Athens, Ohio, as Dean Winchester mentions in the “Route 666” episode of Supernatural (Season 1, Episode 13), is one of the most haunted areas in the U.S. I lived in Athens for seven years during my undergraduate and graduate years, and if ghosts roamed the area, I never noticed them. Or maybe they didn’t notice me?

Or maybe I’m generally oblivious to such things? I’ve been enlightened recently by reading “The Most Haunted Places in the Athens Area” by Alicia Szczesniak, published just a year ago, October 24, 2022. She discussed the following five locations. The quoted material is from this article.

The Ridges

The former Athens Lunatic Asylum now houses the Kennedy Museum of Art and some Ohio University offices.

On a hillside near the Hocking River are the grounds currently known as The Ridges. At one time, this was site of the Athens Lunatic Asylum, later renamed The Athens Hospital for the Insane. The stately brick buildings served as a mental hospital from1874 to 1993. With over a hundred years of patients, and over 1,700 identified people buried in its cemeteries, it’s prime real estate for ghost stories.

“The most well-known ghost story of The Ridges centers around Margaret Schilling, a patient who was accidentally locked into a seldom used building during a game of hide and seek. After being missing for a month, a janitor found her remains on the floor. Due to the decomposition, a massive stain was left. As a result of this, stories surrounding both the stain and Margaret Schilling’s ghost circulate around the former asylum.”

In addition, stories abound of apparitions, disembodied voices, and objects moved by unseen hands.

Much of this and what follows is recent urban legend. As a doctoral student in psychology, I worked for a time at what was known colloquially as “the state hospital.” And although I could testify to the use of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and have no reason to doubt the performance of lobotomies, as far as I know, there were no ghosts or other spirits roaming the halls while the hospital was in operation. So much of this has arisen in the last thirty years.

Wilson Hall (Ohio University)

Wilson Hall is one of several buildings that make up West Green dormitory complex. In the 1970s, a male student died in room 428. I don’t know the circumstances, but a few years later, another the student committed suicide in that room. He was rumored to have chosen the room for its energy. Ohio University officials sealed the room.

“Students have reported demonic faces scratched into the wood, apparitions of the students who passed away, objects flying across the room and disembodied voices that ranged from whispering to shouting.

“The dorm room’s closing makes it the only dorm officially sealed off for paranormal activity in the nation.”

Here again, until relatively recently, West Green’s claim to fame on campus was that the women who lived there had exceptionally muscular legs from hiking uphill to the main campus!

West State Street Cemetery

There are graves there dating back to the 1800s. Many of these burial sites are for soldiers who fought in the Civil War—including Athens residents who joined the army—and those who died in a battle just north of the city.

A statue in the cemetery known as “The Angel of the Unknown Soldiers” memorializes these unidentified soldiers. “Many visitors have reported seeing the angel flutter its wings, blink or shed tears, adding an even creepier ambiance to an already creepy place.”

I lived on West State Street for a time, completely unaware of the cemetery—and never before heard of the statue or its manifestations.

Moonville Tunnel

A coal mining town in that area was abandoned in the 1940s. A few structures remained: the supports of a bridge, a cemetery and the tunnel. The basic story is that a ghost haunts the tunnel after being killed by a train.

“There are variations in the story, with some saying the victim was a pregnant woman, others saying it was an 8-foot-tall man and more. However, the most common variation centers around a railroad worker who was struck by the incoming train, then doomed to haunt the tunnel.”

Prior to the alleged train death, multiple deaths occurred in the area, from accidents in the tunnel, accidents from the bridge or unknown causes. The ghosts of these dead people are said to haunt the area, “taking the forms of apparitions or ghostly orbs of light floating in the tunnel and the surrounding woods.”

Suffice it to say, I never heard of the Moonville Tunnel before reading this article.

Mount Nebo

Located northeast of The Plains is Mount Nebo, a hilltop that once served as the grounds of a cabin owned by Johnathan Koons in the 1850s. For a time, many people knew of the area because of its importance in the early American Spiritualism movement. I never heard of Mount Nebo when I lived in Athens, let alone know that it had been a hotbed of spiritualism. That changed when a friend gave me a copy of Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons, by Sharon Hatfield (2018).

Note: For the short version of the Koons legends, see the Alicia Szczesniak article. For the long version, see the Hatfield book.

