A thick fog settles on the ground like a foot of snow. A statue of a larger-than-life soldier stands on a granite block and marks the entrance to the island's cemetery. Far off, a bugle plays reveille, but no one is in sight.
"Cash!" a baritone voice shouts into the cold night air. After a pause, "Christian!"
The seven-foot soldier statue has stepped down from his stone block. "Gobble-Hardy-Harvin-Nullins!" he barks.
Behind the soldier, shadowy ghosts of helmeted men climb out of their graves, the tips of their decaying wooden headstones peeking a few inches above the fog. As the soldier calls out names, the troops of ghost soldiers march stiffly in threadbare gray uniforms. They head southward, to the shore of Sandusky Bay, and wade into the lake.
As the last pair of shoulders, then helmet, then tip of a shoulder-leaning rifle sink into the foggy sea, the roll-calling soldier statue steps back onto his stone block and resumes his position guarding the cemetery. Until the next foggy night.
The folks at the Steamship William G. Mather Museum treasure tales like this one about the Lake Erie island that was the site of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, housing a total of 12,000 soldiers. The Mather staff, together with some fifty volunteers, have been using Great Lakes lore for the past four Halloween seasons as the basis of their Legends of the Lake haunted ship.
Offering an alternative to the typical guts 'n' gore of most haunted houses, the Mather people focus on theatrical storytelling throughout the vessel. Some of the stories were passed down for generations by word of mouth.
"Before we include a story in the program, we research it thoroughly in Great Lakes history books and, in some cases, original newspaper articles reporting on the event," says Holly Holcomb, executive director.
Storytellers recount legends and tall tales complete with special effects. Dead bodies fall past windows, phantoms fly, and scaly monsters rear out from the sea, courtesy of chicken wire, fiberglass, electrical circuitry, and a few pulleys.
"One woman screamed so loudly during my story last year that the techie missed his cue," recalls Margaret Watterson, a volunteer storyteller since the program began. "I had to repeat my line for the monster to show up."
It's easy to feel spooked when storyteller Al Zimmie recounts the tale of Red Monroe, a red-haired Scottish sailor who fell to his death on the ship The Chicago Board of Trade. With his own red hair and bushy mustache, Zimmie emits a sinister chuckle over the curse Red placed on the ship and its captain and crew.
As the story goes, violent storms arose on the ship's voyage to Cleveland. The wind tore off the ship's lifeboats and sails, and the main mast split in half. To top it off, Red's ghost appeared to the men.
And then there's the legend of Howlin' Fred McCandless, whose mother knew he was destined for a seafaring life because, as a baby, he bellowed like a foghorn instead of crying. Howlin' Fred, who did become captain of a steamboat similar to the S.S. Mather, was best known for his ability to tie a horseshoe in a knot with his bare hands. Howlin' Fred attributed his Popeye-like strength to breakfasts of "anchor strawberries" (prunes), and he could pinpoint his ship's location by chugging a dipperful of Lake Erie water. If that's not scary, nothing is. -- Lisa Palazzo
Landlubbers can hear more about Red Monroe, Howlin' Fred, and all their cronies on Friday and Saturday evenings through October 30, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the S.S. William G. Mather Museum, 1001 East Ninth Street Pier. Tickets are $6 at the door, $5 in advance; call 216-574-9053.