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History in the Hills: Chilling stories of the past

Halloween is a very special time for us in the Ohio Valley. In October, we seek out spooky, chilling or scary things which we don’t typically go for at other times of the year. Some people like to be scared by movies or walk through haunted houses.

As for me, I get a chill from stories of our past. As a historian, I find that true events often are stranger than fiction. That is how some ghost stories are started, after all. A true event makes a good story which develops into an even better ghost story. The three stories I will share are true events and could be told as such tales. Although I don’t believe in ghosts in a traditional sense, I find the ghosts of our historic past are often scarier than the ghouls we invent on our own.

Steubenville is old, and in any old town, there was a town center. Our town center was on Market Street between Third and Fourth streets. The Jefferson County Courthouse, the third to be built on that site, was the center of town, and the green space directly across the street was the city market square. In the early 19th century, that green space also served as the site of Steubenville’s whipping post.

It seems that there were whippings that took place there on a regular basis. The last one occurred around 1810. A shopkeeper who owned a business on Market Street stole some goods from Bezaleel Wells. The shopkeeper was tried and found guilty and sentenced to fines, jail time and was to be whipped nine times on his bare back with a cat of nine tails. Although that is one of the more prominent stories of a whipping that had taken place there, one could assume that this site witnessed many others in its history.

According to local lore, around the same spot during the 1820s, a gentleman supposedly called Peter Snyder was digging a well along Third Street just south of Market. When Peter reached 100 feet deep, the well collapsed, entombing him inside. His remains were never recovered. The story has been passed down through the years, showing up in local history books in 1897 and 1947.

The story is plausible, due to the fact that the primitive water system, set up in the early years of Steubenville with wooden pipes and powered by natural springs, failed around this time. It wasn’t until around 1836 that a pumping house was erected along the river just south of the Market Street Bridge.

Just across Market Street from the green space is the elegant Jefferson County Courthouse. This building erected in 1874 was described as one of the most beautiful in Ohio. It has undergone some changes since then, most notably the removal of the bell tower and mansard roof, thanks to the snowstorm of 1950 that dumped more than 4 feet of snow, under which it collapsed due to the heavy weight.

It was from one of the upper story windows that Julia Petrosky decided to jump on June 20, 1917, after being found guilty of murder. Petrosky had fallen in love with Sheriff George Huscroft and when she went to visit Huscroft at his office, Mr. Beem, the county jail trustee, denied her entry. She pulled out a gun and shot Beem. Petrosky was sure she would be found innocent, but it was not to be. When the guilty verdict was handed down, Julia went for the windows and jumped to her death, landing on the steps below.

History is all around us, and most times it is not always pleasant to remember. There are stories to be told of the places we live that would chill us to the bone. The facts are scary on their own with no need to embellish them. And if one were looking for a ghost, there are plenty of stories that would serve as inspiration. A poor soul whipped at the whipping post, a lost worker digging a well or a distraught woman looking for justice. All can be found along Market Street in beautiful and historic downtown Steubenville.

(Zuros is the director of operations at Historic Fort Steuben.)

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