Witness: Mark Jordan
Location: Lucas and Lima, Ohio
Date of Encounter: 2003
I must be upfront: Before I share my ghost story, I want to point out that I have written a play about the people involved in this haunting, and I am currently writing a book about it. So, yes, it does stand to benefit me publicity-wise if this story becomes more well known. I want to acknowledge this before any skeptic claims that I'm making up stories for attention or to make money (as if 99% of us playwrights ever get rich!). At least I can point out in my defense that many other people have seen things associated with this haunting– indeed, the ghost of Ceely Rose is fairly well-known in the Midwest.
I had briefly heard about it in passing in my youth, but my first exposure to it was in Chris Woodyard's first Haunted Ohio book. In chapter two of that book, Woodyard retold the disturbing story of Ceely Rose, a troubled young woman who in the summer of 1896 in Pleasant Valley, Ohio (southern Richland County), murdered her entire family. She was a slow girl. As was discussed later at her trial she wasn't quite an "imbecile", but she was "mentally deficient". She fancied herself in love with the boy next door, who was too nice to tell her he wasn't interested. She began spreading around the story that they were going to get married. Embarrassed by the girl's antics, her father told her she was never to see the neighbor boy again. The next morning, Ceely made breakfast for the family. This breakfast included a strong dose of arsenic rat poison mixed in with the cottage cheese. The father died quickly. Her brother lasted about a week before he, too, died. Ceely's mother, Rebecca, hadn't eaten as much of the cottage cheese, so she began recovering. She also figured out what had happened and tried to protect Ceely from the investigators, even coaching her on what answers to give. But when Rebecca began talking about moving away from the valley, Ceely became agitated again, because she didn't want to be taken away from the neighbor boy, Guy Berry. So she finished her initial plan and re-poisoned her mother with a massive dose of arsenic. The lawmen remained stumped, unable to find any solid proof of the crime (remember, this was before the age of forensics), until they enlisted a friend of Ceely's to visit with her and talk with her until finally Ceely confessed the whole story. She was arrested and tried in late 1896 and found not guilty by reason of insanity on the charge of murdering her father. Since she had no immediate family, she became a ward of the state, and was sent to the Toledo Asylum.
In 1915, she was transferred to the Lima State Hospital, where she lived until 1934. The original Rose farmhouse still stands in Pleasant Valley, now on the grounds of Malabar Farm State Park, a large working farm dedicated to the preservation and research of rural agriculture. The farm was started by the writer Louis Bromfield, and he, too, tells a version of Ceely's story in his book Pleasant Valley, published in 1943. Over the years, bypassers traveling down Bromfield Road have commented many times about seeing a young woman looking out of one of the windows of the farmhouse, even when no young woman was living there. Thus the story of the ghost of Ceely Rose began to make the rounds. When I initially read Woodyard's version of the story, I wasn't overly concerned about the ghost angle, but I knew it was a vivid story for presentation as a play, so I wrote a play entitled "Ceely". When I first offered my script to local theatres, none of them were interested in taking a big risk on a dark drama by an unknown writer, so I shelved it for a while. After eight years, I found an actress who I thought could do the role of Ceely, and I also met the manager of Malabar Farm State Park, Louis Andres, who was interested in having the play performed at Malabar Farm itself. So I threw myself back into the project, and got the Mansfield Playhouse to back the project as a co-production with the state park. I involved my actress, Candy Boyd, with the research.
