What do stories matter? In a world where we're busy trying to head off contagion and its associated economic problems, maybe stories don't seem so important.
But I've made it my life's work to tell the stories of other people's lives, in hopes that from time to time it sheds some light on what life is about, and — if nothing else — gives us a moment outside ourselves to escape our own daily stresses.
One of this region's most famous legends is the story of Celia Rose, the disturbed young woman who in 1896 poisoned her family and attempted to poison others.
Those who have followed my work for a long time will know that I wrote a historical drama telling the Rose family's story, which we performed for over a decade at Malabar Farm State Park, where the family's modest farmhouse still stands.
I have additionally done speaking gigs all over the state, on national television, and on the Internet about this case.
I'm making my big push now to gather my research for a book that will be published later this year by The History Press. As part of my final comb through historical information, I decided to take a stab at identifying the roots of this family story.
I had known for some time that the Rose family (father David, mother Rebecca, brother Walter, and sister Ceely) came north from Pike County, Ohio, where they lived near the village of Latham (1880 population: 75).
For years, I knew little more than that, but working with my old friend Steve McQuown, who is a patient researcher with a knack for puzzling out early deeds and hand-drawn plat maps, we were able to locate the property.
Steve first scanned through county deed indexes to locate and obtain copies of the original 1854 purchase and 1879 sale deeds. He then deciphered the scratchy longhand to sketch out the share of the property's boundaries.
These are not the regular, square land parcels that the northern half of the state has. Southern Ohio was part of the Virginia Military District set up as lands to be awarded to veterans of the Revolutionary War.
The parcels follow the shapes of ridges, valleys, and rivers, and thus are highly irregular. So once he had the basic shape of the property, Steve had to go through the hand-drawn 1859 plat, which is less of a map and more of a collection of jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Despite the odds, he was able to find and confirm a parcel, owned initially by David Rose and his brother-in-law, though the brother-in-law later sold David his share. Then Steve had to compare this parcel with modern property maps. Again, he found one and only one property that came close to a precise match.
We were able to subsequently confirm it with other farms owned by neighbors listed in census reports and other legal documents.
While that was initially exilarating, once we compared it to a modern map of western Pike County, we were disappointed to discover that this property does not touch any modern roads. Without public access, it might only have been possible to get a distant photograph of a hillside, unless a property owner were willing to allow a researcher on the land. In a county notorious for the 2016 execution of eight members of the Rhoden family, that was going to be a potentially touchy request.
After further examination of maps, however, I discovered that this parcel of land, where Ceely Rose was born and raised her first six years, is now part of the Pike State Forest. That means it is publicly accessible state land, crossed by the Buckeye Trail. This called for an expedition.
As soon as a warm, dry day appeared, I headed south, accompanied by my friend Bryan Gladden, who offered to drive and refused to take any gas money for the service. Steve McQuown had identified on satellite maps what looked like a clearing on the property, so my plan was to access the property via the Buckeye Trail, and then explore the clearing for any signs of a former house or barn foundation.
Reality proved more difficult.
First, there is no parking area as such, so we couldn't park where the trail heads into the property. Instead, we parked up the road some distance at a pulloff that wouldn't block the trail. The trail is probably not much used for hiking. Instead, it is, at least in this part of the Pike State Forest, a logging access road.
The first part was easy, angling up onto the ridge that juts out like a finger pointing at Latham. This ridge is more or less the eastern edge of what was the Rose property from 1854 to 1879, when they moved to southern Richland County.
The “clearing” evident on the map was no such thing at all. Parts of this forest — possibly including this tract — were logged as recently as 2014, according to Kelsey Denney from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Forestry. It will take time for new trees to grow back.
Instead, for now, the vast majority of the “clearing” was overgrown with an impenetrable jungle of briars. It would take a machete and a team of hungry goats to get through that stuff. And the “trail” itself is blocked by fallen trees too small to be desirable for logging purposes, but too large to walk over.
But none of this actually mattered. It was evident upon inspection that this large area of briars would never have been the site of the Roses' house and barn, anyway. It sloped away from the ridge at something like a 35 to 40-degree angle. That might not sound like much on paper, but if you actually picture looking down a slope like that, you realize it is steeper than a lot of ski resorts. Clearly, no house was ever on that slope.
The one part of the clearing that was flat was the very top of the ridge where Bryan and I stood, trying to peer over the side of the 600-foot tall hill, which is in essence an outcropping of Green Ridge. A small area of about an acre was still clear, being the spot where the foresters probably loaded the logs from the cutting of the hillside.
Another few acres were also on flat, ridgetop land. Seeing this land in person made it very clear: There was no place on this entire property which would have been suitable for a house except for this ridge. The farm was up here.
