The Blazing Ghost of Cardiff Town: 1903

wicker man burning


By Howard R. Garis.

(Copyright 1903 by Robert Howard Russell.)

Never had peaceful Onondaga valley been so disquieted. The people of the town of Cardiff, from one end to the other were talking of the wonder which exceeded even the sensation of the historic Cardiff Giant. This time, instead of a giant it was a ghost, and such a wraith as never had been heard of before. The Headless Horseman was a mere baby compared to it, and Puritanical broom-riding witches were not horrible enough to be mentioned in the same breath. Truly the Cardiff ghost was an apparition most fearsome.

The spirit had first appeared to Abe Crownheart, who kept the Pine Tree as the Cardiff hotel was known. He was driving home one night from Tully, a village at the south end of the valley, when near the bridge, over the brook that runs through Enberry Took’s place, the spectre rushed out and pursued Abe. He reached home with his horse all in a lather of foam, and himself dripping wet in a perspiration of fear. For a few minutes after reaching the bar-room he could only gasp and pant.

“What ailes ye, Abe?” asked Bill Hounson. “Ye act as ef ye’d seen suthin.”

“So–so I have,” panted Abe, looking to see if the door was tightly shut. “I seen somethin’ mortal eyes never beheld since the world began. Jest’s I was passin’ Enberry’s bridge, a spirit, all blue flame, wavin’ its arms of fire, an’ waggin’ its head started down the hill after me. It chased me clean to Dave Tupmans place, the horse goin’ lickity-split al the while.” “Fer th’ love o’ tripe!” exclaimed Bert Bailey. “D’ye s’pose ’twas a real ghost?”

“I don’t care ’bout seem’ any realer,” said Abe.

“Sure ye hadn’t bin adrinkin any hard cider?” asked Bill Hounson.

“Say.” exclaimed Abe, earnestly, “I only wish it was that kind of a ghost I’d seen. This wasn’t nothin’ of that sort. It was as tall as the church steeple, and as big ’round as a hogshead. It was all on fire from head to foot, I tell you, wavin’ its flamin’ arms, and runnin’ with feet and legs all blazin’, and its head wobblin’ from side to side. Then there was the most awful smell, jest like a burnin’ lake of brimstone.

Abe’s terror was so genuine, and his fright so real, that it was communicated to his auditors. Though they hardly believed Abe had seen a ghost, they were sure he had been near something rather hair-raising. So, when the crowd in the tavern broke up a little later there were many anxious looks cast on all sides in the darkness, as the farmers made their way to their homes.

It was only two nights later that Enberry Took reported that he too had seen the ghost. It was even worse than Abe had described it, Enberry said. Closely following this came confirmation from Truem Wright and George Bennett, who told at the hotel one night how they had both been pursued by the flaming spirt, which had run after them quite a distance. Then there was no doubt about the Cardiff ghost. From one end of the village to the other the story went, carrying terror with it. Women were afraid to go out in the yard after dusk, children would not linger on the road from school, and even the farmers hesitated about journeying on the highway after supper. Nothing was talked of save the spirit, and when, three weeks after Abe had first seen it, Dr. Rood, driving home from visiting a patient, was pursued so closely by the spectre that the leather top of his buggy was scorched by the wraith’s burning arms there was intense excitement.

There was no disputing the fact that the ghost burned with real fire, for the leather of the carriage was shriveled by the heat, and the varnish was blistered. Clearly something must be done.

Enos Rasher, chairman of the town selectmen called a public meeting in the hall over Truem Wright’s grist mill. The case of the blazing ghost was gone over from the time of its first appearance, and then Enos stated the object of the gathering, which was to find a means of getting rid of the spectre.

“Who’ll undertake th’ job?” asked Enos. ”There’s no use agoin’ outside, el we kin git th’ work done t’ hum,” he went on. “Me ‘n th’ selectmen’s come t’ th conclusion that we kin offer a reword o’ twenty shillin’ t’ th man who rids Cardiff o’ th’ terrer.”

