Ball Cemetery

Ball Cemetery is located on Beckley Road, just west of Ohio State Route 13, north of Mount Vernon. The township posted a sign with the names of those buried in the cemetery, because few stones are now readable.

FREDERICKTOWN -- It was that time of year when the night starts coming faster, and the clouds seem to hang a little lower in the sky. This particular evening was more harshly cold than usual, a crisp fall evening with a little bite to it.

Roger Smith was driving on Ohio 13, headed toward his home in Fredericktown, his thoughts lingering on a long day of work.

In the growing gloom along the road, there was a sway of movement. Something white. Smith slowed down and saw that it was a young woman in a white dress standing along the side of the road. She looked at his approaching vehicle and seemed to shiver. Smith thought she looked stranded, and slowed down to offer her a lift.

The young woman gratefully climbed into the back of Smith's car, explaining that she was on her way home from a church social and didn't realize it would get so cold that night. She thanked him for being so kind and said she only had to go a little further, where he could drop her off at the next crossroad, which was Beckley Road.

Smith pulled over at the intersection and the young lady got out of the car and thanked him again. He was a bit concerned about her continuing down Beckley Road in the sharp cold, so he paused and watched her make her way west down the darkening road, for a dozen yards, then 50 yards, then 100 yards.

And then she disappeared.

It's an old story, one of the most common ghost story tropes, that of the phantom hitchhiker. Many areas have similar stories, and this particular one was documented in an article that ran in the Mount Vernon News' Looking Glass publication in 1998. Pamela Henney was the reporter who interviewed Mr. Smith, though the article is not specific about when this incident occurred.

According to local legend, it is just one of many similar encounters with the ghost of a young woman around the intersection of Ohio 13 and Beckley Road. Sometimes she is given a ride and disappears either in the car or soon after being deposited on Beckley. Other times she is just seen walking. But it is always around dusk, that time when the eyes are most likely to play tricks on us.

Her name is Susie. Or so folklore tells us.

When I worked at the News over a decade ago, I was challenged by the publishers and editors one Halloween to do a story digging into the roots of one of Knox County's better known ghost stories.

The two they suggested I explore were Sarah's Grave, near Greer, and Susie's Grave, on Beckley Road. At the time, I had some success with the story of Sarah's Grave, ultimately tracking it down to a bit of early frontier history that had been half-remembered and transformed into a gothic legend. I revisited the story for an earlier History Knox column last autumn.

But I was unable to make much headway on the other ghost story. I heard through the grapevine stories of the ghost being connected with a girl who supposedly lost her life in a house fire on Beckley Road years ago, but no details have shaken loose. Others claim that Susie was accidentally run down by a horse and buggy.

The compilation of gravestone transcriptions in Knox County that is housed in the reference room at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County confirms the latter story. The book was compiled by the Knox County chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society and edited for publication in 1991 by Richard DeLauder.

DeLauder recounts the story of the ghostly hitchhiker in the entry for Ball Cemetery, a small burial ground just west of Ohio 13 on Beckley Road. DeLauder says that people claim to find the young woman on Route 13 and give her a ride to the intersection. She then walks west, and about where the cemetery lies, roughly 100 yards down the road, she disappears.

“I have been told this story by more than one person,” DeLauder wrote, “but always the same story.”

The grave that the story is connected to is listed in this book as “Sophronia Baugh.” No proof is offered that this Sophronia person is actually the Susie of the story, but she was a woman who, indeed, died young. Sophronia was only 19 years old when she died, all the way back in 1865.

One might expect that the name “Sophronia” would result in a nickname “Sophie,” but nicknames are not always predictable, especially if someone else in the family also had that name.

I posted a question about the legend of Susie's Grave in the Knox Time group on Facebook, and recently received a comment from Michael E. Bennett, who said that his brother told him he had heard that the original Susie was one of the Ball girls and was killed when their house caught on fire.

He said that though he and his brother are not originally from Knox County, having originally grown up by Cleveland, his brother used to live on Beckley Road.

