GREER — On a quiet autumn afternoon, leaves fall at the desolate intersection of two dirt roads in the Appalachian foothills of rural central Ohio. Nearby, a bluff overlooks the Mohican River.
Between the road and the river lies a small parcel of land, posted with numerous “No Trespassing” signs. One might never glance twice at it, unless perhaps in the spring, when a handful of bright, yellow daffodils bloom, or in winter, when one might notice that the evergreen trees growing there aren’t the same as the wild evergreens seen elsewhere on the border between Knox and Holmes counties.
This forgotten graveyard is the perfect setting for the story of a ghost or a witch. And perhaps that’s the only reason why it is, although it is equally possible that some grain of truth, now lost to history, formed the kernel of the legend now known as Sarah’s Grave.
Not that it’s really one legend. Ask five people, and you get five different answers.
David Greer, whose ancestors founded the village of Greer, said he never thought the site was anything more than a place for teenagers to scare each other. The version of the legend he heard was that Sarah was a practicing witch who was decapitated with an ax by her jealous husband. The man supposedly buried her by the side of the road near their house, without her head, and then shot himself. Sarah’s ghost is said to walk the road, looking for her head.
The slim and sketchy book of folklore “Ohio’s Ghostly Greats,” by David J. Gerrick, first published in 1975, tells essentially the same story, adding that the man’s ghost can be seen hanging in the house, too, and that if anyone breaks into the bewitched cabin, they will soon die. The house and cabin are now gone.
Pretty standard rural legend fare, in many ways. Other versions of the tale have Sarah sitting on her now-gone tombstone, holding her decapitated head and crying. Less dramatic versions simply claim that there was a woman whose daughter, Sarah, died in a house fire, and that the mother would go sit at the cemetery, weeping. A number of local residents consulted for this article can trace these stories back to at least the 1940s, when high schoolers delighted in scaring each other at the spooky site.
One Loudonville resident with deep roots in Greer, who requested not to be named, said she had heard in her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s that the haunting was of the old house, where supposedly the ghost of a mentally deficient girl roamed the rooms. The Loudonville woman later debunked the tale herself by contacting a former resident of the house, who denied any haunting.
Brad Kaylor of Danville said he once heard what might be an older tale. In this one, the Sarah who died was a female on a wagon headed west, who became ill and died en route. Since the family could not take the body, they buried her beside the road and continued on their way.
But all of these versions of the tale treat the site as if it is an isolated, single grave. That’s not the case, said Dr. Joseph Poole of Fredericktown, who owns a cabin nearby.
“According to the people I bought that property from 45 years ago,” Poole said, “[Sarah’s Grave] was a pioneer cemetery where both Indians and pioneers were buried.”
He said that his property, with a surviving log cabin, is just to the east of the graveyard, and was settled by 16 families from the Alsace-Lorraine region along the border of France and Germany. This region was famous for supplying Holmes County with many of its Amish settlers, but not all Alsatians were Amish. In fact, just atop the ridge that forms the north side of the hollow where Poole’s cabin sits, are the remains of the Saint Joseph Mission, an outreach to convert German settlers to Catholicism. The mission was built by the first parish priest of St. Luke Church in Danville, Father Jean-Baptiste Lamy, in 1847, according to the current priest, Father Richard Snoke.
Is it possible that the witch part of this tall tale traces back to the intense distrust between the conflicting faiths which met on the Ohio frontier in the first half of the 19th century? Lamy was proselytizing Catholicism to frontier Protestants at the same time the conservative Amish were moving into the area. And the few remaining Native Americans were pressured to abandon their traditional beliefs in order to assimilate into white society. In suspicious moments, any of these groups might have regarded the others as witches.
Or is the witching element borrowed from a nearby case where that did happen? Just as teens scare each other with Sarah’s Grave at Greer, southern Richland Countians near Butler and Lucas have the legend of Mary Jane’s Grave, on Tucker Road, which claims all sorts of baroque stories about witchcraft and strange happenings.
But in that case, local lore preserves a touch of apparent truth: Mary Jane is said to have been a “witch” in the sense that she was a Native American herbalist, possibly a shaman. She appears to have assimilated into the encroaching white society to some degree, but she kept her traditional knowledge of the medicinal powers of field and forest plants, which made her a popular figure with settlers.
Even the ax detail in the Greer story might be traceable to a real crime. Although no such case is reported in early Knox County, such a case happened just over the Richland County border in the southern part of Jefferson Township, southeast of Bellville. A settler by the name of Samuel Bushong “snapped” on Oct. 4, 1840, and attacked his family with an ax, according to A. A. Graham’s 1880 “History of Richland County, Ohio.”
And the little child element may or may not be confused with the story of Susie’s Grave, an allegedly haunted site on Beckley Road, near Fredericktown. This story posits that a little girl was killed in a frontier house fire when she ran back in to get her doll. Versions of this story connect the haunting with either the Ball Cemetery, or with the bridge about a half mile west of the graveyard.
All versions of the story say that Susie can be seen on a full moon in the nearby woods, searching for her doll. Some versions include that hoary rural legend chestnut about stopping one’s car on the bridge and blinking the lights, then calling out to Susie. Suffice it to say, it only works when there’s a hidden accomplice in the woods, intent on scaring a carload of friends.
The sad thing about these scares is that although many youths are careful and respectful to the places they visit in search of a scare, many are not. Sarah’s graveyard is forgotten, because vandals pushed the last gravestone over the bluff into the river decades ago. Dr. Poole thinks the surname on the stone might have been “Shuman,” although he isn’t certain. Now those people are forgotten — real lives replaced with tall tales not at all like the subtle events real ghost believers talk about.
In the end, the grain of truth has been swept away by the currents of time. Stories twist into strange, unrecognizable legends. Those who came before dissolve and slip out of our grip, never to return.
Loss. No one could say that’s not a kind of haunting.