In part one, we looked at the reports of a mysterious “phantom light” drawing thousands of viewers from around Ohio and beyond. The location of this “spook light” was Columbus Grove, a small town in what was formerly the Great Black Swamp—an immense swath of fever-ridden swampland which yielded rich soil, once it had been drained. One of the pockets of wetlands remaining formed part of Deakin’s Grove where the spook light arose.
In addition to lying in the Great Black Swamp lands, Putnam County borders on the Trenton Gas Field, which at the time of the 1880s gas-boom, was the largest in the USA. I observed in The Ghost Wore Black that coal- and gas-producing areas in Ohio (as well as Pennsylvania and Indiana) seemed to generate larger-than-average numbers of apparition and monster stories. You’ll see a variation of that theory mentioned in this article by a Lima News reporter, telling of the hoopla.
“THE LIGHT THAT FAILED!”
Lima News Reporter Waits in Vain for “Spook” At Columbus Grove—Thousands of Others Disappointed.
[There was a “Bulletin” at the head of this article with a spoiler, so I have moved it to the end of the article.]
By William Hagen
Columbus Grove’s “spook or phantom light” took a rest Monday night. The alleged phenomena of the drowsy little village, credited by many with uncanny flights through the trees of Deakin’s grove, nestled at the northeast edge of the city, where revelry held sway in pre-prohibition days, failed to materialize Monday night to the disappointment of myself and thousands of curious sightseers from Lima and cities within 100 miles of Columbus Grove.
A dimly lighted grove of perhaps seven acres adjoining the Columbus Grove-Bluffton Rd., with a dilapidated shack standing like a silent sentinel at the fringe of the “spook woods” and thousands of expectant motorists in their cars parked along the roadside, and even more pedestrians standing in groups along the road with their gaze directed toward the grove of trees comprised the sight which greeted the visitors upon arrival in the once peaceful town which now teems with excitement.
NATIVES NOT EXCITED
Natives of Columbus Grove are the least excited by the alleged phenomena which has held sway for two weeks. To the curious questioner with his rapid interrogations, the natives smile, shake their heads and leave the impression that some one is the victim of a big joke.
They don’t say whom, but the impression gained is that it is someone else beside the residents of Columbus Grove. Monday night when I entered the little town it bustled with life, the band was on the square in practice, playing “That Old Gang Of Mine” and street corners were congested with the band’s audience, while the streets were jammed with automobiles.
I stopped at a garage to get information. I figured I could get it there or at a barber shop, and as the barber shops were closed I had to go to a garage. After a little conversation on general topics, I casually inquired the reason for the crowd and was told that a lot of people were excited over a light that was seen in Deakin’s grove at the edge of town.
The garage man told me where to go, after fixing a head light so I could find my way through the crowd, and I started for the grove with the expectation of seeing a ball of red fire glowing through the trees, moving back and forth while thousands of persons stood as if the world were coming to an end.
But imagine the disappointment. Instead of my mind picture I saw a peaceful little woods nestled back from the road with a little shack standing under the trees. Not a sound was heard from the woods and most important of all was – NOT A LIGHT APPEARED.
Others who had been at the woods for hours stubbornly held to their convictions that the light would appear. I lingered awhile and when the waiting grew monotonous I returned to the square to hear the band which was again playing “That Old Gang of Mine.”
With one ear for the band and the other open for scandal, I tuned in on a little gossip being passed between two elderly women, who evidently were authorities on Columbus Grove topics for there wasn’t much about the town that they didn’t know. From their conversation it seemed as if they were disappointed over the non-appearance of Raymond M. Krise of Cincinnati, son of the present tenant of Deakin farm, who was to have traced the “spook” to his lair.
But to offset their disappointment they spoke of the many letters that Mayor George Luce has received from “spook chasers” from all sections of the country who are willing to defy the “phantom light” and solve the mystery for Columbus Grove residents. A medium from Findlay wants only $100 to catch the “spooks.”
One Chicago detective guarantees to rid Columbus Grove forever of the “spirits that infest the town” if $500 is paid him in advance. One of the women thought it was all right to pay the $500 as Chicago is over five times as big as Findlay.
I started to find the mayor and after several minutes’ search I had to admit failure. Several persons told me he was aiding George Turner, night watchmen in moving traffic. I was afraid to venture onto the traffic congested street so I found solace in a dignified old gentleman, who from his manner and speech, evidently at one time was Mr. Columbus Grove himself.
From this dignitary I gleaned the startling information that bootleggers are blamed for the light and that Columbus Grove residents have asked E.C. Stremblay and I.R. Starkoff, Toledo federal prohibition officers, to lead a party in a search of the woods as Putnam County has been infested with bootleggers in recent months. I didn’t see any of the bootleggers.