Koons was a fairly prosperous farmer in the hills outside Athens. The story goes that upon arriving at Mount Nebo, the Koons family began to experience strange phenomena, such as paranormal activity and otherworldly sensations. He became interested in Spiritualism in 1852 and was told at a séance that he was “the most powerful medium on Earth” and that all of his eight children had psychic gifts. Acting on spirit instructions, he built a “spirit room” for the use of visiting spirits. Koons built a log house, 16 X 12 feet, and equipped it with all kinds of musical instruments.

The family quickly gained acclaim as spiritualists in the area, with people visiting to experience the Koons’ séances and commune with the dead in their “spirit room.” Soon the place became famous, and people traveled great distances—at least as far away as New Orleans— to see the curious phenomena.

The eldest boy, Nahum, age18, sat at the “spirit table,” the audience on benches beyond, twenty to thirty people at a time. The lights would go out, and visitors experienced a variety of otherworldly sensations. Spectral faces appeared. Objects flew through the air. Floating pistols shot targets across the room. Disembodied hands, lit by phosphorescence, touched participants. A trumpet floated around the ceiling and called out the names of guests, passing on messages from deceased loved ones.

J. Everett of Athens County, Ohio, who investigated the Koons’ phenomena, published the messages of the spirits under the title A Book for Skeptics: Being a Communication from Angels (1853). He also printed a number of documents describing occurrences in the spirit house, including a chart of the spheres Nahum Koons drew while in a trance. Charles Partridge wrote of his visit in the American Spiritual Telegraph of 1855.

Mount Nebo and the The Plains area of Ohio has several earthen mounds presumably built by the Adena people (1000-1750 AD). Many early Spiritualists claimed the sacred influences of these mounds contributed to the supernatural occurrences in the area.

Neighbors of the Koons family were more disapproving. Mobs attacked the Koons house, set fire to their crops and barns, and beat their children. Finally, the Koons left the area and began missionary wanderings, which lasted for many years. They provided free medium services to the public, and they greatly advanced the cause of early American Spiritualism.

While the actual spirit room has long since weathered away, this story is still more truth than fiction. Archaelogists have found graves of deceased Koons children in the area. Historians have records and documents detailing the trek to the spirit room. Some descendants of Johnathan Koons still possess the artifacts the dead told him to find.

Much less famously, two or three miles from the Koons’ farm was another lonely farmhouse, belonging to John Tippie, where another “spirit room” was laid out on the same plan. The manifestations in the Tippie family were identical to those in the Koons’ log house. Each had a “spirit machine” that consisted of a complex arrangement of zinc and copper for the alleged purpose of collecting and focusing the magnetic aura used in the demonstrations. The Tippies had ten children, all mediums.

So there you have it! Hatfield’s written a well-documented non-fiction book as entertaining as a novel, and I highly recommend it.

Supernatural in America

Mary Todd Lincoln (photographed here with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln) was a strong believer in spiritualism, holding séances in the White House and communicating regularly with her husband after his death.

Apparently, I lived in near proximity to all sorts of supernatural phenomena for years, completely unaware. Perhaps I was focused on classes and jobs to the point of oblivion. Or perhaps I’m just not psychically receptive.

Forty-one percent of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a YouGov study in 2021. (Twenty percent polled were unsure if they believe in ghosts.) Simultaneously, 43% of Americans polled believe demons exist.

Eighteen percent of adult Americans claim they’ve seen or been near a ghost, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey. Twenty-nine percent claim they have been touched by someone who died.

Older Gallup polls found that about three-fourths of Americans profess at least one paranormal belief. The most popular was extrasensory perception (ESP), mentioned by 41%, followed closely by belief in haunted houses (37%). A special analysis of the data shows that 73% of Americans believe in at least one of the 10 items listed, while 27% believe in none of them.

Bottom Line: Are you in the majority?


A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that (among other things) August is Black Business Month. And then I heard about John P. Parker. He caught my attention because 1) my father’s name was John E. Parker; and 2) both moved to Ohio from points farther south, and died there.

Although there’s no other connection, that was enough to make me want to find out about this historical Parker—and an amazing man he was!

An Eventful Early Life

John P. Parker was the son of a slave mother and white father—name unknown, but reputed to be a Virginia aristocrat. At the age of eight, John was chained to another slave and forced to walk from Norfolk to the slave market in Richmond, VA. There he was resold and added to a chained gang of 400 slaves being herded to Mobile, AL. In Alabama, he was bought by a local physician.

