One of the largest and most grandiose homes in all of Maryland, the chilling horrors of the historic James Brice House, also known as the Big Brice House, are hidden in plain sight. Located in the heart of downtown Annapolis, this foreboding estate gives a small glimpse into what Colonial America was like for the elite class — for better or worse. Today, the property is recognized as one of the most important surviving structures from this era. But it’s not just the stunning Georgian-style exterior that makes this home as well-remembered as it is; rather, what — or who — still dwells inside, deep within its cursed walls.
Cultivating and exporting tobacco played a quintessential role in the economy of Colonial America and quickly became the most lucrative cash crop after it was introduced by English settlers in 1610. With such a thriving European market, tobacco was consistently in-demand. And with large sums of money on the line, colonists had to find a way to quickly and efficiently harvest and process tobacco. The answer was slave labor, and several plantations would begin to pop up around the South in the following years, exploiting enslaved Africans in an inhumane industry that endured for over 200 years. And Maryland was no exception.
Violent beatings, long working hours, and poor living conditions became commonplace for these enslaved laborers working on plantations. By the 18th century, Maryland — which once had the largest free black population of any state — had turned into a slave society, requiring thousands of field hands to cultivate tobacco. And plantation owners majorly profited, creating a vicious economy fueled by the painstaking labors of these unpaid field hands. In return, many of these rich slaveholders set out to build elaborate estates — also built with the help of enslaved Africans.
James Brice was a prominent figure in Colonial Annapolis, serving as the city’s mayor from 1782 to 1783 and again from 1787 to 1788 before becoming Maryland’s Governor in 1792. He was also a landowner, and had as much as 1,700 acres, tended to by the 28 slaves he owned. But before his lengthy career as a politician, Brice also served as a colonel in the Maryland militia during the Revolutionary War. He married Juliana Jennings in 1781 and went on to have five children with her. Construction of his new home at 42 East Street began in 1767 and took nearly seven years to complete. He lived with his family in the home until his death in 1801. But despite the luxurious appearance of this sprawling mansion, dark truths began to be uncovered once the house was sold to William Martin in 1863.
It’s long been said that ten different spirits, mostly members of the family, continue to haunt the James Brice House to this day. But who? After the Brice family sold the home to William Martin, the new owner feverishly set out to renovate the home after hearing a rumor that the Brice family was hiding treasure within the house. But instead of finding jewels and gold, Martin reportedly found a secret door in the basement, leading to the long-dead remains of a young woman, in addition to scratch marks on the wall. This led to the belief that’s still shared by many skeptics and believers today: the family was hiding a secret member — known as the “crying girl” due to the disembodied screams that come from the basement — who suffered from mental illness, out of fear she’d damage the Brices’ reputation.
But that’s not the only horrific story to come from the blood-soaked walls of the James Brice House. Tomas Brice, the son of James, was found mysteriously stabbed to death by a fire poker in the library. Years later, his murder remains unsolved, but the popular theory is that his personal servant killed him in order to inherit his estate, as Thomas was unmarried. His ghoulish apparition has frequently been seen roaming the library and one of the bedrooms at night, perhaps doomed to eternally roam the earth until he can finally enact revenge on his murderer.
The James Brice House was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and has undergone several renovations since. During a 1998 excavation of the property, researchers found unusual, deliberately-placed objects in the kitchen: a Hoodoo cache believed to be placed in the floors by Brice’s former slaves. More recently, the James Brice House was purchased by the state of Maryland in 2014 with the purpose of conserving and maintaining the structure for its architectural and historical value. The home has rarely been open to the public, but some special tours have offered guests a look at the estate. For now, the James Brice House remains temporarily closed to visitors.
Since the state of Maryland purchased the property in 2014, the James Brice House has been maintained by Historic Annapolis, Inc., who in 2016 embarked on a massive restoration project to restore the house to its completed 1774 appearance. Visit our other blogs to learn about conservation efforts at other famously haunted homes across the US, and check back for more information in future posts.