It’s a beautiful spring evening in Boneyfiddle. The sun paints a horizon better than that of even Robert Dafford. Couples stroll through the historic district, among the ancient architecture, stopping in local shops and enjoying the sound of the great Ohio River just over the floodwall. As the sun drops behind the rolling countryside, however, Boneyfiddle wakens with the ghosts of Portsmouth’s past.
J.W. Kelley, of Sciotoville, prides himself as the Haunted Historian and not only retells local ghost stories and legends but also takes time to research their origins.
“I first became interested in the things that go bump in Boneyfiddle after a haunted tour several years ago,” Kelley explained. “This was proceeded by a meet and greet session with Steve Gonsalves, technical manager for The Atlantic Paranormal Society, known from the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters.”
Kelley, who was already a writer and musician, found that he was compelled to learn more about this corner of his community and the rich history of the area that could be discovered through learning the community’s legends.
“The First Graveyard,” for example, old tires and scrap metal adorn a plot of land long forgotten.
“Not many know about this place, but you can visit it if you hang a right at 3rd and Madison and keep going. The area looks like a junkyard now,” Kelley explained.
In the 19th Century, the area was the home of Portsmouth’s first graveyard. After only a few decades of use, the location of the graveyard proved to be problematic. It was established in 1819 and was nearly at capacity by the 1930s. Additionally, the location near the river caused the graveyard to be prone to flooding. It was then moved to what is now Greenlawn. However, the move did not go as planned.
“In 1871, the land was sold to Burgess Steel. However, the cemetery caretakers were somewhat less than careful when they relocated, and they missed a few things. A lot of things, actually. As the folks at Burgess found out when they started digging the foundations,” Kelley explained as he set the mood for something chilling.
Kelley continued by explaining that there was some superstition among the workers. They feared they would be cursed for desecrating holy ground. Some say they were right to think so, especially those who heard tale of what was to come.
“Reports of hauntings were fairly common at Burgess, and they were blamed for many accidents and equipment failures,” Kelley stated. “Most commonly, workers reported a sense of being watched. After which, they would turn to see a tall, gaunt figure in a gray suit, carrying a black bag, who would slowly walk away. He was thought to be a doctor, or salesman, who was buried in the first graveyard.”
If haunting figures lingering about the workplace were not causing enough fright, psychic voices certainly did.
“The most disturbing phenomenon was the disembodied voices heard throughout the property,” Kelley commented. “They were said to foretell the many accidents that plagued the place and the deaths of Burgess employees. One demise that the spirits may have warned of would have been that Burgess Steel itself. On June 7th, 1898, the main furnace caught fire, and much of the place burned to the ground. Burgess Steel eventually relocated to New Boston and became known as Empire Detroit Steel.”
Some say that the hauntings stopped after the destruction of Burgess Steel. Others claim they still see the ghosts of Portsmouth’s First Graveyard.
The story of Portsmouth’s first graveyard has been published in stories of Boneyfiddle hauntings years ago. As the Haunted Historian, Kelley takes such tales and researches for any factual information confirming the details of the story.
“I look for all the information I can,” he stated.
Kelley is currently researching the unsolved murder of Mary Fisk, who was found by a river boat crew in Boneyfiddle and is said to still haunt the streets as a legendary “woman in white” or “weeping woman” type ghost, an aspiration common to the streets that were once of sorted company, littered with saloons and brothels to entertain whatever the river washed into to town.
Kelley explained that the Cincinnati Enquirer published a similar story about Portsmouth on July 17, 1888.
As the story goes, for several weeks in the late spring/early summer of 1888, the people of Boneyfiddle reported an unexplainable presence.
“A few months before history’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper, began stalking the streets of London’s Whitechapel district, a very sad and very disturbing figure was seen walking the streets of Boneyfiddle – a woman dressed in a rather heavy version of traditional black mourning clothes,” Kelley stated. “She clutched a small child very closely to her chest. On July 15, about 10:30 p.m., Nat Smith and Joe Henry, two West End farmers, were in town, just south of Market Square, for supplies, when the woman brushed past. The chilling aura that accompanied her left them very freaked out.”
As Kelley retold the story, he explained that the two farmers, feeling as if something was just not right with this women, decided to follow her. She continued down Jefferson Street, down Front, across Scioto and then onto the Second Street Bridge. The men followed her to the middle of the bridge, where she looked over the side, raised the child above her head, let out a wild scream and threw the child over the edge. The men then reported that she looked at them, pulled back her veil and faded away.
Not all the spirits haunt the streets. Many downtown merchants report ghostly visitors adorning storefronts as a testament to the legacy of such structures and the generations of Boneyfiddle residents and visitors that make up the area’s rich history – a history of struggles and strife, floods and bar fights, opulence and opportunity, of lives each with their own experiences and each leaving their own ghosts.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.