If you want to find the person who arguably knows the most about Ohio's ghost stories, you'll have to venture about 20 miles north of Columbus to the small village of Galena. If you go at night, you must be careful to dodge the deer roaming the dark, winding roads, and you may hear the calls of coyotes lurking in the trees behind his sprawling yard.
Inside a spacious home, at least during Halloween season, you'll find an abundance of spooky decorations, including a life-size Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”; a massive “ghost library” spread across several bookcases; and eerie artifacts, like a plaster cast of the legendary Ohio Grassman monster.
But James A. Willis, who founded the Ghosts of Ohio paranormal-research organization and has written more than a dozen books, including “Weird Ohio” and “The Big Book of Ohio Ghost Stories,” is not as spooky as his surroundings and passions would suggest.
“I like to think people are a little disappointed,” Willis said in a mid-October interview at his house. Though he studies the supernatural, his life is pretty normal; married with a 7-year-old daughter, Willis works as a content director at a medical advertising firm.
When Willis, who grew up in Upstate New York, was around his daughter's age, he became infatuated with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” set in the real-life village of Tarrytown near his childhood home.
“[As a kid] I was told it was actually a true story, and if you go to Tarrytown … you can even see some of the characters' tombstones,” he said. “But, basically, [author] Washington Irving borrowed the names.”
That intersection of folklore and actual history has fascinated Willis for many years, and it is the basis of his recent book, “Central Ohio Legends & Lore.” From a seat at his perfectly ordinary kitchen table, Willis regaled us with four of the book's ghost stories associated with historic locations — Thurber House, Kokosing Gap Trail, Stonewall Cemetery and Woolyburger Cemetery — which we then investigated ourselves. Read on for fascinating tales of haunted houses, unsolved crimes, cemetery rituals and enigmatic creatures.
On Nov. 17, a raffle winner and a guest will get to meet James A. Willis at Thurber House on Jefferson Avenue in Downtown Columbus, where the late humorist, author andNew Yorker cartoonist James Thurber once resided with his family.
It's not strange to have author visits and other programs at the house, now a museum and nonprofit literary center. However, Willis and company are hoping for an unusual event to occur at exactly 1:15 a.m., when they will stand at the top of the stairs in front of the bathroom. For at that time and in that spot, Thurber heard a ghost running around the dining room table and up the stairs approximately 100 years ago.
“The ghost that got into our house … raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstanding that I am sorry I didn't just let it keep on walking, and go to bed,” Thurber wrote in his short story, “The Night the Ghost Got In,” published as part of his autobiography, “My Life and Hard Times,” in 1933. “Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman.”
While some of the events may be embellished, Thurber admitted in a 1957 letter to an advertiser that the part about hearing the footsteps was true. Some say the ghost Thurber heard could have been one of the six women killed in the 1868 fire at the Central Ohio Lunatic Asylum, which once stood on the grounds, or previous resident Thomas Tress, who accidentally shot himself to death in the house in 1904.
And the ghosts haven't left, according to Thurber House deputy director Anne Touvell, who has heard her name called from the attic, and captured pictures of orbs in the front of the house — to name just a couple of examples. And many of the authors participating in the John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence program have reported strange occurrences during their four-week stays in the attic apartment.
For example, in an e-mail toAlive, 2013 recipient Katrina Kittle recounted hearing footsteps and a recurring “clinking” noise, and having her bedroom window mysteriously open each time she left the room. Sharon Short, who stayed at the house in 2014, toldAlive she also heard footsteps and voices in her headphones when she was listening to music.
“We have had a couple residents who got really afraid and wouldn't stay,” said Touvell, but stressed that whatever presence is in the house — and she does tend to believe in it — is not sinister. “I've been here almost 11 years and there is nothing dangerous, nothing malevolent [and] nothing … that would ever hurt anybody.”
“[And] James Thurber does not haunt Thurber House,” she said.
Kokosing Gap Trail
Kenyon College is practically synonymous with ghost stories, and you'll find no shortage of the creepy campus tales in Google searches, the school's alumni bulletin or evenThe New York Times. In anOct. 15 article in the latter publication, 2010 graduate Natalie Shutler described experiences with a late-night “presence,” as well as moving objects and disembodied voices in the Old Kenyon dorm. The building, which was rebuilt after burning to the ground in 1949, is said to be haunted by the nine students who died in the fire.
Unfortunately, the fire isn't the only tragedy that ended with untimely death and alleged ghosts bound to Knox County. In 1905, two days before Halloween, student and Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) pledge Stuart Pierson ventured down to the railroad trestle over the Kokosing River at night as part of an initiation rite. He was ordered to remain on the trestle until DKE members retrieved him.
The fraternity members had checked the schedule to ensure no trains were running that night. However, when they went to fetch Pierson about an hour later, they found his lifeless body. He'd been hit by a train.
A high-profile investigation and media frenzy ensued, with a coroner determining that Pierson had been physically tied to the tracks. However, the Knox County grand jury refused to try the case, citing insufficient evidence.
“The story of Stuart Pierson's death … did contribute to about 10 years' worth of lower numbers of applications for admissions,” Kenyon College historian Tom Stamp said in a phone interview. “But then it pretty much passed out of popular imagination.”
However, current students still get a thrill out of telling the story and claim Pierson appears on the Kokosing Gap Trail, a path for walking, running and biking that was built on the former railroad line.
“Apparently if you come down here in the middle of the night, they say on the bridge, sometimes he'll walk up and down,” Kenyon senior Henry Nash said in a late-October interview one evening on the trail. But he hasn't seen anything.
