Demi Lovato: The Many Ghosts of…

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Lovato with Annabelle. And with her concert ghost.

“She’s dead! She’s dead!” frantically cried her assistant to a responding bodyguard, thinking the singer was gone. She was — but yet, she wasn’t. No one knew exactly how long Demi Lovato had been laying unconsciousness in her bed and not breathing, but from all outward appearances she had indeed passed from this life. Blood covered the pillow where she had vomited, following a massive heroin overdose after partying with friends for nearly twelve straight hours. It was now the morning of July 24, 2018. The bodyguard was somehow able to miraculously resuscitate her long enough for paramedics to arrive. Demi Lovato survived, having seemingly “returned from the dead” to live on. Perhaps by chance you may have heard about The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves? But the many ghosts of Demi Lovato? Probably not so much. Like fellow performers Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears, Lovato is another one of those talented Disney rarities that had luck on her side, slowly evolving into a major superstar singing sensation following a children’s television series. And like her fellow predecessors, she has also experienced a grocery list of troubled personal “ups and downs” throughout her illustrious career. Lovato’s struggles with her inner demons has not only included mental embattlements, but supernatural ones as well. Born in 1992, the house she would ultimately grow up in was built that same year – and from the outset, literally riddled with all sorts of ghostly phenomena. Whether it started because of the home location itself (or inside Lovato herself) remains unclear. Two determining factors that may have added to it involved her on-going tumultuous relationship with her birth father…and her bullying troubles in school. Patrick Lovato had been an abusive and violent alcoholic father. The father-daughter relationship issues between he and Demi remained unresolved. The two never reconciled. He died of cancer in 2013, leaving Demi consumed by guilt. Throughout school she would endure daily and brutal bullying by other classmates, leaving her psychologically scarred. She developed an “obsession for death and funerals,” often fantasizing about her own funeral and what it might be like? Her internal plight became more seemingly noticeable after “Emily” first arrived on the scene — the little ghost girl whom Lovato claims “lived in a picture frame” on her bedroom dresser, and who “still follows her around” to this day. But was “Emily” just a product of Lovato’s fanciful imagination? Lovato’s younger sister later occupied the very same bedroom in the family’s Dallas area Texas home. The younger sister also began speaking to — and about, “the little girl who lived in the bedroom closet.” Both sisters (to no surprise) have subsequently developed quite an obsession with ghosts. Eight years ago Lovato opened up candidly about her history with chronic depression and suicidal thoughts she began having at age 7, noting “I eventually turned to cutting myself,” she said. “There was a time there where my mom was afraid to wake me up in the mornings. She didn’t know if she opened the door whether I would be alive or not,” Lovato confessed.

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The haunted Texas home where Lovato grew up.

A fan happened to capture one of Lovato’s “ghosts” on camera during a concert performance in Canada in early 2014…lurking just behind and to the side of the singer as she sang on stage. Lovato tweeted about it later. Ghosts were part of the reason behind why Lovato also decided to perform a few months later on the historic ship Queen Mary (ironically nicknamed “Grey Ghost” during its wartime service). Lovato even participated in an actual ghost-hunt inside the ship’s below-deck hull while there, where she was to welcome even more ghostly manifestations into her life when she verbally invited the spirits to “answer her back.” They did. Was it one of the lost sailors from the October 2, 1942 mishap? Carrying war troops off the coast of Ireland in 1942, Queen Mary found it was being pursued by enemy submarines. It zigzagged to confuse them, accidentally running over one of the escort vessels assigned to accompany it, resulting in the loss of more than 300 sailor’s lives. Ghostly sounds and disembodied “voices” are said to emanate from the forward section below the ship, near where it impacted the ill-fated HMS Curacoa. Two months further down the road, shortly before Halloween (2014), the singer set out on a personal pilgrimage to visit Connecticut, to meet the real Annabelle doll at ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren’s resident home and museum. While there Lovato took a series of mocking private photos alongside the allegedly cursed doll — a doll that only the most foolhardy dare taunt or mess with. One foolhardy past visitor to the museum had found out the hard way. He did not believe in curses. He openly mocked the doll in its presence, daring it to “do something.” But the doll did nothing — except sit there, mute and motionless in its glassed-in containment case. According to the Warrens, the young mocker man was tragically killed in a “coincidental” roadside motorcycle accident not long after leaving the museum.  So take heed — and beware. Be cautious not to test the waters of the Netherworld too deeply. For they have yet to be fully charted — or even truly understood.

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Young Demi reading about monsters. And in more recent years.

 

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Devil’s Den Vanishing of Katherine Van Alst (1946)

alstWas she taken by a hungry Bigfoot creature, as author David Paulides postulates in his recent book Missing 411?  Mary Katherine Van Alst has never fully remembered. All she could remember was that she had somehow gotten lost. Everything that followed (or at least most of it) remains a hazy mystery. Six days gone. Six days missing. When finally found, she was seriously malnourished, frighteningly emaciated and covered in insect bites. “I heard some dogs barking once,” she said. “But I never saw any people. Not even an animal.” Yet she survived. Dark questions still swirl to this day as to the mysterious June 16, 1946 disappearance of 8-year-old Kansas City schoolgirl Mary Katherine Van Alst at Devil’s Den State Park in the isolated wilds of Arkansas, or how she would have managed to transverse (in bare feet) a distance of over 30 miles, to reach her final destination?

