Sam's view of the inside of an old iron furnace
(image from Rabbityama of Virtual Tourist)
Leigh Master was born in Stockport in Lancashire, England in 1717. After his wife, Katherine Hoskins, died, he left Albion and set up shop near Westminster, in Maryland's Carroll County in 1765. Master had told his buds that he was coming "to the new country to make his fortune," and boy, was he right.
He put together an iron business at Furnace Hill, and soon became a big-shot mine operator, foundry master, and property owner, with 6,000 acres of land holdings, running the eighteenth century equivalent of an integrated steel mill. At first, he had the locals do the backbreaking work, but quickly switched over to cheaper slave labor.
Master worked his slaves hard and was swift to punish those he considered slackers, delivering beatings to them in the basement of his mansion. Some of the unfortunates didn't survive his not-so-tender ministrations, and their bodies were said to be buried in the cellar.
He became a rich dude - his furnaces produced quite high quality iron - but to the locals, Master was not a man they respected, but feared. He was also a bit eccentric (some say bonkers); it was claimed that he would ride in the woods around Furnace Hill at night wrapped in a white sheet and yelling gibberish, scaring the bejabbers out of the poor souls who ran across him during his evening jaunts.
In 1786, he ran for the Maryland legislature. But it's hard to convince people who are afraid of you to cast their vote in your favor; he was thumped and never ran for office again. The fact that he was a suspected Loyalist during the Revolution didn't earn him many points, either. Master was tried for high treason in 1781, but apparently beat the rap.
He died at the age of 80 in 1796. And then the spook stories began, spread through the region by generations of word-of-mouth folk tales.
Legend has it that he fell for his Black servant girl, but another slave, Sam, owned her heart. The lore continues that the outraged Master had Sam killed and thrown into the fiery iron furnace to cover the dastardly deed (other versions say he had Sam bound and tossed into the flames alive), and then bricked up the woman in a fireplace while she was still alive. His Green-Eyed Monster was a particularly horrific beast.
During 1930 renovations of his old home, called Avondale, a downstairs furnace was opened and a skeleton was discovered. Some unverified reports even say that a baby's bones were found, supposedly of Master's child, which would put another truly ugly twist on the tale. While it didn't absolutely prove the crime, try telling that to the locals.
There are stories of the house being haunted by both Master and the slaves he dispatched in the basement. The manse became an inn, the Avonlea Bed and Breakfast, but the spirits apparently remained. One of our readers wrote in to say that the legends are more than just old tales:
"I have personally witnessed haunting in the home, as well as heard the chilling accounts of haunting by the family. The daughter (of the B&B owners) would see Leigh Master before she would go to bed, her mother saw a young girl playing upstairs, and everyone who lived or stayed there has witnessed unexplainable noises. Lights would go off in the main house in rooms in which no electricity is ran. All the tools that were hung on the walls of the barn would be removed and laying all over the grounds. Another fun fact for Master's home, is that later, well after his death, a train derailed and the car went into a pond on the property. The people that were in the RR car were trapped and died. So Avonlea is haunted not only by Leigh Master himself, but his murdered slaves and possibly by those that drowned in the RR accident."
And the manse isn't the spookiest spot. Master is better known for haunting the woodlands around Furnace Hill. The are tales of his spirit walking through the arbor towards his old mansion, but the best stories concern Master a'gallop through the trees.
Shortly after his death, neighbors reported seeing Master riding on a fire-snorting gray steed, seeking penance and crying for mercy while accompanied by the sound of rattling chains.
Sometimes, he was spotted on his stallion alone, and at other times pursued by three glowing imp-like figures carrying lanterns. Either way, the woods quickly gained a ghostly reputation and by nightfall became empty of people (living ones, anyway), who had no intention of meeting up with "The Ghost of Furnace Hill."
Hey, even his final rest was eerie. When Master died, he was buried on his property. It was said that Mother Earth herself didn't want him, and his body rose to the surface three times over the intervening decades.
His remains were transferred to consecrated ground at the Church of the Ascension Burial Grounds in 1876, and placed in a stone box under a tree. But he still doesn't rest easily; the top slab cracked, as if the earth was still trying to reject him, and legend has it that when it was replaced, it cracked again.
After his death, Master's heirs sold the property; his home and the ruins of his furnace are all that remain...oh, and a spook or two, just to remind us of the bad ol' days of yore.