Classic Columbus Ghost Stories: The Legend of John Robinson

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

In 1825, a man named John Robinson traveling with a group of traders stopped in the small village of Delaware. Reserved and proud, Robinson made no friends among the settlers, but quickly bought land in the wild, southern portion of the county. He then set about building a grand, castle-like mansion filled with the finest furniture and draperies imported from Europe, all paid for with pieces of solid gold.

Robinson was a recluse, and no one but the occasional workman saw the inside of the mansion. What they saw, however, caused rumors to fly. Robinson's home was filled with his own paintings, including a giant canvas depicting the deck of a pirate ship and its bloodthirsty crew, with a captain at the center who looked exactly like Robinson. Surely, locals said, Robinson was once a pirate, and that's how he accumulated his vast wealth.

After the mansion was completed, a beautiful, olive-skinned woman joined Robinson. Some said she was Spanish royalty, while others believed she was simply one of Robinson's models. The young woman was often seen sitting outside the mansion or walking along the Scioto River. But one day, she disappeared. A few local men decided to confront Robinson about the disappearance of the woman, but when they reached his home, they found it abandoned. The house was undisturbed, except for one room, which showed signs of a struggle. The walls were marked with small, bloody handprints. The room also held a portrait of the woman, and as the men gazed at it, it began to move, as if the painting was about to speak. The group fled in terror.

The bodies of Robinson and the unnamed woman were never found. The mansion eventually collapsed, but some say they still see the figure of a young woman walking the banks of the Scioto, and on some nights, her screams echo through the woods.

That's how the legend of John Robinson, the pirate of Delaware County, typically goes. You might have heard this story over a campfire and written it off as a tall tale, or perhaps you wondered if there's a seed of truth behind the supernatural yarn. According to the Delaware County Historical Society, a man named John Robinson did live in Delaware in the mid-1800s, but he wasn't outrageously wealthy, and he definitely wasn't a pirate. He was, however, an artist.

Born in London in 1802, Robinson came to America with his family around 1834 to pursue farming. After suffering a severe bout of malaria, he abandoned farming and turned to his painting and woodcarving skills (some of his paintings and carvings can be seen in the Nash House in Delaware).

How the pirate legend originated is unclear, but a printed version appears in a1908 issue ofThe Ohio Magazine. Although it's fabricated, like many legends the story took on a life of its own.