While unpacking this year’s cast-of-thousands nativity set, I’ve found an inexplicable surplus of angels. I doubt that they are reproducing since there is no marriage or giving in marriage in Heaven (nor in Christmas storage boxes). Let’s put it down to imperfect organizational skills and anticipate that the finished production will end up looking like the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral. And an overstock of angels is as good an excuse as any to return to the holiday theme of seraphic sightings.
One of the earliest stories from the United States in my files is this one, witnessed in 1841, but reported here in a 1904 paper.
STRANGE HEAVENLY PHENOMENA
Witnessed by Miss Olive E. Coffeen of Hillsboro, O. and Mrs. Martha A. Ellis of [illegible], O., August 19, 1841.
Writing of the heavenly hosts, Mrs. Ellis says:
I will mention one more strange phenomenon that I witnessed in Bellbrook, August 19, 1841. We were sitting outdoors viewing what to us was a strange sight in the shape of an unusual band or circle of light in the northern heavens…when we noticed excited families of the neighborhood in the streets viewing the south-eastern sky. A glance in that direction showed her a phenomenon which in her own words consisted of angel forms in solemn procession, marching with stately tread through the realms of space in full view. In the heavens, marching by twos, was a parade of what appeared to be human forms clad in flowing robes. As fast as one company consisting of from ten to fifteen couples would disappear from view another would take its place, and the vision lasted ten minutes. The forms were so life-like that seemingly the movements of the limbs could be distinguished. The people at the time were greatly excited at the angelic visitation and in several instances families carried invalids out of doors that they might view the scene. The occurrence took place between nine and ten o’clock in the evening. The forms of the spirit visitors were to all appearances, covered by a gauzy substance, and their existence in companies was visible to the eye through a space of probably thirty degrees in a northwesterly direction….Bellbrook [OH] Moon 16 March 1904
I’ve wondered if the angel companies were northern lights, although here in Ohio (Bellbrook is not far from where I live) we generally do not get auroras. Unlike this sighting in Windsor, Ontario.
ANGEL FRAMED BY AURORA SEEN IN NORTHERN SKIES
Indians Declare it Was Portent of the Thunder Eagle.
Windsor, Ont. Scores of Windsor residents, including members of the police force, stoutly affirm they witnessed a startling phenomenon in the form of an angel who appeared, surrounded by a circle of flaming red, in the western sky.
Following as it does, reports from France that soldiers have seen Joan of Arc and St. Michael leading them into battle, as well as the apparition of the angel of Mons, the experience of the Windsorites is attracting more than ordinary attention.
Seen by Police.
Patrolmen on duty, skeptical over reports received over the telephone, walked out where they could view the section of the sky in which the phenomenon was reported.
They declared they beheld the blood-red circle, high in the heavens, though the angel’s figure, if it had been there, had disappeared.
Another member of the police force, however is authority for the statement that he previously saw the angel, circle and all.
Many Detroit residents declare they too, had seen the angel in the red circle, a striking coincidence with the experience of the Windsorites. All descriptions of the apparition agree that it was far too bright, vivid and well-defined to have anything to do with the aurora borealis, which was faintly visible from this part of the continent. The Oklahoma City [OK] Times 26 March 1918: p. 4
This next story was titled “Haunted by an Angel,” and the bulk of it is a pretty standard account of rappings, lights, door openings, and tugs experienced by the unnamed author who said she was quite fond of her unseen visitor. But it ends with an angelic apparition:
A few months ago I had reason to believe my ghost found and followed me. My room is furnished with my old home belongings, and after I had been settled here a little while there began to be queer tappings and knockings in my wardrobe, sometimes when I was alone and again when friends were with me.
A VISION OF AN ANGEL
Day or night mattered not with the disturber of my peace. Sometimes the tappings would be repeated softly again and again for hours and at another time there would come such a tremendous blow as to cause me to jump off of my chair. A blow of such force would have split the door from top to bottom.
This worried and perplexed me no little for a while, until I remembered my ghost and felt it must have found me and was trying to make its presence known. Since then I have not been disturbed by these unusual and unpleasant sounds.
And now with a very recent experience, I’ll close this narrative.
Nearly a week ago I was sleeping quietly when my eyes suddenly opened on a lovely vision—that of a bright angel form bending over my bed, though it was considerably above me, the soft folds of drapery about its feet being just above my bed. Its face I could not see because of the same snowy folds which shadowed it as it looked down on me.
