The Conjuring of Big Lizz

October 17, 2019

In the marshes and swamps around Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, a ghost lurks. Or so local lore would have you believe. To find her, drive south from Cambridge on Bucktown Road, through flat farmland and patches of woods for about ten miles, until you arrive at the narrow Decoursey Bridge Road. The actual bridge isn’t long, just enough to get over a narrow strip of the Transquaking River. At night, the river is black and the surroundings dark. The marshy Green Brier swamp isn’t suitable for buildings, and there’s not a house in sight when you stand on the bridge. But here you’ll find the home of Big Liz.

 

Sit in your car in the darkness of the bridge, flash your lights, and honk your horn, and she may come greet you. She’ll emerge from the darkness, in the figure of a large, African American woman. As she gets closer, you notice she doesn’t have a head on her stooped shoulders. Instead, it’s tucked under her arm. Her eyes glow red like two burning coals. When you start the car to get away, your engine stalls. She shuffles, soundlessly, closer and closer, before you can finally get the engine going and speed away. 

 

Although she may be Dorchester County’s most famous ghost, Matt Lake writes in Weird Maryland, “there’s no solid historical evidence to back [the story] up.” Unlike some ghost stories that are based on real people or events, no one has been able to track down when or if Big Liz (alternatively spelled Bigg Lizz) was actually killed in the swamps. However, the big framework of the story is usually consistent: Big Liz is headless, large, and African American. She was enslaved, and her owner took her out to a spot in the marsh to bury a treasure. She buries it, he beheads her, and she haunts the area thereafter.

 

One of the more popular versions of the story tells Liz as an enslaved woman belonging to a Confederate sympathizer. She is a Union spy and he has gold he’s trying to conceal to support the Confederate Army. When her owner discovers what he considers to be her disloyal spying, he demands she bring the treasure chest out to the marsh where he forces her to bury it. He beheads her, only to be tormented by her ghost. One version says those who might look like the enslaver should be the most worried, which may be why one Charles Jackson died of a heart attack after running out of the woods in the Green Brier swamp. Most folklorists and newspaper reporters agree that teenagers and ghost-chasers have become the ones keeping Big Liz famous around Cambridge. Who doesn’t want to see if they can conjure a ghost on a dark and foggy night, driving on desolate backroads?

If you want to see Big Liz for yourself, you may have trouble conjuring her. Accounts in books, tourism booklets, websites, and newspapers all have curious parties giving different combinations of honks and lights to make her appear: honk six times, flash your lights three times; flash, honk, and shout her name three times each; or just honk three times. Then, there’s also the debate about where to look for Liz. While most stories say to drive to the Decoursey Bridge, George Carey in Maryland Folklore says she also appears in the Gum Briar swamp, while another account in Weird Maryland says you need to look for her in a graveyard next to a swamp, and she’ll appear with a rush of wind and a bright light after you summon her. 

 

But even though Big Liz has become famous, part of the reason her story can’t be substantiated might be because it falls into the category of folklore tale, rather than ghost story.  Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft & Rootwork compiles African American folklore collected between 1936 and 1940 through interviews with 1,600 people in twelve states, including Maryland. Harry Middleton Hyatt, an Anglican minister and amateur folklorist, found two folklore tales of a black man beheaded by a rich white man after they promised to guard a treasure, one in Florida and one in New Orleans. Hyatt also collected a story of a female headless ghost in New York. 

 

Perhaps Big Liz is a combination of these tales, with a unique Maryland twist. The treasure legend might be combined with the idea of another famous Dorchester County woman and Union spy, Harriet Tubman. The backdrop of the Civil War and Maryland’s status as a border state might also make the Union vs. Confederate story the most compelling version. And although most accounts say the legend dates to at least the Civil War, if not the Revolutionary War, without any real history, that’s hard to substantiate. According to Elias Jones in the 1902 book History of Dorchester County, Maryland, “The worst and most injurious branch of folklore, very prevalent in Dorchester County, is the telling of ghost stories in various forms in the presence of children.” Although he mentions other ghoulish stories, like a Dorchester man dying after a witch turned him into a horse and rode him through the night, he unfortunately decides, “As there are no ghosts we must not write false tales to excite fear in the young or gratify the curiosity of the superstitious.” Many other written sources don’t start mentioning the lore of Big Liz until the 1960s, but Big Liz is now ingrained in Dorchester County culture. The Heart of the Chesapeake Country Heritage Area includes the Decoursey Bridge in a list of landmarks in the county, and RAR Brewing in Cambridge named a specialty Harvest Ale made with Butternut Squash “Big Lizz.” If you conjure her, she may appear as a warning not to seek treasure created by trauma.

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