GASES ARE BLAMED.
That information was only the start. In his second offering he told that C. Bert Holmes, chemist, after an investigation had come to the conclusion that heavy rains in the past month had caused gases to issue from the ground, and by the rules of physics of which I know nothing, a light passing through these gases might form a chemical action which might look like red fire. The breath of a person or an animal coming in contact with the gas might cause the same chemical action, he said.
Holmes made a daytime examination of the soil and reported, the old gent told me, that gas was rising from the ground like small clouds of smoke not unlike that emitted from smouldering underground fires, and that the soil of the grove is always damp. Even in summer weather persons in the woods are compelled to wear rubbers, as the ground is almost natural muck.
Fully 10,000 persons counting the population, jammed the streets Monday night. If they were rewarded for their trip, they were lucky, for the crowd was the only thing I saw. If the light appeared it waited until I left the vicinity. Search of the woods is to be made Tuesday night, not by “spook chasers” who want $100 or $500, but by Krise and other fearless men.
One thing I like about Columbus Grove and that is—the people will talk. Everyone seemed to take the invasion of their town good naturedly except the traffic officers who, no doubt, will be seeing automobiles in their sleep, because I passed at least 200 machines at 10:30 p.m. Columbus Grove bound.
Since I’m not superstitious, in ordinary slang, I think the phantom light is a lot of applesauce.
Lima [OH] News, 17 June 1924: p. 1
And now, for a late-breaking bulletin….
Announcement was made at Columbus Grove Tuesday afternoon that Sam Busick, 13, had made a definite statement that he was responsible for the “scare” about the village occasioned by a red light. He said he had been engaged in the Deakin woods for the last several nights gathering “night crawlers” with a searchlight and sometimes used a red lantern. His statement is accepted as a solution of the “phantom light.” Lima[OH] News, 17 June 1924: p. 1
SAMMIE CAN NOW HUNT FISH BAIT IN ‘SPOOK’ WOOD
“I was afraid it would hurt my business if I told,” was the way Sammie Busick, 13, summed up his failure to enlighten Columbus Grove concerning the “phantom light” that had blazed intermittently in Deakin’s woods for the last three weeks.
In a statement to a Lima News reporter Tuesday evening, Sammie said that he had been in the business of gathering night crawlers which he sold to fishermen. He got a dollar a gallon for the worms and was paying for an automobile in this way.
At first, he said, he used a flash light, but that seemed to frighten the crawlers, so he purchased a lantern with a red globe. That, he declared, appeared to have a soothing effect on the worms and he used it continuously thereafter.
Young Busick said that the red lantern was used for the first time the night of the death of John B. Krise, owner of the land. His business in worms had been good, he said, and he was engaged there most every night which caused wonder among the village folk and caused rumors of a “phantom light” to spread….
As a fitting close to the incident, it was announced Wednesday that Sammie had pleaded that he might continue his business and that he might use the Deakin grove as a hunting ground for bait. This request has been granted by mayor George Luce, it was said. Lima[OH] News 18 June 1924: p. 2
And, as a nearly final word:
Sammie Busick was chosen to lead the 4th of July parade—to Deakin’s Grove, where the Fourth celebrations would take place. Lima[OH] News 19 June 1924: p. 13
Seriously? All this fuss over a boy with a lantern? Yet Sammie’s confession is a strange and anti-climactic “solution” to the phenomenon. Did he really care so much about his worm-gathering business that he ignored shots being fired, not to mention the 5,000 curious people gathered around the grove? Over the more than two weeks of sightings, didn’t anyone have the courage to enter the woods at night to see what was going on? There is also a mention of a “fire bird” in one of the earlier articles—did that mean that the light actually flew? If so, unless Sammie was looking for worms up in the trees, something’s a bit fishy.
There is another possible commercial explanation. A July, 1924 article headed “14 Tracts of Columbus Grove Land are Wanted” described how several railroads wanted to “condemn” tracts of land so they could buy them to lay railway tracks—eliminating some dangerous S-curves in current track. The property owners did not like the prices they were being offered and were going to sue.
“At Columbus Grove a number of the farms will be cut in half by the new railroad. One of the pieces thus affected is Deakin’s woods, well known as the ‘spook woods’ since a ‘phantom’ light was seen there several weeks ago.” Lima [OH] News, 16 July 1924: p. 1
Perhaps the phantom light was a ruse to devalue the property? Then again, Sammie got to lead the parade and got a worm-gathering permit from the Mayor. Cynics might suggest these were rewards for livening up the village’s economy….
