By Mike Moran, a Baltimore based stand up and podcaster

With Halloween approaching, here are some of the Baltimore and D.C.’s creepiest mysteries and mysterious individuals no one has been able to track down. Hope you like bunnies. Or goats.

Who was the Bunny Man?

Any kid who grew up anywhere near Baltimore or D.C. has heard in one form or another the legend of the Bunny Man. Some say he was an escaped mental patient who skinned rabbits for decoration. Others say he killed his family while dressed as a bunny for Halloween and then handed out candy to trick-or-treaters with the bodies still in the house. Sometimes he’s a ghost. Other times he a human, but he usually has an axe in hand. Some even insist he’s not a rabbit, but a goat. Either way the so-called “Bunny Man Bridge” (a creepy overpass in Clifton, Virginia) has become so intertwined with the stories that police have to turn away thrill-seekers from other states. The Bunny Man urban legend is so well known it has spread to areas outside of the east coast and even inspired a recent series of slasher films.

Surprisingly this particular urban legend, though very clearly blended with other campfire stories over the years, is actually based on some ounce of truth. Yes, there really was a maniac in a bunny suit with an axe and yes, he really was terrifying. He was also strangely concerned with property rights. On Oct 19th, 1970 Air Force Cadet Bob Bennet and his fiance’s night turned into a horror movie cliche as they sat and (presumably) got a little freaky in a field in Burke, Virginia. They noticed someone hovering near their car and before they could call him a perv, he shattered their car window. Things progressed in a highly questionable fashion once they realized he was in a giant bunny suit. As the terrified couple sped off the mad man ranted about how he would report them for trespassing (like that would be the thing to scare them). Just to ensure the young lovers would be traumatized forever, the Bunny Man placed his hatchet on the floor of their car.

Ten days later security guard Paul Phillips had the privilege of confronting a man on the property he was guarding to ask him why he was on the porch of an under-construction-home, and why was he carrying an axe while wearing a rabbit suit. When the man in question began chopping away at the property and insisted “all you people trespass around here,” and that Philip’s head would soon be the recipient of his work, he quickly gave the Bunny Man some space.

For a few weeks following, people around the Virginia/DC suburbs flooded police with Bunny Man sightings, some of which seemed more credible than others. One such story was of a man’s pet cat apparently becoming rabbit food. The Bunny Man even gave the police a call (though no one can be sure it was him) to lodge his property related complaints and to insist on being called “Axe Man.” Sure, that’s a slightly less terrifying name, but if you’re wearing a rabbit suit people are going to focus on your rabbit suit. The sightings slowly stopped over time and the urban legend took on a life of its own. To this day no one has any clue who this disturbed individual, whose behavior inspired countless whispered stories and spooky campfire tales, was. Descriptions of the Bunny Man place him at about 20 years old at the time of the occurrences, so it’s likely he is still alive. Hopefully he has gotten the psychiatric help he needs but part of me envisions him still lurking in the D.C. suburbs, axe in hand, zoning regulations in mind.

Who was “Reynolds” and did he kill Edgar Allan Poe?

On October 3, 1849, Election Day in Baltimore, a ragged man was found barely conscious lying in the gutter. The delirious individual, sputtering nonsense and dressed like a hobo in clothes far too large for him, was taken to a local physician where he was shockingly identified as the popular writer Edgar Allen Poe. Looked over by medical professionals for the next few days, no one was able to determine exactly how Poe ended up in this condition. The man himself couldn’t explain anything as his short bursts of consciousness were marked by hallucinations, confusion, and incoherence. Edgar Allen Poe died on October 7th, and to this day no one can agree on how or why. Poe’s death remains a dark mystery worthy of, well, an Edgar Allen Poe book. Theories include drug or alcohol overdose, a vicious assault, a calculated murder, an accidental poisoning, an undiagnosed illness, or even “cooping” (the old-timey practice of drugging people and disguising them in order to force them to vote for a specific candidate over and over).

