Saturday, January 7, 2017

Midnight at the Castle of Good and Evil—Book Review

The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia
Amy Petulla
History Press, 2016

Even the name Corpsewood Manor is reminiscent of a haunted house attraction. When I first encountered a description of this remote, northwest Georgia site I discounted the description as a typical internet fiction, one of those countless urban legends that are found in the weedier portions of the web. None of the better sources I followed made mention of this until Theresa Racer, the creator of Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State Blog covered this site. I did some perfunctory research on the site and determined that most of the wild facts about the site were not mere inventions and have always meant to include this story in my blog. I was excited to see Amy Petulla, the owner of Chattanooga Ghost Tours and the co-author of Haunted Chattanooga with Jessica Penot, wrote a book about this fascinating case and haunting.

The facts of this story seem like a swirl of bad tabloid journalism. Two gay men, Charles Scudder and Joey Odom, lived in a hand-built castle on a remote mountain ridge in northwest Georgia. The remote location allowed them to escape the pressures of urban living and live in a simple manner without electricity, phones, and the rude interruptions of modern “connected” life. The remote castle acted as a fortress keeping the outside world at bay while allowing them to indulge in decadent pleasures that were viewed with contempt by much of the outside world. Scudder, a former professor of pharmacology at Chicago’s Loyola University, engaged in reading and study in his mountain hideaway where he also dabbled in the occult and the hedonistic tenets of Satanism.



Two local men, Tony West and Avery Brock, had visited the pair a handful of times and even partaken of some of the verboten pleasures that were offered to some of the guests of the castle, when they were struck with the idea of robbing the pair. West and Brock visited Corpsewood on the evening of December 12, 1982 and shot both men to death when they did not reveal where their money was hidden (both Scudder and Odom had a decent sum of money but it was entirely in bank accounts, the pair had no cash on them). The criminals took some valuables from the castle and fled in Scudder’s Jeep. On the road, the two criminals robbed and killed a naval officer they encountered in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Both men were quickly arrested and tried for the murders. They were both found guilty. Both men remain in prison for this horrible crime.

After the discovery of the bodies of Scudder and Odom (as well as their two beloved mastiffs), curious locals flocked to the scene to gawk at the remote castle. The crowds stripped the home clean of souvenirs, even digging up the rose bushes while some of the more valuable items were safely removed by friends and acquaintances of the couple. Many of these items were later believed to have brought bad luck to the owners. The remote castle was soon torched by arsonists and the surrounding forest quickly began to reclaim the site.

As a lover of the paranormal Petulla includes an entire chapter on the paranormal activity that still persists at the site. One of the more fascinating tales she notes came from her masseuse who visited the site one afternoon with friends. At the site of the house they met two middle aged men sitting among the ruins in lawnchairs. After an amicable conversation about the tragedy that had occurred there many years earlier, the masseuse and friends walked away to explore the rest of the site. Returning to the ruins of the house they discovered that the odd men had left. After describing the two men to Petulla she produced a photograph of Dr. Scudder and the masseuse was shocked to say that he had been one of the odd pair.

Petulla revels in the details and personalities involved in this case. The picture she presents is not unlike John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which explores the events surrounding a murder that occurred in Savannah a year before the Corpsewood murders. Like Berendt who had reported on Jim Williams for Esquire and was personally embedded in Savannah society, Petulla worked as an assistant district attorney under David “Red” Lomenick, who had prosecuted West and Brock a few years earlier. This intimate knowledge of the case is born out in exquisite detail in this book.

In all its tabloid-esque elements, Petulla handles the story sympathetically and mostly without casting aspersions on the victims. She also utilizes interviews with locals who were friends of Scudder and Odom and presents them as fascinating eccentrics who simply wished to live their own lives before that was upended by this murderous plot. By incorporating details of the eccentric personalities involved in this case, Petulla presents a scary, bizarre, and thoroughly enjoyable adventure through remote northwest Georgia in the early 1980s.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

There’s something about Mary—Maryland

The Judge’s Bench
8385 Main Street
Ellicott City

The rain had slackened on the night of July 30th in Ellicott City, Maryland when the water flowing down Main Street began to form into cascades and eventually a torrent. The historic cobblestone streets and storefronts turned the raging water into a flume as it sought the refuge of the Patapsco River at the foot of Main Street. Cars, pedestrians, mud, merchandise, and eventually pavement and parts of the street joined the river-bound tumult. Within hours much of the street itself had been swept away leaving the foundations of the buildings on either side exposed. In the chaos, two lives were lost, several buildings totally destroyed, and many more sustained severe damage.
 
Flood waters have severely damaged storefronts on the lower
end of Main Street. Photo from MDGovPics, 2016, courtesy of
Wikipedia.