I lay there for some moments gazing at this beautiful apparition and, thinking it had come for me, I regretted that I had omitted attending to some little matters I had expected to arrange before I went away for all time. I could hear the soft ticking of my lock across the room and I raised my head and covered my eyes a moment. I looked again, and my angel was still there, looking down on me as before.
ITS DAZZLING RADIANCE
I know most positively I was awake, or while I looked and wondered the soft silvery chimes of my clock struck the hour of four. I turned and passed my eyes swiftly over the room, but could distinguish no object in the darkness save a faint glow in my stove where the fire was still alive. My eyes came back to my angel, and its white robe gleamed silvery white, with a pure radiance I have only seen in beautiful stained windows.
It remained with me a few moments longer, then slowly and gradually faded away. I lay there wakeful and wondering until the morning light came in. What these things may mean, if anything, I don’t pretend to understand, but I am hoping for another visit from my angel, for even if it doesn’t take me hence, it is a beautiful memory to remain with me. M.D. S. Culpepper, Va. [Sunday Sun [Baltimore, MD] 4 April, 1909: p. 17 Thanks to Theo Paijmans for tracking down the reference.]
Perhaps a hypnopompic vision?
This next story is rather peculiar in that, if it happened as stated, there were a lot of witnesses at relatively close-range. But would a congregation continue to sing while an angel floated overhead? I’ve got another story in my files about a church where a young boy was told to hide in the attic and, at the appropriate place in the sermon, release a dove, which would be mistaken for the Holy Spirit descending on the congregation. Was this a pastoral prank—an angelic dummy on a wire?
An Angel Visitant
The colored population of the city is considerably torn up over a circumstance which happened last Sunday evening at Zion’s African Methodist Episcopal church at the corner of Second street and the Lafayette railroad. It is said that while the congregation were singing a hymn a phantom form of an angel appeared to enter the church at the door, move slowly and deliberately above the audience and hover over the pulpit. The figure was that of a human being enrobed in white, and with the wings angels are supposed to wear. The outlines were well defined, though the features of the face were shadowy and could not be recognized as having once belonged to any mortal human to the congregation. The phantom moved about slowly until the singing of the hymn was concluded—probably 10 minutes—then vanished mysteriously as it came. The Sentinel informant, a colored man willing to have his name mentioned as authority, solemnly asserts that the angel was distinctly seen by at least 200 colored people present in the church at the time of its disappearance. A great commotion followed, and the theme is still the talk of the town among the colored people, many of whom look upon the apparition as a forerunner of something deadful [sic]—an omen of evil. Indianapolis [IN] Sentinel 19 march 1879: p. 5
This short report has all the earmarks of a joke, but I include it for completeness.
ANGEL MISSES IT BY PASSING UP INDIANA
Seen in Clouds in Kansas but Hoosier State Nearer Heaven
Owensville, Feb. 6 A snap shot picture of an angel seen in the heavens by the residents of Liberal, Kan., is attracting much attention here. The picture was sent to Owensville by William Wright, a former citizen of this place who now resides in Liberal. A peculiar formation of white clouds is perhaps responsible for the figure which the citizens of Liberal declare is the likeness of an angel. Local people wonder why the angel passed up Indiana, a state that is nearer heaven than any other. Evansville [IN] Courier and Press 7 February 1917: p. 1
The snap shot picture of an angel was this one:
And a brief version of the story:
Residents of Greensburg, Kansas have been not a little disturbed over an apparition in the sky after a recent snow storm. There was no sun, and black clouds were behind it. It was large—shaped like the picture of an angel—dazzling white, and brighter than the strongest calcium light. One young man whose mother died just before the storm, believes that it was the spirit of his mother hovering over the town. An enterprising photographer got a snapshot of the apparition and a picture was sent by J. Frank Martin to Mr. and Mrs. P.P. Shives of town. The Fulton County News [McConnellsburg PA] 11 January 1917: p. 1
Angels even appeared to White House cranks.
Gave Her the Warning
Aged Woman Told White House Officials of a Vision.
Washington, August. 1 The second “crank” that has visited the White House since the President’s return last Thursday called to-day in the person of Mrs. Burgadine, a German over 50 years of age. She said her home was in Mariposa, Ill., but that she had been spending some time with a sister in Baltimore.
