Monthly Archives: May 2013

Haunted High School

Spring is in the air. Everywhere high school seniors are graduating and saying good-bye to the place that has been a home away from home for four years. Now that Dorothy and I have finished our spring round of talks, I thought I would give our readers a new ghost to contemplate – a complete story, so pardon the length.

GHS_AWhenever I meet people and they hear about In Search of Maryland Ghosts: Montgomery County, they frequently ask if the book includes their favorite haunted place. If I’m lucky, they will ask about something I’ve never heard of, a lead to a new story. A frequent mention is Gaithersburg High School. As far as I can ascertain, every student and teacher that has been at that school believes it is haunted. Stories abound. Unfortunately, Gaithersburg is one of those stories that we left on the cutting room floor, a victim of the need to make the book shorter. But, before we decided that it had to go, I took the opportunity to tour the old building before it is gone (a new school building is under construction at this very moment) and see the places that are part of the school’s mythology.

The most popular, and gruesome, is the chemical spill that occurred in the 1970s in Lower C Hall (the school is a warren of hallways due to the many additions it has had over the years), killing nine students and a teacher. At night, their death screams can be heard coming from that area, which has been blocked off because of the dangerous nature of the accident. The smell of chemicals are often emanating from behind the locked door.

Then there was the boiler explosion that took place, possibly in the early 1900s, killing the school’s janitor. This gentleman, Mr. Wims, has been seen by many of the track athletes and their coach after school hours wandering Halls C and D – a man who “has peppery black and gray hair with a navy blue uniform on and a lot of keys on his belt loop that jingle.” The jingling keys can be heard long after the figure has disappeared.

The real Lower C Hall

The real Lower C Hall

And now for the somewhat different truth, something one would expect from stories that have gone through many generations of Gaithersburg students. Lower C Hall, the site of that deathly accident does not exist, at least not as classroom space. It is the basement area below C Hall and was never classroom space. The piled up desks that can be seen through the windows are there because, as happens at a school, things get old and worn, but are rarely thrown out. At GHS, they are banished to the basement, creating ample fodder for a deliciously frightening ghost story. The chemical smell, it comes from the cleaning closet that is kept locked during school hours. The bricked wall, well that presents a more complicated, and amusing aspect of the school which has long outgrown its anticipated student body of 800.

A jumble of chairs in Lower C Hall

A jumble of chairs in Lower C Hall

With that growth sometimes laughable blunders occur. The wall in question is in one of the stairways in Hall E (if I am remembering correctly), an addition to the school. The architect erred and put the stairs going the wrong direction, forcing people using that stairwell to go from the second floor to the basement and then up another set of stairs to reach the first floor. That brick wall, supposedly a bricked up entrance to Lower Hall C, is simply an annoying mistake.

What about poor Mr. Wims and that boiler explosion. The current school has never had a boiler explosion, or fire of any kind. However, the original school building, the old-old Gaithersburg School, was destroyed by fire in 1895, fortunately no one was injured. (The old Gaithersburg School, which housed grades K-12, was built in 1905. The soon-to-be-old Gaithersburg High School opened in 1951, leaving the original building for the lower grades.) Perhaps the story carried over and became sensationalized over time. Poor Mr. Wims did die a tragic death, a car accident in Frederick County killed him and his wife (not yet verified). Wims was the first building manager for GHS, devoting thirty years of his life to the school (in fact, the school is only on its third building manager since opening). Ghosts are known to haunt places that have great meaning to them, where their spirits are at home. Mr. Wims has been seen and heard by many people over the years. Perhaps he is as dedicated to the school in death as he was in life, eternally roaming the halls, making sure the school is ready for its students and teachers.

One can only wonder what he’ll do when the old school is torn down…

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Gaithersburg Book Festival May 18!

I hope to see a good crowd Saturday, May 18 at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. We are speaking from 10-10:30 at the Dashiell Hammett tent and then signing all day in the author’s tent. Please come see us: http://gaithersburgbookfestival.org/panels/ghosts-of-montgomery-county/

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Active Aging Expo, Career Day, and the Choices We Make

This week I have the pleasure of speaking to groups on either end of the age spectrum On Wednesday, I went to Career Day at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville and on Monday, May 6, we’ll be speaking at the City of Gaithersburg’s Active Aging Expo at Bohrer Park.

Dorothy and I are scheduled to speak at 11:15, but we’ll be there all day signing and selling. Please join us. The event is free and there are many other interesting programs (just don’t look at the programs concurrent with ours). Here is the full program:

http://www.gaithersburgmd.gov/Documents/seniorcenter/2013_Active_Aging_Expo_Schedule.pdf

A little about Career Day – This was the first time I had participated in a career day. I had many requests when I was at the Montgomery County Historical Society, but always said no as I could never think of what to say. I almost said no this time as well. When I was asked to talk about being an historian and author, I could only think that the best advice I could give was to marry someone with a good income (perhaps not the message they were hoping for). In the end, though, I decided I would talk about doing historical research and the decisions writers, in particular historians, have to make whenever they are writing to publish. I deconstructed the Headless Horseman and the Annington Guest House for the students, two stories where I did a lot of research and ended up with more material than was used in the final version.

Historians are often viewed as impartial observers of the past and their writings are expected to reflect that impartiality, and the best strive to do that. Yet, we do give the story we are telling a bias simply because of the choices we make as writers. We usually end up with more sources, more material, than we ever thought we would, or less. Either way, we want the story to be clean, and we cut and past to make it so.

Those may sound like highfalutin words from someone who writes ghost stories, but I am an historian too. First I had to find a ghost story, and then my historian background kicked in, and I researched persons, places, things, and other strange happenings that might be involved in the story.  Here is where I might find too much information.  I had to sift and sort what I found and then combine the ghost with the chosen history.  Some of my stories may be a little thin in the haunting area, but the connected history was so rich that I felt it justified telling the story.  Of course the opposite happened sometimes when there was no relevant history to connect with the ghost .Then I just let the ghost stand alone.

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Railroad bridge over Game Preserve Road.

Let’s revisit the Headless Horseman of Game Preserve Road, one of the scariest stories in the book. What you don’t know is that the original story, as told to me, said that the ghost was either a Confederate cavalryman who was decapitated in a skirmish along the road where the railroad bridge now crosses (the railroad didn’t come through until 1873) OR a Confederate cavalryman who was wounded and made his way to the farmhouse of Francis Clopper. The Cloppers took him in, but he died of his wounds anyway. They then quietly buried him, in the dead of night at St. Rose of Lima Church, where a stone now marks his grave (it was added many years later). I chose to only use the story about the decapitated soldier because it made more sense in the story. If he was able to make it to the Clopper Farm, then he still had his head, therefore he couldn’t really be the Headless Horseman. In searching for an article about the murderer who supposedly died along the tracks, I also found newspaper articles about drownings along that stretch of road, which is near Seneca Creek, but I didn’t use them because my focus was on the railroad track and by using the more grisly beheadings  I had a tighter story.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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