Monday, November 16, 2009

Two Wood County (Ohio) Ghost Stories

I wrote this article about five years ago. It was never published, but I thought it was neat.

Two Wood County Ghost Stories by Alan Borer

1.) The Home of Satan

I used to make frequent trips from Bowling Green to Perrysburg by driving up the Dunbridge Road. And as I crossed the intersection of Dunbridge with the sinister-sounding “Devil’s Hole Road” I always looked for…what? Devils? Ghosts? Evil spirits? At least something devilish.

Actually, I did see something devilish, although not of a supernatural sort. The road sign for Devil’s Hole Road was missing. The county highway people had painted the name of the road on the appropriate culvert. I’ve heard that students from nearby Bowling Green State University can’t resist stealing the road sign and its sinister moniker. The county has given up replacing the signs, and has substituted the painted culvert.

At one time, Wood County was full of swamps, marshes, and standing water where travelers might suddenly sink into mud up to their chins, or worse. Wood County was the heart of the Great Black Swamp, and county maps before the Civil War showed wet prairies, ponds, sloughs, and wet ground.

Swamps are dismal places, full of the calls of strange birds, and mosquitoes liable to drive humans and livestock mad. They are also places of great biological diversity and important sources of groundwater. But the earliest visitors to Wood County saw swamps through a lens darkly, and one can see how the Devil came to be associated with a particular swamp.

The name “Devil’s Hole” was applied to a particularly dismal swamp near Fenton, Ohio. This tiny hamlet in Wood County has long sine disappeared from the landscape, squeezed out by the railroad towns of Dunbridge and Luckey. But at one time, Fenton had a school and a post office. It also had the Devil’s Hole Prairie, or swamp.

During the War of 1812, soldiers under General William Henry Harrison were slogging their way north in an attempt to wrest Detroit from the British. General Harrison sent a scout northwest from Fort Seneca (Tiffin) to Fort Meigs (Perrysburg), but the scout got lost in the swamp for an entire day. Upon finally rejoining his comrades, he was asked where he’d been. “(H)e replied that he had got lost in the ‘Devil’s Hole,’ asserting that had truly discovered the home of Satan…(Daily Sentinel, November 11, 1880).

In other words, the Devil’s Hole Prairie was a really rotten patch of swamp. But it was not merely the wartime reference to hard marching. As the first settlers came to Wood County, the Devil’s Hole Prairie was a reputed place of bad men. Thieves lived or met there, apparently using the dismal swamp as a place to hide from law and order. It was not until settlers came to stay and built a mill, that the cutthroats decided to leave the area.

Fenton is gone, and the swampy prairies are gone. Wood Countians of a century ago referred to several sinkholes, such as the Stoga-hole in Liberty Township or the swale in the Holliday prairie, whose standing water attracted livestock. But even these holes have disappeared. Standing water is no more a feature of the county (except after intense spring rains), and the land is farmed intensively, even while Perrysburg suburban sprawl creeps closer. But the name “Devil’s Hole” remains on the maps. In the dim dusk of an autumn evening, a traveler with imagination might yet see or hear something prowling the cornfields along Devil’s Hole Road.

2.) The Crime of Black Swamp

The collective ghost lore of the world is enormous, but finding a tale close to home is difficult. Charles Skinner did us a service by capturing some strange American tales at the end of the nineteenth century. It is impossible to say now how Skinner collected this tale from Mungen (he didn’t get the spelling quite right), but it’s a neat story all the same. I’ll quote Skinner exactly:

"Two miles south of Munger [sic], Ohio, in the heart of what used to be called the Black Swamp, stood the Woodbury House, a roomy mansion long gone to decay. John Cleves, the last to live in it, was a man whose evil practices got him into the penitentiary, but people had never associated him with the queer sights and sounds in the lower chambers, nor with the fact that a man named Syms, who had gone to that house in 1842, had never been know to leave it. Ten years after Syms's disappearance it happened that Major Ward and his friend John Stow had occasion to take shelter there for the night - it being then deserted, - and, starting a blaze in the parlor fireplace, they lit their pipes and talked till late. Stow would have preferred a happier topic, but the major, who feared neither man nor devil, constantly turned the talk on the evil reputation of the house.
While they chatted a door opened with a creak and a human skeleton appeared before them.
'What do you want? Speak!' cried Ward. But waiting for no answer he drew his pistols and fired two shots at the grisly object. There was a rattling sound, but the skeleton was neither dislocated nor disconcerted. Advancing deliberately, with upraised arm, it said, in a husky voice, 'I, that am dead, yet live in a sense that mortals do not know. In my earthly life I was James Syms, who was robbed and killed here in my sleep by John Cleves.' With bony finger it pointed to a rugged gap in its left temple. 'Cleves cut off my head and buried it under the hearth. My body he cast into his well.' At these words the head disappeared and the voice was heard beneath the floor, 'Take up my skull.' The watchers obeyed the call, and after digging a minute beneath the hearth a fleshless head with a wound on the left temple came to view. Ward took it into his hands, but in a twinkling it left them and reappeared on the shoulders of the skeleton.
'I have long wanted to tell my fate,' it resumed, 'but could not until one should be found brave enough to speak to me. I have appeared to many, but you are the first who has commanded me to break my long silence. Give my bones a decent burial. Write to my relative, Gilmore Syms, of Columbus, Georgia, and tell him what I have revealed. I have found peace.' With a grateful gesture it extended its hand to Ward, who, as he took it, shook like one with an ague, his wrist locked in its bony clasp. As it released him it raised its hand impressively. A bluish light burned at the doorway for an instant. The two men found themselves alone."

I have not yet been able to trace the men mentioned in this tale, nor have I found out where Woodbury House was located. There was a John Woodbury active in Plain Township at mid-century, but he has no known connection to the place of the haunting exists. Mungen has become a ghost town itself, and little can be seen of its remains. A fire in 1895 probably started Mungen’s downfall.

(The principal source of this tale is G. Harrison Orians, “Wood County and Devil’s Holes,” Northwest Ohio Quarterly 40 (Summer 1968), pp. 88-96. The Daily Sentinel of November 11, 1880 gave the origin of the name. Other details are in Commemorative historical and biographical record of Wood County, Ohio; its past and present. Chicago, J. H. Beers, 1897. The source for part two is Charles M. Skinner, Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1896), 2:108-09).)

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