CENTERBURG -- One of the hazards of historical research is what I call “The BS Factor.” Back in a time when it was not so easy to cross-check information, stories sometimes ended up in print that had no factual basis whatsoever.
Most stories at least have a discernible point of origin. But once in a while, I happen upon a story that looks completely fabricated.
This week, while searching old newspapers for interesting tidbits, I happened across a rather baroque ghost story identified as taking place in Centerburg, near the depot. The story comes from a column in the Coshocton Semi-Weekly Age in 1888, supposedly written by a correspondent writing in from Centerburg.
Just for the record, there is only one Centerburg in Ohio, so there's no possible mistake about the location of the printed story.
The correspondent really winds it up for a grand start:
After a long silence I once more take up my quill, as “things are beginning to happen” and The Age should be informed. The first upon the program is The Ghost!
Then he solemnly delivers the facts:
About three years ago a young man, James Donahoe, of Pennsylvania was killed by an engine on the O.C. Railroad, a short distance from the station. His headless body was found the next day and buried in the village cemetery.
So far, so good. Now the ghost story:
A short time ago a young man of our village was appointed night watchman at the above mentioned station. One night as he was sitting at his post of duty, he was startled by the sound of an oncoming train, though none was due at that hour. He seized his lantern and rushed out upon the platform; all was dark, the hour was midnight, and the grinding of the wheels could be distinctly heard, although no whistle was blown.
OK, haunted railroad tracks, a standard enough report. But then the correspondent warms to his task:
Nearer and nearer up the track came a shadowy, unearthly shape, like the outlines of an engine, and right in front of it upon the track stood the headless figure of a man, wildly signaling for down brakes.
The engine seemed to approach and crush the figure beneath it, when the horrified watchman became too paralyzed with terror that he let his lantern fall and the light was extinguished, leaving him in total darkness and alone, for the apparition had vanished.
Our correspondent goes on to claim that the following day, eight cars of a train derailed a short distance from the ghost sighting, and he supposes that the apparition was a warning. He goes on to say that the watchman resigned from his job (how convenient!). He also cites another nameless person as witness to haunted sounds around the station.
He closes with the perfect disclaimer:
I do not vouch for the veracity of this tale, but tell it just as it is being related in our village, but I can say that the parties concerned are reliable men.
Great story. Only problem is, there's not a shred of evidence to back it up. Giving a name of the supposed original victim is a great touch, but then again, “James Donahoe” was a very common Irish-American name in those days. He's conveniently from Pennsylvania, where no one will be reading this story.
Turns out, there is no record of any James Donahoe dying in a railroad accident near Centerburg and being buried there. There is no related train derailment, because the Ohio railroads kept detailed reports about accidents, and there is no 8-car derailment listed for the “O.C.” (actually Chesapeake & Ohio) Railroad in Centerburg.
This report ultimately looks to be the work of a bored newspaper editor trying to fill up space in his newspaper. If anyone has any information to prove me wrong and back up the original story, please let me know. I'd gladly write a retraction if there's any substance there that I'm missing.
But the face value of it is, that if it looks too good to be true, it's probably false. Just because something is in print doesn't mean it's not a total load of BS.
It wouldn't be the first vintage newspaper article suitable for use as fertilizer.