I have come to warn the President,” she told a White House office, “That he is in danger of his life. I have had a vision in which an angel appeared to me and directed me to warn the President. I didn’t find out from the angel just what is going to be done to the President, but I know he is not going to be shot. The angel intimated that he is to be blown up. I telegraphed the President a year ago that if he went to Chicago he would be killed, but he went anyway. The spirit has appeared to me again, more angry than ever before, and has warned me that I must let the President know the danger.”
Mrs. Burgadine was told by the detective that the President had an office in the Treasury to listen to just such warnings and he would take her over to he proper officials. He escorted her to the Secret Service office in the Treasury, and she was gratified to know that her warnings had been told to people who would at once convey it to the President. Mrs. Burgadine said she was the mother of 14 children, and she had a photograph of the family with her. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 2 August 1904: p. 6
This next story is a bit of a poser. Here’s the initial report of The Angel of Ripley, Ohio, complete with obligatory heavy-handed humor.
One of our contemporaries printed the following dispatch from Ripley on Saturday:
“Yesterday evening, between 10 and 11 o’clock, there appeared suspended between the heaven and the earth almost a fac-simile of one of Raphael’s Angels. Thought not of the full stature of a well-developed human being, yet it was perfectly formed and as white as alabaster. The wings were outspread, with arms extended imploringly, and its revolutions were as rapid and beautiful as a bird, as it circled in mid air. Over one hundred and fifty of our best citizens, ladies and gentlemen, were witnesses of the singular spectacle, and gazed with admiration and awe. The testimony of all those who were fortunate enough to behold it is that there was indisputable evidence that it was not a female, although the form was as delicately molded and the limbs as perfectly rounded as the most perfect Eve that ever came from under the chisel of an artist. Probably it can be explained by some of the scientists.”
The Lord has not suffered the Rev. Colonel Granville Moody to labor in vain. He had been preaching in Ripley on the night in question, we doubt not, as he is stationed there, and those who are familiar with his florid eloquence know how easy it would be for him to cause more than one hundred and fifty persons to see an angel in the heavens. But the man who furnished the news was a marvelously close observer, as well as an art critic and anatomist. He says that the Ripley angel was a “fac simile of one of Raphael’s angels.” It wasn’t one of Michael Angelo’s angels, whose beauty the whole world goes to see. It wasn’t a face or form which Leonardo a Vinci, or Titian, or Correggio, or Rembrandt, or Claude Lorraine, or any one else might have painted, but it was a genuine Raphael angel. Colonel Rev. Granville Moody when in Cincinnati devoted the most of the time that he could spare from religion to poetry. He has evidently been teaching art in Ripley. Then how anatomically discriminating was the observer! There was “indisputable evidence that the angel was not a female,” says the correspondent fresh from the burning words of Moody. The brevity necessity in a dispatch forbade the informant form giving the nature of the “indisputable evidence.” The “evidence wasn’t pantaloons and a swallow-tail, for the form and the limbs are described with passionate ad artistic enthusiasm. It doesn’t appear that it was the absence of a water-fall [hairpiece] that constituted the decisive testimony. It wasn’t the hard hands and protuberant muscles of a wood-sawyer, or a blacksmith, or of a Dying Gladiator, for the form was delicately molded, and the limbs were rounded like those of a marble Eve. [as carved by Hiram Powers, a Cincinnati-area sculptor.] One hundred and fifty of “best citizens” of Ripley saw this Raphael male angel, and though the description of him is rather pre-Raphaelite, the circumstance bears testimony to the wonderful efficacy of Brother Moody’s preaching, as indisputable as the unexplained evidence of the guides of that angel. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 2 November 1874: p. 4
Another Cincinnati paper took up the burlesque tone, adding a touch of anti-Catholic sentiment:
THE RIPLEY ANGEL
We regret to notice that no further light is thrown upon the strange apparition of an angel “suspended between heaven and earth,” at Ripley no the night of the 2nd ult., and “witnessed by one hundred and fifty of our best citizens,” as veraciously chronicled in two of our morning papers. It was to be hoped that we should not be left unaided to solve the meaning of this miraculous portent—one that, there is little doubt, most seriously concerns the welfare of this afflicted earth. Solved, however, it must be—there is no help for it—and so meekly, and hesitatingly, we essay the task.