Perhaps because I’m a sucker for a spook light, I find myself dissatisfied with young Sammie’s revelation. If the papers were correct, thousands of people witnessed the phenomena over the course of several weeks. I don’t want to label myself as the kind of person who refuses to believe Doug and Dave’s crop-circle-confessions, but could the explanation really have been so ridiculously simple?
Even if it was, you won’t be surprised to know that I felt compelled to look a little further at the fortean profile of the area. I have collected several other unusual stories from Columbus Grove and Putnam County (all dating from well before the events above) which cast a fortean light upon the region. [These next two stories in their unabridged form are also found in The Headless Horror.]
A “strange being” terrorized the area in 1902:
“A strange being, apparently half man, half beast, is seen in the county round about Rockport and Beaver Dam. The creature puts in an appearance at or near farmhouses.
“For some time the farmers in that vicinity have been troubled by nightly visits, apparently from intruders bent on securing money or other valuables. It was the scheme of the prowler to attempt to open a window or fumble at the door locks, then move on to the rear part of the house, and after giving the gates and such outposts a good shake disappears as quickly as he came. The family of Frank Conkleman left their home because of these visits, and while they were gone the strange being was seen.
“The creature is described as resembling a man, although possessed of features coarse and rough, and is said to be covered with hair. The inhabitants of that staid old country vicinity are half crazed with excitement, and the female portion will not venture out after nightfall.
“It is firmly believed that the strange creature is an insane person who has been at large for some time. The being is attired in dress more peculiar to one of the male sex, although scantily clad. A searching party will be organized to capture the fellow, if possible, although his fleetness of foot, and ability at fence jumping almost preclude any idea of so doing.” The Lima [OH] Times-Democrat 14 April 1902: p. 1
A year later, “mysterious visitors” came to a prominent citizen’s home. I don’t know what to make of this odd tale. It has elements of poltergeist cases, but also strange beings who pelt the family with sticks and stones.
Placed at Arnold House
To Watch For Alleged Spooks
Stones and Sticks Thrown By Mysterious Visitors.
Columbus Grove, Ohio, October 6. Is the farm residence of George Arnold, a leading prohibition politician of the county, located about two and a half miles north of here on the Ottawa Pike, haunted, and what causes the strange sounds that emanate therefrom? This is the question, which not only Mr. Arnold’s folks are trying to solve, but neighbors and citizens of Columbus Grove as well.
One week ago Saturday night the residence was entered and $35 and a revolver were taken from the bookcase in the living room. Mr. Arnold’s pension voucher, which was with the money, was found lying on the floor.
Every night since the Arnolds have been troubled by intruders. When they heard strange sounds night after night an investigation was ordered. Upon appearing at the front door they saw what appeared to be a man and woman in a strange little cart in the lane which leads to the house from the road. They had no more than left the shelter of the house when the strange beings threw sticks and rocks at members of the family. It is said that as soon as members of the family leave the house, even though for but a short time, the furniture is turned topsy-turvy and everything is strewn about….
Most of the strange happenings are said to occur at the house during the absence of the wife. A year or so ago the Arnolds were bothered by mysterious visitors, but after a while they ceased to come. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 7 October 1903: p. 1
Then there was an envelope of “hoodoo money” kept at the Putnam County Treasury.
THESE GREENBACKS ARE CALLED HOODOOS
ONE-HUNDRED-DOLLAR BILLS KEPT IN BANK AS MEMENTO OF CRIME
Columbus Grove, Ohio, Oct. 12.
The annual examination of the Putnam County treasury has been finished, and the report filed.
A feature in connection with the examination is that three one-hundred-dollar bills, turned into the county treasury about a decade ago as conscience money, were counted. These bills are never brought from their place in the vault except at this time, but are allowed to remain in the envelope in which they were turned in.
They are seen by but very few people. Each county treasurer has avoided the money. It is looked upon as a hoo-doo, and no official has had the courage to put the bills in circulation. They are not different from other bills, save their connection with disgrace brought upon officials about ten years ago, and which causes each succeeding official to feel that they carry with them bad fortune. The Washington [DC] Times 12 October 1903: p. 5
The local historians I spoke with didn’t know anything about it, so I’m just speculating that the cursed cash arose from a $25,000 embezzlement by several former county officials in 1893.
We’ve wandered far afield from a red phantom light in a mucky grove, collecting a modest harvest of forteana as assiduously as Sammie picked up worms. What does it all add up to? I’m not sure a dubious spook light, seventh-son healer, “hoodoo money,” wildman and stone-throwing devils quite amount to a Portal Area, even throwing in some unusual ghost stories not related here. [See Haunted Ohio IV.]
Perhaps not, but even drained, the lands of the Great Black Swamp still harboured the potential for swamp gas. At the very least, the rich black soil inspired a crop of worms and a sensation-inducing boy with a lantern.
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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.