Another old document Steve turned up was an 1860 farm schedule, a sort of census of the farms and animals of Pike County. This document tells us a lot about David Rose's farm. It was 80 acres total, yet only seven acres of it were described as “improved.”
For value of farming implements or machinery, nothing is listed. Rose's animals were one horse, one milch cow (for that's how they spelled “milk” in German-settled Ohio in those days), and five swine. No value was listed for any crops being raised except 60 bushels of Indian corn, presumably grown as feed for the hogs.
With only seven cleared acres, there wasn't likely to be anything more than a vegetable garden, a small crop field, and a pasture. Additional small structures could have included a chicken coop and a spring house.
Despite this small-scale farming, the property was nonetheless valued at $700, not an inconsiderable sum in those days. In all likelihood, the reason David S. Rose bought the land just before he got married in 1855 was specifically for its timber value.
A young man starting a farm and family, he probably saw those trees as a pathway to prosperity. Once he cleared that vast, steep hillside, he'd have enough income from that timber to quit his job working in someone else's mill and, perhaps, buy one of his own. He could then use that hillside as a grazing pasture for sheep and/or cattle, the most popular use of land in this rugged, unglaciated landscape.
It was a good plan. Unfortunately for the Roses, life didn't abide by their plan. In 1861, the Civil War broke out. As a patriot with experience as a miller, David joined the 63rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry and was assigned to the food preparation detail as a miller. But battle is no respecter of job status.
The battlefield must have wrapped around the miller with its onslaught of arms and artillery fire, for by the time Rose came out of the war, he was deaf in one ear, hard of hearing in the other, had lost one eye to inflammation, and was permenently compromised by the continuing aftereffects of dysenterry.
He had entered the war as a vigorous 31-year old and came home disabled and old before his time. Whatever grand plans he'd had for his property disappeared in the smoke of the Battles of Iuka, Island No. 10, and Corinth.
Rose had repeatedly deserted during the war to return home and help his family, who no doubt struggled terribly in his absence. His wife Rebecca wove rugs, which would have helped, but the children, Walter and Julia, were mere toddlers when their father left to join the army.
After his last desertion, in 1864, David Rose didn't even bother returning to the service. He was done with it. They gave him an honorable discharge anyway.
According to later affidavits given by friends and neighbors, David Rose was bed-ridden on his return from the army and was unable to work for many months. Slowly he recovered enough to return to limited work, though he was never able to recover his full strength. Little wonder that later reports describe him as a difficult and irrascible man. Life limped on.
Suddenly, and very surprisingly, the Roses are credited with having a new child born in 1873, fully 14 years younger than her sister and 16 years younger than her brother. Her name was Celia Frances Rose.
Some have speculated about whether or not the nearly disabled David and his aging wife could even have had another child at this point. They point out the interesting coincidence that the sister, Julia, was getting to child-bearing age, and that she had a slightly older brother, and that the family lived in a rather remote spot.
Who knows what might have gone on out there?
But that's just speculation. A visit to the property confirms that it feels remote. Yet the 1870 census tells us that Walter and Julia went to school, presumably at Benner School, just a half mile up Green Ridge Road. So while the family was certainly deep in the backcountry of southern Ohio, they weren't entirely isolated.
But it's not clear, either, that they attended school regularly, for while the census said both Walter and Julia could read, it also said neither of them knew how to write. They were 12 and 11 years old, respectively.
In the end, we simply don't have enough information to fully focus the picture of the Roses' family life in Pike County. There's no proof that they were anything other than an average farm family, perhaps a bit socially backward, and with a new baby who would later prove to be difficult.
Still, the family could never have dreamed at this time the disasters that awaited them in the future. Within five years, Julia would be married, have a child, and die.
And 23 years later, Ceely would murder the rest of them.
The seven acres described as “improved” on that 1860 farm census line up very nicely with the size of the ridgetop on this property. We found a spring with cattails growing in it, a possible water source long ago. We found a hole in the ground that might mark where a small house once was.
We also found, near the spring, what looks like half of a foundation stone. Of course, this farm was early enough and remote enough that the structures may not have had stone foundations at all. What is clear is that this foundation-like rock had no business being on top of a ridge. Somehow or another, it was put there by humans.
And later humans, logging the property, may well have carted out old foundation stones and that rock simply fell off the truck. Whether that stone belonged to a structure that the Rose family used is impossible to tell 160 years later. But it certainly could have been.
Without question, though, on that ridge, we were standing at the core of the farm where Celia Rose grew up, in the barnyard where she once ran, playing, as an innocent child.
I research and write these stories because we need to understand that things could start idyllically on a remote country ridge, and end, just 23 years later, in murder.
Mark Sebastian Jordan's book about the murders committed by Ceely Rose will be published by The History Press in September 2020.