“After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond” by Eyre Crow, 1853
Encyclopedia of Virginia

Parker worked first as a house slave and companion to the doctor’s two sons. According to John’s memoir, he became good friends with the two boys and enjoyed being their playmate. Although educating a slave was against the law, the doctor’s sons secretly taught Parker to read and write.

When the sons went to Yale, John was supposed to go with them as their personal servant. However, in Philadelphia, the difference in public sentiment regarding slavery became obvious. Afraid that abolitionists would try to free John, the doctor’s sons sent him back to Alabama. His dreams of university were dashed.

John Parker returned to Mobile, where the doctor apprenticed him to a plasterer. The plasterer was a brutal drunk and after defending himself, Parker feared for his life and fled by riverboat. After months of pursuit and escape—well worth reading about!—he ended up on the docks in New Orleans. In a bizarre coincidence, Parker happened to cross paths with the Alabama physician and returned to Mobile. According to his memoir, Parker was quite happy to accompany the doctor home.

Returned to the doctor’s household, John was apprenticed again to a foundry. He thrived and learned there until he got into a fight with his boss. The doctor sent John to work in another friend’s foundry. Again, John’s temper ended in a fight with the superintendent. The argument was compounded by the superintendent’s theft of Parker’s design for an improved tobacco press. Fortunately, the superintendent was unfamiliar with patent law, and Parker was able to file the patent when he was a free man.

After this, the doctor claimed he didn’t know what to do with John and would have to to sell him as a field hand.

Finding Freedom

The three golden balls of a pawnbroker’s sign originally referred to the three golden coins on the medieval Medici family crest.

Desperate to avoid the brutality of a field hand’s life, John asked one of the doctor’s patients, a widow, to purchase him. He persisted in his petitions until she agreed to do so, for $1,800. 

Elizabeth Ryder, the widow, allowed John to hire himself out to earn money. She agreed that his wages could be used to purchase his own freedom. John Parker repaid that $1,800 plus interest at the rate of $10 per week. He earned the money doing piecework in Mobile iron foundries, as well as occasional odd jobs and running a “regular three-ball pawnshop.”

Parker was so motivated to repay Mrs. Ryder that he paid her far more than $10 every week.

John Parker gained his freedom in 1845, after eighteen months with the widow. This is a pretty amazing achievement: that $1,800 (never mind the interest) is the equivalent of $64,659 today. He was only 18 in 1845!  Clearly, he was both hard working and talented. And thanks to Mrs. Ryder, who “gave me a free hand to go where I wanted to and do as I pleased.”


John Parker’s patents for a portable tobacco press, an improved tobacco press, and soil pulverizer

Beginning as an iron molder, Parker developed and patented a number of mechanical and industrial inventions, including the John P. Parker tobacco press and harrow (pulverizer), patented in 1884 and 1885. He had actually invented the pulverizer while still in Mobile in the 1840s.  Parker was one of the few blacks to patent an invention before 1900.

The “Parker-Built McColm Soil Pulverizer” produced from the patent diagrams by Ben Schulte of the University of Cincinnati College of Applied Science.
from Small Farmers Journal

In 1865, Parker and a partner bought a foundry, which they named the Ripley Foundry and Machine Company. “Parker managed the company, which manufactured engines, Dorsey’s patent reaper and mower, and sugar mill. In 1876 he brought in a partner to manufacture threshers, and the company became Belchamber and Parker. Although they dissolved the partnership two years later, Parker continued to grow his business, adding a blacksmith shop and machine shop. In 1890, after a destructive fire at his first facility, Parker built the Phoenix Foundry. It was the largest between Cincinnati and Portsmouth, Ohio.” (Wikipedia)

Family Man

I find John Parker’s personal life as impressive as his business achievements. After buying his freedom, Parker settled first in Jeffersonville, Indiana, then Cincinnati, Ohio. The port city of Cincinnati had a large free black community, with a variety of work available. In 1848, he married Miranda Boulden, free born in that city.  They had a small general store at Beechwood Factory, Ohio, but a year later moved to Ripley.  There they had seven children together, though some sources only include six.