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Dennis Martin (in 1969) and an illustration of the “Bigfoot-esque” Krampus who steals away the bad children at Christmas, so Santa can reward the good ones.

Similar state park cases involving young missing children and vast distances suggest (theoretically) that they might not have walked there on their own…but may have been brought there via “other means,” as in the infamous 1969 case 23 years after Van Alst, which took place in the wilds of Tennessee (Great Smokey Mountains) just outside Gatlinburg. It also happened in the middle of June. It would involve the vanishing of a 7-year-old boy named Dennis Martin. Unlike Mary Katherine Van Alst, however, young Dennis would never be seen again. Martin’s disappearance would be regarded as “an abduction.” But by who — or by what, no one knows.

MARY KATHERINE’S STORY

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West Fork, Arkansas

Mary Katherine Van Alst managed to survive her harrowing ordeal and was eventually found at a cave, huddled beneath a rock shelter overhang on a high hilly bluff. At the bottom of the bluff ran the streaming clear waters of Lee Creek. Though she had tried going back down the steep bluff several times, each time she met with failure. And each day she grew weaker and weaker, existing solely on a diet of blackberries. Oddly, she showed no fear in regards to her predicament when rescued, responding to a searcher’s call with simply “Here I am,” in the most unnaturally calmest voice. Fate had obviously placed her there for a reason. But why? The story began on her parent’s 25th wedding anniversary. Departing Kansas City the family drove south down the highway, heading to a relative’s house in Fort Smith, Arkansas to celebrate the occasion. The trip was nearly 300 miles. Along the way they came upon Devil’s Den State Park. It was only 40 miles shy of their Fort Smith destination, but weary from the hot journey, the family decided to stop over for the night and rent a cabin for a stopover “mini vacation” before continuing on.

Devil’s Den had been completed just four years earlier — in 1942, but was founded officially in 1933. The park featured a scenic rock dam, specially built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. An assortment of 17 wooded cabins were also built by the same and dotted the acreage throughout. While Mary Katherine’s father was taking a nap at the cabin, she remained at the dam with her other siblings. Growing bored though, she started back to the cabin alone. She thought she knew the way. She did not.

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An original 1930s CCC built cabin along the banks of Lee Creek that Mary Katherine would have passed after leaving the rock dam area.

She managed to find one cabin as she traveled along, but it was the wrong one. So she kept walking. She saw a large waterfall, but didn’t recognize it. Barefoot and clad only in suit trunks, she eventually became disoriented, and was lost. Climbing a large bluff (which was nearly 600 feet higher in elevation than the initial level she was on) darkness approached quickly. The crickets were chirping. The bullfrogs were croaking. Saying her prayers at night, she trusted the Lord would protect her. But as days dragged on, things began to look grim.

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With rescuer Porter Chadwick. And the isolated spot above Lee Creek where she was eventually found.

She could hear the waters of Lee Creek below but couldn’t reach them. She had grown too weak to descend the bluff. So she stayed put. Then it was over. They found her. But only by sheer luck. Her rescuer had reached a state of utter exhaustion and was about to turn back when he called out one last time. She heard him…and called back. Porter Chadwick, a University of Arkansas student, was the rescuer who bounded up the steep hilly bluff to reach Mary Katherine in what seemed like mere moments. She thanked also her guardian angel for her continued survival while on the mountain. “He was with me all along,” she said. Like the 1974 episode from Little House on the Prairie (“The Lord is My Shepherd”) which guest-starred Ernest Borgnine as little Laura Ingall’s God-sent guardian angel “Jonathan,” who looks out for her reverently while she is alone and stranded atop a large mountain in the wilderness.

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Mary Katherine at Fayetteville Hospital

“I’ve never had any nightmares about it, about what happened to me. I don’t know why? I just haven’t,” Mary Katherine would recall in later years. “I still can’t remember those 6 days though…or what all I did,” she said. “But I’m alive. And that’s what counts.”

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Reunited with her parents at Fayetteville Hospital

ADDENDUM

Disappearances, harsh tragedies and narrow escapes continue to be the norm in Devil’s Den State Park even to this day. In 1944, two years before Mary Katherine’s ordeal, a young woman became lost in the park. She struggled to find her way out for 17 days, before finally dying…within just 50 feet of a main road. Of recent, 33-year-old hiker Rodney Letterman has still not been found. He went missing in August of 2017. In September of 2011, 28-year-old hiker Jarad Wood suffered a seizure on a park trail and later died. In July of 2008, Bianca Calloway, age 17, fell into a cave crevice and spend the night wedged between two rock walls before being rescued. And the list goes on. To this day, park officials refuse to discuss “peculiar incidents” pertaining to Devil’s Den. Is it a curse? Is it a Bigfoot? Or is it just fate? Whatever it is…beware.

