“They call me the ghost man of Lewes,” says Russ Allen without trying to sound spooky but doing so nonetheless.
His nickname isn’t derived from an ability to do supernatural things, but rather from how much he has learned about the city by studying its cemeteries.
A native of Rhode Island, Allen, 71, moved to New York where at age 18 he joined the U.S. Navy and began working with computers.
He spent a decade in the Navy, followed by a 30-year career as a computer programmer and data analyst with the Internal Revenue Service. In 1964, ending a tour in Guam, Allen came home to Rhode Island on his way to a new posting in Japan. He learned his best friend, who was in Bermuda, had broken up with his longtime girlfriend Gail.
“I’d never gone out with Gail. I asked her to go to Japan with me, and we married about three weeks later. I’m a man of impulse, and my wife is a woman of impulse,” he said.
After Gail received immunization shots, a visa and passport, the couple went to Japan, one of many stops during the navy years. He and Gail, his wife of 48 years lived near his job in Washington, D.C.
The Allens have a son, Keith, daughters Debra and Lisa, and seven grandchildren. Allen is a history buff. “I’m fascinated by the early Colonial period up in New England, the migration and expansion, where everybody was going,” he said.
He’s spent time doing his family’s genealogy and came up with interesting facts.
“Some of my ancestors picked up a disease, spotted fever. from foot soldiers marching through town in New England during the Revolutionary War. It wiped them out,” Allen said.
He said he also learned about the 1815 eruption of Mount Tamboro in the Dutch East Indies, causing what historians call ‘The summer that never was.’ Allen said volcanic ash from the eruption reduced sunshine and caused temperatures to drop and by spring 1816, farming conditions were dire.
“Everybody lost crops. It forced migration out of New England to points west,” he said.
When the IRS told him he would be working at different location, Allen said it would have meant a commute on the beltway, so he retired.
He and Gail first visited Lewes after a coworker suggested they might like the town as a place to retire.
Once again, impulse kicked in, and they drove over from D.C. A day later, without going inside, Gail saw the house she wanted. They moved into the home in October 2000.
“That December, I took the historical society’s Christmas House Tour, and I was so impressed by the society I signed up as a member,” Allen said.
He served as a docent for several summers. In 2002, the society hired Mike DiPaolo as executive director.
“I was into genealogy, and I suggested to him that we copy cemetery headstones. Cemeteries are great for genealogy. He said, ‘Let’s do a little bit more than that,” Allen said.
DiPaolo asked him to create a database containing information collected from each head, foot and other engraved stones in the city’s cemeteries dated prior to 1951.
The project received a grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, and the society hired an intern to assist in data collection.
“I became the expert in cemeteries here. We ended up with information from approximately 7,000 stones,” Allen said. He said the stones taught him a lot about Lewes’ history.
“I learned the oldest stone is here, in St. Peters cemetery, dated 1707. The cemetery covers the Dutch, British, War of 1812, quarantine stations, doctors, governors – a little bit of everything in the history of the town,” Allen said.
In January, Allen became president of Lewes Historical Society.
He said every cemetery in Lewes is completely different from the others. He said Revolutionary War patriots are buried in the cemetery at Lewes Presbyterian Church. British sympathizers are buried in St. Peters. Farmers, shopkeepers and tradesmen are interred in Bethel United Methodist Church Cemetery.
But it’s ghost stories about the city’s cemeteries and old houses that Allen has grown fond of. He said he knows about 35 stories.
One story involves the Cannonball House on Front Street and Susan Rowland’s spirit.
“She was 88 years old in 1917 when she apparently died in her living quarters. She still plays tricks,” he said. Allen said there’s an iron, Spanish chest in the house with an unusual locking mechanism.
A painter working in the room closed the chest’s lid to paint the wall behind it. The following day a maintenance man wanted to open the chest but he couldn’t find the key. He and the painter looked for the key but couldn’t find it.
“A couple days later the maintenance man was cleaning up and there in the corner where Mrs. Rowland used to have her bed, was a coil of rope. Underneath the rope, there was the key. We have no idea where the coil of rope or the key came from,” Allen said.
Allen said every year he hears a few new ghost stories about old Lewes. “They keep on coming out of the woodwork, so to speak,” he said.