The Judge’s Bench
8385 Main Street
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 funnelled 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.
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”—though 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 by the floodwaters of July 30, 2016. As part of downtown Ellicott City, however, The Judge’s Bench has not escaped the city’s more haunting aspects. 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 and presumably, Mary has returned to her antics.
- “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.