Ghost Town

Believe In Cleveland's Restless Dead

The following is excerpted from Cleveland Ghosts, by Charles Cassady Jr., from Schiffer Publishing,

Though an appetite for horror films and pulp-gothic fiction has always been strong here, the paranormal and Cleveland would seem an unlikely pairing. This was a pragmatic manufacturing town. A city of shop floors and second shifts and third shifts. A city of trade-union-management negotiations, of forced busing and teacher walkouts, of pinning community pride on the wavering prowess of the sports teams, of trying to get by in diminished circumstances. Specters and shades did not seem to belong here.

There is a school of thought, however, that superstition and mysticism reemerges in uncertain or tumultuous times. Commentators on human nature claim that people losing their faith in government, military, banks and savings-and-loan companies are more likely to reorient themselves, in their panic and desperation, to the even-less-accountable institutions of fortune-tellers, UFO aliens, spirit guides, cults, the I Ching.

In the mid-1970s, John Godwin devoted a book to this, Occult America, finding the paradox that, in the country that had split the atom and sent men to the moon - yet could not prevail in Vietnam or elect a trustworthy president - witchcraft was openly practiced, seances held and Parker Brothers' Ouija boards outsold that same company's game sensation, Monopoly.

Maybe, like the astrology chart in the back pages of the paper, the mutterings of the paranormal was always there as an undercurrent, a background hiss. Without the distractions of prosperity and industrial growth, it just came to the fore, and perhaps it fills in a niche. Sort of like wildlife reported returning to Cleveland's industrial river basin after locked-down and dormant factories stopped despoiling the air and water. Maybe worrying over the threat posed by poltergeists and wraiths made a more exotic and romantic danger than those of prowlers and repo men. In any case, as unemployment statistics rose, so did the dead. Or at least the stories about them. Grays Armory is a squat, crenellated, sandstone urban fort that looks like something out of an Arthur Rackham drawing, with its arched windows and doors and a thick, prominent tower, designed by architect Fenimore C. Bate and built in 1893. Crouching near the wedged-shaped intersection of Bolivar and Prospect avenues, just south of Euclid Avenue, it survived the clearances of Millionaires' Row, as well as a serious fire in 1921 - one which a Cleveland newspaper called an act of terrorist arson by "Reds," but which was, in fact, an electrical fault. Grays Armory was duly rebuilt, its once-mighty drill hall shortened (but still an impressive space), and the structure's stocky profile is now mostly hidden by the commercial real estate grown up around it. From time to time, efforts have been made to bulldoze Grays Armory for further development, but those more appreciative of the history, in these bricks and stones have prevailed, so far.

It was erected as the ceremonial headquarters of the Cleveland Grays, the city militia founded in 1837. They took their name and their uniform color from the shade of garment preferred at West Point, and they were hardly alone in their choice of a role model; similar regional companies of "Grays" were founded in the 19th century, in cities and territories from California to the East Coast. The Cleveland Grays' members fought for the Union in the Civil War (a captured Confederate cannon is one of the many trophies on display) and later in the Spanish-American War and World War I. Grays even assisted in the forays against the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa; panoramic photos of the troops in the field hang on the walls, attesting to adventures near and far.

Over the years, Grays Armory has hosted all manner of cultural events in its 10,000-square-foot ballroom and the drill hall. Before the great concert space to the east, Severance Hall, became the Cleveland Orchestra's regular home, the world-renown musical ensemble performed its first concert at Grays Armory. Opera singer Mario Lanza made his local debut there in the 1950s. Annual car shows and home shows began here, and military-memorabilia exhibits, boxing matches, wedding receptions and trade shows continue to use the drill hall, as do parties and special functions. Cleveland police practice marksmanship at a shooting range in the basement, and the Grays color guard still march in city events. The meeting rooms and galleries are festooned with faded banners, portraits, hunting trophies, weapons and epaulets, the remembrances of past glories.

