The Legends Behind the ‘Ghosts’ of Athens< < Back to
In the heart of all the legends and lore surrounding Athens county and neighboring towns, Ohio University is home to an abundance of haunted rumors, ghost stories, and alleged sightings. For years, students and residents alike have found themselves at some point seeking out any possible truth to the hearsay.
The Ridges, a building formally known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, has been a constant source of ghost stories and sightings for years. The building, now used as an art museum, was home to hundreds of patients throughout the late 1800s up until 1993. While The Ridges insisted that taking good care of their residents was of the utmost importance, The Ridges is known for its infamous procedures, such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
“I’ve been here 39 years and the ‘haunted’ business only came up in the last 10 or 12 years. I’ve lived at the Asylum, I lived there for a year. I came here as a grad student, and they had a resident volunteer program.” said Athens local Tom O’Grady, Executive Director of the Southeast Ohio History Center. He was able to live in The Ridges for free in exchange for helping out with the clients 15 hours a week. After graduating, O’Grady continued to volunteer on the grounds for another 10 years until the building closed. “I still haven’t seen any ghosts. But I have seen the stain of Margaret Shilling.”
Margaret Shilling, one of the most well-known residents who lived at the Ridges, passed away in an upstairs attic space in 1979. Her body was not discovered until a few months later, and due to the exact location of where she passed, elements and time worked together to create a permanent stain of where her body once lay.
“There are two things people know about the Asylum: one is that it’s haunted, and two is there’s a stain, they feed into each other,” O’Grady said. “She was a person who had a family who loved her. To me, it’s rather disappointing that the university has had the Asylum for 35 years, and they’ve let the story get perpetuated without restoring her humanity.”
One of the points that O’Grady stressed was to not let these stories be remembered as only silly ghost stories because, after all, they are attached to real human beings. “I think it’s our responsibility as a community to do what we can to restore her humanity. How many people know about her only as a stain? What would we think of that?”
“There are two things people know about the Asylum: one is that it’s haunted, and two is there’s a stain, they feed into each other. She was a person who had a family who loved her. To me, it’s rather disappointing that the university has had the Asylum for 35 years, and they’ve let the story get perpetuated without restoring her humanity.” – Tom O’Grady, Executive Director of the Southeast Ohio History Center
Even before the Asylum existed, legend has it that the spookiness all began with Mt. Nebo and the Koons family spirit rooms. In the mid-1800s, roughly around 1850-1855, the Koons family of Athens County erected a ‘Spirit Room’ which was used as a place to conduct seances. The site of the Koons spirt rooms became a national sensation, drawing travelers from near and far. Some even say that Mt. Nebo is one of the world’s most haunted locations and a place of spiritual significance. Athens local Sharon Hatfield has written a book on the subject titled Enchanted Ground, which can be purchased at the Southeast Ohio History Center in uptown Athens.
Another touristy sight to see is the haunted Moonville Tunnel. The Moonville Tunnel, located in Vinton county just outside of Athens, is home to its own collection of ghost stories. Before the Moonville Tunnel became the popular destination that it is today, one had to hike through woods or follow the tracks to get to it. Now void of trains passing through, the tunnel is much more accessible to visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of something paranormal. O’Grady told me about his own experience he had in the tunnel years ago.
“The railroads were still running. I knew the story about the man with a lantern who had gotten run over. I was cleaning up the woods when I saw it,” he said. “Of course, I would go in that tunnel, it was cool! I was in that tunnel more than once when the train was coming, and there’s no way that thing can touch you- you hope, you think… you know you’re safe… unless it goes off the tracks. Your adrenaline is rushing, it’s an exciting experience.”
Many more alleged ghost stories exist outside of these three infamous examples, but while talking with Tom he made a point that we should all consider. The true ghosts of Athens county are not the ones in the ridges, the tunnels, or the ones wandering the West State Street Cemetery; rather they are the architects, the pioneers, the teachers and scholars, and the residents of yesteryear who called this place home and helped to shape Athens into what it is today. O’Grady is passionate about the work he does at the historical center and for the county, and the way he talks about Athens makes it very clear that he cares and is willing to educate anyone who wants to know more. While we should be able to marvel and enjoy these urban legends, we must not forget that there is more than meets the eye when discussing them.
As for O’Grady, he himself is still on the hunt for ghosts, but so far has had little luck.
“I want to see ghosts. From a distance maybe, but I want to see them as much as anybody,” he said. “I haven’t had that opportunity- but I’m looking.”