By Erin Caine
Elm Staff Writer
It seems only fitting to bring in the Halloween season with a local ghost story and more precisely, D.S. Daniels’ “Ghosts of Chestertown and Kent County. It boasts a historical expertise that enriches the gripping supernatural element throughout. As Daniels herself said in the opening sentences, “In writing this book, there were times that I wondered if I was writing a book about history or a book about ghosts. The simple answer to that question is that it is about both.”
Indeed, there is no shortage of history in “Ghosts.” In fact, Daniels served for seven years as executive director of the Kent County Historical Society. To say that only those interested in history would enjoy this book is a mistake. Anyone who appreciates the art of storytelling can become a part of Daniels’ world of local legends and Colonial-era horrors. Masterfully and nearly seamlessly, she switches between cold facts and personal encounters, and between written records and whispered rumors.
One can’t help but notice and appreciate Daniels’ unflinching retelling of human brutality and her blunt style that is refreshing in an era where history is always glossed over, censored, or otherwise made more palatable. The details of past happenings at the Kent County Courthouse are particularly quite gruesome, illuminating one of “the most hideous of public-sanctioned executions in Maryland history.”
Esther Anderson’s execution (she was burnt at the stake in 1746) gives us frame by frame, from the incineration of her lower extremities to her “final shriek.” The narrative style reminds us of the “Bloody Mary” stories classmates relay to us as children, and yet Daniels maintains an authoritative, matter-of-fact voice.
Since Washington College is so entwined with the history of Chestertown and Kent County, it seems only natural that there would be a section for it in the book or, more accurately, for one of its professors in an incident that occurred 80 years ago. Kenneth Boxton, a chemistry professor, returned home one day to discover that his wife, Thelma, had been jailed and later inducted into a mental institution in Baltimore for murdering her widowed mother-in-law with a hatchet.
Such close-to-home horrors would certainly send a chill through students and faculty alike. Still, the section on the college as a whole isn’t entirely about murder and madness. There are some interesting historical facts and local superstitions such as the origins of the Great Seal of WC (designed by Betsy Peale, who was likely the first female faculty member of a college in American history) and the mysterious invisible cat that haunts the corridors of Minta Martin.
What is fascinating about “Ghosts” is that Daniels, amid details of the past and local rumors, does not balk at interjecting her own personal commentary and experiences. Often times, books of a particularly historical or scholarly nature distance the author from the material and the events described for fear of bringing bias into the narrative.
One forgets, due to Daniels’ knowledgeable tone, that this is a book about ghosts and entities that have yet to be properly explained by scientific evidence. Daniels, in presenting her own remarks, reminds us that while there is a history she corroborates in her work, the rest — the material that concerns ghosts, mysterious sounds, and strange encounters — we have to learn entirely through subjective experiences, and yet it still remains just as “true,” as documented records in a sense.
In her closing statements, she said, “This I do believe: there is much to this world that we don’t begin to understand but should not out of hand dismiss.” While many may not necessarily believe in the paranormal, Daniels, armed both with factual expertise and the skills of a raconteur, paints herself as a credible source of the incredible.