Rumor has it one fraternity even has a ritual where it carries a coffin down Middle Path (a footpath on campus) on a particular day to commemorate Pierson's death, if stories are to be believed.
And when it comes to ghosts, Stamp is similarly uncertain. “There are students who really do believe that they've had encounters,” he said. “So I'm not willing to say there are no ghosts; I just haven't had any acquaintance with [them].”
An old, dodecagon masonry structure. Stones that must've been transported from another location. A collection of graves inside the walls. It's not the Egyptian pyramids, but Lancaster, Ohio's own version of an awe-inspiring burial monument.
Stonewall Cemetery features a 12-sided, 60-by-8-foot sandstone wall that has remained intact since its completion in 1839 — the hard work of Nathaniel Wilson III and his son, Gustin. The duo is buried among a group of fewer than a dozen graves, which Nathaniel hoped would be cared for by occupants of the highest office in the land.
After setting the acre aside for the cemetery in 1817, he willed it in trust to President James Monroe and his successors. “And up until at least 1960, the Fairfield County officials had sent a letter to each new president to say, ‘This is yours, by the way,' but no one ever responded,” said Kimber Caito, media coordinator with Fairfield County Parks, which acquired the property in 1998 after it had passed through several hands.
The new Fairfield County Parks staff, which came onboard in April, has plans to add audio and visual displays highlighting the history and details of the wall construction. But restoring the headstones, which are broken into pieces, is a more difficult matter.
Nathaniel and Gustin's names are just barely visible, and “all the others, you can't see anything so we couldn't even recreate them, really, unless we were able to find county records to say who was buried there,” Caito said. “But then we still wouldn't necessarily know who was who.”
According to Caito, most of the vandalism occurred when the cemetery was reopened for viewing in the late '70s; but now the iron gate at the entrance remains locked.
Coincidentally, the ritual of circling the top of the wall 13 times to bring about a ghastly consequence can also be traced to the 1970s.
“That's when a lot of people started climbing the wall just to get in there,” said author Willis, who interviewed people who claimed they did it, as well as former Fairfield County Parks staffers. “I couldn't find a story prior to the gates being locked.”
He also noticed how the end result of circling the cemetery wall shifted over the years as the cemetery became more restricted.
“The original thing was that the ghost would appear,” Willis said. “Then … the ghost would appear and unlock the gate. Then … after people started getting arrested out there, it became that a demon would appear and drag you down to hell, which I took to mean the local police.”
“A good urban legend never dies,” Willis said. “It just mutates every couple of years.”
When Darbydale resident David Cole was a teenager, he and his friends would trudge out to the cemetery built on a hill along Big Darby Creek in Grove City, looking for a place to party.
“You'd get up to the top of the hill and they'd say, ‘Wooly Booger, Wooly Booger,' and it scared the shit out of everybody, and they'd run back to the car,” Cole said during an afternoon walk through the cemetery in late October. He remembered that someone — or something — called a Wooly Booger was supposed to come out, but he couldn't describe its appearance because, frankly, “Nobody ever seen nothing.”
“I don't know if it's a myth or [if] it's real,” he said.
Unfortunately, further research only turns up more questions about the scary figure and its hideaway, which is officially named Little Pennsylvania Cemetery but commonly called Woolyburger Cemetery — derived from the original Wooly Booger term — by locals.
“Everybody knows about it,” said Willis, who interviewed folks at the nearby canoe livery and combed through old newspapers and ancestry.com to get the history of the cemetery for “Central Ohio Legends & Lore.” “The tricky part is everybody thinks they know the right story, and it's totally different.”
Local fishermen and women may be to blame for the Wooly Booger legend. After all, they use a fishing lure called a Wooly Booger and also occasionally wear infra-red headlights, which can look pretty menacing in the dark.
“When they say that there is a Wooly Booger monster, they always say it has red, glowing eyes,” said Willis, who also mentioned that, in the South, people have supposedly spotted Big Foot-like creatures called Wooly Boogers. “So I think the lure and the fishermen with their headlamps and the Big Foot all got squashed together.”
Another explanation involves the fabled Willie Butcher, who allegedly lived in a house across the street from the cemetery and killed his family before committing suicide. The ghosts of the family members, most notably Willie and his daughter, dressed in white, supposedly began haunting the graveyard once the house was torn down.
However, there is no record of the house, and no “Butcher” graves are in the cemetery. There is a Willie Boucher buried there, but he was just 8 months old at the time of his death.
Still other myths permeate the area. Sometimes the “Little Girl in White” is not Butcher's daughter, but the victim of an assault and murder by a group of men. There are also reports of robed figures performing satanic rituals. Could they be responsible for the many “glow jars,” likely filled with the bright contents from glow sticks, littering the tombstones duringAlive's late-October trip to the cemetery?
During that same visit, potential evidence of another ominous figure surfaced via a message scrawled on the back of a sign at the entrance: “Long Live the Dirt Nut.”
“Ghost stories, even if they're not true, they're part of our history,” Willis said in his Galena kitchen. “I think we push the ghost story to the side in a little corner, and I think it's kinda sad.”
But Willis will continue to explore that intersection of folklore and history with two forthcoming books focused on Northern and Southern Ohio. As it turns out, there is no shortage of weird tales in the Buckeye State, as attendees of his public appearances are all too eager to point out.
“Ohioans are weird and they are darn proud of it,” he said. “The stories just keep coming in. … I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Natalie Shutler is a graduate of Kenyon College.
“Thurber House Special Event: James Willis”
7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26
91 Jefferson Ave., Downtown