  • John P. Parker, Jr, b. 1849, attended Oberlin College but died before graduating, in 1871
  • Hale Giddings Parker, b. 1851, graduated from Oberlin College‘s classical program and became the principal of a black school in St. Louis
    • Later, he studied law and in 1894 moved to Chicago to become an attorney
  • Cassius Clay Parker, b. 1853 (the first two sons were named after prominent abolitionists)
    • He studied at Oberlin College and became a teacher in Indiana.
  • Horatio W. Parker, b. 1856, became a principal of a school in Illinois
    • He later taught in St. Louis.
  • Hortense Parker, b. 1859 was among the first African-American graduates of Mount Holyoke College
    • After marriage in 1913, she moved to St. Louis and continued to teach music.
    • Her husband was a college graduate who served as principal of a school.
  • Portia, b. 1865, became a music teacher
  • Bianca, b. 1871, became a music teacher

In one generation from slavery, all seven of John Parker’s children were college educated. John and Miranda are noted in local records as owning the area’s largest collection of books, which they frequently loaned to neighbors in support of education.

Interestingly, in his will, John Parker forbade any of his children taking over his businesses. He wanted them to be upwardly mobile in the professions and Black middle class.


Ripley, OH was in an area of growing abolitionist activity when John Parker moved there, and who is to say whether he would have been as much involved in the movement if he had lived elsewhere? Perhaps not.

But while living in Cincinnati, Parker boarded with a barber whose family was still held in slavery. Parker’s first successful extraction was to rescue the barber’s family from and eventually rescued the barber’s family from slavery—his first successful extraction—and it was launched from and came to a successful close in Ripley.

Ripley, so close to the Ohio River that separated slavery from freedom, was a natural station for the Underground Railroad.

Parker joined the resistance movement there, and for 15 years aided slaves escaping across the river from Kentucky to get farther north to freedom; some chose to go to Canada. Parker guided at least 440 (some sources put the number as high as 1,000) fugitives along their way, despite a $1,000 bounty placed on his head by Kentucky slaveholders. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased the penalties for aiding escaping slaves.

Freedom Stairway” leading from the Ohio River to John Rankin’s house (John P. Parker’s neighbor) in Ripley, OH

Although he was known for keeping meticulous records of the people passing through Ripley, John Parker was equally meticulous in maintaining the secrecy of his Underground Railroad station. When he received word that someone had reached safety, Parker burned the records relating to that person. He insisted that his photo not be taken, and there is no confirmed photograph of him. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Parker dropped his entire book of fugitives’ names, dates, and original homes into the cupola of his own iron foundry.

Parker risked his own freedom every time he went to Kentucky to help slaves to freedom. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune“He would go boldly over into the enemy’s camp and filch the fugitives to freedom.”  During the Civil War, he recruited a few hundred slaves for the Union Army.

But Ripley, like many towns in non-slave states, wasn’t united in support of escaping slaves. Residents on opposite sides of the issue often ended in physical conflict. In Parker’s own words, “I never thought of going uptown without a pistol in my pocket a knife in my belt, and a blackjack hand. Day or night I dare not walk on the sidewalks for fear someone might leap out of a narrow alley at me.” Even so, he helped at least 440 fugitives to flee.

This 1892 photo, of the dedication of the “Freedom’s Heroes” monument to abolitionists John and Jeanne Rankin in the Ripley, Ohio cemetery, is the most likely surviving photo of John P. Parker.
from the Ohio Historical Society and John Parker House

Parker’s Memoir

Parker’s story in his own word—HIS PROMISED LAND: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad wasn’t published until 1998. Parker gave interviews to the journalist Frank Moody Gregg of the Chattanooga News in the 1880s, when Gregg was researching the resistance movement. He never published this manuscript, but historian Stuart Seely Sprague found Gregg’s manuscript and notes in Duke University Archives. He edited the document for publication, keeping Parker’s language, and added a detailed biography in the preface.

The documents are still accessible in the Duke University archives online.

I’m calling it a memoir rather than an autobiography because this book is limited to Parker’s early life and his involvement with the Underground Railroad. It’s a fast, gripping read, but if you want to know about his business or personal life, you must look elsewhere.

The John P. Parker House

Parker’s house at 300 N. Front Street in Ripley, Ohio, is a National Historic Landmark. It is a small museum, open to the public Friday-Sunday, May-October.