When night falls in November, Grays Armory becomes the subject of other stories. "Psychic tours" make it a place of departure - there is convenient parking nearby for customers, it looks like an iron-spiked Vincent Price abode, and it is haunted, say many, by phantom footsteps treading upon the stairs and around the third-floor bar. The late Frank Tesch, who oversaw Grays Armory, is credited with helping the rumors along; anything to encourage public attention and support to the Grays in an era of tight budgets.

A roll call of Grays Armory ghost stories:

¥ In the 1970s, a college student, living alone on the premises as a custodian, told his co-workers that, as he idly played a piano on the third floor, a man in the archaic uniform of the Cleveland Grays stepped out of the wall of the ballroom, looked at him and went back into the wall. An additional peculiar aspect of the apparition, according to the witness, is that he appeared entirely monochrome, even to his flesh. Like an image from the tube of a black-and-white TV set.

¥ A few decades later, workmen were remodeling the front lobby and repainting the ceiling when the building was locked. Leaving their scaffolding unattended for a moment, they heard footsteps echoing up and down the main staircase, but could see nobody making the racket. When they returned to their work, they found their brushes, paint and materials tipped over and scattered in disarray. The door was still locked, no culprit visible.

¥ The Civil Air Patrol, whose Phoenix Squadron still holds classes and trains in the building, was holding one of its regular Tuesday evening meetings in the ornate upstairs rooms. It was late in the year; night had fallen. A cadet was sent downstairs to the vast, vacant drill hall on an errand. He returned, ashen, having seen something - but what it was he did not say. Only that he would not be going down there alone in the dark again.

Maintenance supervisor Bill Jenkins, who has lived inside the Armory for several years, said that he has never seen anything strange in his tenure, despite the stories. Emphasize the word "seen." He has had at least one other sensation.

Lou Grosser, a major in the Grays, actually died in the Drill Hall, and his funeral was held there. During his life, Major Grosser frequently smoked a particularly aromatic and sweet brand of tobacco. Not long after his death, one of Jenkins' associates asked if there was anyone just outside the front door, smoking. He could smell it.

"I said, 'There's nobody. It's just you and me here.' He took me to the back room, and I smelled it too. It smelled just like Lou Grosser's pipe." On another occasion the anomalous odor again wafted through the building, with Jenkins and another olfactory witness present - and nobody else. "He asked me the same thing. He asked, 'Who else is in this building?'" But there was no one.

Jenkins said he has heard sounds at night and sometimes felt a menacing atmosphere around the Armory that reminded him of the catchphrase made famous in The Amityville Horror, an angry shrieking "Get out!" But nothing out of the ordinary for a creaking old building and a person with an imagination. Still, that unmistakable flavor of pipe smoke remains inexplicable to him.

A true squire of this castle, Jenkins is knowledgeable about the Armory and its people, the American presidents who have played billiards in the upstairs pool room, the Grays' sally against Pancho Villa in Mexico, the grand memorial ceremony that was held here for Conrad Mizer, a Clevelander much beloved by the city's children for the many free concerts he mounted around town; literally thousands of kids turned out to pay their respects in the drill hall. But Jenkins tolerates the ghost tours and the occasional paranormal investigators who have come his way since Frank Tesch's tenure. Jenkins indulges them their jargon, their gadgets and devices.

He remembered one ghost-chaser taking some sort of sensor reading at a wall panel and declaring excitedly that the energy levels were high. "Naturally the energy would be high; all the electrical wiring was behind there." On another occasion, though, a group of fringe-science followers tried to spend the night on ghost stakeout in the Drill Hall. A few of the ceiling fans - not all, just a few - began to rotate on their own, despite their power being switched off, and some strange instrument readings were recorded. Every so often an adventurer shows Jenkins a photo taken in Grays Armory with curious shapes and foggings that he can't explain.

He can explain the resident poltergeist, "Patrick." Nobody seems to have a legend on who Patrick was, and that's because there was none. Jenkins said it arose spontaneously as a sort of inside joke. The Civil Air Patrol simply invented Patrick one day. During a meeting, a heavy, potted plant suddenly fell over, and someone came up with the name on the spot: "Cut that out, Patrick!"