The chairman waited, but no one came forward to offer himself as a ghost-layer.

“This thing ought to be done scientific,” said Abe Crownheart, rising in his seat. “None of us has had any experience gittin’ rid of ghosts. Mebby it’s easy work, and then agin mebby it’s hard but we ought to have some one look after it what knows how to go about it. I move we hire a regular ghost exterminator, and pay him a decent day’s wages.”

The motion was seconded by several and the selectmen, accompanied by Enos, withdrew to another room for a consultation. At the close of the conference the chairman announced that the reward would be increased to $50.00 and an advertisement was to be inserted in a Syracuse paper, offering that sum to whoever would dispell the ghost.

The meeting broke up and the next day Enos Rasher took the stage for the distant city of Syracuse to have the advertisement inserted. That night the ghost was seen again by Enberry Took, whose house was nearest to where the spirit appeared. Enberry saw it, dimly luminous, floating along the hillside, and he double-locked the doors, burning a lamp all night, even sitting up with his family till morning broke.

From then on Cardiff was in a state of unrest. No one ventured near the spot, and even the Onondaga Indians, at the Castle reservation, near the town, would not pass along the road which the ghost sometimes crossed. Soon communication between Cardiff and Tully, the nearest town of any size began to fall off. The Tully people said they did not care to come to Cardiff, for the ghost might hear about them, and conclude Tully was a better place for his operations than Cardiff, transferring himself accordingly which contingency the Tully people did not care in the least to have occur. In a little while the lack of intercourse was felt, and, when the Tully Councilmen voted their town shut to and quarantined against the Cardiff folks, the inhabitants of the latter place concluded rightly that it was the last straw.

“Why,” announced Truem Wright to a group of indignant Cardiffites at the Pine Tree, “they couldn’t treat us no wuss ef we was a sufferin’ from th’ plague. Suthin’s got to be done about it, that’t all.”
Meanwhile the ghost continued to show itself. Nothing else was talked of in the town. Signs, telling of the reward were posted all over, and, one day at noon, Porter Amidown, the constable, tacked one on the fence opposite the place where the ghost most often made its appearance.

“I calcalated mebby th’ ole sinner might take notice on’t” remarked Porter, “‘n seein’ ‘s how he wan’t welcome ’round here, he might light out.”

Thus far no professional ghost-layers tried their hand at earning the $50 True, now and. then a traveling fortune hunter, a confidence man or a seller of novelties, would offer to tackle the job. One look at the spirit from a safe distance, in the fields on a dark night, was sufficient. Once a peddler, a bold swaggering enough fellow, when telling at the bar of the Pine Tree, how he would lay the ghost, fled at the first sight of the flaming figure. He never returned to claim a choice collection of jewelry he had left behind at the hotel.

In all of its wanderings the ghost had done no harm, save to scorch Dr. Rood’s carriage. It seemed as if the spectre was some unhappy wraith which, unconsumed by the fire that burned it, was doomed to haunt the place. Various explanations were given of the ghost. Some said it was the spirit of the original Cardiff Giant; others that it was the soul of some Onondaga, Indian, who had murdered his sweetheart and was wandering restlessly about the earth to expiate his crime, until the ruler of the Happy Hunting Grounds decreed that he might enter there.

A month had passed, and still the ghost held forth. The people were beginning to despair of being rid of it. One night, about an hour before sunset, when the stage from Syracuse arrived at the Cardiff post office, a stranger alighted. He was tall and thin, of dark complexion with a small black moustache. He inquired for Enos Rasher, chairman of the select men, and when the latter was found digging potatoes in the garden, the stranger introduced himself as Professor Roger Ascott.

“Wall, what kin I do fer ye?” asked Enos.

The professor silently held out a Syracuse paper and pointed to the advertisement of a ghost-hunter wanted.