Two facts—that it was an angel, and a male angel—seem conclusively to establish the connection of the apparition with the Church of Rome. Angels, of late years have been the exclusive property of that institution, and in all its long record the rights of women have been so slighted that there is no authoritative instance of a female angel having been indulged in. Miracles of that class, and with less exclusiveness as to sex, were once the property of other associations; but, in the realistic light of later centuries, the devotion of the Roman Church has procured for it a complete monopoly. And there, even, they have become vastly rarer than of old. The reason is not easy to explain. Good Catholics of Europe maintain that the miracles, the apparitions, the elves, and the fairies, passed from earth because unable to endure the morose sectarianism engendered by the Reformation; while the more materialistic critics trace their departure and its cause to the introduction of tobacco with its stifling fumes.
However this may be, they are mostly gone, and it is a sad thing to say. It would be better than a Roman Hippodrome, an Exposition, or a Black Crook drama, to step back once more into the good old times when there were more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy. Oh, that we could see St. Anthony preaching once more on the sands, and the fishes coming up to hear him. How it would please us to hear the sound of phantom bells, and watch the flight of legions of angels, as did Celestine V., What a stunning sensation it must have caused to observe, through a good opera-glass, the angels flying, with the house of the Virgin, from Nazareth to Loretto; what a delightful creeping of the flesh to look upon the stigmata of St. Francis…. How wonderful, too, the performances of St. Dominic. How pleased we should have been to see him draw the devil out of that old matron in the shape of a big black cat; how funny to see that nun blow her nose clear off, and St. Dominic put it back again with a touch and a prayer. And St. Benedict, the greatest marvel of them all, rolling in thorns to escape the devil, disguised as pretty Roman girl, piloted to Monte Casino by two angels; making two bad nuns to rise from their graves and walk out of the church—these were things worth seeing. And it was the abundance of them that must have been so delightful….But of late centuries we can only get a miracle or so in a lifetime. Such as the tears of blood that flowed from the crucifix in Christ’s Church, Dublin, the Wonders of the Shrine of Lourdes, and the few miracle cures of the past few years.
Still it is pleasant to know that they have not wholly departed from us; and the late one at Ripley is doubly to be hailed as the first one of moment that has been vouchsafed to America. The Church has needed one on this continent for many a year. The late miracle cure chronicled at Milwaukee was a very modest affair at best, and not sufficiently authenticated; but an angel “suspended between heaven and earth,” at Ripley, and “witnessed by over one hundred and fifty of our best citizens,” is something that may well make Catholic Europe turn pale with envy. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Times 2 November 1874: p. 2
There were a number of squibs in other papers, mostly on the order of these two:
It was reported that an angel was seen suspended over the town of Ripley, Ohio, the other day, says an exchange. Three of them were suspended over Pennsylvania, Thursday, if their anticipations were realized. Indianapolis [IN] Sentinel 14 November 1874: p. 4
An exchange says that “some of the people of Ripley, Ohio, are certain they saw an angel suspended between the heavens and the earth the other night.” He was probably one of those fallen angels we sometimes hear of—especially when they had cut the rope. Courier-Journal.Commercial Advertiser [New York, NY] 27 November 1874: p. 1
Finally, in January of the following year, an explanation (of dubious value, in my opinion) is offered:
The Ripley correspondent of a Xenia paper thus explains the “Ripley angel:”
“One of our wealthy citizens gave a party on the night in question, at which about one hundred and fifty of our ‘best’ citizens were present. A beautiful figure of an angel (cut out of marble) was suspended on wires above the entrance. It was very much admired, and a wag present immediately telegraphed to the Cincinnati papers. A great many of our townspeople were as much in the dark as any until it gradually leaked out. Washington [PA] Reporter 6 January 1875: p. 2
Ripley, while now a small village, known primarily for its association with the Rev. John Rankin and the Underground Railroad, formerly contained some of the largest pork-packing facilities in Ohio—second only to Cincinnati. Possibly there was a certain amount of rivalry between Ripley and “Porkopolis,” (although Cincinnati was much larger) leading some “wag” to make up a story about an angel to suggest that the people of Ripley were superstitious and credulous.
It’s an odd story without much detail (I haven’t been able to get hold of local papers yet. ) Was it all a prank or did someone actually mistake party decor for an apparition? A case of entertaining with an angel, unaware? As I said, I think the statue explanation raises more questions than it provides answers, due to the practicality of rigging a marble statue on wires at a private residence, but I’m willing to be convinced if someone has more information. 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. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.