On two separate occasions, self-proclaimed psychics and sensitives went to the second floor to try out their mojo. Both described very much the same entity, visible only to them. It was a Civil War-era soldier, in baggy, unkempt attire, standing by the grand piano on the second floor. Jenkins is impressed that their descriptions matched so closely, but he emphasizes that he lives there, and he's seen nothing supernatural. But he did smell that pipe. Perhaps one of the most compelling of Cleveland ghost stories - not merely because of its ghoulish imagery, but also because it seems to rise apropos of nothing and has left no trace behind it - is the horror of Mason Court. Mason Court was a street southeast of downtown, by East 40th and Woodland. Even in late 1957, this was an area "in transition," formerly affluent and working class, then stricken with "white flight," crime and squalor, as all Clevelanders who could afford to pulled up stakes and migrated to raise their families in a post-WWII innovation called the suburbs.

A music student named Thomas Todd, however, moved with his young wife Geraldine and their 2-year-old son into 4207 Mason Court in November 1957. The account goes that, practically from the beginning, they heard strange noises from the cellar - humanlike moans, even screams - coming from the rubbish-strewn furnace room, accessible via a heavy trap door in their living room.

One day in March of 1958, Geraldine descended into the cellar by herself to investigate. What she reported seeing sounded like a garish vision off the cover of the EC horror comic books popular at the time: a bloody, gnarled hand, protruding from a pile of detritus, sticking straight up.

Geraldine ran up the stairs and closed the trap door. She told her husband about the hideous hand when he got home, but he thought it had been only her imagination. That evening, while Geraldine was preparing dinner, she happened to stand on the trap door, and something underneath tried to force it open, sending her sprawling. Thomas went down below but found no one. He nailed the portal shut and moved the family out into a nearby hotel.

There were supposedly other witnesses, a group of the Todd's friends, who came back with them to the Mason Court house at the end of the month. They allegedly saw the trap door open again, bending back the nails. The terrible hand also reappeared to them, in the form of fingers visibly wriggling up through two holes in the living-room floor.

Thomas called the Cleveland Police Department. Responding officers found nothing, though one was later quoted as saying that he heard a sound like dirt being shoveled in the cellar. A neighbor woman told the Todds that no tenant stayed very long at their address in Mason Court, ever since an unhappy couple had lived there, then disappeared. The rumor was that the husband had murdered his wife, hidden her body somewhere and fled.

The Todds also left. But their story continued to be told, enough so that, in 1963, on a warm and festive Labor Day weekend, a local expedition decided to try to contact the fearful apparition. It was composed of police officers, the widely read newspaper columnist George Condon, and a brand-name "psychic investigator," author Hans Holzer, whose name would end up gracing more than 100 volumes on UFOs, occult and spirit communications. Holzer would claim otherworldly dialogues with the likes of Aaron Burr, John Wilkes Booth, Thomas Jefferson, Elvis Presley, Nell Gwynn and other illustrious dead. Adding the final show-business touch, the expedition set forth in collaboration with the popular nationally broadcast talk program The Mike Douglas Show (which originated from Cleveland at the time).

The merry band undertook a journey to the now-abandoned apartment complex at Mason Court, some of them joking that the ghost would probably need membership in the Screen Actors Guild or a plethora of entertainment unions to materialize.

Holzer claimed to pick up vibrations from a spirit named Edna, but the highlight of the adventure was the group stumbling across a homeless drunk sleeping in a ragged heap in the notorious cellar. So there were "spirits" after all, Condon jested for his print-media audience by way of an epilogue.

Not long after that, the building was demolished. Mason Court had been little more than a notch on the city's street plan. By the end of the century it was gone entirely, eradicated by new construction and the completion of the highway. The street location is now food-storage warehouses and a Chinese restaurant, bordered by on-ramps to a freeway system. Cement and desolate. Whatever happened there remains a one-off anecdote in the annals of local ghost lore. Whatever stirs there, stirs alone.

Cassady will talk about the book and sign copies at 7 p.m. Thursday, October 30, at Rocky River Public Library, 1600 Hampton Rd. [email protected]

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