“Oh,” said Enos rather dubiously, offering his hand. Then he added with more fervor. “Wall, I’m real glad t’ see ye. Are ye a real ghost-hunter?” “It is my sole business,” answered the professor, and he extended a card reading: “Professor Roger Ascott, public and Private Ghost-Layer. Spirits of all kinds dispelled with neatness and dispatch. All kinds of spectres done away with. Haunted houses a specialty. Low rates and prompt service. A trial solicited.”

“I guess you’re th’ feller we’re after,” commented Enos, after he had read the card twice. Then he told the professor all about the Cardiff ghost.

At the close of the tale to which the professor listened gravely and with attention, he said,

“Hum. Can you take me to where the spirit is seen most? I would like to get an idea of the topography of the location by daylight.”

“I’ll tel ye how t’ git thar,” replied Enos, impressively, “but ‘s fer ‘s goin’ thar’s concerned–” He paused, and the professor smiled. From a hill back of his house, however, Enos showed the scientific ghost-hunter the stamping ground of the spirit.

“Have none of you examined the neighborhood?” asked the man of science. “Perhaps the—ah–the phenomenon can easily be accounted for on natural grounds.”

“It may be, it may be,” said Enos, slowly, “but none on us calcalite on goin’ nigh ’nuff t’ see. From all accounts th’ thing’s ’bout ‘s unnatural ‘s any one ever hearn on.”

“Hum,” said the professor. “I may as well tell you that I am not after the $50, for I hunt ghosts as much for my own pleasure as for any other reason. Still I have my expense, so I usually accept a small fee. That is why I speak of low rates on my cards. If I was in the business regularly and for profit, I would have to charge more than $1,000 for getting rid of this ghost for you. Blazing ghosts are the most expensive kind there is. But as I said I am not after money.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” answered Enos, “’cause we went down purty deep in th’ treasury when we offered th’ $50. So I wish ye good luck with this job, ‘n th’ money’ll be paid over prompt.”

After securing explicit directions how to reach the haunts of the spirit the professor left Enos and trudged off in the gathering twilight.

Had any one watched him they would have seen the professor, after reaching the place, moving about and sniffing the air, as a dog does on the scent of game.

“Curious, curious,” he muttered, “um!” I wonder if–and yet how can it be? Still,” he went on, “it is natural, most natural.”

Then he moved about in a circle, still sniffing the air in deep breath. He seemed to be trying to get on the track of something. At last he appeared to have located it, for he uttered a cry of success, and hurried off up the hill.

He returned to the hotel in time for supper and found a curious throng waiting for him. To all questions he replied nothing, telling the people to have patience. Even this little hope seemed to cheer every one up, and thy felt better than they had in many weeks. They had begun to despair that the ghost would ever be laid, and, though they thought they might  get used to it in time, still it was likely to be an inconvenience for quite a period.

When it was dark the professor went to his room and came back presently. There was a suspicious bulge to his right hip pocket, but no one said anything about it.

Professor Ascott started off, followed by a crowd of men, all of whom, how ever, remained near Bert Bailey’s house, refusing to go any further. So the investigator proceeded alone.

For an hour the waiting crowd stood silent in the darkness.

“There tis!” exclaimed Enos Rasher, suddenly.

The others looked, and there, sure enough, was the ghost. It towered high in the air, with outstretched arms, a figure of bluish flame, flickering and blazing. A form of terrible fire, visible half a mile away. It appeared to be about twice as large as a man.

“I guess the professor’ll have all he bargained for,” commented Abe Crown heart.

There was a silence for a moment, while the watchers saw the ghost slowly move along toward the road.

Suddenly the stillness was broken by a revolver shot, followed by two more. Then it was observed that the ghost quickly turned and ran up the hill. A sliver of red flame from the revolver followed it, and then came the sound of another shot. The spirit was seen to stop and stagger. It tried to maintain an upright position during a fierce struggle.

