If you are an occasional reader of my work, you know that County Clinton is full of ghost stories. What you might not have noticed is that a lot of them tend to come from the same sources. Two of the biggest are Henry Wharton Shoemaker and Hiram Cranmer, both known to often tell old legends and spooky stories.
I recently discovered an old archived article from one of the local newspapers which mentioned that the two men told a similar story: The two men were telling tales of headless Frenchmen haunting two different parts of the county. The article kind of compared the two stories, and that intrigued me. The two biggest ghosts in the county (I was not yet born) go head to head. The article didn’t yield any definitive results here, it just wrote about both stories. So here’s what I’m going to do for Halloween this year: give you both stories, then a definitive winner.
In this corner: Born 1891 and died 1967, buried in Maple Grove Cemetery, Leidy Township Postmaster, Artifact Collector and Great Storyteller Hiram Cranmer!
And in this corner: Born in 1880 and died in 1958, buried in Highland Cemetery, Wayne Township folklorist, writer, editor, environmentalist, Henry Wharton Shoemaker!
First round ! Let’s start with Cranmer’s version, mostly told in the 1940s and 1950s. A Frenchman lived in Leidy Township, and Cranmer even claimed to have seen him. The man had attempted to steal money from local Native American tribes and was beheaded for the crime. He was then hiding in the region of Leidy, often spotted on the night of the full moon. Cranmer claimed to have seen the Headless Man on more than one occasion, including a night when it was not just a full moon, but also a lunar eclipse. I have to give him cool points for that.
Cranmer’s story became so well known that in 1950 two journalists from the Express traveled to Leidy Township to see if they could find the ghost on their own. They spotted him, okay, a smoky-looking humanoid form with no head. It chased them away, but they later returned and found him, this time returning with a photo that made headlines the next morning.
Second round! The story of the shoemaker, taken from his 1909 book âPennsylvania Mountain Storiesâ. Shoemaker begins with the discovery of an ancient foundation in McElhattan, which he claims to be a French fort during the French and Indian War. He relates it to the story of Gaston Bushong, who was one of the soldiers in the fort.
A Susquehannock named Two Pines had been killed at Altar Rock, at the northern end of what is now County Clinton. In retaliation, the tribe attacked the fort. Although the men held their own for a while, Bushong ultimately made the decision to abandon the fort and retreat downstream. As they were running, one of the other soldiers was injured and Bushong stopped to help him. At that time, one of the Native Americans grabbed Bushong’s sword and cut off his head with it.
Bushong is said to be often seen, headless, walking the area around noon, around the time he was killed.
So of these two stories, who is the big winner? The Shoemaker story seems to be the oldest, published in 1909. As everyone knows, I am a big fan of Shoemaker. He wrote his story in a book, because Cranmer, to my knowledge, never published himself – his story was told orally, only written in articles and books by other people.
But Cranmer’s story has the advantage of being considerably more frightening. A full moon ghost, and one more eclipse, has a distinct advantage over a midday ghost. And the Leidy Township area described by Cranmer is much more remote, and therefore more baffling, than the Shoemaker site in Wayne Township near the Susquehanna River. Cranmer’s ghost may not have a head, but he’s one step ahead of Shoemaker’s.
And Hiram Cranmer, I have to admit, knew how to tell a story. Shoemaker’s story runs for pages in flowery language, but Cranmer gets right to the heart of it by describing the lonely night and the smoky, half-seen form of the ghost. Cranmer’s Headless Man inspired more exploration and more sightings than Shoemakers, including, as I mentioned, a trip from the Express.
I’m calling this one for Hiram Cranmer. The champion! Of these two stories, I judge Cranmer’s Headless Ghost to be the better. With that said, this Halloween, you may feel lucky to be living in County Clinton. Apparently we have headless ghosts all over here.
Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this region. He is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Ross Library and can be reached at [email protected] or 570-660-4463.