Read an Excerpt
Willoughby Coal is not your typical haunt—it’s a fully operational coal company and hardware store. In an era of “super haunts,” it’s refreshing to know that some of the most interesting places, the most haunted places, are little-known local treasures just waiting to be explored. Willoughby Coal represents that one place in every community that only the locals know about, a place so amazing they almost don’t want to share it with anyone. But they should.
Before the simple, beautiful Willoughby Coal building of today, a series of other structures and businesses called the property home, including a train depot, a flour mill, a cheese factory, and numerous inns and lodges such as the Zebra Stagecoach House. The Zebra, named for its unusual striped paint job, was destroyed by a fire in 1879.
In 1893, the current building was built for use as a flour mill, well placed between two railroad lines that made it convenient to move product to market. The mill was successful until automation killed it, and a coal company took over in 1912. The Golf-Kirby Coal Company provided essential fuel to the city, CP&E—the local interurban railroad—and the burgeoning Andrew School for Girls.
In the 1930s, Henry Windus and William “Don” Norris, ambitious employees of Golf-Kirby, joined forces and bought the business. They renamed it Willoughby Coal and Supply, a title it retained until a relatively recent change to Willoughby Coal and Garden Center.
After many successful years of operation, the owners decided to remodel the third floor of Willoughby Coal in 1947. Don Norris kept a watchful eye on progress, taking notes and making recommendations to the construction crew. On the morning of April 2, Norris, who lived nearby, kissed his wife, Maude, good-bye and headed off for work early at 7:10 A.M.
When the shop foreman arrived at Willoughby Coal at 7:40 A.M., he was greeted by a gruesome sight: A man’s mangled body lay facedown at the front entrance in a pool of blood. The entire left side of his head was bashed in, his face an unrecognizable mess. His outstretched arms were broken at the wrists. If not for the car still parked in its usual spot and the wallet in his pocket, the identity of the dead man would have been a mystery.
At first authorities thought Norris might have been robbed, but over $400 in company money was still on his person; his wallet was full of his personal cash; the keys to his brand-new car were still in the ignition; and his gold wristwatch, stopped at 7:26, was still on his broken wrist.
The investigators’ next thought was that for some strange reason Norris had climbed the coal uploader on the side of the building to go up to the third floor, fallen, and somehow crawled to the front of the building. This idea was quickly dismissed when investigators realized that the extent of Norris’s injuries would have made it impossible for him to crawl anywhere, let alone from the side of the building to the front.
Norris’s bloody, battered body was sent to the local funeral home, where the director, oddly, found over a cup of coal dust in the dead man’s clothing. The clothes Norris had worn that morning had been freshly laundered. How could he have collected that much coal residue in such a short period of time? The director also found a small hole in Norris’s left boot.
The grieving family and stunned community wanted answers, and the police cobbled together a theory. Don Norris had arrived at work early, as was his habit, to check on the previous day’s renovations. He had climbed up to the third-floor rafters to examine progress there. A circular window space approximately three feet in diameter, just under the crest of the roof, was open in the front wall. Norris’s foot had gotten caught on a nail sticking up from the wood. He had lost his balance and pitched forward through the open window space, tragically plummeting three stories to his death.
This tenuous sequence of events was accepted as the cause of death for decades. To those unfamiliar with the building, or basic physics, this closed the case. But the dots never really connected. Norris would have had to dive toward the circular opening like Superman in order to get there from the rafters; simply tripping would not have propelled him that distance. Also, the mystery of the coal dust was never officially addressed.
There was nothing in the contract that provided for the widow or the family of the deceased partner. Maybe Norris never gave much thought to dying so young. Maybe he wasn’t aware of the death clause in the contract, or maybe he never suspected his partner would leave his poor widow and children high and dry. Maude Norris took in boarders and laundry to make ends meet. All she was left with was a bucket of tears and baskets of dirty laundry.
Many decades later, in the fall of 2011, Cathi Weber led a small group on her usual Willoughby Ghost Walk rounds. When they arrived at Willoughby Coal, Cathi told the ghostly tales and haunted happenings surrounding the building, including the story of Don Norris, which she had researched extensively for her book, Haunted Willoughby, Ohio. When she got to the details of his death, a hand went up in the crowd.
“Excuse me, I have something to add to that story,” said a young man.
Cathi was surprised but intrigued. “Of course, if you have any information I’d love to hear it.”
The young man introduced himself as the grandson of William “Don” Norris. He said the official cause of death was incorrect, it hadn’t been an accident. His grandfather had been murdered! Now that his grandmother had joined her husband in death, the family felt compelled to speak out about what had really happened that fateful morning.
Cathi was speechless. The young man did indeed know many details that only someone who had extensively researched the case—or who was a family member—would know. According to the Norris family, Henry Windus had wanted the business, the whole business. He had tried to buy his partner’s half, but Don Norris had not been interested in selling. A clause in the partnership agreement between Windus and Norris stated that upon the death of one owner, the other would retain full control of Willoughby Coal and Supply. After several attempts to get control legally, Windus had allegedly hatched a dastardly scheme.
Windus knew of his partner’s early-morning habits, this version goes, and on April 2 he was waiting for him. With the help of someone or several “someones,” Windus jumped Norris when he arrived at the store, dragged him up to the third floor onto the scaffolding at the front face of the building, and viciously tossed him out the window opening, whence he plunged fifty feet to his death.
