Introducing The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales

The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales

A book over a century in the making….

Sometimes things don’t go exactly to plan. I had planned to put out a “Victorian scrapbook of hauntings and horrors” called The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past* in an e-book format. Then I started polling my Haunted Ohio fans and realized that they wanted their own book and they wanted it now!

I quickly pulled the Ohio material from my files and set to work transcribing, editing, and annotating. I’m a completist, so I may have gotten a little carried away….

Once finished I sent the manuscript to my buddy Joe Citro, Vermont horror, ghost-story, monster-lore and folklore-writer extraordinaire, because he had unwisely committed to doing a foreword.

A couple of weeks later when I called to inquire how he liked it, he said he was enjoying it fine, but, “Geez, it’s a really long book!” At that I did a word count (I know, I know, should have done that earlier).  I was mortified to find out just how far over the line I had gone—there were enough stories for two—maybe even three books.

“Adapt, adopt and improve” is my motto, so I again set to work dividing the manuscript into two books with the precision of a surgical team separating a double baby, which is a 19th-century term for conjoined twins. Various vicissitudes later, voila! The Face in the Window arrived, sort of in time for Halloween. And now, part deux: The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales is sitting in on my desk and at your local library and bookstore or at Amazon and other retail and online outlets.

In a bout of shameless self-promotion, let’s look at some of the topics and stories covered in The Headless Horror. Along with the usual stories of ghosts and haunted houses, I wanted to include some Fortean topics: rains of live fishes, toads found alive in sealed rocks, people with lizards in their stomachs, a fall of stones in a Lebanon hardware store. I’d read a line or two about the stones falling from the (unbroken) ceiling of John W. Lingo’s hardware store in Lebanon in one of Charles Fort’s books and it had always intrigued me. Looking for more details, I found a colorful local character who taught his dog to answer the phone, was caught in flagrante with a councilman’s wife, and shot a rival agricultural implement salesman at a field test of a sheaf binder, claiming self-defense. If the stone fall was a stunt by a man accustomed to having his name in front of the public, it got him about two months of publicity. Oddly, it didn’t seem to follow the usual “stone-throwing devil” poltergeist pattern.

One of the stranger stories I found was that of a veteran telegrapher who told of receiving messages from a dead man, through an unwired telegraph box. They were allegedly from a man who had gone west to seek his fortune and been killed. He gave his name and his father’s name and address and asked the telegrapher to contact his parents and tell them what had happened to him. The story does not have the standard ghost-story ending you’d expect, but seems all the more plausible for that.

I love a mystery and when I found a brief article about the ghost of “the beautiful and cultured French governess who suicided at Henry Bonnell’s residence last spring, by throwing herself out of an attic window,” well, who could resist?  The quest for details was made more difficult by the papers not spelling the young mademoiselle’s name consistently, but I persisted and found a long paper trail involving an illicit affair in New York with a Count at the Italian Consulate, a previous suicide attempt, a mysterious letter that arrived for the young woman only moments after she jumped to her death, an indecently hasty burial, and all manner of diplomatic obfuscation as to her state of mind and her motive for leaping from the roof of her employer. It was a story worthy of a Verdi opera—La Traviata—The Fallen Woman…

There was an entire genre of “haunted jail” stories in the 19th-century papers. In my chapter called “Spooks in the Slammer,” you’ll find gruesome tales of the Ohio State Penitentiary’s cursed Cell 13, prisoners haunted by the ghosts of murderers past, the Spook Cure for troublesome prisoners, and The Medina County Murderess, dogged by spirits of the two “imbecile” step-daughters she was convicted of murdering. Newspapers pulled no punches in describing the grim, dark, and bloody scenes inside the Ohio State Penitentiary in the days before prison reform.  Oh, and did you know that the Penitentiary kept a congregation of live alligators? News to me….

In The Face in the Window I discussed the trainmen’s belief in “hoodoo engines.”  In The Headless Horror’s opening chapter on haunted houses, I write about “hoodoo houses,” where nothing would thrive or where all the tenants went mad. In a surprisingly modern story from Crawford County, a committee of ghost hunters goes to investigate a haunted house, not once, but twice, and both times sees the ghost of a man they had all known in life and who seemed to see them. In another case with a contemporary flavor, you’ll read evidence from the great Spook Trial in Marion, where a renter who broke his lease claimed that the house was haunted—and won, just like the New York state couple who sued when they found that the house they bought had a ghostly reputation.

Much has been written about the murder by decapitation of Pearl Bryan. I skimmed and read over 900 articles about the case in the Cincinnati Enquirer archives to ferret out stories of the paranormal circus that arose around this young woman, so brutally done to death by her lover Scott Jackson and his friend Alonzo Walling. You’ll read about the mind-readers, psychics, and even a Hindu conjurer who claimed they could find her head. There are notes about the men and women who went mad from obsessing over the case. There’s the creepy story of what was found in a package sent anonymously to Alonzo Walling in prison. You’ll hear from Spiritualists who claimed that Pearl had returned in (headless) spirit, or that the ghost of the executed Scott Jackson had arisen to ask for sympathy. (The Spiritualists, it was reported, were highly supportive of Jackson and Walling, acting just like modern-day murderer groupies.) I found this case intriguing because so many absurd stories have arisen about Pearl Bryan’s “Satanist killers” and how her head was supposedly dumped in the “Well of Blood” at Bobby Mackey’s Music World. I hope this chapter can set the record straight.

Other chapters tell of ghostly sightings where the witnesses recognize the dead, auditory hauntings, possessed objects, visions in the sky, early UFOs, Women in White, assorted apparitions, and witchery in Ohio, including a very late witchcraft trial where the defendants were tried for believing in witches, several cases of those mysterious feather crowns found in bewitched persons’ bedding, and a village near Toledo terrorized by phantom black cats. You’ll also read of the coffin-maker haunted by his future clients and a man driven mad by a spook light.

I enjoy rescuing long-lost stories from archival oblivion. Yet some stories frustrated my attempts to track them down. For example, a Copperhead editor was shot dead by an Abolitionist in Dayton in 1862. The trial was moved to Troy, where the Abolitionist was acquitted and the judge held a post-trial celebration for him. There was a great story printed a few years later suggesting that the judge, the defendant, and the entire 12-man jury either died in horrible ways or went mad. I was able to verify that the defendant ended badly (with his body eaten by wild hogs) and the judge died in a lunatic asylum. But the jury—well, the jury is still out—they all seem to have flourished for many years afterwards. But there is more work to be done…

I was also disappointed to not be able to track down more details about a young woman who was repeatedly attacked in bizarre and almost supernatural ways or about the man who shot himself on a Cincinnati grave and whose ghost appeared every year on the anniversary of his death. And due to space concerns I had to leave out tales of strange people like the Human Chameleon, the Devil Kids, the boy who tasted with his nose, saw through his ears, and heard through his fingers, Ohio’s many Wild Men, and Mrs. Martin, the Cincinnati woman who proclaimed herself The Christ and her sister-in-law The Holy Spirit. But those are for another book, another time…. Ohio Fortean Sourcebook, anyone?


*The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past is in preparation, covers the whole US and will be available in August, 2013.


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