Beware the Witch!

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The classic representation of “a witch,” in a scene from 1959’s House on Haunted Hill.

How does one spell the word witch? In St. Charles County it is sometimes spelled any one of three different ways–Molly, Mollie or Molley. For those who still remember the story, it doesn’t really matter. However one spells it, it still references the witch. Somewhere between the film plots of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and It Follows (2014) lies the legend of Molly Crenshaw. “Witch Molly,” as she has come to be known by generations of school students in St. Charles County (Missouri), the real story is as much a mystery as the urban legend itself. Reputed to have been a “freed slave of Jamaican decent,” it was her predilection for practicing Voodoo that led to her unspeakable fate. Blamed for the calamitous failure of farmer’s crops during one particularly harsh winter, she was besieged by a mob of irate townsfolk.  Hacked into pieces, her dismembered remains were then “scattered throughout the woods.” In truth, the varying accounts surrounding  “Witch Molly” and her gruesome demise, are actually based on the mysterious 1913 suicide death of former schoolteacher Mollie J. Crenshaw. She was not from Jamaica–but from St. Louis (supposedly born there). The former St. Charles Cosmos-Monitor (1902-1937) reported she had “graduated from St. Charles College” (believed to be Lindenwood) with a teaching degree in Education.

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A 1913 article reporting Mollie’s death.

During a late winter visit to the home of relative Harry Towers–a wealthy and prominent member of the community (who lived in the Harvester-Cottleville area of St. Charles County), tragedy struck. Mollie had been staying at the residence for about a week, as she continued to commute to and from a small job she maintained in St. Louis. By then, she was no longer working as a school teacher–as she had gone predominately deaf.

She committed suicide by ingesting a lethal amount of carbolic acid (Phenol),  following breakfast, on a cold and gloomy Saturday morning. She was found in her room, “frothing at the mouth,” by Tower’s wife. A doctor was summoned, but it was too late. Mollie succumbed at 10:20 a.m., on February 22, 1913. The Cosmos-Monitor reported her age at being “about 40 years,” though the official funeral register states her age was “52” (but with no specific birth date noted). She was laid to rest in a small private cemetery—a cemetery which has, in the last fifty some years, acquired a rather “haunting reputation” for peculiar happenings. “Before all those new homes were built, only fools would dare set foot out there at night,” recalls one local man, referring to a time predating the 1970s, when the area surrounding “Witch Cemetery” was still relatively isolated–and foreboding. “You don’t have to physically be there (at the cemetery) to get hexed by her,” according to one former female student who remembers an unnerving experience that took place behind the high school, four miles from the cemetery. Some years ago, a group of female students headed towards the woods behind the school’s football stadium, jokingly on a mission to find “Witch Molly.”

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The Old St. Charles Bridge, where the young girl jumped. Closed in 1992, it was torn down five years later.

Fear (and common sense) kept most in the group from actually entering the dark woods at night, while the remaining few “threw caution to the wind” and pressed forward. Their lackluster attempts at “summoning the witch from her slumber” seemingly backfired, after one of the girls in the remaining group began “taunting and provoking” the witch into revealing herself. Strange things later began to plague the lives of all those who had been there. “Bad luck followed me for years after that night,” claims the one former female student–who was part of that original group (but not among those who actually entered the woods). Then there was the infamous bridge incident. It occurred in the 1970s. A “high school prank,” orchestrated by two male students (at the cemetery), scared a young girl so badly, she later jumped from the deck of the Old St. Charles Bridge–fearing “Witch Molly” was pursuing her. The negative publicity surrounding the incident prompted the removal of Mollie’s tombstone from cemetery grounds. The stone was then taken to be stored for an indeterminate length of time at a relative’s home in St. Charles–“for safekeeping.” It was never seen publicly again.

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The St. Charles home where Crenshaw’s tombstone was taken, following the 1970s bridge incident.

Most will argue “Mollie was no witch. She was just an ordinary local woman, who met with an unfortunate end.”  Examples do, however, exist that suggest that “spectral consequences” may very well await those who take their own lives. In fact, ghostly phenomena has bedeviled visitors at Lemp Mansion for decades–triggered (it is surmised) by the multiple suicides which took place there between 1904 and 1949. Seeing the ghost of a person who has befallen such a fate is one thing, but willfully tampering with those from “the other side,” best be discouraged. Back in the 1960s, a local spiritualist paid a visit to Mollie Crenshaw’s grave. This was at a period in history when the counterculture movement in America was obsessed with the occult. The spiritualist made several attempts to contact Mollie, later claiming the “vibrations” she received while at the cemetery indicated that Mollie Crenshaw was “indeed a witch.”

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At “Witch Cemetery,” in 2016.

