Most people know when they’re walking over graves—because the burials sites are where you’d expect them—in a graveyard. But in Lewes, Delaware, the remnants of several hundred unknown souls are buried beneath a well-traveled, busy tourist destination. And while an official state marker offers a hint that forgotten bodies might be resting in such an odd place, not many passing tourists, or even local residents, take note of the history associated with this unusual ghost story.
I stumbled across the tale in 1996, by way of a note from a University of Delaware student, who wrote he “had ghostly encounters during the summer while working at the ferry in Lewes, Delaware.”
I met with Matt, who had worked as a seasonal auxiliary traffic officer for the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA). Essentially, he served as a backup to full-time officers—directing traffic, taking tickets, and patrolling at night. After three days of training, Matt was assigned to the midnight (“graveyard”) shift in the old police administration building, located a few hundred feet from the main terminal building.
Matt laughed nervously, recalling that an employee, who was leaving about 10 p.m., said, “Have a good night and, by the way, did anyone tell you that the terminal building is haunted? This whole place is built over an Indian burial ground!” Someone else added a lady working in the gift shop saw things jump off her counter. And another worker shouted, “Don’t let the boogeyman get you!”
Matt laughed off the teasing, but after the cleaning crews were done for the evening, about midnight, he was alone—and the place was getting sort of “creepy.” All was quiet until 4 a.m., when he saw a black form rising from the copy machine, located about 10 feet away.
“It was a mist of black,” he said. “Streams of it were going straight up, toward the ceiling, and I couldn’t figure it out. I knew it was beyond my imagination. I decided that I should ignore it and it would go away.”
He got up and walked away from it, down the hall. Trying to let some time pass. He played solitaire on the computer, and clamed he really wasn’t scared, just uneasy. He was trying to control his imagination, thinking, “Nothing will happen if I don’t think about it.”
About 10 minutes later, when Matt returned to the same chair, the black mist was still rising, forming the shape of a person. He described it as “a tall human form, about 6 feet in height. It was like a shadow without being a shadow. I could see right through it. There was hardly any thickness or body to it. When it started walking, or floating really, I couldn’t see any feet. It drifted into my radio room and I froze, just sat there perfectly still. I figured if it was going to hurt me it would have done so already.
“The strangest thing was that it came up to me and floated right through my legs. It stopped in the area of my knees, and it felt horribly cold. In fact, the entire room got considerably colder than it had been just a half hour before.” Matt said he raised his hand and put it right into the middle of the mysterious figure, but the black smoke went around his hand and through his fingers. His hands got cold, too cold to leave in the middle of the mist.
“There was no detail, as far as clothing or a face or structure,” Matt said. “It had shoulders. It had arms. It had a definite head, but no legs. To me, it looked like a person without legs.”
Matt admitted he had done a lot of thinking about the incident since the night the misty creature appeared. He said the figure stopped at the spot where the officers usually signed their daily report form. “This may sound crazy,” he said, “but I think he was trying to sign himself out for the end of his shift. It might have been a police officer that had passed away. It stood there for several minutes. I wasn’t watching the clock at that time. I was just trying to stay calm. Eventually, it left the area and floated through the door. I looked at the clock then, and it said 4:40 a.m.”
Matt rushed outside, where he felt safer, and waited for the morning crew to arrive at 5 o’clock. “One of the officers saw me,” Matt said, “and noticed I was pale. He said, ‘Matt looks like he saw a ghost!’ And I said, ‘I did!’ He had a good time laughing about that. He roared. I told him I saw a ghost, but I didn’t share the whole story. If I did that, they’d all think I was crazy.
“He said it was my imagination. Word got around real fast, and someone else said I was just alone all night and was imagining things. Then, somebody else shouted that if I wanted to have a good scare, I should go out to the monument near the water. It was erected for the people who died on the bay. He said on a quiet night, you could ‘hear the ghosts screaming.’ ”
The entire morning shift had a good laugh at Matt’s expense. When he returned the next evening, nothing happened, but he saw black shadows and forms during the next two months that summer job.
When I asked Matt if he every talked to the smoky mist, he nodded hesitantly. “I’d try to make conversation with the streams of smoke,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Hi! My name’s Matt. I’m stuck here overnight with you.’ But I never got any response. Every night that it happened, I’d say, ‘Hi! Don’t hurt me.’ By July, it didn’t upset me at all. I just took it as part of working overnight.”
Later, instead of telling anyone what happened to him, he made it a point to ask others about any strange stories they knew about the area. Matt learned that he wasn’t the only one who had witnessed unusual experiences at the ferry. He was told:
•A cleaning woman had been murdered in the area. Since she worked in the terminal building, she comes back to roam,
•Cleaning crew personnel have quit their jobs because they would hear sounds and see toilet paper floating through the bathrooms,
•Bathrooms that were cleaned and locked up at night were found to be dirty when reopened in the morning, and
•People standing on the ferry terminal patio near the water heard moaning and screaming.
