Halloween is almost here, and with it comes the things that go bump in the night. Anna Potts, the Sliding Hill thieves, and the Mission Ridge Horseman are just a handful of Mason County’s longtime residents. Others include the former patients of Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane, Juliette Smith and Captain O’Brien at the Lowe Hotel, and I’m sure quite a few in the county’s older homes. One, however, stands out above them all in detail and the sheer number of witnesses.
The following is based on a true story. Cue X-Files theme.
I’m sure most my readers know where The Strip Mines are. If not, it’s out back of the Bend Area where Zuspan’s strip mines were, between Hanging Rock and Gibbstown. Today, it’s all farmland and ponds (and a popular hangout spot). It also holds a dark secret…
Over 150 years ago, in 1850, this area was a pocket of farmland surrounded on all four sides by thick forest, known as the Big Woods. That was changing though, as the coal mines and salt furnaces of the Bend Area sought out lumber for their mills and attracted laborers from the country farms. The mills, looking for old growth, worked their way out from Hartford, Mason, and Clifton and clear-cut enormous tracts of countryside.
The lumber operations by themselves required a small army of laborers, and the clear-cutting provided an easy route from Gibbstown to Clifton, Mason, or Hartford. This little pocket of farmland, in just a few years, had gone from being pretty much the middle of nowhere to a major crossroads between the four towns. This is where our story begins.
One of the farmers out in this little pocket of farmland was David Somerville. David, his wife Catherine, and their eight children lived a fairly ordinary life. The two older boys, William and Weston, were laborers, possibly with one of the lumber mills. The two younger boys, John and David, along with daughters Rebecca, Mary, Catherine, and Martha, helped their parents on the farm.
One night, Mary was the only one home. Perhaps the rest of the family had gone to town or were visiting nearby relatives. Either way, Mary was home alone.
As the legend goes, a group of men were passing the farm that night. Maybe they were lumberjacks returning to town, maybe they were laborers returning home. We’ll never truly know. Anyhow, to make a very sad story short, they saw that Mary was home alone, broke into the Somerville cabin, assaulted her, and afterwards took her deep into the Big Woods and buried her. Alive.
Though Mary was obviously missing, the crime was never discovered. Her family left Mason County not long after and resettled in Indiana, but Mary remained here, some say in more ways than one.
It wasn’t long after when farmers and woodsmen began reporting a woman’s screams in the night, coming from the Big Woods. These guys had spent their entire lives in the countryside. They knew it wasn’t coyotes, it wasn’t some other animal, and it wasn’t the wind. Some Irish immigrants feared they had brought a banshee with them, but it had started before they arrived. Not knowing about Mary, they simply called her the Screaming Lady.
For over one hundred years, the Screaming Lady haunted the Big Woods. More often than not, she was heard rather than seen. Screams with what seemed like no source echoing through the woods. Other times…
One night a newcomer to the area heard the screams, and thinking a living woman was actually in trouble, did what any normal person would do and called the cops. Well, the cops came out and found the source of the screaming, a ghostly woman standing in the road with her face all scratched up and bloody. Again, they did what any sane person would do, turned the car around and got the heck out of there! Only problem was, her screams followed them all the way to town.
Finally, in 1986, Mary Somerville’s grave was discovered while strip mining the Big Woods. Work was stopped in the area, and Foglesong Funeral Home was brought in to exhume the remains and give them a proper burial in Zuspan Cemetery. I like to think that since then, the Screaming Lady has been at rest.
Of course, that doesn’t stop parents and older cousins (mine and myself included) from using the legend for a bit of fun! This time of year is always marked by drives through the Strip Mines, a car mysteriously dying and not wanting to restart, and a “did you hear that? I think I hear the Screaming Lady!”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at email@example.com.