Perhaps unwisely, I’ve been dipping into The Mammoth Book of Murder this week for my bed-time reading. Other than the fact that it is full of gruesome details on the careers of serial killers, cannibals, and necrophiliacs, it is a most edifying volume, providing many helpful tips on what not to do if you want to commit the perfect murder. Top tip: Don’t bury the victim on your property and then involve careless family members in digging up and disposing of the corpse. It never ends well.
This excerpt, about a dreadful axe murder, from The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales , highlights another ticklish problem with murder victims: they haunt. Or, in the words of Mr Abney in “Lost Hearts,” by M.R. James, “Some annoyance may be experienced from the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts.”
All the stories below date from several weeks after the murder trial. Mrs. Athey’s husband and brother were not charged with any crime. There was no law on the books that prohibited the concealment of the body of a murder victim. Perhaps that was why the ghost of Mary Seneff returned to haunt both the sites where her mutilated corpse had been hidden.
THE GHOST OF MARY SENEFF
In 1880 pretty, young Mary Seneff had lived for a few days as a servant with Ellen and Henry Athey near New Philadelphia. According to Mrs. Athey’s confession, she got into an argument with Mary, accusing her of trying to seduce her husband. She ordered Mary out of the house; Mary refused to go and in a fit of rage Mrs. Athey hit Mary with an ax repeatedly, killing her. Then she dug a grave in the ash pit by the house and hid the body. Eventually she confessed to her two brothers and her husband and they dug the body up and threw it into Sugar Creek. Mrs. Athey was tried and sentenced to life in the Ohio Penitentiary. A New York Times article of 4 July, 1880 about the murder of “Mary Leneff” repeats some titillating local gossip about Mrs. Athey’s temper and her attack on another woman. It is also suggested that the motive for the crime was that Mrs. Athey feared that Mary would expose her incest with her brother.
Horrific murders almost invariably give rise to local ghost stories. But it is unique to find the murder victim appearing in three separate incidents, once in front of two witnesses.
A Murdered Woman Rises from her Watery Grave and Confronts a Farmer
A farmer living in Jefferson Township, Ohio, relates the following ghost story: He states that on last Tuesday night, while returning home from town, and when approaching Sugar Creek Bridge, his attention was attracted by a loud splashing in the creek below. Immediately a white form arose slowly out of the water and glided noiselessly toward the shore, beckoning to him with its hand. A ball of bluish light surrounded the head, and the farmer declared that he plainly distinguished the features of Mary Seneff, the girl who was murdered and this was at the very spot where her body had been thrown into the water.
The farmer states that he was terribly frightened, and no amount of urging could induce his horse to move a step. We give the balance of the story in his own words:
“I watched the form a minute, and to my horror it came slowly out of the water and walked quietly up the bank toward me. From the light of the furnace I could now plainly see the identical Mary Seneff standing within ten feet of me. She was dressed in white, and in one hand held some strange looking garment above her head. With the other hand she pointed to a deep scar on her neck and an ugly ax mark across her forehead. The form then quietly moved backward toward the creek and slowly disappeared down the bank and into the water.”
“I have always been a firm believer in ghosts,” said the farmer, “but I am as positive as I live that I saw the murdered Mary Seneff on that night. I am unable to account for the strange apparition, and it makes my blood chill to talk about it.”
The integrity of the farmer has never been questioned, and we give the story as related by himself. It is stated that he has frightened some of the old ladies of the neighborhood by the yarn. [Cincinnati Enquirer] Printed in Brooklyn [NY] Eagle 20 March 1881: p. 2
THAT GHOSTLY MERMAID: SEEN AGAIN NEAR SUGAR-CREEK BRIDGE
Black Band, April 3. And now comes a workman named Joshua Engler, who claims positively to have seen the ghost of Mary Seneff: also Mr. Engler furnishes the reporter the following card for publication.
“Canal Dover, Ohio, March 1881.
“I was at the Salt Works on Saturday evening, and returning home about two o’clock in the morning, got within about twenty yards of Sugar-Creek Bridge, where Mary Seneff was thrown into the water, when I saw the shape of a woman about ten feet from the shore, come out of the water and walk up and down the creek. I watched it for five minutes. It started down the Stone Creek road and turned the bend at Hosea Fisher’s, then it disappeared. Joshua Engler.”
Mr. Engler says he could not see any features, but plainly recognized a female form clad in a white robe. It moved noiselessly up and down the bank after coming out of the water, and then went off down the road. Several other citizens claim to have seen the apparition, and the excitement over the matter is on the increase. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 4 April 1881: p. 2
Two weeks later, Mary’s ghost was again spotted.
A TROUBLESOME GHOST:
Mary Seneff’s Ghost Seen Again by a Couple of Stalwart Grangers
Black Band, Ohio, March 27. Poor Mary Seneff has been dead and buried for nearly ten months, but, according to the stories we hear, her ghost seems to be giving some of the people hereabouts a vast amount of trouble. Two weeks ago a belated farmer saw her shadowy form emerge from Sugar Creek at the very spot where she had been thrown into the water. Now come two men, named Spare and Mowzer, living about three miles west of here, who on last Monday night also claim positively to have seen the murdered girl’s ghost. We give the story in Mr. Spare’s own words as told in the presence of an Enquirer man to-day.
“Mr. Mowzer and I,” he said, “had attended a sale during the day, and did not start home until probably half-past nine o’clock at night. To shorten the distance we cut across the fields, which took us past the Athey house, where Mary Seneff was murdered. When we were approaching the house we were both astonished to find it brilliantly lighted up. It was then nearly ten o’clock, and we knew the house had not been occupied since the murder. We stopped a minute at the gate, and while discussing the matter a shadowy form made its appearance at the window facing us. The head and face were plainly visible, and Mowzer involuntarily threw up his hands, exclaiming, ‘My God! That’s Mary Seneff.’ I’ll admit that we were both frightened, but more so when we saw the figure raise the window and noiselessly glide out. Our first impulse was to run: but Mowzer whispered to wait a little. The form was clad in what seemed to be a loosely fitting gown made of white material. It moved up to within a few feet of us and then halted. The figure now had the appearance of a thick shadow, but seemed to gain in substance the longer we looked at it. Presently it began receding and motioning to us to follow. Unconsciously we moved up the road a little further, and saw the form move around the corner of the house and walk slowly toward the ash-pile at the out-house, where Mrs. Athey had buried the body of Mary. With one hand she pointed at the partly filled grave and with the other frantically beckoned us to approach, but we had seen enough, and with one accord both of us took to our heels and ran. People will laugh,” said Spare, “when they hear the story, and say we were full; but I knew we were both perfectly sober, and are as positive as we live that it was Mary Seneff’s ghost, although I never believed in such things.”
The story has frightened the lads of the neighbourhood badly, and they now go around by the road to spellings instead of cutting across the fields. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 March 1881: p. 1
Just to be Relentlessly Informative, Grangers were members of The Grange (The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry). Spellings were spelling bees.
What could Mary’s spirit have had on her mind in gesturing at her former grave? Perhaps some fragments of bone or some keepsake had been left behind when the body was unearthed and thrown into the creek. Mrs. Athey’s family had promised to move the body to a “deep hole” near a village appropriately called “Blackband,” but instead just casually dumped it into a shallow section of Sugar Creek, “where everybody could see it,” said Mrs. Athey bitterly.
Ellen Athey was sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, but died a patient at the Lima Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1922. She seems to have had little, if any remorse over the gruesome murder. Here is an excellent link with more information on the horrific details of the crime.
Other repeated visitations by murder victims? chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.