“On my last night working midnights,” Matt said, “I was in a good mood, because I was happy to be getting out of there. But I will admit that a part of me wanted my ghost to scare somebody else. I thought it would be neat for him, or it, to scare the guys who were razzing me.”
I wondered why the mysterious mist only materialized for Matt and apparently no one else. He said he thought he had part of the answer. An officer told him that after a four-year break the midnight shift was reactivated the summer Matt joined the part-time force. Apparently, he was the first person to come back to work on the midnight shift since it had been discontinued.
“Maybe whatever it was had been waiting for company and I was the first one he saw,” Matt suggested.
So why did he agree to share his story with me?
“I thought, well, it couldn’t hurt. You’re probably the only one who would actually believe me.”
Matt’s experience was the start of a two year search to learn more about the Lewes Ferry property. I didn’t have any difficulty finding a half dozen other workers with tales to share. Such as:
• Heavy refrigerator doors shut and opened on their own,
• Things fell off counters in the snack bar,
• Hand dryers in the bathrooms turned on by themselves,
• People heard the cleaning crew working in the terminal building—even after they had signed out for the night,
• Puffs of white smoke appeared in the restrooms, and
• Invisible hands pressed down on workers’ shoulders.
Having a list of strange incidents may be interesting, but the best ghost stories answer the question: “WHY is all this stuff happening?”
Lewes historian Hazel Brittingham, provided the reason in a stack of old newspaper articles stating the terminal parking lot had been built over the “Unknown Sailors’ Cemetery,” one of the oldest public burial places in the state.
According to a Wilmington Morning News article, on Sept. 14, 1963, “Some believe the Unknown Sailors Cemetery, approximately 171 feet east of Lewes Coast Guard Station on the Delaware Bay shore contained some 800 graves.
“The presence of the cemetery was disclosed in 1939 with the finding of human bones disinterred by heavy seas against the shore. Old-timers believe there may have been small wooden markers but these were gone One Lewes Coast Guardsman, Capt. William Carson, then in his 80s, recalled the spot was a sailors’ burial ground.”
Apparently, wooden sailing ships that reached the Delaware harbor smashed against the stone Breakwater, and sailors were swept overboard, frozen in the rigging or drowned in the icy water after their ship had gone down. Their bodies drifted onto the shore at Lewes, where they were buried beneath the sands.
David Small, of the Delaware Coast Press, reported in a March 16, 1983, “According to Henry Marshall—a Lewes historian who was instrumental in the movement to mark the spot—bodies of sailors would wash up on the beach where they would later be found by patrolling Coast Guardsmen or townspeople during the late 1800s. With no way to identify the sailors or preserve their bodies, the guardsmen were forced to bury the bodies just above the high water mark on the beach.”
“ ‘Many times they would bury the bodies right there on the spot,’ said Marshall. “The blizzard of 1888 was particularly violent and one that cost the lives of many. ‘The harbor was full of ships and some of the men froze right in the rigging.’ ”
On May 27, 1983, there was a ceremony, dedicating the long forgotten graveyard. Today, a plaque stands behind the Lewes ferry terminal, at the water’s edge, not too far from where cars drive onto the large ships that cart vehicles across the Delaware Bay. The brown marker with gold lettering reads:
Unknown Sailors Cemetery
Lewes has been a port-of-call and a Harbor-of-Refuge since the 17th century. For generations during the age of sail, a public burying ground in this immediate locality became the final resting place for hundreds of sailors who lost their lives and whose unidentified bodies were here cast ashore. In remembrance of those persons whose remains are sheltered on this shore, this memorial is placed. May they find eternal repose.
But like all historical markers, it offers only basic facts. A more accurate statement—that would surely grab tourists’ attention—would be: “On your way to the Lewes Ferry restrooms, snack bar, and gift shop , you’ve just walked over the graves of 800 sailors, who were lost at sea and are buried under our parking lot. Drive safely, thanks for patronizing our haunted ferry, and check your back seat for any glowing, unwanted passengers.”
The Unknown Sailors’ memorial marker gives only a hint of the real story.
Teddy Roosevelt Was Interested In Hunting Maryland's Snallygaster
U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., March 4, 1909
The inauguration of William Howard Taft was one of the must difficult welcoming ceremonies for a new president held in the nation’s capital. A late winter snowstorm had dumped nearly a foot of snow on the city. Heavy winds had downed trees and telephone poles, and also created five-foot-high snowdrifts. With streets blocked from snow and fallen tree limbs, both horse drawn and pedestrian traffic had ground to a halt.
Knee high levels of wet white powder had kept 6,000 city workers busy throughout the night and early morning. The laborers frantically shoveled 60,000 tons of snow and slush from the planned inaugural parade route, then dumped mounds of sand from 500 wagons along the recently cleared paths and streets.
Eventually, the smooth transition of American presidential power occurred on schedule. But the proceedings took place inside the Senate Chamber—instead of outside, on the steps of the Capitol building. After the official swearing-in ceremony was completed, the new president, and First Lady Helen Taft, began to leave the building and head toward their awaiting carriage. Outgoing President Theodore Roosevelt intervened and stopped the happy couple. He extended his hand and offered his successor and the new president’s wife formal congratulations and best wishes.
