Strange Delaware

The First State, tiny though it may be, seems to play host to plenty of spirits, ghosts, paranormal activities, and is even neighbors to a legendary sea creature. Some of our contributors offer these unnerving examples.

Two Stories from the Grand Opera House

‘Unearthly Lingerers’

When you have been standing vigil on Market Street for more than 145 years, you’re bound to accumulate some stragglers who have passed on but have not yet crossed over to the other side. That’s certainly true of the Grand Opera House, built in 1871. But most of the unearthly lingerers only come out late at night in the presence of the technical staff and the custodial crew.

Head Custodian Chaka Hollis has encountered a number of unexplained phenomena while on duty cleaning after shows: mop buckets moving from where they were placed, flickering lights in empty rooms, furniture inexplicably turned in another direction. The most disturbing incident involved a floating lightbulb. “We were changing a burned-out bulb in a ceiling fixture in Copeland Hall and couldn’t get it loose,” says Hollis. “After several tries, we gave up. Then, the bulb unscrewed itself and floated…slowly… almost to the ground. Then, it dropped the last few inches and shattered with a loud pop. It was really scary.”

Hollis says that he is often aware of unexpected shadows and movement in the historic opera house when he’s the only one there. “I have learned to announce myself to the building. I say who I am and what I am doing, and then they’re fine,” he says.

There’s also a strange presence on the third floor of the Giacco Building that master electrician Genevieve Fanelli has encountered. “I don’t know much about him,” she says. “He’s male and he’s pissed. I avoid that area at night and just go another way.” This is especially odd since the Giacco Building is only 18 years old. It does, however, sit on the same spot where the Aldine Theatre stood for more than 50 years. Fanelli thinks of this irritable phantom as one left over from the movie days who was disturbed by the construction of the newer building.

Fanelli says that in-house staff are not the only ones who notice some of the long-term residents. “More than 10 different road crew members over the years have asked me who the woman in the balcony is,” she says. “They see her just sitting there in period garb. I say good night to her every night as I leave, because if I don’t something usually goes wrong the next day. I think of her as the spirit of The Grand itself.”

And then there’s Tom, a specter who inhabits the chair on the left in a lobby outside the Masonic offices. Fanelli has sensed him out of the corner of her eye, but he avoids being seen. She asked around to understand who or what he is. “Apparently,” she explains, “there was a former secretary for the Masons who would leave the office every night and sit in that specific chair before going home, sometimes falling asleep there for hours. He doesn’t like people being in the lobby, but I acknowledge him now, and he’s much nicer.”

Chaka Hollis sees these ethereal souls as protectors. “A lot of them care about The Grand,” he says, “just like we do. They monitor the building, and if you have the wrong attitude, they’ll let you know.”

—Mark Fields, Out & About’s movie critic, has a day job as executive director of The Grand Opera House. He has not experienced any of these spirits in person but accepts their presence.

Sarah Bernhardt’s Ghost

The portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt at The Grand Opera House. Photo by Mark Fields

Imagine it’s 1880 and the prominent French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt is set to perform in Camille at the Grand Opera House.

Due to her popularity, Bernhardt “was to receive $500 plus expenses, which included her own train from Springfield,” says Bob Parker, technical director at The Grand and the Playhouse. However, ticket sales totaled only $250, so the performance was cancelled.

Though Bernhardt never performed at The Grand, her life-size portrait stands in the namesake salon, a Victorian-style, two-level parlor on the first floor. No one knows who the piece was commissioned for or by, or when it was completed. It was “never supposed to stay,” says Mark Fields, executive director, yet it remains.

Fast forward to January 2018, and The Grand has sustained severe water damage.

“The pipes burst due to the bitter cold temperatures,” says Andy Truscott, associate director of marketing, music/variety. “The water soaked everything—the bar and walls—in the salon. Everything, that is, except the Sarah Bernhardt painting.”

What’s even creepier is that the staff insists the fire sprinklers were fully operational during the time, so they should have burst as well.

See the painting for yourself and enjoy a good laugh at the same time with the Fearless Improv at its Friday, Oct. 18, show in the Sarah Bernhardt Salon.

Leeann Wallett, contributing writer

Mystery Music in the Read House

Working for the Delaware Historical Society as a tour guide doesn’t produce the plethora of ghost stories you might expect. There was the occasional creak, bump, or footstep, but overall, I experienced little of the supernatural.

Except, that is, for one morning when a group of elementary school students were late to the Read House for a field trip. We were scrambling to get them to the basement to start their program. Leading the children in, I heard music. Guides often put their own spin on a program, so our soundtrack didn’t strike me as odd until I noticed none of the adult chaperones seemed to hear the music. The students and my fellow guides were the only ones to comment on it.

It sounded like early American tavern music played exclusively with the higher notes of a piano. There was no looping, no electronic interference, and no echo. It had the clarity, fullness and immediacy only a real life human and an actual instrument can produce.

I know our staff had nothing to do with the music because the head of our public programs finally, incredulously, asked no one in particular, “And where is that music coming from?”

The Read House in Historic New Castle. Photo Anthony Santoro

The music played for close to half an hour that morning, with no discernible source, distracting everyone who could hear it, and finally fading as suddenly as it started.

In the back of our minds was this historical fact: George Read II (1765-1836) would often bring his daughter, Kitty, down to entertain guests with her musical talents—specifically, her talents on the pianoforte, an instrument that sounds like someone is exclusively playing the high notes on a piano.

— Dillon McLaughlin, contributing writer, worked for the Delaware Historical Society as a tour guide from 2015 to 2017.

