“Where is hell located? asks a minister.
Now isn’t that the devil of a question?
Wilmington [DE] Dispatch 1913
A few months ago, that paper of record for the archaeological and the odd, The Daily Mail, published an article about a Greek cave believed to have been the inspiration for the Greek Underworld.
Entrances to the Abyss have been variously located around the world: Iceland’s Mount Hekla, Sicily’s Mount Etna, St. Patrick’s Purgatory, Lough Derg, Ireland, the Darvasa Gas Crater in Turkmenistan, the catacombs beneath Paris—all have been tagged as potential Portals to Perdition.
Theologians, scientists, and laymen have debated for centuries about the location of Hell. Our ancestors were acutely aware of the presence of the Evil One in this world and, with the rise of scientific amateurs, there was an intense curiosity about the precise location and dimensions of the Netherworld. Popular 19th-century theology books and advertisements for religious lectures tantalized with promises of exact directions to Hades for those so inclined to seek it out.
Some of the theories:
English mathematician William Whiston “supposed that every comet was a separate hell, appointed to carry the damned to the region of the sun, to be first dreadfully scorched, and from thence, beyond the orb of Saturn, to suffer the extreme of frost and cold.” The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, 1812, p. 21
A Rev. Zed Hetzel Copp, of Washington D.C., made a convincing case for Hell being located in the sun. “An orthodox hell must be a sea of burning brimstone. The lake of burning brimstone spoken of in the Bible cannot be supplied with anything found on earth. Everything on earth that gives forth light and heat or either without the other decreases in bulk. There is no substance known to scientists that can supply heat or light without a reduction in bulk that can easily be measured.
“The sun is the only object in the universe that fills the bill of particulars of having an everlasting fire which existed before the advent of man and the earth.” Prescott [AZ] Evening Courier 30 July 1907: p. 1
The Rev. Mr. Walworth, a Redemptorist priest in a popular and lurid sermon “undertook to demonstrate that Hell was situated in the inside of the earth, commencing about twenty-one miles from the surface, where granite begins to melt. He also affirmed that heat was the predominant characteristic of this abode of the damned, and illustrated the proposition by reference to the uniformly high temperature of everything which had reached us from that quarter of our globe.” Sandusky [OH] Register 14 April 1855: p. 2
The Daily Mail article set me to thinking about various Hellish places on the North American continent. I will skip the “Devil,” and “Fayette” place names so admirably covered by Loren Coleman and other scholars of the Name-Game and focus on sites actually dubbed “Hell” or “The Gates of Hell.
Some 19th-century geographers of Sin believed that Hell would be found on the Eastern seaboard. New Jersey was far and away the most popular choice in both jocular and serious articles. I would not dream of speculating about why.
A local celebrity in Vernon Township, Sussex County, N.J., has come to the conclusion that hell is located in the earth and is eight miles below the surface. This is good news to the people of that section, as it has been a standing joke for years that hell was situated but 18 inches below Vernon Township. Port Jervis [NY] Evening Gazette 7 October 1879: p. 2
Hell Found in New Jersey
Paterson, N.J., Aug. 23. A letter was mailed in Passale yesterday to “Hell, New Jersey.” After some discussion it was sent to Paterson, and arrived here safely. Kalamazoo [MI] Gazette 24 August 1901: p. 1
HELL LOCATED IN JERSEY.
There has long been a lurking suspicion in the minds of Jerseymen that hell was located somewhere in that vicinity. At last it appears to have actually broken out at a place on the coast known as Oceanica, where a strange phenomenon appeared last week. Opposite the Leger Hotel is a sand beach, and when the tide is low the water is fifty feet below high water mark. Between those two points a flame of sulphurous matter burst out, and it is said to have burned furiously to a height of several feet and to have caused a black smoke equal to a small cloud, fifty feet high. There was also a hissing noise, like the ascent of a rocket. When the water comes up the flames and smoke subside, but when it recedes the smoke and sulphur aroma appear again to delight the Calvinistic residents of this benighted section. Owyhee Avalanche [Silver City, ID] 13 August 1881: p. 1
And no discussion of New Jersey would be complete without a link to The Gates of Hell.
Texas was another popular choice for the Infernal Regions. General Phil Sheridan, who was not a fan, famously said, “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.”
Where is Hell located? asks a  correspondent of the Chattanooga Times. Answer: Adequate maps of Texas may be had of all book dealers.
