Parkersburg’s Riverview Cemetery, fringing the Julia-Ann Square Historic District, is a hotbed of paranormal activity. It allegedly is a place where strange orbs and mists show up on photographs, and visitors hear mysterious voices and footsteps. It allegedly is a place where black dogs with glowing red eyes roam the graves, their very presence a harbinger of death; statues have been known to leave their pedestals to pace the graveyard in eternal agony—allegedly. So I decided to visit the historic tract of land, in an attempt to witness first-hand this blurred line between worlds.
But I didn’t just waltz in there like some adolescent fool on a triple-dog dare. I consulted Parkersburg’s resident medium and paranormal expert, Susan Sheppard. She is known for founding and guiding the popular Haunted Parkersburg Ghost Tour, and has appeared on national television on such shows as ABC Family’s “Scariest Places on Earth.” She has written multiple books about mysterious and paranormal events, including “Cry of the Banshee,” and “The Gallows Tree: A Mothman’s Tale.”
I asked her how to increase my chances of catching a glimpse of an other-worldly being. She said, “If you want to get evidence in your pictures, or in recordings or anything, a lot of the time when you talk about the people, even reading out their names when they live, and you talk about things it kind of pulls them back, and the energy just increases.”
Later that night, I stood about 20 feet away from a headstone with an ornate sailing ship carved into its façade. I prepared a biography about the man that lay under that grave, consisting of information from stories told by Susan and others:
A descendant of the famous military advisor Myles Standish, Captain George Deming moved to the area in the 1850s. After making a fortune in the oil and gas business, he built a house on the corner of Juliana and 11th streets, just a few blocks from where he now rests. It was a happy home, its interior built to resemble that of the kind of ship Deming spent his earlier days commanding. If you peer through the bay window at night, you may still be able to see the glow from the Captain’s pipe. A typhoid fever epidemic hit Parkersburg in the 1860s and 70s to which Deming fell victim. His young son died shortly after, and is buried next to him. Over the years witnesses have seen visions of a man in a black coat visiting the graves.
I stood apprehensively in dark silence for what seemed like an eternity, my nerves on edge, my brain telling me to watch out for the dark figure that was about to emerge from behind a nearby tree. Alas, no such figure came, so I moved on to my next destination: the Weeping Woman.
Located near the back of the graveyard, she kneels behind a small stone altar, her hands distraughtly outstretched on its surface. On the altar are artifacts of previous visits—three playing cards, a folded piece of notebook paper I suspected to be a poem or prayer, coins of various values and currencies, and several nearly depleted tea candles. I lit the candles, and began to read:
Lily Irene Jackson, relative of the famed Stonewall Jackson, was an eccentric personality in Parkersburg at the turn of the 20th century. She was best known as a painter, particularly skilled at animal portraits. She was fond of her pets, and, in light of being teased for never marrying, held a mock wedding in which she married her dogs Hope, Faith and Charity. She organized and presided over the Parkersburg Art Society in 1887, and exhibited multiple works of art at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She died in 1929, and in her will asked to be buried in a shroud she had made herself. The brightest ghost orbs and lights are found around her, cameras malfunction in her vicinity, candles on her gravestone light themselves, and visitors feel their hair and clothes messed with as they walk past her. It is also rumored that if you make a completely unselfish wish in the presence of the Weeping Woman, she will grant it.
I stood nervously in front of the headstone wishing for my heartrate to decrease. I felt at any moment that the woman would raise her head to stare at me with forlorn eyes. I sensed that she was just about to stretch out a sad stony hand and grab mine. But she never did.
Despite my failure to capture the experience of seeing a ghost, I kept thinking about something Susan said during our conversation: “Most hauntings are imprint hauntings, or place hauntings. I would say about 85%, you’re just encountering imprints or memories from the past.”
While I didn’t encounter the type of entity she was referring to, that statement made me realize that I had indeed stumbled upon something very real. Skeptics may say that ghosts only exist in people’s minds–that they’re seeing things. But many important and “real” things do only exist in the mind, like love, the laws of nature, mathematics, and logic; they’re all constructs of the human brain.
The wealth of lore and myths of spiritual encounters in the area preserves the history of these figures and events in our minds, which makes the past not just words on a page, but a living, breathing organism that is very present in the complex network of ideas that determines what we think and feel. The preservation of these stories make the Mid-Ohio Valley more than solely what it is today—its identity consists not just of the present as a result of the past, but of both simultaneously. In the words of Susan Sheppard, “the dead keep Parkersburg alive.”