Haunted History: The Selbyville Swamp Monster
Swamps have always been associated with the Spirit world, with frightening creatures, scary sounds in the night, and primal fear. The swamp I want to talk about today is called The Burnt Swamp because a vast fire, resulting from a moonshiner's still exploding, burned through it in 1930. The Burnt Swamp is located near the town of Selbyville, Delaware. The Burnt Swamp fire continued to burn for 8 months through the peat layers, despite great efforts to extinguish it. A previous fire in June 1782 burned 3,000 acres and threatened to burn down homes--it was said that the light from the fire could be seen 70 miles away.
A survey completed in 1790 describes getting thru the 13 miles swamp as brutal work that took them ten days. The surveyors' notes recounted wading in shoulder-high water and encountering relentless flies and mosquitoes, dangerous snakes, quicksand, poison ivy, and no stable land to set up instruments.
English botanist Thomas Nutall, who visited the Great Cypress Swamp 27 years later in 1809, wrote; "We began to enter one of the most frightful labyrinths you can imagine. It was filled with tall tangling shrubs thickly matted together almost impervious to the light."
It is no surprise that the swamp remains a place of both history and paranormal legend!
The local folklore claims that brightly colored lights and orbs are often seen in the swamp. A man sitting in a truck reading a newspaper is seen off in the woods (there is no road, nor is there any way for a truck to be driven back there). Some have heard a woman screaming or crying, dogs barking, or a car engine starting in the night. Of course, some of these sounds can be easily explained -- there are farms and homes nearby. But many cannot.
Local residents will warn you not to go out into the swamp alone, as it's a known spot for vehicles to break down and many claim there is no cellphone signal to be found.
Sightings of the swamp monster increased in the 1960s and were highlighted in the Delmarva News on several occasions in the early 1960s.
Many years later, Ralph Grapperhaus, editor of the Delmarva News admitted that it was a hoax, perpetrated by himself and an actor friend, Fred Stevens. Fred crafted a costume that included a raccoon hat, scary mask, and a club, and jumped out at passing vehicles along Route 54. He related how many people came in search of the swamp monster, from as far away as Dover and Salisbury, Maryland, and that some even brought "gifts" to appease the beast, including throwing chickens at him (presumably to feed him). Ralph and Fred decided to stop the practice when visitors started showing up inebriated and sometimes armed to hunt the creature - it just became too dangerous to continue!
Despite it being revealed as a hoax in 1987 and Fred admitting that he hadn't used the costume since 1964, this tale lives on. Stories of sightings of the monster continue to suggest to new generations of area residents that there could be a real swamp monster out there.
In my visit to this area, I can confirm that it has an eerie feel to it. The trees are large and loom over the road, their twisted branches adding to the "creep factor" of the swamp. Despite a feeling of great sadness emanating from this forest, I decided to open a discussion with Spirit to see who would come through. I spoke with an enslaved person named William that indicated that he had been hanged nearby. He had been wrongly accused of a minor crime and was not aware of who the guilty party might be. When we talked about his family and sharing his story more publicly, the Mel Meter reacted very strongly - in fact, during this session, I felt strong emotion from this Spirit and the Mel Meter was quite active, climbing into the 4-5.0 range on numerous occasions. Temperature changes also occurred during this part of the session. I now completely understood the sense of foreboding I felt in this area. It felt so heavy as I spoke to William but when I said goodbye to him and assured him I would tell others about what happened to him, I sensed a lifting of a lot of that heavy energy. William could rest better knowing that someone 100 years later or more could reach out to him and offer his spirit some empathy...and an apology.
It was a moving experience and I hope I helped him achieve some kind of peace knowing that we care about those people that are not at rest in the afterlife. I am grateful to be able to do this work - and humbled by it.
The Spooky Scam that Haunted Southern Delaware, M. Eichmann, WHYY, October 30, 2015.
The 1930 Burnt Swamp Fire, Delmar Historical and Art Society, June 8, 2015. Available online: http://delmarhistoricalandartsociety.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-1930-burnt-swamp-fire.html