Be that as it may, people continue to seek out Mollie in her eternal rest. As a result, area neighbors  nearest the cemetery remain ever vigilant for any sign of malicious trespassing. I stopped by recently (with permission) to pay my respects. I found it to be quiet and serene. As I entered the grounds and turned to close the gate, I heard a loud “snap” in the near distance behind me. Startled, I spun around to look, only to discover it was just a small tree branch, having fallen to the ground. I did notice one minor particular that I couldn’t seem to explain–the temperature inside the grounds. It felt strangely colder than it had been on the outside of the fence? But then again, a pending storm was brewing in the distance. I stayed only long enough to take a few pictures, while pondering in my thoughts the whereabouts of Mollie Crenshaw’s unmarked grave (as I best not say “the witch”).

Dark Crack in the Wall

Wilder Co.’s “Mitche Manitou Talking Board”

I had never heard of the Wilder Manufacturing Company. Or their rather odd “Mitche Manitou Talking Board” (i.e. Ouija) that was produced in the early 1920s. Known primarily as one of the earliest makers of paper kites, Wilder’s talking board was specifically unique. Its planchette was shaped like a human hand with a pointing finger (“The Mystic Hand”). Finding a “Mitche Manitou” board today is something of a miracle–or an “unlucky omen,” however one chooses to look at it. The boards were said to have been named after a malevolent Native-American spirit. Two days after New Years (2016), I and a friend visited Union, Missouri, to search for the haunted “Union Screaming House.” We looked for it, but couldn’t seem to locate it. We were just about to leave, when I suddenly took note of a young man nearby, taking down Christmas lights on a nearby business. “Pull over,” I told my friend. “I want to ask this guy if he knows where the house is?” As luck would have it, he did.

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“The Screaming House” in Union (2016).

Pointing across the street to a small white house on the corner, he answered “That’s it there.” He also warned me about “getting too close,” saying how negativity can sometimes “latch onto you if you’re not careful.” The property had once extended to include the neighboring grounds of an early HUD-type housing community, dubbed the  “Poor Farm.” Inquiring further, the young man began telling me how older residents at the farm would sometimes “disappear,” whenever bed space in the state-funded facility was unavailable. To keep the flow of government money coming in, the more expendable residents were quietly escorted into the adjacent woods, to be systematically murdered and disposed of (so the legend goes). “Be careful there too,” he said. “That place is haunted as well.” Undeterred, my friend and I visited the former “Poor Farm” grounds after the “Screaming House.” We left Union later than expected. On the way back home we spied a small antique shop and decided to stop. Inside I saw an old Ouija board for sale. It was the rare and much sought after “Mitche Manitou Talking Board.” Buried beneath a stack of old books, it was covered in a thick coating of dust, like it had been sitting there undisturbed for years.

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The woods behind the “Poor Farm.”

The asking price was overly cheap, as if its owner was “eager to get rid of it.” Placing it back where I found it, I decided to let it be. After all, I knew I would never use it. Two days later though, I received some extra money and decided to return to the antique shop on my own, hoping the board might still be sitting there. And it was. I was astonished to learn that the sale price included the board’s ultra-rare original planchette as well, “The Mystic Hand.” Elated by my acquisition, I headed home. On the way I began to feel ill and a bit dizzy. Thinking I hadn’t eaten, I pulled over and grabbed myself a quick bite to eat before continuing on. I eventually ended up transporting the board to the storage facility where I keep the majority of my late family’s personal heirlooms. Before taking it inside, I decided to snap a few selfie shots with the board in the parking lot. None of them were coming out though. I double-checked my night mode settings on the camera and kept trying. Despite the fact that I was using a Nikon D5000, all the images were obscured by what looked like “electrical current” interference? Giving up, I put my camera away and took the board inside, placing it atop a plastic barrel in my unit. The barrel was just forward from the unit’s rear concrete wall. I would not return to the unit for several days.

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First night camera troubles (top). The storage unit wall crack (bottom).

By the time I did return, it had rained quite heavily. As I opened the unit door and peered in, I suddenly noticed a puddle of water on the floor. The unit was leaking! I then noticed a long crack, running down the length of the rear concrete wall, from ceiling to floor. Wiping up the water, I informed storage management. They told me that things would have to “dry out” before they could fix the leak. I left frustrated, not to return for several more days. When I did, the crack was worse. It had widened halfway down the wall, near where the plastic barrel was sitting (with the “Mitche Manitou”). There was also a shiny glycerin-like reddish goo seeping from inside the deeper part of the crack. Not wanting the board to get damaged from the obvious uptick in humidity, I went to move it. It was then I realized that “The Mystic Hand” finger was angled in an almost perfect line towards the wall–as if it were “pointing at it.” Did the crack in the wall have something to do with the board? If so, then the most obvious solution was to try and bestow a basic token blessing on the board–just in case there happened to be any “unfriendly forces” inhabiting it. I didn’t know (of course) what good this might do, but I was willing to give it a try.

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Catholic relics arrive from New Mexico (left). And preparing the board for a simple–but adequate, “prayer of protection”(right).

