YORK BEACH — He arrived in a flurry of black robes, sandaled feet and bushy beard before darting up a hilly sidewalk with 40 what-did-I-just-sign-up-for stragglers trying to keep up on a recent Wednesday night.

“This is getting too weird, too quick,” one little boy muttered to his dad.

He of the bushy beard: The Mad Man of York. His instructions, after handing out sticks, bells and a lantern to three people in the crowd:

“Trust no one, trust nothing and above all else: Beware the devil wagons!”

That’s the code name for cars. He’s a stage actor with seven movie credits to his name on the Internet Movie Database.

And this is Ghostly Tours of York Beach

The walking tour draws hundreds of people to the bright tourist lights of downtown York Beach each summer only to whisk them away to the side streets for tales of pirate treasure and witch trials, and to hear how local mermaids attracted mates. (No spoilers, but they sounded like a wily lot.)

Art teacher Gary Phipps started the tour in 1999, back then taking visitors around old, historic York Village. The current Mad Man responded to a Craigslist ad for tour guides, loved the work and took over the tour in 2012.

He asked to be interviewed as the Mad Man and says he’s worked locally to maintain anonymity for the sake of mystique.

“There are only about three people in York who know who I am,” he said.

(A quick call to the local chamber of commerce confirmed: They had no idea.)

The tour’s high on camp, humor and theatrics, which the Mad Man said was a change he made after buying the tour from Phipps and Troy Williams.

“I have always loved that immediate response from a live audience,” he said. “When you think about it, every night I meet a brand-new audience, I take them out and I perform for them for an hour, and the reaction is right there. You just can’t beat it as an actor. It’s just a really fun thing.”

He’s been told he looks like a monk or the Smurfs’ Gargamel, and yes on both counts. During the walk, his voice booms and there are hints of an accent that’s maybe British or medieval. Though the Mad Man character is fictional — it’s something he made up for the tour — that persona is about to put pen to paper this winter.

“My next project is going to be a biography of the Mad Man, a fictional historical biography, weaving the Mad Man through the (actual) history of York,” he said. “He’s been around for a long time, so he’s seen a lot.”

He’s written plays, but this will be his first book. The research is likely to turn up more ghostly fodder for the tour.

At least once, he’s had fodder run right up to him. The Mad Man was in front of the Union Bluff Hotel, the scene of several haunted tales, when several years ago a man and woman darted out from the parking lot.

“‘Are you the guy who knows about the ghosts?’ I said, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ They said, ‘We just saw a ghost in our room,'” he said. “She was shaking and still teary-eyed (and told him), ‘I was brushing my teeth, I was looking in the mirror. I saw a man behind me with dark hair, dark clothes.’ She screamed. The man came, he saw the guy, he screamed, they ran out of the hotel and they saw us.”

The tours run from June to Labor Day, Monday to Saturday, with additional nights leading up to Halloween. They cap out at 40 and on that recent Wednesday night had drawn visitors from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Indiana, North Carolina, Washington and California.

“I think the idea of ghosts is a little bit of an adrenaline rush,” said the Mad Man. “People come not knowing what to expect.”

The hour-and-15-minute tour is heavier on audience participation and historical did-you-knows than spooky chills. (You’ll walk away knowing things like how the middle finger got a bad rap.) He weaves weird fun facts with tales of lovelorn mermaids, shipwrecks and the Union Bluff, being ever wary, of course, of those devil wagons.

“Notice the red beady eyes as it leaves!” said the Mad Man.

(Those would be taillights.)

Rod Welsh, vacationing with his family from North Carolina, said they try to catch a ghost tour wherever they travel.

“He tells a good story. I like his energy,” Welsh said. “This is one of the better ones.”

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send photos and ideas to [email protected]

The Mad Man of York after a recent Ghostly Tours of York Beach tour. The Mad Man is a theater actor who weaves together tales of local mermaids, strange sightings and shipwrecks with fun historical facts for the 75-minute tour. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)

The Welsh family from North Carolina poses with the Mad Man of York after a recent Ghostly Tours of York Beach tour. Rod Welsh said they try to catch a ghost tour wherever they travel and that “this is one of the better ones.” (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)

The Mad Man of York, mid tour, on one of the side streets of York Beach. He’s run Ghostly Tours of York Beach since 2012 and was a guide before that. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: