Subterranean Mysteries of Ohio

Subterranean Mysteries of Ohio  Exploring a cave for subterranean treasures, 1858

Subterranean Mysteries of Ohio Exploring a cave for subterranean treasures, 1858

Mysterious caverns were a perennially popular topic in the 19th-century newspaper. They sheltered wildmen and hermits and housed pirates and robbers–as well as the Bell Witch. They might be a treasure cave, full of giant bones and impossible relics, like an immense Native American skeleton on an altar [see “The Odditorium” chapter in The Headless Horror.] Or they could be haunted by the ghost of a murdered peddler [see “Blood-Stained” from Mahoning County in The Face in the Window] or runaway slaves improbably killed by poison gas.

I previously covered a few stories from Bracken County, Kentucky and in Ohio. Today we delve into two accounts of Ohio mystery crypts, plus a bonus report of strange hieroglyphics in a mine.

Discovery of Mysterious Vaults in Ohio.

The following letter, which we find in the Cincinnati Enquirer, [the citation of the original is Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 24 Feb. 1859: p. 1]  presents some interesting facts, if reliable, well worthy of investigation.

To the Editor of the Enquirer:

Jackson, O., Feb. 21, 1859

Our village is full of wonder and excitement. Martin Walker, J.W. Hughes, and Washington Long, in digging a grave in the cemetery near this village, about ten o’clock this morning, came to a large flat stone about four feet below the surface, which stopped their further progress until they procured assistance, and removed the stone from its resting place of ages, when it was found to have closed the entrance to a subterranean vault. All efforts thus far (3 p.m.) to enter it with a light have proved unsuccessful on account of the foul air with which it is filled. By means of a rake, human bones of gigantic size have been raised, and a small chain of silver, with coins attached to each end. The coins, though much defaced by time, have the appearance of those among the Romans in the days of Cicero Africanus, though there were evident traces of hieroglyphic devices that cannot be deciphered.

The men at the cemetery have, by means of burning straw, made light in the vault, though none have the courage to venture further than the entrance, it has been discovered that there is, immediately to the west of the opening, a chamber about ten feet square, with steps quite dilapidated, down its eastern side. Three other chambers branch out of this; one to the north, one to the east, and the other to the south. We are all curious, of course, to know when and by whom these vaults were made and filled. Rev. Mr. Hunter and Mr. Armstrong and Dr. Knouff, have examined them as well as they could without going down into them, also the bones raked out, and the chains and coins, and all give it as their opinion that these vaults were made by the same people who built the mounds in the southern part of the State. 

The questions present themselves to everyone: Who made these vaults and filled them? Was our country once the home of giants? 

George Davenport.

P.S. Four and a half p.m. W. Long, after the straw had burnt in the first vault for some time, ventured down to make an examination, but the atmosphere was so impure that he could remain there but a few minutes, long enough to discover that the walls of the vaults were substantially built of smooth, well-shaped stones, and that there were large numbers of bones in them. Persons will arrive here from Sidney and Greenville tomorrow, and every exertion will be made for a thorough examination of this “house of the dead” as soon as possible. G.D. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 1 March 1859: p. 4

Ah, that caveat, “if reliable!” The story appeared in over a dozen newspapers across the country, followed by this letter to the editor.

The Mysterious Vaults in Ohio

To the Editors of the Evening Post:

The account which you published in last evening’s issue, of the alleged discovery in Ohio of certain “mysterious vaults,” has created no little interest in scientific circles. Everything connected with the Archaeology of the West possesses a great interest to those investigating our ante-Columbian history, and, indeed, we may add, to a large class of general readers. The antiquities of America are so enveloped in mystery, our researches have been so limited and unsatisfactory, that almost every discovery, however small or comparatively unimportant, attracts attention and commands general interest. This is creditable, and shows decidedly an awakened interest on this little-understood subject of early American history. But, in searching after facts, let us not be deceived by every fabulous statement which meets our eye. Without knowing any more of this recent Ohio discovery than appears on the face of the article you publish, I am very much inclined to regard it as apocryphal.

This is the second attempt that has been made within a few months, to get up “remarkable discoveries,” in that part of Ohio. The first consisted of “steel rings and chains, Roman coin, huge bones,” &c. This statement failed to deceive; its absurdity was detected and exposed by a gentleman who was engaged in making archaeological investigations at the West. This new account of the “mysterious” discoveries comes from the same region, and, as it has an extremely questionable air, the probabilities are that it owes its origin to the same source. My reasons for doubting are—First, we find no such chambers as the writer so particularly describes among the antiquities of the West; secondly, as all the ancient tombs in the great mound-field of this  country were used and abandoned centuries ago, of course no “foul air” could now fill their interior; thirdly, no “gigantic bones” have been discovered in American tumuli, or other ancient burial-places; fourthly, no “Roman coin,” belonging to the “days of Cicero Africanus,” or any other of Seven-hill-city emperors, have been found in ancient American tombs. If “Roman coin,” what new title could they show to “hieroglyphics?” But this subject will be more thoroughly investigated.

