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The ghost in the story, Part I

I grew up in a haunted house.

Well, like most good ghost stories, this is an exaggeration. I didn’t actually live full-time in the house. The house was the residence of my maternal grandparents. I was just there nearly every weekend…and on holidays…and over the summer.

The house is located in Wellington, Ohio, a village known for its association with spirits and haunted atmosphere. It begins at the town line where there is a sign announcing “Boyhood home of Archibald Willard, painter of the Spirit of ’76 (the one with the wounded fifer, drummers, and American flag). It continues as you roll past stately Georgian homes, most of which look like funeral parlors and some actually are. There’s the high school with a Jules Verne like observatory dome on top. Finally you arrive at the village center which is but a meeting of the main streets dominated by the hulking mass of the town hall, a moody mix of Gothic, Greek, Byzantine and Spanish architecture. Surrounding civic buildings are rumored to contain hidden corridors and chambers once utilized to hide runaway slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad (though there are other rumors involving secret and sinister societies antithetical to racial equality).

Wellington was rich in oral horror history. Stories circulated of the ancient burial mounds belonging to the long departed (but still spiritually active) native Indians and the terrors that would befall any who removed artifacts from these sites. There were tales of escapees from a chain gang who were reputed to have committed bloody murder at an isolated farmhouse (on other occasions this mayhem was attributed to an escaped circus ape who turned the home into a slaughter house, madly dismembering helpless residents and leaving a dripping decapitated and legless torso hanging from the parlour’s central chandelier).

And then there were the descriptions of grisly meetings between hurtling locomotives and frail autos at the numerous level, multi-tracked and unlighted railroad crossings. The impacts would leave trails of car parts and human organs strewn along hundreds of yards of track. One of these deadly sites was quite near the town cemetery where certain wailings could be heard on those still summer nights when you had to come to a full stop on the road, roll down the windows and even shut the engine off in order to listen carefully for oncoming trains. The muted howling was said to be coming from hapless accident victims or from the cemetery itself where many spirits were said to reside in unrestful repose.One belonged to a young girl who had died of some mysterious disease before her 12th birthday. The mother was hysterically distraught and insisted she dreamed that the beloved child was not dead. Here actions grew so erratic and violent that the grave was exhumed in order to prove to her that her daughter had indeed passed on. But when the casket was opened, it was immediately apparent that the child had pulled out all the hair from her scalp.She had been entombed alive and awoke to all its attendant terrors, the victim of some rare sleeping disease and a wrong diagnosis. The mother, though closely observed, managed to drink lye poison several days later. Her husband insisted her body reach a state of considerable decomposition before burial.

And that wasn’t the only distraught mother buried in Wellington cemetery. Another lost her son in a drowning at the local reservoir, or at least, it was assumed he drowned there. No body was ever found. The mother staged a vigil night and day in the cold autumn rain, eventually catching consumption and dying, her body racked with cough and fever. Her spirit never gave up the search for her lost son, however, and her light could often be seen roaming the banks of the reservoir.

This location is important to the story because the house in question stands high on a hill overlooking the lower of the two bodies of water that made up the reservoir. My grandfather, in fact, was the local water filtration plant operator and thus we had fishing access denied most other sportsmen.

The house itself was built before indoor plumbing and had an old outhouse sitting out back near a dilapidated buggy shed. This backhouse was still used when the indoor facilities were occupied or your feet were too muddy for a quick run inside. In winter, heat came from an ancient coal furnace that had to be tended by hand. This is not a forced air system but one that depended on convection through massive heating ducts whose grills set flat in the floors. The ones closest to the furnace would grow hot enough to burn unprotected flesh and seats near them were much in demand in wintertime. In summer, the house was always cool in the shade of very near and mature pine trees.

But comfortable though it was physically, the house oozed a psychological foreboding. After a day spent fishing, roaming the fields while hunting or exploring, playing with the ponies, catapulting down the hills on bikes or sleds, having a game of “death tag” amongst a warren built with bales in the hayloft, swimming in the creek (and dealing with the resident leeches), our often exasperated parents would order us into the house where we were under strict instructions to “stop rammin’ around” (an invented term referring to rambunctious behavior). We now had to pursue more quiet forms of play while the adults laughed, played cards, drank coffee and conversed in the central dining room. We would sit on the floor around one of the heating grills and recount to each other all the ghastly tales we knew of the sinister town just a few miles away and of the countryside that we had roamed just hours before. The older kids would try to scare the younger ones with these stories, a delicate task because if you truly upset a younger sibling, they might run crying to a parent and bring a timeout to the whole group. In those enforced moments of absolute silence one could begin to regret their own powers of narrative and imagination for it was then you began to distinctly hear the dragging chains, the scrape of gorilla nails on the windows, and mournful ‘whoops’ of the native Indians whose nearby graves had been disturbed. You could even feel cold spirits pass through you as they searched the afterlife for their loved ones and peace. But most of all, you could sense the presence of the tragic figure that haunted the very structure we sat in.