There was an older gentleman in California I knew. His father had once lived in a small Mexican-American town, just outside Las Cruces, New Mexico. A Roman Catholic church in the town had caught fire and burned in the 1930s. For having helped repair the damage, the priest gave the man’s father a few of the church’s old relics. One of these was an altar-used crucifix, which dated back to the late 1800s. It was this item that I ended up using for “the cleansing.” I then mumbled a few simplistic protection prayers over the board, hoping for the best. I can’t say whether my efforts were rewarded or not? After all, it was probably just coincidence that everything happened the way it did? But then again, one can never be too careful. I haven’t had any further problems. The wall stopped leaking and the red goo dried up. As for the Ouija board, I decided to get rid of it. For my better good.

 

Hannah and Riley’s Lincoln Theater Ghost Adventure

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Disney’s Maleficent (top). Belleville’s Lincoln Theater (1926).

Do ghosts still stalk Belleville’s historic Lincoln Theater in Midwestern Illinois? Two young girls are convinced they do. One has never talked about it, and the other–only in passing. Some of the Lincoln’s ghosts are fairly well-known, such as the prankster poltergeist in the projection booth, the lady spirit of the balcony and the child specter on the stairs. All together there are said to be seven ghosts that call the theater home. But could there be others? Ghosts that are perhaps just visiting? One such story came to me about a year ago. Be it conjured solely from the depths of a young girl’s “fanciful imagination,” I cannot say (as I was not present). What allegedly happened took place during the early summer of 2014. Disney’s Maleficent–a supernatural fairy tale about Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) had opened on May 31st. It was playing in the Lincoln’s lower main auditorium. Enter 12-year-old Hannah. No stranger to haunted locales, young Hannah had paid numerous visits to many “spook-beleaguered” landmarks before.

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Hannah–in 2013, in the foreboding woods above Valmeyer’s old abandoned rock quarry.

From her exploratory wanderings inside the former French citadel of Fort De Chartres, to the ancient Native-American burial ground of Cahokia Mounds, ghostly places had never deterred her. But then again, Hannah had never before seen an actual ghost. And so the stage was set (so to speak), as Hannah and her neighborhood friend Riley decided to tag along with Hannah’s parents to see the film Maleficent on its debut weekend. When the story was first told to me I didn’t put much stock in it. But as the days and weeks wore on, I began thinking about it more and more. Ghostly encounters inside the theater, after all, were not that unusual–just seldom. “Hannah and Riley saw a ghost,” said Hannah’s father. His account of that day was still as clear and vivid as ever, remembering back to one week earlier. After driving across town to the theater and purchasing the four tickets, he and his wife selected seating near the middle section of the theater auditorium. The two girls, however, had their own plans. They decided to sit in the more secluded section of the theater, to the far right side–a location normally shunned by most patrons because of the screen’s sharply-tilted viewing angle.

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Where “the ghosts” were seen.

Hannah and Riley’s seats were near the building’s rear exit door (which leads out to the theater’s back parking lot). A short flight of steps leads up to the door. Once the house lights have dimmed, the steps become bathed in an eerie red glow–which emanates from an emergency exit sign above the door. “The film had already begun.

We were about a third or so into it,” the father said. “All of a sudden there was a commotion. My wife and I then saw Hannah and Riley racing towards us–out of breath and hysterical. Inconsolable, Hannah claimed she and Riley had just seen a ghost.” Too frightened to return to their seats, the two girls stayed with the adults for the remainder of the performance. After leaving the theater the topic of conversation turned to food and where to eat—and the ghost business faded away. But it was far from forgotten. If asked or prodded about it, Hannah would respond by simply getting up and leaving the room. Riley never spoke of the matter. To this day her version of events still remains unknown.

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After overhearing her father and I randomly discussing the Lincoln one day, Hannah finally decided to speak up–spouting out “I’m not ever going back there! That place is haunted!” She said she had seen not one ghost—but two! She described them as being “a boy and a girl” (a couple). She remembers them seated about midway up on the steps, not far from she and Riley’s seats. At first, Hannah failed to notice them. Once she had, the obvious question came to mind…“Where did they come from?”

The couple appeared to be “watching the film” as well, unaware that curious Hannah was now watching them. Hannah remembered the boy was sitting behind the girl (on an upper step). His arms were wrapped around her. Returning her attention to the screen, Hannah couldn’t help herself…and looked back. Both the boy and the girl had now vanished–and seemingly, in the blink of an eye! There had been no sound of departure from the duo, no visual indication of movement–as if the pair had never even been there at all. But Hannah knew they had. Understandably, much time would pass before Hannah or Riley would ever think about returning to the Lincoln Theatre. Personally, I don’t know that they ever have. Until then, the unsolved mystery of whatever happened there that day will have to remain just that…a mystery.

Sylvia Likens; Ghost of Indianapolis, 50th Anniversary Strange

To Note: The following is an addendum to a previous introductory post I penned earlier this year. While I did not intend to do a “follow-up” posting on Sylvia, this past weekend marked the official 50th anniversary date since her tragic passing (October 26, 1965). Given the somewhat unusual nature of circumstances that took me back there, I felt it pertinent to share them.

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Me with Dianna Likens, Sylvia’s older sister (and Dianna during the 1966 trial). Sylvia with her mother in 1965. And me with Santa (also 1965).