Maryland's governor tours Main Street after the flooding. The
Judge's Bench is located just up the street on the left. Photo
from MDGovPics, 2016, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ellicott City is no stranger to flooding and its historic streets and buildings bear scars from floods over the centuries. Some of those scars are spiritual in nature. It has been claimed that Ellicott City is the most haunted city in the country, though I take no stock in any claims of being “the most haunted,” and at least some of that haunted nature may stem from the floods. The father and son ghosthunting team of Michael J. and Michael H. Varhola, authors of Ghosthunting Maryland, posit that granite may also be a cause. The city lies on a large deposit of granite, some of which has been quarried for the city’s building materials. Indeed, many historic structures use granite as well as the city’s cobblestone streets. Regardless of the cause, Ellicott City does have more than its fair share of ghosts.

Situated on the upper reaches of Main Street, The Judge’s Bench escaped the damage visited on its neighbors down Main Street. As part of downtown Ellicott City, however, The Judge’s Bench has not escaped the city’s haunted aspect. Indeed, this pub has one of the city’s more well-known ghost stories. In fact, the story is noted in the building’s description in the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties.

The Inventory of Historic Properties notes that the Judges Bench property has been occupied at least as far back as 1860. The stone and wood frame building on this site has been occupied by several businesses over the decades, most notably Berger’s Grocery Store. During this period, the grocery’s proximity to the local courts supposedly brought judges to the store on their lunch. The judges would often sit on a bench outside the store as they ate, thus the name “The Judge’s Bench.” In researching the building, I stumbled across an interesting article in the Baltimore Sun concerning a fire that severely damaged a block of Main Street in 1940. Unfortunately, while the article notes Berger’s Grocery, a laundry, and the Church of God as being in this block, it does not specify addresses and I can’t determine if this was the exact block.

The story of the fire is interesting, however, especially in the treatment of the Chinese immigrant businessman, Der Wong, who owned and operated the laundry that was decimated in the fire. The reporter decided that the fire was much less interesting than Mr. Wong’s personal story and the loss of his life savings (in cash) that he stored in the now-ruined building. While the reporter treats Mr. Wong and his story condescendingly, he also buries the details of the fire, though he notes that much of Berger’s Grocery was lost and that the Bergers, both of whom were 56, escaped to the roof of the building where firemen brought them down by ladders. No one was killed in the fire.

The Judge’s Bench has operated as a bar for several decades and for much of that the story has been told of the resident spirit, Mary. According to locals, the daughter of the Bergers took her own life in 1962 on the third floor by hanging herself from one of the building’s rafters. While she makes her presence known throughout the building, her spirit is most active on the third floor. In 1997, the bar’s manager told a reporter from the Baltimore Sun, “I make people come upstairs with me because I’m scared.”

Staff had already had issues with liquor bottles falling from behind the bar and one of the bar owners opened one morning to discover liquor bottles neatly lined up on the floor behind the bar. Other staff had issues with the restrooms where toilets would unaccountably flush on their own, faucets would turn themselves on, and an entire roll of toilet paper once unrolled itself while no one was in the bar but a single staff person.

Some years ago, one of the owners was working in the building’s third floor, she was shocked to feel a cold breeze, but could not locate a source. A 1997 investigation of the bar documented in a Halloween article in the Baltimore Sun provides the impressions of a psychic who explored this haunted area. “The only thing I’m getting is that someone once used this as a refuge,” the psychic contends, “I think this was a refuge…a place where maybe someone came to hide from everyone.” The psychic noticed the rafter where Mary supposedly hanged herself and the sensitive remarked, “There’s something about it that keeps catching my eye. It looks like there was fire damage or something.”

Since the disastrous July floods, the Judge’s Bench has reopened and life has begun to return to Main Street.

Sources
“Chinese laundryman loses life’s savings as shop burns.” Baltimore
     Sun. 6 April 1940.
Maryland Investory of Historic Properties. “The Judge’s Bench.”
     Accessed 2 January 2017.
Nitkin, Karen. “Change is stranger at Judge’s Bench.” Baltimore
     Sun. 27 July 2000.
Nitkin, Karen. “Ghost tours attract visitors to Ellicott City.”
     Baltimore Sun. 29 July 2011.
Ollove, Michael. “The spirits move them.” Baltimore Sun. 31 October
     1997.
Peterman, Erika D. “Spirited excursion attracts ghost club.” Baltimore
     Sun. 24 May 1998.
Rector, Kevin. “2 dead, emergency declared after historic Ellicott
     City ravaged by flash flood.” Baltimore Sun. 1 August 2016.
Sachs, Andrea. “A history spree in Ellicott City, Md.” Washington
     Post. 16 October 2014.