“Th’ perfessor’s fightin it!” exclaimed Enos, and the excitement among the watchers was intense. The next instant the ghost fell to the earth.

“By the Great Dutch Cheese, th’ perfeesor’s downed it.” cried Porter. The group of men waited, not knowing what would happen next. The spirit was now only a bluish, burning flickering spot on the side of the hill, seemingly consuming itself with its own fire. The silence which now prevailed strained the nerves of the waiting men almost, to the breaking point. They scarcely breathed. All were wondering what had become of the ghost-hunter.

Then out in the darkness, came the sound of footsteps on the road.

“Thar comes th’ Perfessor.” said Enos.

“’N some un’s ‘ith him.” added Porter. “He must be bringin’ in the ghost.”

In another minute two figures were dimly observed emerging from the blackness, and one was that of Professor Ascott. who had tight hold of another man.

“Gentlemen, the Cardiff ghost,” announced the man of science. Enos, Porter and the others peered at the captive.

“Silas Waydell!” exclaimed half a dozen.

“The same,” answered the owner of the name, “and I must say your ghost-layer here is an expert.”

To the scores of questions for an explanation Professor Ascott returned evasive replies, until he reached the hotel. There he turned the prisoner over to Constable Amidown.

“I do not know on what charge you can hold him, unless it might be getting money under false pretenses,” said the professor.

“How’s that?” asked Enos.

“Well,” the ghost-hunter went on, “he has been digging sulphur on Mr. Enberry Took’s land, and selling it. He confessed to me. Of course he did it under the pretense that he was a ghost, and so he obtained money under false pretenses.

“You see, gentlemen,” proceeded the professor, “as soon as I went to the place and smelled sulphur I knew I must be on the right track.”

“Why, that was the sulphur spring on Enberry’s land ye sniffed,” explained Enos, “it’s bin thar fer year.”

“Exactly,” said the professor, “and where there is sulphur water there must be sulphur. I investigated and found a fine deposit on the hillside, from which a considerable quantity had been taken.

“Then I suspected the truth, that some one, not entitled to it, had made the discovery, and had invented the ghost to keep curious people away. Am I correct?” he asked of the prisoner.

“Right you are, professor,” said Silas. He did not seem worried about his arrest. He was a man of peculiar talents and well known in the locality as a person about whom curious stories had been told, none pointing to his honesty.

“But what was th’ ghost?” asked Enos.

“Simply a big scarecrow of wood, coated with sulphur,” answered the professor. “Your friend here would carry it on a long pole, after setting fire to the sulphur, and so would frighten travelers. He got too near the doctor’s carriage and scorched it. After displaying the ghost he would hurry back, dig out some sulphur and cart it away. As soon as I saw the flaming figure I knew what made it burn, and a few shots from blank cartridges brought Silas to a stop. You probably saw him drop the scarecrow when I had caught him after a chase. So that is the end of the blazing ghost of Cardiff town.”

“Wall, perfessor, you’re a wonder.” commented Enos, and the others agreed with him.

The professor went back home the next day. Silas was sent to jail for a short term, a charge of stealing sulphur being the only one they could prove. But the best part of it all was that the sulphur mine on  Enberry Took’s land turned out so well that he not only had enough money to pay off the mortgage, but sufficient to make him comfortable in his old age. So he and others blessed the Cardiff ghost that discovered the sulphur.

The Semi-Weekly Messenger [Wilmington NC] 21 April 1903: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A rare example of a happy ending associated with that pungent mineral. More usually some benighted soul is carried off in a stench of sulphuric smoke by the Devil. Or a corpulent nobleman, who has been doing himself too well at the port, is forced by his physician to drink glasses of sulphurous swill at the spa.

That ghost-hunting person over at Haunted Ohio observes that sulphur and its attendant smells are often found at sites where petroleum is drilled and tells of a similar fiery ghost in Pennsylvania.


Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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