On a raw, windy day in March of 2003, we made the drive to Lima, Ohio to visit the old prison graveyard where Ceely is buried. The clouds were low and heavy that day, and the closer we got to Lima, the more they seemed to close in on us. The drive had started with cheerful chatter, but it had all evaporated by the time we approached the ominous complex of prisons on Lima's north side. Driving up to the prison, my stomach sank. I felt like I was being sent away myself. Because of the overlapping jurisdictions of the various prisons, it took the staff members over an hour to determine just who should send a guard to accompany us to the graveyard site. Eventually, they gave us an escort from the Oakwood Correctional Facility. He had to go back to the office to get the keys to the cemetery gate. We followed him by car to the back side of the prison property, where the small, grim cemetery was located. Although it is small, over three hundred inmates whose bodies were unclaimed by relatives are buried there. Only about half of the graves actually have the names on them. Many have only numbers. The guard was embarrassed to discover that the cemetery no longer had a gate — I had the distinct impression that visitors to the cemetery was an almost unheard of happening. We located her grave quickly, as Ceely was buried in the front row of the main section, and her grave was one that had the name on it, even if it was misspelled as "Cecilia Rose" (her given name was "Celia"). I took several pictures, including one of Candy standing by Ceely's grave. After taking all the pictures, it suddenly hit me just how real this story was that I was about to recreate on stage. These weren't fictional characters. Ceely was a real person, and here I was snapping pictures of her grave like a tourist at Disneyland. I decided I'd better step up to the grave and properly pay my respects. I'm not committed to any organized religion, and I couldn't say I was sure that it would make any difference one way or the other, but just out of respect to the troubled dead, I thought I should offer a little silent prayer, telling Ceely that we sought to tell her story not out of sensationalism, but instead, in hopes of reminding people how a troubled life can snowball out of control until many others lives are ruined by it. If anyone could ever have taken enough control of the developing situation, the tragedy of Ceely's life and acts could have been avoided. But no one did. I said in my thoughts, "Ceely, we want to tell your story so that something like this never has to happen to anyone else. We will tell your story with respect, and with love." At that exact moment, for the first time that day, the leaden clouds parted and a ray of sunshine shone down on Ceely's grave for about ten seconds. Nowhere else in the graveyard, or even in the landscape around, was the sun shining. Just there on Ceely. Candy and I slowly turned to each other, our mouths agape. Then the clouds pulled over the sun again like a heavy door, and everything returned to the earlier drab pall. I snapped a couple more pictures, and we left.
Most of the pictures I took that day are clear depictions of the sad little cemetery. But there is one strange one — one of the last ones I took before leaving. It is centered on the pine tree right next to Ceely's grave, which overhangs it. Ceely's grave is on the left, but off to the right, past the tree, is a little group of bright streaks, four or five of them, which seem to have flew out of frame just as the picture was being taken. There certainly wasn't anything there when I took the picture (not that I could see, anyway). I can't really by sure about the directions of the streaks. If they were moving into camera range instead of out of it, then they are moving towards Ceely's grave. Either way, it was a surprising picture.
Later that fall, during the actual production at Malabar Farm, I had a few more interesting happenings. One of the spookiest things about our production is that we were putting the play on in the big barn at Malabar Farm, less than a quarter of a mile away from the Rose farmhouse itself. Some of the older wooden beams in the barn actually come from the Schrack Mill, which Ceely's father ran until his death. So the connection with the real people is again very palpable, not to mention the eeriness of hanging out in a barn out in the middle of nowhere late at night in October! The first strange thing was during a rehearsal in late September in the barn. The actresses playing Ceely and her mother Rebecca were on stage, going through the intense scene where Ceely decides to poison her mother for the second time. I was walking from position to position around the stage, making sure that the sight-lines were good, so that everyone in the audience would be able to see their faces. I ended up down by the house right corner of the stage, so that I was almost looking across at the actors. As I did so, I noticed that one of the light bulbs on the sloped roof just beyond them was acting strange. Our main lights for these rehearsals were these lights — two strips of lights running the length of the barn, all interconnected, attached to the sloping roof about eight feet off the ground. The one furthest back on the left side was slowly, evenly pulsing off and on. I looked around at the other lights. They were all on as usual. Only that one, nearest the actresses on stage, was pulsing like that. I looked around — no one else had noticed it, for the scene was engrossing, no matter how many times we'd all seen it. I decided not to point it out, and returned to watching the scene. By the end of the scene, the actresses were drained and everyone else watching, myself included, seemed to release our breaths all at once in relief. I glanced back up at the light. It had stopped pulsing and was now off, although the rest of the lights were still on. I thought to myself, maybe it was just burning out, although I had never seen one pulse like that before going out. Later in the rehearsal, I noticed it was back on, like normal.