The front porch of that house was built from the foundation stones of an older house, the remains of which can be found in the nearby woods. The foundation in the woods was the house which is said to have burned down, date unknown.

It would make sense that one of the Ball families lived there, as all the land along this part of Beckley Road was once owned by various Balls. Is part of the Susie legend — even perhaps the name — from this now lost historical event?

No one seems to know. Michael pointed me toward the listing for Ball Cemetery on the website Find-a-Grave.com, and that's what brought me to the library to inspect the entry in the cemetery book about Sophronia Baugh. After I studied this entry, I was optomistic that I'd finally found the key that would unlock this old ghost story.

Wrong!

If I may step aside for a moment, I'd like to reflect on a recent conversation I had with Cate Blair-Wilhelm, one of the great figures of theater in our region. She messaged me noting that she was going to be participating in the Mound Cemetery living history presentation in Mount Vernon this summer, a semi-annual event that Susan Kahrl has been organizing for a number of years.

Cate asked me if I had any tips for doing historical research. A long-time reader of History Knox, she said she noticed I seem to have a lot of luck at ferreting out interesting details.

She and I talked back and forth over several messages about how I approach historical research. The short answer is persistence and creativity. Some stories are well documented, and will yield useful information quickly. Others, not so much.

A lot of information is available online today, though not everything. Legwork and time in archives is often successful. But the key as I've experienced it over the years is in figuring out numerous ways to ask the same question.

After all, that is the approach used in criminal investigation. It is also used in psychological testing. The same question asked nine different ways may get the same answer. But a slight tweak of the question on the tenth try might trigger an important piece of information. I would never figure out the things I do without that approach.

So, back to this case. I took the name of Sophronia Baugh and the birth and death dates of 1846 and 1865. The cemetery book also informed me that she had two brothers named Simeon (died 1849) and William (died 1862) in the burial ground.

They were all identified as being the children of “S. & S. C. Baugh,” though the parents are not, apparently, buried here. Nonetheless, it looked like great information to document the family and the event that led to this ghost story.

But it wasn't so easy.

First, I turned to microfilm to try and find a newspaper story to document the girl's death. In 1865, that means your only option is Lecky Harper's Democratic Banner, a long-running periodical published in Mount Vernon. I loaded the microfilm and searched. And searched. And I discovered, to my massive disappointment, that the Civil War-era newspaper in Mount Vernon was nothing like a modern local news source.

This rag was almost exclusively hyper-partisan politics and national news. Precious little space was spent in those days on local news, and even then, if it happened outside Mount Vernon, it was unlikely to get mentioned. So, Sophronia may have indeed been run down by a buggy in September of 1865, but no independent documentation can be found in the Banner.

I figured I could at least document the existence of the family, and turned next to census reports from Morris Township, where Ball Cemetery is located, and searched. And searched. I looked in the 1860 census, the 1870, 1850, and 1840 censuses. No Baugh family lived in Morris Township.

There were two Baugh families in the county in the 1860s, but one was a judge in Mount Vernon, C. C. Baugh, who was too young to be Sophronia's parent, and the other one, Jacob Baugh, lived up toward Jelloway, and was too old to be the parent. Either way, neither Baugh nor their spouses matched the initials in the cemetery book.

Sophronia Baugh and family weren't just part of a ghost story. They appeared to be complete phantoms.

I came out of the history room and asked reference librarian Christie McGowan where the information in the cemetery book came from, and she said that to the best of her knowledge, it was entirely based on volunteer transcriptions made in the actual cemeteries.

It was about then that ominous thunder rattled the library, a nice touch.

I left the library during a tremendous storm, getting soaked in the process, but determined to do some field work. I hoped the storm with its dangerous lightning would meander on before I got to Ball Cemetery.

Remarkably, the rain ended just as I pulled up to the burial ground on Beckley Road. Now, many country cemeteries are moody and evocative places. Ball Cemetery is just sad.

