Sunday, December 14, 2008

Fort Delaware Demons

Fort Delaware from Coast Defense Study Group

Pea Patch Island is the home of Fort Delaware, a Union fortress dating back to 1859. In the middle of the Delaware River between New Jersey and Delaware, it was built to protect the ports of Philadelphia and Wilmington. The Fort was an imposing structure, boasting 32-foot high walls of granite, some parts up to 30 feet thick, gun emplacements, and a moat.

It seemed pretty well placed, too, once the Civil War broke out. But the rebs never mosied into that part of the North. So in 1862, construction began on a complex outside the fort to house 10,000 prisoners. It was switching modes, from a garrison to a POW camp.

After the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, there were almost 13,000 prisoners held at Fort Delaware. Overall, 32,000 troops, officers and political prisoners were held at the Fort during the Civil War period. By April 1864, hundreds had died from malaria and dysentery. By the end of the war, 3,200 inmates had left Fort Delaware in a pine box.

There is no official tally of escape attempts from the Fort. Union reports show a total of 273 escapes; there may have been up to 1,000 attempts. Prisoners who tried to swim to freedom were often overwhelmed by the strong tidal currents of the Delaware River. Most didn't make it.

Legend has it that one man even skated to freedom from the Fort. The Delaware River had frozen over, and Union soldiers were ice-skating. The guards decided it would be a chuckle to watch some Southern boys, strangers to ice, try to skate. According to local legend, one gray coat acted as if he couldn't skate, and repeatedly fell down, each time a little closer to shore. Finally, he got close enough to land to make a break for freedom.

It continued to be used as a coastal defense during the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. In 1951, the outdated Fort became a state park, was polished up a bit, and opened to the public.

But for many decades, the old Fort was home to its many unhappy spirits, and they lingered even though Fort Delaware shut down.

One of the better known spooks is the Kitchen Ghost. The officer’s kitchen at the Fort is a functional 1800’s kitchen, including an 1862 cast iron stove and oven. During the summer, the cookery is staffed and used as an exhibit for the public.

It features a large food pantry, and this is where the Kitchen Ghost seems to spend most of her time. She likes to hide things from the workers, such as ingredients to a dish they are making. TKG takes the spices from the work table and puts then back where they belong, in the pantry.

The Kitchen Ghost also likes to utter aloud the name of people whom walk into the pantry. She's also told people to get out. After all, it's her domain.

For all the pranks she's pulled on the visitors and staff, she's only appeared once. There were a handful of women cooking away when suddenly a woman whom none of them knew appeared, checking out the food on the stove and the table. She gave the surprised cooks a small grin, turned around, and walked through the wall.

Legend has another well-known spirit roaming the bowels of Fort Delaware, Confederate General James Jay Archer. As an officer, Archer was given plushy quarters, relatively speaking, and he had the run of the fort. He had promised Fort commander General Albin Schoepf that he wouldn't try to escape in exchange for his freedom of movement.

The prisoners naturally greatly outnumbered the guards, and Archer couldn't resist going back on his word. He came up with an escape plan, but it was found out. Schoepf, bitterly disappointed by Archer's broken promise (after all, a gentleman's word and all that...), sentenced him to solitary confinement in a windowless powder magazine.

Archer was released from his captivity during a prisoner exchange, and he was on death's doorstep from his time in solitary. He died shortly thereafter in Richmond. Visitors and fort employees have reported seeing a bearded man in a gray uniform in the area where Archer was imprisoned. Maybe his spook is still ruing his corporal decision to go back on his oath as an officer and a gentleman.

There's a grisly tale told of a 9-year old drummer boy who tried to trick his way out of the Fort. He planned to escape by hiding in a coffin. The work detail of rebels were in on the deal, and meant to let him out when they reached the cemetery across the river in New Jersey. As fate would have it, the work detail was switched at the last minute. He was buried alive. His forlorn spirit is still tethered to Fort Delaware.

Another spook is up to no good at the Fort's closed-off (to the tourists) stairwell. The steps are located in the Endicott section of the Fort, and the staff occasionally have call to climb them - if the Stairwell Spook lets them. They report that someone was trying to push or pull them down the stairs by tugging their clothes, or would send a flock of birds down the stairs in full flutter to try to knock them down the staircase. We think we'll wait for an elevator, thank you.

There are reports of a second kitchen ghost, but this one is more interested in sewing than cooking. In one of the old officer’s kitchens, there is now a laundry area set up. Staffers show visitors how laundry was done in the 1800s and let them try their hand at the nineteenth century laundromat.

The room is spooked by a friendly enough woman's spirit. She threads needles, and also collects loose buttons and strings them together. Some think she's the Kitchen Ghost in a different haunt, but this ghost seems a lot friendlier to us, and we call her the Seamstress Spook.

In the officer’s quarters inside the Fort, there's allegedly a ghost of a child that roams the second floor, and a lady-in-waiting.

The boy spook tugs on the back of people’s clothing and his laughter has been heard echoing from within the Fort. In the same officer’s quarters there's the ghost of a lady. She'll tap on a person's shoulder or take them by the hand, as if to lead them on a tour of the rooms.

There have also been accounts of books falling and swinging crystals from the rooms, but no one knows if it's the little boy at play or the lady killing time. Some think the spooks may be a mother and son act.

And hey, that's just a handful of the Fort's many reported apparitions. Here's a few more:

*People have heard moaning and the sounds of clanging chains coming from the dungeons.

*There have been sightings by boaters passing the Fort at night, claiming that there are lights on when there is no one on the island and the generator is shut down. There are also occasional sightings of someone standing on the top of the fort when it's empty, apparently pulling eternal guard duty.

*Confederate soldiers have been spotted under the ramparts and on the parade grounds.

*In one of the powder magazines, staff and visitors have heard someone swearing old oaths (no *F* bombs, we guess) when no one else is around.

*A visitor snapped a picture of a rebel soldier in the Fort's archway. There have been many orb photos taken in the Fort, sometimes with as many as eight auras at a time.

*Outside of the laundry area/officer’s kitchen, people have heard a harmonica being played. Maybe a soldier is still whiling away the time and amusing himself after all these years, or maybe he's trying to impress the Seamstress Spook.

*Disembodied voices have been heard in many areas of the Fort.

*And the only non Civil War sighting we've heard of: Local lore says that buccaneers used Pea Patch island back in the day. A park ranger reported that he saw a pirate, dressed in a green silk shirt and white silk pants, looking longingly out a window at the Fort towards the open sea. And no, we haven't the foggiest idea how a pirate ended up in a Civil War POW camp. Kinda eerie, hey?

The Fort's been written up in Civil War Ghosts at Fort Delaware by Ed Okonowicz and was featured in an episode of Ghost Hunters on the Sci-Fi Channel TV.

So if you want to get your spook on, take a visit to Fort Delaware. It's open five days a week during the summer, and on weekends and holidays during the early fall. And don't miss its ghost tours.