A colored man, whose name is Caesar Taylor, is going to tell the people of Trenton where hell is located. He is said to hail from Texas and to know what he is talking about. Trenton [NJ] Times 3 September 1887: p. 2
The Rev. Caesar Andrew Augustus Taylor was a popular lecturer, to judge by the wide coverage (and ridicule) he received. One article about him begins:
HE HAS LOCATED HELL
Fifty-Two Miles Underground and Full of Burning Brimstone
“Hell, or hades, or gehenna, or sheol, or the inferno, or whatever you want to call it, is a lake of fire and brimstone, exactly fifty-two miles below the surface of the earth at sea level, and has the cubic contents of 542,900,000 miles.”
The good Reverend based his calculations on a scrupulous study of science and the Bible. He also suggested that “volcanoes are gradually preparing a place for the unregenerate who persist in disobeying Divine Law.” He also believed “the earth to be flat or at least not as round as the scientists believe it to be. I have about concluded that there are many suns and that we may have a new one every day.” Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 November 1891: p. 9
But back to Texan Hells, with a treasure-filled Cavern of Chaos:
“GATEWAY TO HELL”
Texas Cave supposed to Contain Vast Wealth
[New York World.]
In Hidalgo County, Texas, near the Loma Blanca lake, tradition has for many years located a gigantic mysterious cavern, and always in connection with vast stores of gold and gems.
About six months ago a party of half a dozen Americans went to Loma Blanca and began to make excavations, and they have every reason to believe that this cave does exist.
They are guided in their work by a map said to have been made in the beginning of the century by a Spaniard who go into trouble with the Mexican authorities, hid his god and jewels in the cavern, took ship for Spain, and died there, leaving this map among his effects.
In 1875 a Spaniard whose name was Villanueva came to Hidalgo County direct from Spain and it is thought that he possessed this map and located the cave, but lacked the means necessary to make the excavations.
He died at Sans ranch in Hidalgo County, and the next time anything was heard of this map it was in the hands of the present possessors, who certainly have it.
This cave has an evil reputation in the legends of the people. It is known as “The Gateway to Hell, and dolorous sounds, as of souls in agony were said to issue from its mouth, while far inside fantastic flames of blue and blood-red were to be seen reflected on its walls.
Robber bands, too, are reputed to have hidden their booty there, but such was the superstitious awe in which the place was held that notwithstanding these flattering possibilities of wealth no one is known to have ventured near its fateful entrance until its present exploration. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 February 1896: p. 12
Ohio has the usual complement of Devil’s Dens, Bathtubs, and Tabletops. The Devil, it seems, has well-furnished snuggeries throughout the state. One more reason for Buckeye pride….
The first religious services were held at our house by missionaries, who visited Fort Wayne whenever the Indians were to receive their annuity, when there were a great many Indians and traders assembled from all parts of the country. The missionaries were generally Methodists, but every denomination was invited by my mother to hold meetings (she being a Congregationalist); one, Mr. Antrem, a Methodist preacher, most frequently. He was a large, powerful man. and was considered a revivalist. The Holy Spirit, as he called it, manifested its saving power by giving ladies what they called the jerks, which would commence with a loud groaning, and then the head would jerk back and forth, causing their long hair, which they braided, to crack like a whip-lash, they jumping up and down and shouting, while the preacher called on the congregation to alternately sing and pray. He would exhort them, telling that hell was raging just beneath them with fire and brimstone. “Yes,” said Freshour; “I know it’s just under Shane’s Prairie, ’cause I dug a well last week, and the water was so full of brimstone and sulphur that they could not use it, and it turned everything black, and caved in. I don’t believe but hell’s right under there.” To this awful discovery Antrem quoted several passages from the Bible; read from Dante, John Bunyan and Milton. Several young women from the prairie jerked until they fell exhausted, frothing at the mouth, with every nerve twitching. They were pronounced by Antrem to be most powerfully converted; and that appeared to be the uniform working of the Spirit at all his meetings in Ohio, Indiana or Kentucky. Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe, p. 725
At least one Ohio Inferno was man-made. This is an excerpt from an article entitled “Fire That Can’t Be Checked, Rages Below an Ohio Town” By Harry S. Mount
I have looked through the gates of Hell!
I have stood on a high hill and, as far as the eye could reach, I have seen a thousand miniature volcanoes belching ruin on a fair land. I have seen streams of steaming water. I have seen great red hot fissures opened in the earth through the blackened ruins of what was once a verdant forest. I have even crawled into a hole in the hillside, and far back under the earth have gazed into the mouth of a great furnace that seemed indeed the gates of Hell—a veritable Inferno on Earth!
All this within the borders of our own fair Ohio!