Roosevelt had served in the Oval Office from 1901-1909, having assumed the presidency, at the young age of 42, after the assassination of President William McKinley. The monocle-wearing Rough Rider sported a wide grin as he shook hands with America’s 27th U.S. President.
“I trust you are glad to be rid of this job?” Taft asked, with a smile directed toward his broadly grinning predecessor.
Nodding and letting out a boisterous laugh, Roosevelt agreed. “Yes, Mr. President. But there is no better state of mind than knowing I am leaving the country in your very capable hands.”
“You’re much too kind, sir.” Taft replied. “So. What’s next? A few months of well deserved rest at your summer home at Sagamore Hill? Fishing. Sailing. Horseback riding? Maybe even a bit of hunting? It is a good season for that.”
Shaking his head, Roosevelt said. “Not quite. I’ve been planning a . . . “
“Safari to Africa!” Taft interjected. “Yes. How could I forget? Your upcoming excursion has been written about, in extensive detail, in every newspaper from here to California. In fact, each time I pick up any newspaper, I hardly find a mention of myself, or my plans for the country. Instead, I am forced to read about my predecessor’s plans to leave America immediately after I am sworn in. It almost appears as if you fear I will muddle things up. Some say you want to place considerable distance between the two of us.”
Shaking his head, Roosevelt denied that the timing of his latest adventure abroad had anything to do with his level of confidence in his handpicked successor. Then, in conspiratorial manner, Roosevelt slowly leaned forward and whispered to the President that there might be a significant change in his safari plans. A development had arisen very recently that might necessitate a short delay in his departure.
“Pray tell?” Taft inquired. “Thinking of heading to the North Pole, the Himalayas, the South Seas, or somewhere more remote and challenging? Please, sir. Share your intentions.”
“None of those, Mr. President. In truth, I may be remaining closer to home, sir. Much closer, in fact.” Roosevelt confided. “I am, at this moment, considering a short, and very secretive, exploration into the Maryland mountains. The opportunity has just presented itself, within the last month.”
“What could the Appalachians offer you?” Taft wondered. “With your international outdoor experience and sporting reputation, simple bear or cougar hunts would be considered child’s play. Why, that wretched state of Maryland doesn’t even offer moose or buffalo. It has nothing worth hunting. Your adoring public would be disappointed. What would be the point?”
Pulling a folded newspaper from the pocket of his heavy, black overcoat, Roosevelt passed the paper toward the President. Taft’s eyes widened as soon as they focused on the exaggerated cartoon drawing of what appeared to be a large dragon. The winged serpent’s outstretched, glistening talons—and a long stream of fire escaping from its mouth—offered a threatening pose, as the beast soared over forests and tall mountains.
“What is this?” Taft asked. His voice was abrupt, impatient. He probably was annoyed he had been unaware of the creature before Roosevelt shared the drawing.
“It has been all the rage after several sightings were reported in a number of small town periodicals,” Roosevelt said. “They call it the ‘Snallygaster.’ It is a fierce creature, one said to eat small game, farm animals, unattended pets, and even young children. The elusive dragon is based upon a German legend, which seems to have been brought here from the Old Country. I have a few of my trusted assistants conducting interviews. If they unearth any level of believable evidence, I intend to head directly into the mountains and try to bag the beast, myself. But, if the facts and evidence do not come together, I will be off to Africa, as planned.”
Without warning, Taft let out a monumental explosion of laughter as he held tightly onto his ample girth. The volume was so loud, all other conversation in the Capitol Rotunda halted, In fact, scores of eyes focused on the two presidents, some mistaking Taft’s abrupt bellow for a gunshot.
“Carry on!” Taft ordered to the onlookers and his bodyguards, offering them a dismissive wave of his right hand. The comment, some believe, was his first presidential decree, and it was instantly followed. The buzz of individual conversations resumed, and the overall sound of unintelligible chatter in the Rotunda returned to its previous normal level.
“Well, now I can say I have heard it all.” Taft said to Roosevelt. “You have progressed from shooting and mounting every earthly animal known to man. Now you intend to stalk mythical creatures. My word, Teddy. You never cease to amaze me. Well,” Taft looked at his pocket watch as his wife tugged upon his arm, “we are off to the parade. We must not keep my new subjects waiting.”
Roosevelt offered a slight bow. “Good luck, Mr. President.”
“And good hunting to you, Mr. President,” Taft offered in reply. Then, after taking four brisk steps toward his waiting carriage, the new President stopped, turned, and shouted, “Once again. What was the name of that strange creature, Teddy?”
Looking across the hall, Roosevelt smiled and replied, “The Snallygaster, Mr. President.”
“The Snallygaster,” Taft repeated. Then he waved at Roosevelt and roared back, “SNALLYGASTER! What an unusual name. What a very unusual name.”