The house had two sets of stairs, one in front and the other in the rear. The front led down to the parlour and the back dropped from a kind of second story farmhand’s bunkhouse into the kitchen. Both were wickedly steep with non-standard risers but it was the front stairs that were most dangerous because they were wider and harder to catch yourself by reaching out and grabbing the walls. Every kid took a tumble down those stairs sooner or later and while none of us had suffered much more than a bleeding or bruising, it was easy to imagine how the wrong kind of fall could be deadly. And indeed, that was what reportedly had taken place.

Back before the turn of the century, the house had been inhabited by a family with a pretty young daughter just shy of 18. One Sunday morning before church she tripped on her long gown as she descended the stairs and came down headlong, snapping her neck upon landing. Often you could hear footsteps on those stairs even when you could see that there was no one there.

That was the simple story told mainly for the benefit of the young ones, but the older kids knew more about the tale. We had heard that even if her death had been an accident, the girl’s fall was not for it seemed that this young lass had come to be in the family way by one of the hired hands and had thrown herself down the stairs either as an attempt at suicide or abortion after being spurned for her condition. He had subsequently been horsewhipped by the distraught father and then vanished without a trace.

It was said that girl and her lover used to meet in the old buggy shed just a few yards from the back kitchen door. Beside that door was the kitchen dining table. This was the ‘kiddie table’ at Thanksgiving and Christmas and the place where we played Monopoly and cards late at night. And it was particularly around those holidays that we would experience the roving spirits of this tragic young couple. It would start with the storm door opening cautiously, hesitantly. It would falter a couple of times and then swing out wide enough for a person to enter. Then, as it closed, the inner door would open, again just enough for someone to slip through and then whisper shut until almost but not quite latched. We always knew this was the young girl returning from her love tryst. We’d sit there, paralyzed with delicious fear and dare someone to get up and re-close the door completely, taunting them to have the courage to open it, latch the antiquated wooden outer door and slam the inner one tightly while taking time to slip the nipple that would activate the lock. Sometimes these precautions would be enough and no more would happen that night but on other occasions, the outer door would open quietly again and then the inner in the same manner as before. We knew then that the callous lover was returning and we would run screaming from the kitchen yelling “Ghost….ghost” much to the annoyance of the assembled adults and usually to the admonishment of the older kids for scaring the younger ones.

In my early teens, Grandpa died and the house passed to his oldest son. There was little occasion to visit it as Grandma moved into town. 20 years later she died and the wake was held at the old family homestead. Her Church Sorority Sisters were holding court in the house so most of the men were gathered out in the barn, passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels and trying to start an old kerosene powered John Deere. We were reminiscing about our childhood days running wild on this property when the subject of the girl who fell down the stairs and died came up. A seldom seen great-uncle (Grandma’s brother) piped up and asked what girl we were talking about. We told him the whole tragic story. “Didn’t happen in this house,” he said. “That was the in house across the road. They moved out of it before any of you youngsters was born. Never heard about any ghosts over there.”

Several other oldsters present corroborated his story and we “kids” slowly realized that we had gotten the story wrong and spent our childhood scaring each other silly in the wrong house.

Since telling this story at the OSSCI meeting of April 11 I have received commentary from some who expressed shock at how quickly I “dismissed all the weird things that were documented at this house when it was learned that the woman who was the cause of all these hauntings had died in another house across the road. It’s been charged that my “skeptic logic” failed to explain the “many things witnessed by many people, such as locked doors opening and closing by themselves.”

In reply to this criticism I point out that an interesting aspect of my ghost story is that while most tend to conceal possible prosaic explanations I actually provide them in the description of the house, its location, the seasons, and the behavior of the involved children. “Skeptic logic” in this case involves nothing more than careful listening (now reading).

I’ll include a discussion of possible explanatory theories based on the clues I’ve given them next time in Part II of ‘Ghost in the Story’.

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