For many years — probably due to this very ghost story—the tombstones in this ground have been targeted for vandalism. It is a sad commentary on the lack of respect for history, not to mentioned the misplaced adolescent aggression, that often sees places like this all but leveled. The same thing happened to Sarah's grave, by Greer, and to Mary Jane's grave, near Lucas in southern Richland County.

Ghost stories attracted youths to these old boneyards, and when nothing happened, all too many of the visitors showed their contempt by toppling tombstones. Of course, the contempt was not really for these long-gone pioneers. It was for parents or teachers or authority figures the youths couldn't constructively deal with.

It's sad that the greatest tools for adolescent angst — music, art, and writing — are being pulled out of the schools more and more. Too much data today and not enough meaning.

Ball Cemetery no longer has a standing stone. A few tombstones remain intact, flat on the ground. Others are so broken and demolished, they're unrecognizable. The township has placed a large sign on the front fence listing all the names of people said to be buried there in the cemetery book transcription.

I walked through the wet grass, hoping to find one of the original Baugh markers. I noticed the Ball family members there and wondered if “Baugh” could somehow have originally been “Ball.” They sound similar, but there's no way a transcriber could mistake them as written out, even on an eroded tombstone.

Then I looked down at one particularly eroded stone. The writing was faint, and in places completely wiped away by years of slightly acidic rain. I suddenly realized I was looking at the tombstone of Sophronia's brother. William died in 1862, also aged just 19.

I peered at the pitted limestone and tried to read the surname. I thought that it might say “Baugh,” but I couldn't be certain. It could have been something else. Considering that acid rain started long before the transcribers canvassed this cemetery, this stone may not have been much more legible 30-something years ago.

Could it be that the transcribers made their best guess about the surname, and it turned out to be wrong?

Remember what I said about asking the same question different ways? When you do searches on genealogical websites, you have to be careful about filling in the search fields.

In a simple Google search, one might put in a word or two and then let the search engine do its thing. But genealogical search engines look for names, dates, locations, and other such specific things.

If you leave fields blank, a genealogical search engine will suddenly heave up 32,000 hits and you just want to start banging your head against the desk.

So, most of the time, I fill in the fields with whatever partial or plausible information I have or can extrapolate, in order to get a manageable number of hits. Unfortunately, with these Baugh names, I kept getting only one hit, which was for the entry about Ball Cemetery on Find-a-Grave.com. And that entry is entirely based on the same cemetery book in the library which already led me nowhere.

I realized that I would have to more or less trick the search engine into coughing up the information I needed. Fortunately, I had a golden search term up my sleeve.

Whatever the family surname may have been, the transcription appeared to be rather certain that the young lady who died in 1865 was named Sophronia. That is not a common name in these parts. So I restricted the genealogical search engine to only look in the 1860 census, only in Knox County, Ohio, and only for people named Sophronia.

I left the surname field blank, something that would normally ruin a search with a flood of results. But with the other fields narrowed down to such specific information, this search could finally give me a real name.

And it did. Sophronia Balch lived in Morris Township in 1860 with her father Simeon Balch, her mother Sophronia C. Balch, her brother William Balch, and two younger siblings, Hatty and Albert.

The parents' initials matched the transcriptions, and all other names and dates were matches, too. Finally, I had the information to piece together this family's story. When I went searching for these names, much more information popped up.

Simeon Balch was born in Enosburgh, Vermont, in 1796, just a couple miles from the Canadian border.

Because a census taker in 1850 rendered his last name as “Balish,” we could surmise that Simeon's surname was pronounced “balsh.” Simeon's parents were Cyrus and Judith (Stone) Balch. Cyrus was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and was one of the founding fathers of Enosburgh.

But the excellent family history “Genealogy of the Balch Family in America” tells us that the first of many tragedies happened in Simeon's life when he lost his father in 1805. Cyrus was chopping down a tree as he was clearing his land, and the tree split and fell on him, breaking his neck.