Was it supernatural beckoning or a religious spiritual calling? No one seemed to have any definitive answer for me. A few who had made the pilgrimage, having (like myself) never known Sylvia Likens personally, differed in their opinions as to what had actually drawn them to be there. Some came from as far away as Tennessee, others much further. I drove from St. Louis. I made my first “Sylvia” sojourn in early February, lured in part by a string of bizarre circumstances that seemed almost too unusual to be believed. [see original post here]

The weather back in February was cold and frigid then, with residue of snow and ice still covering the ground in Indiana. My decision to return to Indiana for the anniversary evolved slowly. I kept reminding myself that the trip would be too costly, and therefore impossible. And besides, I had already been there. Though I had pretty much decided not to, I was still thinking about going when myself and a fellow co-worker happened to witness a shooting-star streak from out of the heavens one morning just before sunrise. It lit up the entire night sky around it. Not surprisingly, I happened to have Sylvia in my thoughts at the time.

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The nearing full moon of Sylvia’s anniversary weekend–as seen in the St. Louis skies. And the eerily synonymous Moon card.

“What do you think it means?” I asked. “It means the life of that star has now come to an end,” my co-worker friend answered back, facetiously. Then, only one day before Sylvia’s anniversary weekend was to begin, I was messing around with a pack of Ludy Lescot fortune-telling cards. Happenstance had ironically placed them in my possession recently. Skeptical, I decided to try them out. After shuffling the deck quite thoroughly, I selected five random cards. The first four seemed to make no sense at all. The fifth one, however, depicted a young horseman, implying that I could be “going on a trip” soon. Later that evening, I decided to repeat the previous, and pull five new cards. Astonishingly, the first four cards were the exact same ones that I had selected earlier that morning–and in the same identical sequence! The fifth card was a different one–yet more prophetic than ever! It was THE MOON card. The scene on the card shows a young girl in shadows, translucent and ghost-like, beneath a developing moon. The description for this particular card (in accordance with the manual that accompanies the deck) reads as follows: “Never stop believing in ghosts. Under the light of the moon, give them a face and let them go. Only in this way will they let go of you.” Glancing out the window, I suddenly realized that this was the weekend of October’s full moon. Was the spectral girl on the card suppose to represent Sylvia Likens? I didn’t know.

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Richard Hobbs’ grave, covered over in an eerie translucent white haze right after I “re-exposed” it for view in order to take the photo. Rain began pouring down almost immediately, as if in response to my “punishable infraction.”

It did, however, give me the final boost I needed to get up and go. So early the next morning I headed back–to Indiana. The memorial event wasn’t scheduled until Sunday. In the meantime, I had all of Saturday to take pictures and visit locations in Indianapolis. Twenty minutes down the road from where the murder happened was the cemetery which housed the cremated remains of one of the main villains, Richard Hobbs. He had played a pivotal part in Sylvia’s prolonged torture. Weirdly, following her death, many of those involved (either directly or indirectly) began meeting untimely fates. Hobbs was the third to die. Fifteen at the time of the murder, he died at age of 21, in 1972. Hobbs’ mother was the first to die, only two weeks after Sylvia. The second to die had been the first-born child of Coy Hubbard–Hubbard having been one of Sylvia’s most brutal and vicious tormentors.

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Grave of 5-month-old Coy Hubbard Jr., murderer Coy Hubbard’s first-born.

Unrepentant to the end, Coy Hubbard died at age 56 in 2007. But it was Richard Hobbs’ death that seemed most curious…he died only hours before what would have been Sylvia’s latest birthday. Locating Hobbs’ marker in the cemetery became a major challenge. As I continued my search, I noticed the clouds above me beginning to grow darker and darker. I checked and re-checked records in the main office. They kept assuring me that he was “out there.” Then success, I found it. The tiny bronze marker had been buried under years of old grass which had layered over it. As I pulled away the dead grass and washed the encrusted mud from the marker’s face, Hobbs’ name once again was now visible to all. But was I making a mistake in exposing it? I managed to snap off a couple of quick photos before the sky opened up on me, drenching me with “Heaven’s tears.” Looking back at the photos later, I found something odd–there was what looked to be a “white haze” hovering over the cluster of grave markers, with Hobbs’ being the only one in good focus. I crossed my fingers, hoping I had not “angered the spirit of Sylvia Likens” by visiting him.

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The vacant lot (top) where Sylvia’s murder house once stood. And the murder house itself, in 1965 (bottom).

I would travel two times throughout the darkness of night in order to take anniversary photographs of the former murder scene (the house itself was torn down in 2009). Already in an advanced state of decay at the time of Sylvia’s death, the two-story residence eventually became an all-out neighborhood eyesore. Some in the area believed they had even seen Sylvia’s ghost on occasion–peering out from the upper-floor bedroom where she had died. None of the beneficial purposes envisioned for future utilization of the building, however, were ever realized–giving rise to the belief that the property was now simply cursed. A murder-suicide on the front porch steps about 15 years after Sylvia’s attempted-but-failed escape off that very same porch hadn’t helped matters.