One of the very few clues Poe was able to drop before his demise was the uttering of a single name, “Reynolds,” over and over again. For a century and a half historians have speculated about the significance of this clue to no definitive avail. It may have been writer Jeremiah N. Reynolds, whom Poe had a professional relationship with, though a guy whose book Poe edited seems an unlikely candidate for a deathbed pleading. Maybe he was referring to Baltimore Judge Henry Reynolds? Is it possible that Poe’s state could have been caused by political crooks perhaps in connection with Judge Henry? Maybe, but that’s a long shot. If Poe really was used to sway the election, his captors would have made an unwise decision in choosing a local celebrity.

Was Reynolds an unidentified assassin? A local ruffian who robbed Poe of his cash and issued him a fatal beating? Or maybe just a random thought permeating from a delirious brain fogged by impending death? Some have even speculated that Poe didn’t even mention the name and it was merely a recording mistake by Poe’s attending physician (booorrrring). This mystery is so old it will likely never be solved, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that Edgar Allen Poe left this Earth in a creepy and mysterious manner he certainly would have approved of.

Poe_Grave_at_Westminster_1

Who was the “possessed” boy who inspired the Exorcist?

Did you know the movie/book The Exorcist was inspired by a supposedly true “demon possession?” And that the possessed in question was a young man (later fictionalized to a girl in the adaptations) who lived in the D.C. suburb of Cottage City, Maryland? He is allegedly still living at an unknown location on the east coast. The man in question, whose real name has never been released publicly, has not granted a single interview about his experience with an exorcism back in the late 40’s and seems to want nothing to do with the hysteria that followed.

As the story goes, young “Roland Doe,” a pseudonym used by the papers to protect his identity, began communicating via Ouija Board with the spirit of his deceased aunt who had introduced the young man to the world of the occult before she passed. It wasn’t long before a nasty demon slipped into Roland’s body and began terrifying Roland’s mother with eerie noises in the night, objects moving and levitating on their own accord, and other poltergiesty-stuff all centered around the boy.

Things really got ugly when Roland was taken to Georgetown University Hospital where Father Edward Hughes and other Catholic priests tried ridding the boy of his malady via a series of exorcisms. This seriously pissed off Roland’s demon and he started levitating the bed he was tied to, ripping out a spring and stabbing one of the priests. He threw objects without touching them, spoke in a scary monster voice, carved words like “evil” and “hell” into his skin, broke a priest’s nose, and blasphemed the Catholic faith whenever he got a chance to (but really who doesn’t?). Thankfully the final ritual kicked the demon’s ass and Roland disappeared into local lore, not even re-emerging when his story became one of the biggest movies of all time.

Of course the truth of the incident is likely a lot less supernatural than has been reported. In reality, Roland was a troubled kid who suffered from some mental illness. By all accounts he was a nasty little bully who loved to torment others. Even some of the exorcism witnesses have conceded that he may have been putting on the show with the more sensational happenings embellished with each retelling.

Unlike most selections in this list, the mystery of who “Roland Doe” really was is one that may have had an impact on many people’s lives. Once The Exorcist took off to box office success and eventually became the stuff of horror movie legends, a new wave of demon possession hysteria emerged. It sometimes caused serious injury or death to the often mentally ill subjects involved. The Exorcist may have also helped kick-off the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Suddenly devil-worship in America was a serious concern and was actually landing people in prison. Had this troubled young man with severe behavioral problems stepped up and admitted that he was just being difficult for whatever adolescent reason, perhaps it would have taken some steam out of the mass hysteria that followed.

Who was the Freeway Phantom?

This is tantamount to my insensititivity [sic] to people especially women.
I will admit the others when you catch me if you can!
-Freeway Phantom

This disturbing note is the only verified statement from a man who sent waves of terror through African-American families around the DC area from April 1971 to September ‘72. It was found in the coat pocket of Brenda Woodward, whose body was found stabbed and strangled near Route 202. It was written on a piece of her notebook paper in her own handwriting. Obviously dictated by the killer, it indicates he liked the “Freeway Phantom” moniker given to him by the press.