That weekend, we were putting up our technical equipment, and I stayed late that Sunday night stapling up pieces of black fabric to cover the open overhang that led to the lower part of the barn, where animals are kept (Including Pete the horse, who cheerfully added a few realistically rural sound effects throughout the rehearsals and performances. And I don't mean neighing. Think high-fiber diet.) Anyway, it was chilly that evening, and I had left the stage lights on for warmth, and to counter the gloom as I was hanging the dark fabric. The lower section of the barn is open to the outside, and a breeze would always blow up through the overhang. I noticed that this breeze was making my fabric billow in a very spooky manner. I had been making my way up the side, covering the overhang piece by piece. I was just about to the sign. Part of my original plan had been to have little signs distributed throughout the barn, that would light up in the darkness at the beginning of the play, and each sign would have words or a phrase relating to the story, such as "poison," "triple murder", "mentally deficient", etc. My tech director Dan Feiertag had built one sample sign with the phrase "mysterious deaths" on it, and we had hung it on a post by the overhang, and wired it into the board and tried it a few days previously. Unfortunately, we finally determined that we did not have enough dimmer packs to use all these various signs, so we decided instead (necessity being the mother of invention) to have the actors whispers these phrases from backstage, which ended up being a chilling effect in its own right. Even though we weren't going to use it, we had left the sign hanging on the post. Here I was hanging fabric after midnight in the barn, knowing I had to go to work at my day job in the morning. I decided that I wasn't going to mess with unhooking and removing the sign. I could easily just cover it with the black fabric I was hanging. Just as I walked up to the overhang to staple up the piece of fabric next to the sign, it briefly flashed, lighting up "mysterious deaths" in red letters. I froze for a second, then put down the cloth and whirled around to see if someone had snuck in the barn behind me and flashed the sign from the board, even though I knew the short burst had been quicker than the submaster could be manually faded. No one was there. I took a few steps back and walked up to the overhang again, wondering if some reflection of light on the sign could make it appear to light up, but no matter how many angles I tried, no reflection was equivalent to what I had seen out of the corner of my eye. The sign had lit up from within. It crossed my mind to panic and get the hell out of there. But I decided there was no point. I spoke out loud, "Thanks for the company!" and resumed my work, covering the sign with fabric. I can't say it didn't set my pulse to pounding, and I breathed a little easier once the sign was covered and out of sight. Dan set up the sound equipment on Monday, so we started running with full tech that evening. Things started okay on Tuesday evening, until toward the end of act one, when the sound equipment suddenly stopped emitting any sounds. I fiddled with the various pieces, trying to locate the problem — I knew the old amplifier had a tendency to short out, so I assumed at first that it was merely shorting out. But then I got it working again, because I could hear its usual hum through the speakers. But then we I hit the CD player, nothing would come through. I unplugged and replugged the player, amp, and mixing board and tried it again, and this time I could heard the music from the speakers, but it sounded constricted, staticky, and far away, no matter how much I turned up the amp or board. I finally gave up and told the cast to continue on without sound, and gave Dan a call and asked him to come fix it tomorrow. Before Wednesday's rehearsal, Dan showed up with different equipment. And started plugging in different pieces that he knew worked, in order to see which piece of our original equipment had gone bad. About twenty minutes later, with rehearsal overdue to start I heard Dan cussing at the equipment and saying, "This is not #$%^ possible!" I ran over to confer. He said that nothing he was plugging in was working. He was trying each new piece, but nothing was working. He even replaced the cables and power cords, and nothing worked. He swore at it some more and said, "The only other thing I can try is to hook up all the new stuff and completely remove the other equipment we were using. But it doesn't make sense. I shouldn't have to do that." By this point, I had a crazy idea, and I thought I'd better try it, or my big debut production was going to be a fiasco. I told him to remove all the old equipment and hook up the replacement pieces. While he was occupied with that, I stepped off to the side of the barn and, feeling a bit foolish but having nothing to lose, I said quietly, "Ceely, we're doing this show for you. Without your help we can't tell your story. Please knock it off, or we're finished." I stepped back over to the booth, where Dan was finishing up. He put in the music CD and pressed play. Rich and loud poured the music from the speakers once again. After that, I made it my habit to remind Ceely before every performance of how we needed her help, and we suffered no other major problems. One night I forgot to go through this little litany, and a couple minutes before the show started, as I was standing backstage, I looked up and noticed the light which had pulsed during rehearsal was doing it again. I quickly thanked Ceely for her help just before the lights were faded down to start the show, and everything went well. When the lights were faded up again for intermission, it had resumed its steady shine. In the end, the production was a huge success, and all the performances sold out, and all the shows went well. The demand so far exceeded the number of tickets we had, that we are putting it on again this fall in October. I would like to hear any comments that anyone might have about these happenings, or any other info about the ghost of Ceely Rose. If anyone is interested in coming to see the show, info about it is on the Malabar Farm State Park website.