Stories with spirit from the village
- Published: November 5, 2015
Anywhere there are humans, there are bound to be ghosts, and Yellow Springs is no exception. Readers would be advised not to visit certain parts of John Bryan State Park or a number of buildings on Antioch’s campus, for example, if sensitive to their presence. Some of the village’s ghost stories go back 150 years, but it’s no wonder that they are continually retold: the tales of love and murder and madness and the unknown make them as scintillating as any bit of pure fiction. And as Halloween approaches, their spookiness is especially vivid.
Yellow Springs’ phantasmagoric history has been preserved thanks in large part to an Antioch College professor named Harold Igo, who took it upon himself to collect local ghost lore. Igo arrived at the college in the early 1930s as a theater teacher, said local historian Robin Heise. He was a playwright and had some of his plays performed in prestigious venues, and perhaps because of his interest in drama, he was drawn to folklore that characterizes small-town oral history.
Igo asked Yellow Springers for any stories they knew concerning hauntings or unexplained phenomenon and recorded them. The 24 stories were published as a regular feature in the Yellow Springs News from February to July of 1943 and eventually collected in a small book called “Haunted Houses: Spooky Tales of Yellow Springs.” (The book is currently available from the Yellow Springs Historical Society.)
The stories run the gamut from the tragic to the mundane. “The Ill-Fated House” discusses a house on Glen Street whose aura wrought tragedy on its occupants: its owner was afflicted with a bizarre fever, his young widow jumped overboard into the Atlantic and four later tenants were killed by another mysterious fever. By contrast, “Case of the Hiccuping Phantom” and “Story of the Seven Dachshunds” are more lighthearted in nature, and some stories seem, to this reader, to be retold because the fact that someone believed the unbelievable is as noteworthy as the unbelievable itself. In one story, for example, the “ghosts” in the walls of one house are revealed to be squirrels, and in another an aunt who had overstayed her welcome was scared out of a house by the talents of her ventriloquist nephew.
But folklorists know that behind any yarn is the real event that influenced it. Heise has examined census records, death certificates, land deeds and other public and private sources to flesh out Igo’s ghost stories, exploring where myth and history overlap. Part of the fun of reading Igo’s stories is using their details as clues to learn more about the town’s actual history, she said. In some cases, she found that the stories Igo collected are pretty accurate, down to correct names and sequences of events. Others, however, have little to do with reality or have altered facts beyond recognition. Either way, she said, piecing together a family’s history often reveals that their real relationships are crazier than the stories in which they are featured.
To wit, a number of the stories tell tales of someone murdered by a jealous lover. It seems to this reader that stories like these typically result in hauntings because the locations where they occurred are forever colored by tragedy; the emotions associated with such cases are strong enough to linger from beyond the grave.
One such story unfolded in the late 1860s in a part of Yellow Springs called Frogtown. Igo called the story “The Ghosts of Frogtown.” It goes like this:
Lou Keys (a woman, found by Heise in the census records as Lou Roberts) and George Koogler, a Civil War veteran, were in love. Their relationship bothered Andy Hunster, the son of local hotel owners and someone who was also in love with Keys from afar. One night the couple was seen eating oysters in Hunster’s parents’ diner, which Heise said was apparently a suggestive food to eat in public with a lover. Hunster took their date personally. The next morning, Keys and Koogler were found dead, and a witness named Hunster as the murderer after recognizing his voice in conversation with the lovers. But there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him and Hunster remained free. However, the guilt of the crime ate away at him. He was said to have burst into a saloon, ashen, saying he saw Keys and Koogler walking hand in hand, singing the love song Koogler always sang to her — years after they died!
Heise found Hunster listed in the 1880 census as an “imbecile,” and a 1910 death record lists him dying in an infirmary — perhaps consumed by the horror of what he’d done? As the story goes, sometimes you can hear the lovers’ song whispering out from the night on Dayton Street.
The themes in this story — the effects of guilt and remorse and the power of true love — are universal lessons. The repetition of tales helps to reinforce an area’s values or fears, writes folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker.” They are valuable teaching tools because the teller feels that the tale really happened to someone one or two tellers down the line, Bruvand speculates, and the tales’ assumed veracity gives weight to the moral behind them.
But their function as morality tales doesn’t necessarily mean they are accurate. Heise’s research has also helped to clear up some serious misrepresentations. While Igo was always clear about the fact that he was simply recording what he heard, with no claims made about veracity or provenance, Heise said that in some cases the misinformation he recorded did the real people involved a disservice. Another Igo story, “Hamlet’s Ghost in Osborn,” holds that the 30-years-younger lover of a widow was murdered by one of her children over suspicions about his intentions. “Igo really got his facts wrong in this story,” Heise said. Petigrew, the name remembered as that of the murderer, was in fact the name of the State’s witness against the murderer, a pretty hefty mix-up for an innocent party, Heise said, noting that she felt good about setting the record straight lest a family name be jinxed forever.
Sometimes tragedy doesn’t yield tall tales. A verifiable murder that happened in the Glen Forest Cemetery in 1863 (also prompted by intense jealousy) has not touched off any ghostly activity, Heise said. The murder does not appear in Igo’s collection. Perhaps the particulars were so real and so grisly that the village collectively decided phantoms were beside the point.
But Yellow Springers need not fear. The phantoms in most of these tales are confined to Igo’s book. Exploring their origins is more an exercise in history than exorcism. Glen Helen would be a likely place for ghosts due to the suicides it has unfortunately hosted, Heise said, but as far as she knows, the only ghost currently in town is the one that lives in Ye Olde Trail Tavern, said to be the irritated ghost of the owner who stipulated in his will that the Tavern would not serve any spirits. But then again, it is the eeriest time of the year, and one can never ward off the presence of those who wish to make themselves known….