It is unfortunate that people will attempt to deceive on a matter of such importance. Allow me to say, in conclusion, that the lecture of Dr. De Hass on American antiquities, to be delivered this evening at the hall of the Historical Society, will throw much light upon this interesting subject of “minor relics from the mounds.” All who can should attend that lecture. He will demonstrate in the fullest and clearest manner the true character of our American antiquities. He will show the genuine from the false, and give many illustrations of the attempts that have been made at deception. The “Contents of the Mounds” will be discussed in a manner such as has not before been attempted. The lecturer is entirely familiar with his subject, from long and close application and research. Evening Post [New York, NY] 4 March 1859: p. 2

Somehow I suspect that the author of the letter was Dr Wills De Hass himself, both debunking the original story (“Apocryphal” is so much more genteel than “fake.”) and promoting his own lecture in New York.  Dr. De Hass [1817-1910], a native Pennsylvanian, had a special interest in local history and archaeology. He was the author of The Mound Builders and their Monuments and one frequently sees advertisements for his lectures on early American antiquities. I have not, alas, been able to find any articles about the first report as suggested by “This is the second attempt that has been made within a few months, to get up ‘remarkable discoveries,’ in that part of Ohio.”

Jackson County was also the site of the discovery of many fossil bones including the mammoth, the mastodon, and the megatherium. These were recognized by scientists as bones of animals and not gigantic humans. 

According to the History of Jackson County, the area was rich in Mound Builder artifacts, rock shelters/caves full of ashes and relics, and the odd human skeleton, either Native American or settler. I found this account in the History of Jackson County and thought, until I read the date, I might have found the inspiration for the more elaborate report above. But perhaps the event was not an uncommon one in the area and an ordinary find could have been embroidered into a respectable news item.

THE HUGHES CAVE SKELETON—Mr. John J. Cunningham discovered a human skeleton in a cave on the lands of Mrs. Hughes, in Madison township, some two miles from Centreville, in January, 1875. He was fox hunting, when the fox ran under the rocks, and he going in after it, saw something which he took to be a gourd. Picking it up he found it to be a human skull. He then found in a depression in the rocks the entire skeleton. It was lying face downwards, and the bones were cramped as if the body had been doubled and crowded into the depression in the rocks. A History of Jackson County, Ohio, Daniel Webster Webster 1900

In a similar (strip?) vein, comes this singular report:

A Strange Discovery.

An extraordinary exhumation has just been made in the Strip Vein Coal Bank of Capt. Lacy, at Hammondsville, Ohio  [Jefferson County] Mr. James Parsons and his two sons were engaged in making the bank, when a huge mass of coal fell down, disclosing a large smooth slate wall, upon the surface of which were found, carved in bold relief, several lines of hieroglyphics. Crowds have visited the place since the discovery and many good scholars have tried to decipher the characters, but all have failed. Nobody has been able to tell in what tongue the words were written. How came the mysterious writing in the bowels of the earth where probably no human eye has ever penetrated? By whom and when was it written? There are several lines about three inches apart, the first line containing twenty-five words. Attempts have been made to remove the slate wall, and bring it out, but upon tapping the wall it gave forth a sound that would seem to indicate the existence of a hollow chamber beyond, and the characters would be destroyed in removing it. At last accounts Dr. Hartshorn, of Mount Union College, had been sent for to examine the writing. Macon [GA] Weekly Telegraph 13 November 1868: p. 4

Some printings of the article (which are all identical) note at the end “Wellsville (Ohio) Union.” Wellsville is a county north of Jefferson.

This article is a very popular one online, and has gotten a lot of mileage among those interested in unusual/alien artifacts. One question I have is why the founder of Mount Union College, Dr. Orville Nelson Hartshorn, a Methodist minister, is mentioned. I can find no information that he was a language expert, but perhaps Mt. Union was the nearest institute of higher learning. Captain Lacy was also a genuine person and involved in the mining industry. My assumption is that this was just a case of a simulacrum, rather than a story made up out of whole shale. But one never knows—this might be another journalistic hoax using the names of real people. Or those Romans or Egyptians or Druids could have easily come up the Mississippi to the Ohio and thence to Hammondsville or overland to Jackson.  

Any other exotic relics from caves? Shake off the ashes and send to Chriswoodyard8 AT

Here are some genuine Ohio caves filled with some natural treasures.

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


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