and up-to-date information, and to book ferry tickets for a visit during opening hours. 45 Clinton St., Delaware City; 834-7941; destateparks.com/History/FortDelaware
Cannonball House: The Capricious Poltergeist
Owned by the Lewes Historical Society, the Cannonball House is named for the cannonball that struck the foundation in April 1813 when the British bombarded Lewes. Built around 1765, it’s been a restaurant, laundromat and the private home of pilots, including Capt. David Rowland. Reportedly his family member Susan lost her life when her skirts brushed against the hearth and caught fire.
Since the society bought the property in 1963, there have been some mysterious happenings. One door won’t stay shut, even when it’s been nailed closed. In another incident, a worker left his tools on a bench at the day’s end. The next morning, they were on the floor, as if someone had carefully placed them there.
A key once went missing from the lock of a displayed 16th-century Spanish chest. Since workers had accidently shut the lid, everyone assumed the key had fallen inside the chest, which had locked. While cleaning the property, a maintenance man stumbled upon a coiled rope no one had noticed before. The key was underneath.
Susan is a playful spirit, but a more aggressive specter might occupy the society’s nearby Ryves Holt House. While investigating the structure’s basement, the late Rick Coherd, founder of Delmarva Historic Haunts, felt something—or someone—touch his arm. “Someone is up close and in your personal space,” he said after the experience, “but you can’t see anyone.” He found the experience hard to forget.
Lewes Historical Society, 110 Shipcarpenter Square, Lewes; 645-7670; historiclewes.org
Honorable Mentions: More Mysterious Folklore & Legends in the First State
We can’t confirm the accuracy of these tales, but folklore and ghost stories are a fun part of getting into the Halloween spirit. Here are some notable tales worth mentioning from around Delaware.
The Addy Sea Bed & Breakfast in Bethany Beach has been said by some to have three haunted rooms. Room 1 had a copper tub, which is reported to shake violently from time to time. The tub was removed in the 1970s. Some people say organ music has come from room 6 where there is no organ. Room 11 is supposedly haunted by a man named Paul Delaney who used to work for the bed and breakfast.
Believe it or not, Cape Henlopen State Park comes with its own creepy tales. Plenty of locals tell an old legend about a phantom soldier still on duty behind Tower 12. His post has attracted paranormal enthusiasts to a bunker near the campground bike trail. Some say a mysterious face has appeared in photos they’ve taken around the area.
Long Cemetery in Frankford is said to be both haunted and protected. Frankford locals say a “Catman” creature hangs around the cemetery acting as a caretaker. Teens and young adults who plan to party at the graveyard have been scared away by legends of the Catman, the ghost of a man with cat-like features. It is said by some that if you knock three times on his above-ground tomb at the center of the cemetery, he’ll sabotage your car so you have trouble leaving the cemetery. It’s hard to say where the legends originated, but many people in the area have reported car troubles when trying to leave the cemetery.