My intention was to try and capture the scene at night (as it was), hopefully with a bright moon above. The moon, however, had disappeared into the clouds before I could reach the location. When I did arrive, I found things ominously dark and eerily quiet. I also accidentally interrupted a drug deal going down and had to abort the area quite quickly. My second try came at 4:30 a.m. in the morning. A shooting had just occurred a block or two over from the vacant lot. Police were out in full force. The shooter was still on the loose in the area. I ignored common sense and stayed my course (I needed the photos).

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“Ghostly arms” appear to reach out from the next-door neighbor’s window which faces what was once the adjacent murder home’s basement entry and kitchen area.

I snapped off a few general preliminary photos first before finally training my camera towards a rather significant portion of the lot. It was there that I noticed something white and translucent, casually “dipping in and out” of a double-window in the old neighbor’s house (the window had originally faced the murder home’s kitchen area). Like “ghostly arms” blindly ferreting about for something they could not seem to locate, I continued to watch and snap pictures until whatever it was had dissipated. This was in very close proximity to the murder home’s former basement entry [see photo] where Sylvia’s final days were spent.

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A point-of-view photo I snapped while driving east on New York Street after leaving the vacant lot. I was puzzling in my mind over the whereabouts of my next stop. Are these netherworld-like “question marks” mocking me or trying to tell me something?

I would drive up to Sylvia’s hometown later that same day. The rains had come and gone by then. Their passing had left the outside temperature feeling a bit chilly. My drive down the Lebanon streets was nothing short of surreal. The scenery on this day, with its multi-colored falling autumn leaves, must have looked nearly identical to the way things were at the time…the day Sylvia was moved to her final resting place at Oakhill Cemetery. The belated Easter rabbit I had left at the grave in early September was still sitting there, untouched [see photo]. After paying my respects, I began to think it would probably be better to leave without attending the memorial. I was tired. St. Louis was a long drive back. But as I turned to leave, I felt the muscle in my upper right arm suddenly tighten and compress–as if some “unseen hand” had suddenly reached out and grabbed me.

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Sylvia’s grave on October 25th–on what would have been the last day of her life…exactly 50 years ago.

I had injured my bicep about a year or so earlier, so I figured it was probably just a passing spasm. As I proceeded back through town towards the highway entrance, however, I couldn’t shake what happened back at the grave from my thoughts. Something seemed to be telling me to change my mind? Hesitant at first to do so, I eventually did–and was glad that I had. I arrived late to the memorial gathering. No one knew me–and I didn’t know any of them. I felt uncomfortable and out-of-place. Many were Likens family members. I didn’t wish to intrude on this solemn occasion. But necessity finally got the better of me. I was curious about the fate of Sylvia’s older sister Dianna. Dianna had nearly perished in the California desert a few months ago after she and her husband took a wrong turn and became lost and stranded in the wilderness for two weeks (her husband died). I finally got up my nerve to ask a relative inside the gathering room how Dianna was doing?

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Screen-captures from Indianapolis’ News Channel 8’s aired segment on Sylvia’s memorial gathering. I am seen behind Sylvia’s sister Dianna in lower left (yellow circled).

I was shocked by the response I received. “I’ll let you ask her yourself. She’s here.” Her trip back, it seems, was also a spur-of-the-moment decision. “I wasn’t planning to come at first, but then I got a feeling I should be here…for Sylvia,” she said. Dianna had boarded a last-minute flight in California and traveled all night to reach Indiana in time. She had not rested. She had not eaten. Had I left Lebanon early (as I most nearly had) then I would have deprived myself of the chance to meet her–and ask her all about what Sylvia had really been like. Who knows, perhaps even Sylvia herself had had a little bit of a “hand” in this day as well?

Texarkana’s Phantom Killer .32 Caliber Mystery

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The “Phantom Killer” poised to strike (top left). Suspect Youell Swinney (top right). Grandma Ina’s .32 caliber Ruby (bottom left). And my grandmother in 1917 (age 9) in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (bottom right).

Could my late grandmother have unknowingly come into possession of the ever-elusive .32 caliber mystery pistol used by the hooded killer in Texarkana’s notorious 1946 murder spree? The chances are slim, but coincidences sometimes beg to be examined more closely. It’s intriguing food for thought that my own grandmother may have actually known the infamous “Phantom Killer.” I remember her alluding to it only once, and only then in conjunction with my having seen the film which was based on the real events. Her response to me was puzzling. It was in the way she said it. Unaware (at the time) that there had actually been a suspect in the murders, I simply assumed that she had “misunderstood me,” or was getting a tad senile in her advancing years. *The loosely-based film version had not included this specific detail (there being a known suspect) as part of it’s storyline. We had been back from our trip to southern Arkansas for about six months by then. We traveled there to visit relatives in the summer of 1976—and see Aunt Clara (my Grandma Ina’s last surviving sibling) in Camden. The Town That Dreaded Sundown had not yet been released. It would open in St. Louis in late March of 1977 (original ad).

