Author scares up stories about local haunts

 

DOVER — An accomplished professional storyteller, Delaware native Ed Okonowicz knows interest in even his tales eventually wanes.

So when he’s giving a ghost tour chock full of spooky narratives, the just under-an-hour mark is indicative of whether it’s time to wrap up the show.

There’s only so long to present history, humor and haunts before it’s time to go. Mr. Okonowicz never will go more than an hour, no matter how well his shtick is being received.

“At about the 50-minute mark I take a look at the audience and determine whether people are looking at their watches and ready to run to their cars,” he said.

“If they still appear to be engaged, I’ll go for a few more minutes, but I’ll never go more than an hour.”

Making 70 to 75 appearances a year, Mr. Okonowicz said October and November are the most hectic when it comes to telling ghost stories. He’s got a lot of them to be sure, considering that 18 of the 25 books he’s authored have revolved around paranormal material.

In contrast to being a freelance writer, the 68-year-old Mr. Okonowicz enjoys knowing immediately the effect of his work.

“Having worked as both a writer and a storyteller, there’s an interesting difference regarding reactions,” he said.

“After a story is written, you’re not sure how it is received, unless you make an error — in which case folks let you know very quickly.

“Usually, though, reactions to an article take time to get back to the writer. In storytelling, you see the audience’s reaction immediately, both while you are in the midst of presenting the tale and at the conclusion.

“You find out, at the moment you provide a surprise ending or the story’s climax, whether it worked or not. That can be very satisfying, when it’s successful, and very humbling when you miss your target.”

There’s great value in telling a tale, according to Mr. Okonowicz.

“One of storytelling’s greatest gifts is making deceased loved ones come alive, by relatives passing down valuable family stories,” he said.

“Many of us do this naturally at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, without taking a course. I warn students, as soon as their family members find out they’ve passed a storytelling course, they will be designated the speaker at funerals and weddings. And several have sent me notes telling me I was right.”

Mr. Okonowicz is a member of the Delaware Humanities Forum Speakers Bureau and Visiting Scholars Program and was part of the Maryland State Arts Council Traditional/Folk Arts Advisory Panel. He currently teaches storytelling, communication and writing courses at his University of Delaware alma mater.

More information on Mr. Okonowicz is available at www.mystandlace.com.

Some ghosts, maybe

So, does this longtime storyteller believe in ghosts?

“Out of all the hundreds of people I’ve spoken to I probably heard two or three stories that gave me pause to think about this,” said Okonowicz, who authored several books generated from collecting ghost stories from throughout the Middle Atlantic region.

“All the others, most of them, were more a product of wishful thinking (of experiencing the terror and excitement when being in a ghost’s presence).”

Mr. Okonowicz, who turned 68 Friday, said he’s been told of four ghosts that haunt the Woodburn, the governor’s mansion in Dover, including a slave kidnapper who lingered for decades after meeting his demise there.

The so-called “Hanging Tree” came about after the man was strangled to death by tree branches while attempting to evade capture by an angry Dover citizenry, Mr. Okonowicz told in a brief recap of the story earlier this week.

The man was hiding in the tree when he fell asleep, lost his balance and got his neck fatally caught in the branches in the fall back to the ground, Mr. Okonowicz said.

The man sought protection after the notorious 19th-century Patty Cannon gang attacked Woodburn in search of slaves taking refuge there; the gang was chased away by enraged townfolk, but the one man was forced to hide in the tree.

After his death, the story goes, the man’s moans, groans and cries occasionally were heard by anyone near enough to experience the terror of it. “The Hanging Tree,” a victim of age, was chopped down in 1997.

Then there was “The Colonel” who supposedly roamed up and down the stairs in a powdered wig. As a visiting preacher sat down at the governor’s table he asked, “What about the man upstairs? Aren’t we going to wait for him?” All the others at the table knew the preacher had seen “The Colonel” because nobody else was coming to dinner.

The Tippling Ghost was a fun-loving spirit who would drink wine left out by Gov. Charles Terry Jr. and his staff overnight. Plainly put, a full glass left out as everyone retired for the night would be empty in the morning.

The little “Girl in Gingham” reportedly floated across the reflecting pool at times, never causing any consternation, just drifting across the water at Woodburn.

“The Cloak House of Arts” in downtown Smyrna had a friendly ghost named Elizabeth, the late daughter of the original family who lived there. Items mysteriously would be moved from one place to another, enough so that a painter ran out of the house never to come back, the story goes.

“Oh, that’s just Elizabeth,” was the response of Ms. Ruth Knotts who lived there at the time, according to Mr. Okonowicz.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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