Invisible Assets

There are a few things you should know about the ghosts of Indiana County.  First, that they are quite tradition-minded, conforming to age-old classics of type, habit and hangout.  Second, that they are a patriotic lot whose habits change abruptly when war is declared.  And third, that their age and popularity are directly related: the older the manifestation, the more willing we are to believe in them.

Traditions?  Our ghosts got ‘em covered: spurned lovers, suicides, the wrongly condemned and guilt-ridden souls of every sort.  We’ve two spirits of the headless variety, one of whom carries around his noggin and a rolling pin; there are three “ladies in white,” four hanged men and no fewer than five bridge-haunters.  Some are crossovers, like the headless lady-in-white who favors Allen Bridge in Cherryhill Township.  And one – a despondent chap who hangs around in Eliza Furnace on the Ghost Town Trail – even boosts Indiana County tourism.

Like all good Pennsylvanians, our spooks respond when the bugle calls!  During the Civil War and WWII, the words “ghost” and “haunt” all but disappeared from our county newspapers.  Whereas some 28 local ghosts were mentioned here during the Depression, they vanished from print between Pearl Harbor and VJ Day.  Hmm.…  Enlisted, or just busy with war work?

Surprisingly, we seem to have been less credulous about ghost stories in the 19th century than we are now . . . or at least our newspapers were.  Typical of papers back then, the Weekly Messenger quipped in 1882 that “Brookville claims to have a ghost which drops out of sight through the pavement when approached.  We are not surprised.  Individuals much more real are likely to go through that town’s pavement!”  Conversely, our current journal prints ghost-hunters’ claims at face value, and more of us than ever seem willing to suspend disbelief – especially about the oldest stories.

When it comes to classic types, one of the world’s oldest must surely be the predatory innkeeper.  And boy, did we have one!  John “Yank” Brown came here from New England and settled in West Wheatfield Township, opening an inn on the Huntingdon, Cambria and Indiana Turnpike.  Soon, rumors spread that not all travelers riding in to “Yank’s Tavern” rode out.  John, brother Lewis and son John Jr. were convicted as members of an interstate horse-theft ring in 1856.  In 1874, an elderly accomplice confessed on her deathbed that victims’ horses (temporarily) and bodies (permanently) had been stashed in Nugen Cave between Armagh and Blairsville.  What’s more, “two kegs of gold and silver and a bushel of watches” remained in that long-hidden den.  Many a treasure hunter sought the stash, but after some (it was said) encountered Yank’s ghostly gang driving their herd though the darkness, most stopped looking.  Those who didn’t . . . well, let’s just say they may still be up there.

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Our county has several ghost towns, at least one of which earned that title the hard way.  The wild mining town of Whiskey Run had 26 violent deaths over its lifetime.  Perhaps the most notorious was that of Moiden Nune.  Paralyzed from the waist down by a bullet, he accused his landlady of shooting him in revenge for refusing to elope with her.  Mrs. Mancanelli was arrested and imprisoned with her baby.  Just before dying of his wound, Nune confessed: it was he who’d been rebuffed and then shot when he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Old-timers would later claim that Whiskey Run was abandoned by its citizens in the next decade not just because the mine was running out but because Nune’s limping phantom roamed the streets, wailing as it sought Mrs. Mancanelli and absolution.

If there’s a Top Ten list of Indiana County wraiths, the Mahoning Valley Fiddler must be #1 with a bullet . . . or knife.  In 1899, two friends came to work on the B&O Railroad’s line through West Mahoning Township.  They rented a house near Smicksburg where the tracks crossed Mahoning Creek.  One of them was an accomplished violinist who earned extra income by playing at dances, barn-raisings and the like.  One autumn day, the two didn’t show up for work; the fiddler was found stabbed to death at home, his beloved Guarneri shattered beside him and his housemate long gone.  Jealousy?  Robbery?  An argument over volume control?  The killer was never found.  But not long after – and for many autumns after that – folks would hear a mournful fiddle-tune when passing the house at night.  And if conditions were right, they claimed, the moonlit fiddler could be seen playing astride the rooftop.

The house survived into the 1950s, but the legend had almost been forgotten when historian and columnist George Swetnam wrote it up in the Pittsburgh Press on the day before Halloween, 1955.  Said he: “If you go there tomorrow night, you may see the ghost yourself (and) catch the strains of ‘Hell’s Broke Loose in Smicksburg’.”  Some Dayton High seniors did just that; as they approached the house, an old-time fiddle tune was heard, and the boys retreated in such haste that one of them was injured.  Not saying, but you don’t suppose a respected history-columnist would…?  Nah!

Whatever the case, we’re indebted to a handful of writers who collected and published Indiana County’s ghost stories before they were forgotten.  Just as the coming of written works once doomed the oral transmission of history, our collective memory has nowadays been abbreviated (and distracted) by the Smartphone and its kin.  So in a way, our spirits’ survival can be credited to the likes of George Swetnam, Clarence Stephenson and Frances Strong Helman.  And yet….

Something that usually doesn’t happen when writers record a ghost story is “organic development,” the buildup of narrative depth over time as each re-teller adds their own embellishment.  So as a tip of the hat to all those Indiana County raconteurs since the days of Fergus Moorhead, this article’s author has introduced one new element to each of the three preceding yarns which, while not drawn from (or contradicting) known fact, makes them tastier.  Bon appetit!

Finally, where better than a museum for Peter Venkman’s real-world counterparts to seek lingering legends?  Both the Allegheny Mountain Ghost Hunters and IUP’s Paranormal Society have visited HGSIC.  At the Clark House, a whispering shade is said to have obliged the Paranormals’ request to make an electric light fluctuate, and the Ghost Hunters claim they saw Silas’ daughter Clara in a rocking chair there.  Each sought evidence of rumored hauntings at the Armory – a patricide and a basement-dwelling Librarian – using a detector called an EMF Meter.  Who ya gonna call?