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The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Texarkana’s Paramount (1977).

During our visit to Camden we talked about Bigfoot creatures (as I did not yet know about the murders). Fouke (Arkansas) was just a short distance away—i.e. The Legend of Boggy Creek. Plus, a new “Bigfoot” documentary (hosted by actor Peter Graves) was currently out and making the rounds. My mentioning of “having recently seen it” prompted my aunt to recall her late husband Dewey’s Bigfoot encounter during deer hunting season one year (Dewey passed away a year before our Camden visit). My grandmother didn’t believe my aunt’s story about Dewey. Amusingly, my aunt didn’t believe my grandmother’s poltergeist story either. I, however, had my own particular reasons for believing both of their stories—for I had already read quite extensively about the many creature sightings in southwest Arkansas, and had also stayed overnight on many, many occasions at my grandmother’s strange St. Ann, Missouri home.

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Meeting star Andrew Prine in St. Louis (2013). His climb to superstardom stalled in 1963 after Karyn Kupcinet (original article).

Nearby Texarkana and the “Phantom Killer” murders were not part of my mental “repertoire” yet. Nor was the name Youell Swinney. I would later discover (to my surprise) that both he and my grandmother were from Clark County–and had both once lived in the very same small town! Swinney later ended up in neighboring Cleveland County (about 60 miles away). Grandma Ina had always had an affinity for shady characters and younger men. Active and well-respected in social circles, she preferred instead to align herself with the more impoverished and down-trodden of society. Moonshiners, ex-cons and habitual petty criminals were her friends in those days. She was raised a Southern Baptist (Youell Swinney’s father was a Baptist minister). Whether she herself would have actually known any of the Swinneys is impossible to know at this juncture, but it seems possible—given what meager population the town and vicinity had in those days (Arkadelphia’s population at the time of Swinney’s birth was just under 3000). If the Crawfords (my grandmother’s side) and the Swinneys knew one another, then it seems only plausible that she may have known Youell Swinney himself (and been associated with him in some capacity). Grandma Ina was born in Arkadelphia in 1908. Swinney was born there in 1917.

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Victim Betty Jo Booker–age 15, as she was found on that Sunday morning, April 14th (1946).

My grandmother was a mystery to me. She rarely spoke about her Arkansas past. My mother was like that too. I read it was Swinney’s wife who fingered him as the killer. She claimed that he had “forced her” to participate in the murders. But there were holes in her story. It was circumstantially based. Some of what she said made sense, but other things did not. Ballistics evidence revealed the killer had used a .32 caliber pistol in the attacks. Dubbed the “Moonlight Murders,” the killer struck on weekends, from February 23rd to May 3rd. Eight people (all couples) were attacked. Five out of the eight died. Swinney was released from prison shortly before the murders began. His past offenses had included bootlegging, larceny, auto theft and counterfeiting gold coins. Nothing in his history, however, indicated any overt propensity towards “killing people.”

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Bullet holes in the window glass (left) from May 3rd’s farmhouse attack that killed 37-year-old welder Virgil Starks while he was seated in his chair (right).

Authorities believed they were looking for a Colt-made self-loading pistol (rather than a revolver) because of recovered shell casings, which were thought to have been “automatically ejected” after firing. But what if the killer unloaded his gun intentionally–in order to leave the shell casings behind for investigators to find for the purpose of hindering investigative efforts? A declassified FBI document later surfaced, suggesting that the gun was probably “not a Colt,” after all, but a cheap “Spanish-made” .32 caliber pistol; referencing Llama Firearms’ foreign-manufactured Colt “knock-off” model–the Ruby. This particular low-cost brand of firearm was widely popular in countries like Europe and Latin America, but not so much in places like Texas or Arkansas. Being available for purchase is NOT the same as saying that they were regionally common. Most gun owners in the south preferred the more reputable and trustworthy brands like Colt and Smith & Wesson. If the “Phantom Killer” was using a cheap Ruby, it was indeed a curious choice. So, what ever happened to it? Did he throw it in a dark and murky lake? Or give it away to an unsuspecting friend?

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My mother–age 15 (left) with Grandma Ina in Arkadelphia (1946), unaware that not far away a series of terrible murders were taking place–being committed quite possibly by one of their own former neighbors!

I asked my grandmother back in the ’70s where she had gotten her gun? All she would ever say was that “someone down home” had given it to her. By “down home” she always meant Arkansas (and usually Arkadelphia). Though Swinney at the time officially resided in Texas, it was not unusual to find him drifting back and forth across the border every now and then to visit friends and family–back and “down home” in Arkansas. Swinney was convicted and sent to state prison for life in February 1947 under the “habitual criminal act,” following his latest offense (auto theft). It was the same year my mother and grandmother left Arkansas, settling in St. Louis for the remainder of their days.  The murders in Texarkana ceased in 1946. The case remains unsolved. My grandmother passed away in St. Louis in 1993. Youell Swinney died in Dallas in 1994. Re-questioned about the murders shortly before his death, Swinney adamantly (and vehemently) denied any and all involvement.