Tag Archives: Ohio legends

Major Ward and the Skeleton: 1852

jolly walking skeleton with dart

Mrs Daffodil once again welcomes that grim and grewsome person from Haunted Ohio to these pages. To be perfectly candid, that person rather pressed for a guest-post, insisting that children gathered around their summer camp-fires were in dire need of a ghost story.   Mrs Daffodil is reluctantly providing the forum, but assumes no liability for nightmares.


Some years ago there stood on the west side of the Findlay road, about two miles south of the Munger post office, in Liberty Township, Wood County, O., a large, old fashioned building known as the Woodbury House. This deserted mansion was located in the heart of what was then called the Black Swamp; there were no other houses near it, and the locality had acquired a weird reputation because of a murder which was supposed to have occurred in the house. The old ruin was last inhabited by a man named John Cleves, somewhere in the forties. Cleves was convicted of another crime and sent to the Ohio Penitentiary. While Cleves lived in the old Woodbury House the sudden and mysterious disappearance of a peddler named Syms caused considerable comment in the neighborhood, and, although Cleves was suspected of murdering the peddler, no proof was ever obtained of the crime. Frequently travelers asserted they had heard mysterious noises while passing by the old mansion, and some of them claimed positively to have seen a human skeleton walking its bony way over the floors of the house. For years after Cleves left the house it was uninhabited, and came to be called “the haunted house of the Black Swamp.” In 1852 Major Ward happened to be passing through the neighborhood on business, and hearing of the haunted house and its sepulchral inmate determined to investigate the matter. Falling in with John Stow, the veteran showman, Ward proposed that the two pass a night in the old Woodbury House. Stow loved an adventure, ad so the expedition was arranged. Major Ward used to tell of his night’s experience in the following thrilling narrative.

Ward and Stow were seated on the floor of the large room in the lower part of the old house as midnight approached. They had built a big fire in an old fireplace in a corner of the room, and were quietly smoking. Suddenly, without any warning, the major says, there appeared before them an animated human skeleton. The two adventurers quickly took their places in opposite corners of the room, and Ward ordered the apparition to halt and explain its mission, at the same time drawing from his pocket a revolver. The skeleton advanced to the center of the room, paused a moment and then continued to advance toward Ward. The latter raised his revolver and fired full at the breast of the ghostly object, and as it continued to approach he fired again.

Stow says that he heard the bones rattle dismally as the shots were fired. But the skeleton continued to advance until within arm’s length of Ward, when it stopped, raised one arm and motioned his attention. Then walking to the fireplace and back to the center of the room the apparition took up a position facing Ward, again raised its arm and to the horror of the two terrified mortals uttered in a deep husky voice these words:

‘Give ear to me and mark well that which I am about to reveal to you.”

In the same sepulchral voice the specter related the story of an infamous crime. It said that while on earth in the flesh he was called James Syms, the peddler. One evening in December, 1842, he put up at the Woodbury House, then kept by Cleves. Some hours after midnight he was roused from sleep by a blow on the head. Staggering to his feet he beheld Cleves with a bludgeon. Syms attempted to stay the arm of his assailant, but the bludgeon again descended upon his left temple and he fell dead on the floor.

As the specter came to this part of his story he turned his left side toward Ward and pointed with a bony finger to a large fracture in his skull.

‘”Upon the infliction of the fatal blow,” said the skeleton, “my transition from the mundane to the celestial sphere was sudden and sublime.”

“Do you mean to tell me, then,” asked Ward, “that you are dead?”

“I do not live in the sense you mean,” replied the ghost, “yet I do exist.”

Continuing the story of the crime, the specter related that the murdered, Cleves, had severed the head from the body, buried the head under the heart in the room they were then in, and cast the body into a well.

Ward, emboldened by the success of his first question, here interrupted the skeleton long enough to remark that he did not see how his head could be buried under the hearth and still on his shoulders at the same time. As he spoke the skull disappeared from the shoulders of the skeleton. The two adventurers gazed upon the headless trunk in horror. All at once a loud voice came from the depths of the earth, crying.

“Take up the bricks of the hearth and disentomb the skull of the murdered Syms!”

Impelled by a mysterious force Major Ward mechanically obeyed the command and in a few minutes had unearthed a skull. Holding the skull in his hands he gazed first at the ghastly object and then at the erect and awful figure of the headless skeleton.

Quick as a flash of light the skull passed from his hands and resumed its place on the specter. Taking up the narrative where it had left off, the apparition said that Cleves had taken the money and personal effects of the murdered man. In his pocketbook were $90 in bills on the bank of St. Clair, Mich. The peddler’s horse and wagon were taken to Indiana and sold. Ward inquired for what object the weird skeleton had related this terrible story.

“That through you the world may learn of my fate, that my remains may be decently interred and my soul relieved of its awful secret. I am the spirit of the murdered Syms, whose soul for years has been seen around this place. Long have I wandered with my dread secret up and down the earth, longing to impart the story of my fate to man. But, although many have seen me, I could not speak until first spoken to by a living man. Your courage has at last brought peace to my soul. Write to my grandnephew, Gilmore Syms, of Columbus, Ga., and acquaint him with all I have told you.”

As the specter paused in his solemn injunctions the sudden influx of cold air into the room indicated that the hour before dawn had arrived.

“The hour approaches,” said the skeleton, “when we must part.”

Taking a step toward the door the specter hesitated for a moment, then turned and with a grateful gesture extended its bony hand to Ward. Ward took the cold, hard hand in his, and as the skeleton pressed his benefactor’s hand cold chills ran over Ward’s body until he shook as with the ague.

Locked in the skeleton’s grasp Ward accompanied it to the door and several yards into the open air, the terror stricken Stow following as if in a trance.

“My hour has come!” muttered the specter. “Ward, farewell.” Then raising the long, bony forefinger of its right hand warningly, the specter fixed on Ward a look which thrilled him to the heart, and said:

“Forget not! Forget not!”

In a minute more the air was suffused with a bright, bluish light, and a noise like distant thunder was heard. As suddenly as it came the light faded, and with it all traces of the ghost of the haunted house of the Black Swamp. Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 21 April 1889: p. 9

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Who would a peddler be?  Not only do the unfortunates wander the roads in all sorts of weather, carrying heavy packs, and staying at dismal inns with vile food and worse beds, they seem, to judge by the number of ghost stories about them, to have been slaughtered in quantities far out of proportion to their numbers. Mrs Daffodil does not wish to be snobbish, but wonders if the skeleton was entirely candid with Major Ward; in this and in other, longer versions of the tale, the creature spoke less like a peddler and more like a character in a Gothic novel by “Monk” Lewis.

Mrs Daffodil thanks that attenuated person over at Haunted Ohio for this skeletal sketch, but fears that she will have to cover the Tweeny’s ears should the footmen get hold of it.


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 anecdotes

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.