Rockwood’s Man in the Smoking Jacket

It was around 4:30 on a late fall afternoon in 2006. The sun was setting behind the thick trees near Rockwood Mansion on Shipley Road. Philip Nord, director of the 150-year-old Gothic structure, was inside locking up for the night, rechecking every room—as he’s done for the past four years.

As he went into one of the parlors, he pulled aside the curtain in the doorway, revealing a man sitting in a red velvet Victorian-style chair in a corner of the room. Nord looked at the man and the man looked back at him.

“He was a real flesh-and-blood human being,” says Nord. “I thought the staff hadn’t checked every room.”

The red silk smoking jacket. Photo Adriana Camacho-Church

The man wore a red silk smoking jacket that Nord recognized as belonging to the Mansion’s antique collection. “As soon as I saw him wearing the smoking jacket I knew it was Edward,” says Nord, referring to Edward Bringhurst III (1884-1939), whose portrait hangs above the mansion’s main entrance.

“I was dumbfounded,” says Nord. “Speechless.”

Chills ran up and down his spine—the same feeling he sometimes got while walking up the main staircase to the second floor, where the bedrooms are.

Nord turned his head away from the man and said to him, “I see you.” When he turned his head back, the man was gone.

Says Nord: “I can’t explain it.”

— Adriana Camacho-Church, contributing writer

The Spirits of Penn’s Place

Legend has it that William Penn spent his first night in North America at 206 Delaware St. in New Castle, but Esther Lovlie doesn’t think it’s his ghost that haunts the artisan shops, café and gallery in the building now known as Penn’s Place.

Lovlie, who owns the building and runs the Trader’s Cove Coffee Shop, says an “antique gravity-defying ghost” periodically turns up, just in time to rescue martini glasses and stained-glass art works that have fallen from shelves or suction cups in the shops. The objects have a tendency to fall at night, when no one is around, and, when they’re discovered on the floor or on the carpet in the morning, they’re always intact.

“How is that possible? I don’t know,” says Lovlie. “We’ve had stuff that should have broken flying off the walls and never hitting the ground.”

When new artisans set up shop in the building, the electrical system tends to go haywire. “Lights start turning on and off, and the heater even shut down,” she says. “It seems to happen whenever a new

Penn’s Place in Historic New Castle. Photo Anthony Santoro

person comes in.”

Lovlie cites the morning last December when Fox 29 broadcast its Good Day Philadelphia show from Penn’s Place. Between segments, a cameraman asked her for an extension cord to hook up his battery-operated camera, which he said usually lasts through a full day of shooting. Lovlie recognized the problem immediately. “I told him, ‘I guess I forgot to tell you about our ghost.’”

When she and her husband, Matt, bought the building in 2009, neighbors did ask them if they realized  the place was haunted. Now they know.

Hauntings in History walking tours take place at 7, 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in October. Tours depart from The Arsenal, 30 Market St., New Castle. Tickets are $14 for New Castle Historical Society members, $15 for others. Reservations required at newcastlehistory.org.

Larry Nagengast, contributing writer

Delaware City’s Haunted Hotel

The first night he slept in the historic Delaware City Hotel as its owner, John Buchheit had a nightmare. In it, he fought a chambermaid named Sandy dressed in clothes from the 1800s. One night afterward, he was standing at the top of the staircase when he felt a push. Buchheit’s tumble down the stairs left him bruised but not seriously hurt.

Though he was not always a believer in the paranormal, Buchheit now thinks that much of Delaware City, founded in the 1820s, is haunted.

The Delaware City Hotel, which was built in 1828 and now houses Crabby Dick’s Restaurant on its first floor, can feel crowded even when he’s alone, Buchheit says. As he cleans up at night, he’ll sometimes feel his hair stand up and he gets a tingly feeling.

  “When I’m here at night,” he says, “I actually talk to them.” Though he’s polite to the spirits, Buchheit believes they want him gone, but, as he tells them occasionally, he’s not going anywhere. Other paranormal believers, including ghost-hunting clubs, have been drawn to the old hotel.

And after finding some old cookware, Buchheit discovered a clue about at least one of the spirits haunting his steps. Inscribed on the cookware was the name “Sandy.”

Dan Linehan, contributing writer

The Legend of Chessie

In my first years writing for Out & About in the mid-‘90s, I did a lengthy piece on “Chessie,” a sea creature that supposedly inhabits the Chesapeake Bay.

According to local folklore expert Ed Okonowicz in his book Monsters of Maryland, the legend of Chessie may have officially begun in 1936 when a military helicopter crew flying over Bush River in Harford County, Md., reported seeing “something reptilian and unknown in the water.”

In the decades to follow, Chessie has popped up in a variety of sightings: sometimes as something long and serpentine moving side to side, other times bulkier and undulating along a vertical plane; sometimes with a horse-like head and flippers, other times with scales.

The hunt for Chessie took me to Robert Frew, who seems to be the only person to have captured the unknown beast on video—off Kent Island, Md., in 1982. On the phone, he conceded that the creature was something he could not identify. Based on Frew’s video, neither could experts at the Smithsonian. But after studying the footage, they concluded its subject was, in fact, a living, breathing animal. Just what kind, they couldn’t say.

I also spoke with Richard Greenwell, who was then the secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, which seeks to explain seemingly unexplainable sightings in the wild, such as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.

Greenwell’s theory was that Chessie might be a modern-day descendant of the prehistoric whales known as zeuglodons. To support his theory, Greenwell pointed out that the coelacanth, a fish thought to have been extinct for 66 million years, suddenly showed up in the waters of Chalumna River in South Africa.

Whether it’s a Jurassic whale, a large sea snake or an eel, one thing is sure: The Chessie phenomenon is a mystery that continues to fascinate residents of the Delmarva peninsula.

Jim Miller, Director of Publications

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