Simeon grew up to become a schoolteacher. Surviving newspapers from Middlebury, Vermont, in 1814 and 1816, list his name as having mail waiting for him at the local post office. He somehow ended up on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts by the early 1820s.

According to a surviving marriage record, on Oct. 6, 1823, the 27-year-old schoolteacher married Sophronia C. Coffin, the daughter of a sea captain. Interestingly, she had just turned 14 the previous month.

It is true that younger marriages were not uncommon in those days, but this one is startling in that Balch was almost twice the age of his bride. One cannot help but wonder if this Sophronia was a student of his?

Whatever scandalous guesses aside, it was to be a marriage that lasted the couple the rest of their lives.

According to a George W. Grandey, interviewed in 1891, Simeon came to Panton, Vermont, on Lake Champlain, in the 1820s, and was his first teacher. In fact, the Grandeys actually boarded two of Simeon's siblings, Enos and Elmina, and another, John, lived nearby, too.

But tragedy struck in 1834 when John Balch and others were drowned in a boating incident on Lake Champlain. Grandey witnessed the recovery of the bodies and noted that it wasn't long after that that Simeon left the area. At that time, we know of Simeon and Sophronia having only one child, Albert, born in 1830.

Their first appearance in Morris Township in Knox County, Ohio, is 1850.

The family history book, though, states that Georgianna Balch was born in Mount Vernon in 1836, and Edwin in 1838. A daughter named Mary came along in the early 1840s. William was born in 1843 and Sophronia, named after her mother, in 1846. Simeon, named after his father, was born in 1849, then Hatty in 1852, and Albert in 1855.

Sadly, tragedy had begun touching the Balches again: Baby Simeon died at the age of four months and was buried in Ball Cemetery in 1849. The original Albert must have died before 1855 for the parents to give the name again to a younger brother. Even as they were still growing the family, the Balches started losing children.

By the 1860 census, Georgiana and Edwin have grown up and moved out. Tragedy reared its head again, though. When a drive for recruitments spread throughout Ohio after the outbreak of the Civil War, William enlisted.

A mere six months later, in March of 1862, William died from disease, aged only 19. One can only imagine the despair of the parents when young Sophronia also died in 1865, likewise only 19.

Having four of their children in the grave before them must have been too much for the Balches. They packed up and left Knox County behind, moving to Concord, Missouri, just outside St. Louis.

Georgianna had married a Humphrey, then moved to Michigan before relocating to Missouri, but on the far side of the state, in Plattsburg, near Kansas City. Simeon and Sophronia are found in Concord on the 1870 census, with two of Georgianna's children visiting with them. Shortly thereafter, Sophronia passed away in Plattsburg, perhaps on a visit to Georgianna, and was buried in the Old Plattsburg Cemetery.

Several of the surviving Balch children moved further west at this point, some ending up in Washington and Oregon. It isn't known where Simeon Balch ended up, nor when he died. He does not appear on the 1880 census. It was in the 1870 census that he had been listed as a retired schoolteacher.

In the 1860 census in Knox County, his professional was listed as “gardener,” perhaps a pleasant retirement job. Before that, he may have taught in Knox County, but I haven't found any indications of where.

Since Simeon Balch had experience with plants, he would have been mystified to see the banks of poison hemlock today surrounding Ball Cemetery, an invasive species that was only brought to the United States in the late 1800s as an ornamental plant. It escaped and has been slowly spreading westward ever since.

Simeon Balch kept retreating westward to leave the slowly spreading tragedies of his life behind. Let's hope that somewhere he eventually found peace.

So, there you have it. The mournful truth of the Balch family, whose daughter Sophronia may have been killed by a horse-and-buggy collision in 1865, giving birth to one of the undying legends of Knox County lore, the young woman still trying to find her way home.

I made a promise to Sophronia when I was standing in Ball Cemetery, watching the thunderstorm retreat into the distance. I said I'd do my best to tell her story.

I hope this gives her peace, too.

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