18-year-old Woodward was the eldest of the Phantom’s victims, numbering 6 in total. The youngest person abducted by this monster was 10 year-old Brenda Crockett, who phoned family members after she failed to return home from a grocery run to inform them she was picked up by a white man and taken to Virginia. Both were likely coerced lies to throw off police. All the victims were young African-American girls half of whom, in what may just be a weird coincidence, had the middle name “Denise.”

For over a year black D.C. families lived in fear of their daughters being snatched away, horribly violated, murdered, and dumped on the side of the road like garbage. Suddenly, in September of 1972, it just stopped. If you know anything about serial killers they virtually never “just stop.”

What happened to the Freeway Phantom? Was he arrested for other crimes? Was he Committed? Did he move? Some have speculated the Freeway Phantom was actually a group of sickos labeled the “Green Vega Gang” on whom very little information is available, but are alleged to have incorporated rapes into their gang life. Another suspect is convicted murderer and rapist Robert Askins. Askins, now deceased, was free during the time of the killings despite being previously convicted of murder. Those close to him said he often used the word “tantamount,” which sticks out like a pretentious sore thumb in his poorly written note. No solid evidence exists linking the Phantom to either suspects or anyone else.

This is depressing. I have to skip the jokes on this entry. The things that happened to these girls and young women are the stuff of parents’ worst nightmares, however, in the wake of the MLK riots some felt the police did not do all they could in investigating the crimes.

“They didn’t care about us. All the cases involving white girls got publicity. But ours have been forgotten,” said Evander Spinks, sister of the Phantom’s first victim, in a 2006 interview.

Due to common procedure of the day, most of the evidence in the case has been trashed and the Freeway Phantom is looking more and more like a Jack the Ripper scenario where amateur Internet sleuths can speculate on who the killer was but physical evidence will likely never be found.

Who was the Poe Toaster?

No one is sure when the tradition began. Some say it was as early as the 1930s. Some say it was 1949 on the 100th anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe’s death. No written account of the occurrence is on record until the 50s. It continued until 2009, and suddenly stopped, on Poe’s 200th birthday.

This phenomenon was known as the “Poe Toaster” and for many decades it was an increasingly popular tradition, drawing scores of onlookers each year. It always happened the same way: a man disguised in a black cloak, black hat, and a white scarf covering his face, would sneak into the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground and kneel before Poe’s original grave marker (the cemetery moved his body at some point). He would leave three roses and toast the dead novelist with a glass of Cognac, leaving the bottle behind with the roses. Vanishing into the night he would elude those who attempted to confront or follow him.

A few have claimed to know the identity of the Poe Toaster but none have been able to prove it. A few imitators have even sprung up but they were dismissed as the real thing by Jeff Jerome, former curator of the Poe Museum who has apparently been given an identifying signal from the real toaster to know it’s him.

There is only one known photograph of the Poe Toaster and man is it creepy.

The Toaster began leaving the occasional note at some point, one reading “Edgar, I haven’t Forgotten You,” and another proclaiming “the torch has been passed.” The latter seems to indicate that a new Toaster was taking the place of an aging original. Visitors noticed in later years the Toaster appeared to have a different body shape. He also started getting a little weird with the notes, leaving one that actually predicted the New York Giants beating the Baltimore Ravens in the 2001 Super Bowl proclaiming “a thousand injuries they will suffer.” Followers of the Toaster were happy he was wrong but bummed out that he left e a note about football on Poe’s grave. The tradition lost more credibility when the new Toaster left one in 2004 saying he was leaving the bottle with “great reluctance” as “Poe’s Grave was no place for French Cognac.” If you’ll remember, France bashing was a hobby of many right wingers at the time and the note seemed to be a knock on their lack of involvement in the War on Terror. Apparently the final time the Toaster left a note it was so dismaying that its contents have never been revealed.

Perhaps it’s best that the Poe Toaster phenomenon stopped before it got too outrageous (I could picture coupons for Checkers being left at some point), but it is sad to see the tradition end. It is a fun little mystery that no one has been able to make much progress on solving and it’s just creepy enough to remain intriguing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIVIjq9rHvE
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