For perhaps the greatest fire on earth is burning down in Perry county, in the southeastern part of the state, between the little mining towns of Shawnee and New Straitsville. It has been burning for more than thirty years and over fourteen million tons of the finest soft cola in the United States have fed it. In its path lie many, many more millions of tons. Every effort to check it has failed and it seems probable that the fire will still be burning, with colossal loss, half a century hence. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 5 May 1918: p. 3
You’ll find the history of this mine fire, which burns to this day here.
According to some students, the Gates of Hell are located on the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Survivors of “Hell Weeks” at other colleges might dispute this, but Kenyon does seem to have an unusually active collection of school spirits. Kenyon’s Gates of Hell are two columns that flank the Middle Path to the center of campus. Supposedly the Church of the Holy Spirit sits atop the pit of Hell although some think that the trapdoor leading to eternal damnation actually lies in the basement of Mather Hall. One of the “proofs” of the Kenyon church’s hellish location above the Pit is the presence of blackened marks on the window frames, said to be the traces of an unnatural fire.
“Also, though there is no official record of any fire in the Church, there are scorch marks beneath the windows of the chapel: the catch, however, is that the marks are facing down, indicating that the Church burned from the top to the bottom, defying the laws of physics as it did so.” [See this link for more on the Church and the spirits of Kenyon.]
I’ve visited the Church and would like to state for the record that the “scorch marks” are actually the stains of rainwater, blackened by runoff from the roof and pollution.
You’ll find a more recently discovered Gate to Hell, in Columbus, Ohio, here.
Ohio is also notable for its legendary “Hell Town,” whose fame has spread far and wide on the internet. Here is a page with some of the lurid folklore about the location. Leaving aside the question of Satanic cults, I have to correct the notion about upside-down crosses on the church—they are merely carpenter gothic roof embellishments. And here is a sensible, debunking page about Hell Town.
Lest you think I am neglecting your state, here are a few other possibilities for Perdition:
I mention only briefly Hell, Michigan, with its lurid red bumper stickers and aggressive marketing campaigns which make it so well-known.
Fort Lupton, Colo. An evangelist stampeded 15 alarmed sinners to the mourners’ bench with the statement that hell is located 18 miles directly under Fort Lupton. Fairbanks Alaska Citizen 10 July1911: p. 15
Hell was located in Indiana by one Jerry Smith, a government surveyor, who was evidently a student of literature as well of surveying…He spent the summer of 1834 on the work and in the fall of that year filed with the government and also with the secretary of state of Indiana an official report, in which he declared he had discovered the former abode of Charon, the ancient Acheron, the River Styx, the Stygian pool, and the Elysian fields…The Kankakee, as it slops over northern Indiana and eastern Illinois, is the ancient Acheron, and English Lake is the Stygian Pool…The dreary regions from the mouth of Markum’s Creek to the head of English Lake, and, particularly, about the mouth of Yellow River, is the place where so many poor souls have wandered their hundred years…The Door Prairie…I take to be what remains of the Elysian Fields. Idaho Statesman [Boise, ID] 21 May 1899: p. 3
A popular internet sensation has been Hellam Twp Pennsylvania and its legendary 7 Gates of Hell. (An insane asylum which burned down–practically obligatory in these cases–is part of the legend.) I must emphasize that this is a legend. Local police are not happy with Inferno-seekers trespassing on private property. And, to crush your spirits further, Hellam is a corruption of Hallam, England.
The Devil’s Hole is a limestone cave in Death Valley National Park. Native American legends supposedly describe it as a gateway to another reality, peopled by monsters. Charles Manson and family were said to have hung out in the cavern—did demons from Beyond possess them and turn them into killers?
555-foot deep Meteor Crater east of Flagstaff, Arizona is also said to be a portal to Hell.
The Los Angeles Earthquake of 1994 broke open a street where “hundreds of witnesses claimed to see a horned creature climb out of the rubble and a photograph of the demon-like thing even surfaced in the tabloids,” writes Dan Greenbriar, the Australian author of the promisingly named Hell Holes, about Portals to the Underworld. (He is the source for the information above about Devil’s Hole and the Flagstaff crater.) “The street was later patched over, but psychics say they still get negative vibes from the sewer below it and police report that the street is the site of an unusual number of irrational crimes.”
Religious experts have now confirmed that a deep tunnel found recently near Starkweather, N. D., is almost certainly a forgotten “back door” to Hell. Weekly World News [Where else?] 18 June 1996
And what lies in your back yard?
I apologize for the length of this post, but I rather warmed to my theme.
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.