Located on more than 40 acres near the town of Laurel, in northern Prince George's County, is an old Georgian mansion called Oaklands. The house once stood on over 1000 acres and was built as a wedding gift to the daughter of Richard Snowden in the 1732. The land was a grant that was given to Lord Snowden by the British crown. Later called “Contee”, after the man who owned it for a time, a Major Richard Contee, the house was constructed as a three story home and was built at the same time as another on the property, located about one mile south. The second home burned down sometime in the later 1800’s.
While the house has gone through a succession of owners over the years, it has also seen much in the way of American history. Both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln visited the property and even the man who served as president before Washington took office, John Hanson, is reputed to be buried on the grounds. The house also served as a stage stop for a time before it was purchased by Major Richard Contee, who served as an officer in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. Rumor has it that Contee was quite mad and that he eventually succumbed to his insanity. During one of his “spells”, he carved his name on the wall of one of the third floor bedrooms and to this day, when the sun shines just right, a visitor can still see the etching burned into the wall panel.
Since the days of Major Contee, the Oaklands has acquired a reputation for more than just history as it is also believed to be home to at least five active ghosts.
In the 1920's, Oaklands was purchased by the Staggers family and it remained in their possession even today. John W. Staggers, the owner of the plantation, passed away in 1964 and the house was taken over by some of his grandchildren, including Pam Pecor Unger, John Pecor and Donald Staggers Lady (who supplied some fascinating information for this article) and his daughter, Delores Staggers Pecor. There are about 50 acres of the original farm left today and according to reports, the place has fallen into a state of disrepair and there are rumors that it might be destroyed.
It was during the Twentieth Century that most of the ghost stories about the house first came to light. The stories began to reach many in the area and once legend even stated that the Devil had once appeared at the Oaklands to play cards! However, most of the sightings that were reported were first hand in nature.
Apparently, some of the early owners in the Staggers family had experienced the resident ghosts in some unsettling ways. According to the wife of John Staggers, several members of the family saw the ghost of Richard Contee, the mad Major, walking about on the grounds. It was also said that between 9:00 and 10:00 each evening, the sounds of horses would be heard galloping up the driveway. The sounds would be followed by phantom footsteps entering the house and then after a brief period, reversing and the horses hooves fading off into the night.
They also reported the phantom smells of flowers, seeing a rocking chair creaking back and forth on its own and seeing the apparition of a small boy in an upstairs bedroom. The boy was dressed in an old-fashioned brown suit with shorts and a rounded collar. He has been seen many times over the years, although no one knows who he might be. It has been suggested that perhaps he was one of Major Contee’s children.
In addition to the child, many people have seen the ghost of a large, black woman and a black man dressed in work clothes from another period. The family feels that they may be spirits from another time as Oaklands once had over 200 slaves.
One particular story is perhaps the strangest. A few years back, John Pecor saw the ghost of a woman in a long dress beckon to him from across the lawn. He followed her and was led to an area near one of the terraces. The woman stopped, pointed to the grass at her feet, and then vanished. He looked at the place where she had pointed and found a gold chain. He took the chain to a local jeweler who identified it as being from the era of the late 1700's. Who this woman is, no one knows, although she was seen many times after this as well. It is believed that she might be someone from the mansion’s past who was associated with some sort of misdeed connected to the necklace. Perhaps she just wanted to show someone where it was to free herself of guilt?
Other supernatural phenomena that has occurred on the state has been a little more frightening in nature. One night, while sleeping in the master bedroom, Pam Unger’s husband was awakened by the sound of heavy, dragging footsteps. He sensed someone standing very close to him and even heard a harsh breathing as the presence leaned down over the bed where he lay. Unable to move, or even to call out a warning to his wife, he lay there, frozen in fear, for several minutes. The chilling entity remained in place. Finally, he was able to twitch his hand just far enough to the side to awaken his wife. As soon as she stirred though, the mysterious presence vanished.
On other disturbing occasions, both John and Pam heard the sounds of a woman weeping inside of the house. Several people have also heard the sounds of a scream that comes from a wooded area on the grounds. These same woods were once reportedly the site of a murder that occurred a number of years ago, claiming the life of a local woman. Her killer was never captured. There were also times when residents of the farm have encountered the horrible sensation of being watched, or followed, about on the grounds.
And not all of the encounters on the place have been experienced by members of the Staggers family. One story was passed on to me by Jon Harzer, who worked as a farm hand at the Oaklands. He was hired by Delores Staggers Pecor and being about the same age as John Pecor, the two became best friends. He often spent the night at the farm when he was working there.
“I have always tried not to believe in ghosts,” he told me. “Most of the creaks and groans that I heard in the house I would rationalize as the sounds that an old house is supposed to make.”
One evening in 1977 though, he changed his mind. On that night, Harzer was at the house alone with the three dogs. John’s mother was in Florida and John was away at his girlfriend’s house, who lived close by. He had promised that he would be back very quickly. However, several hours went by but not concerned, Jon waited in the living room and watched television with the dogs. Feeling safe, but not really comfortable, he turned on several lights in the house and then settled back down to await the return of his friend. “It was getting late,” he added, “and I did not like being alone in this house.”
A short time later though, he found that he was no longer alone. He heard the sounds of footsteps coming down the stairs and sighed with relief. He realized that John must have come home and had gone up the back stairs and was now coming back down on the main staircase. The staircase ended at the main hallway, just a short distance from the dining room. As the living room was just behind, Harzer expected his friend to enter the room at any time.
“I heard footfalls come into the dining room and leaned forward on the couch,” Harzer recalled. “Looking into the dining room, I was ready to give John grief about how long he had been gone ... I saw no one... the footsteps continued on and then stopped!”
It’s likely that this was the last time that Jon bothered to try and “not believe in ghosts”!
Sources and Information:
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Gallagher, Trish - Ghosts & Haunted House of Maryland (1988)
Lady, Donald Staggers (Personal Interview & Correspondence)
Harzer, Jon (Personal Interview & Correspondence)
Laurel, Maryland (Historical Souvenir Booklet) (1970)
Copyright © 2002 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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