This version of the incident would account for the injuries to his face and hands and the mysterious coal dust found on the dead man’s clothes. Intriguing and logical, yes, but there is no way to prove any of it and the case has long been closed.
Don Norris’s spirit haunts Willoughby Coal because not only was it the place of his untimely death, it was the place of his life. He poured his blood, sweat, and tears into his work, and now his essence remains, crying out for justice, for someone to hear the truth, whatever that may be.
The untimely and mysterious death of Don Norris isn’t the only recorded death on the grounds of Willoughby Coal. Another man, an employee, died inside the building in the 1970s.
Zip was an older gentleman who was fond of the drink. His problem with alcohol led to the breakup of his marriage and loss of his home. He had no family to speak of, so the owners of Willoughby Coal took pity on this troubled man and let him stay in the building at night, watching over the place as a quasi security guard.
People knew him as an eccentric character who kept to himself for the most part. He had some unusual habits and odd mannerisms, often mumbling to himself. He was also very protective of the few belongings he actually owned.
Zip lived inside the building for many months, making his home in the back of the first floor until he died of a massive heart attack prepping a load of coal for delivery. The rumor that he had hidden something in the walls began to surface immediately after his death. Some thought it was money; others thought it was a collection of antique guns. Myriad tall tales turned a nondescript Willoughby Coal employee into a legend.
No one knows what Zip hid, if anything, inside Willoughby Coal, but apparently he is still guarding it. His apparition has been seen on the first, second, and third floors quite frequently over the last four decades. He’s careful not to show himself completely, letting you catch only quick glimpses of his disheveled form. His footsteps echo off the brick walls, fading into silence once you’ve tracked their source.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The settlement that became Willoughby was prime real estate along the Chagrin River about twenty miles east of Cleveland. In the early 1830s, a group of enterprising young physicians began a quest to start a medical college in the hamlet, called Chagrin at the time. The townsfolk of Chagrin weren’t sold on the idea of a medical college—medical colleges were notorious for obtaining cadavers for anatomy training through sometimes unscrupulous methods.
The schemers, led by Dr. John Anderson, petitioned esteemed doctor Westel Willoughby Jr. to come and preside over their fair institution of higher medical learning. The good doctor was flattered but reluctant to leave New York. Anderson and company tried another tactic—they renamed the town after Willoughby. The great man, while thanking them for such an honor, never set foot in the town that still bears his name.
In the sultry summer of 1843, the restive spirit of one Eli Tarbel, a mature gentleman dead three days from typhoid fever, revolted against his defilers, protesting to his widow in a vivid and disturbing dream that his “body was being taken apart piece by piece at the Willoughby Medical College.” When Mrs. Tarbel awoke, she gathered her daughter and they went immediately to the cemetery. After discovering his grave empty, the alarmed woman alerted neighbors and the Lake County Guard, who stormed the school with pitchforks and torches looking for Eli’s missing parts.
The enraged mob invaded the college grounds, demanding answers and demanding justice. Mr. Tarbel was found and a sophisticated grave-robbing and body-snatching ring was uncovered and thwarted by an outraged spirit and his widow.
The college was unable to recover from this stain; enrollment dropped, staff left the school, and the curtain closed on the medical college for good in 1847. But various uprooted doctors and trustees went on to establish the Starling Medical College (now the Ohio State University College of Medicine), the Medical Department of Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine), and an all-female seminary that went on to become the Lake Erie College for Women.
Not a bad legacy for a bunch of grave robbers.
Take the Haunted Tour—The Parking Lot
This haunted tour is unusual because it begins outside the building. This location is so active that the hauntings spill out onto the property. Willoughby Coal is more than just the brick-and-mortar building that we see today, it is a place full of memories, ripe with history. Who’s to say that the ghosts that haunt Willoughby Coal weren’t here long before the current stone structure was built? Or that the land itself isn’t thick with the spirits of Native Americans, foreign explorers, and early settlers?
Theresa Argie: The Haunted Housewives Meet
I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on Willoughby Coal in September 2009, a pivotal moment in my paranormal career—the night I met my Haunted Housewives partner Cathi Weber.
Cathi ran a popular historic ghost walk in downtown Willoughby. Her reputation as a storyteller and historian preceded her. I was teaching ghost-hunting workshops and seminars at the time but wanted to get more involved with community events. I hoped to learn from her experience and wisdom.
Cathi invited me to join her on the ghost walk so we could meet and discuss the possibility of working together. We shared a love of the paranormal and history, and I was excited to see her in action.
Cathi was a natural. Her recitation at each stop was colorful and detailed, complete with profound personal observations and the perfect mix of horror and humor. The history of Willoughby was fascinating, and every stop intrigued me more than the one before.
After a short walk out of Willoughby’s bustling downtown, we made our way across the railroad tracks to a large gravel parking lot. Set about a hundred yards back, behind a smaller building that resembled a barn, was a three-story brick structure: our destination, Willoughby Coal.
As we moved closer to the building, I noticed other structures around it: a small red one-story “barn” with plants and outdoor décor used as a garden center; the Willoughby Area Welcome Center, set in an old silver train car painted with stripes of red, white, and blue; and a large white storage shed adjacent to the train tracks that run alongside the parking lot.
I moved slowly across the parking lot, the loose gravel crunching under my feet. I was mesmerized by the simple façade of the building, its candlelit windows peering at me like eyes. There was a round, bricked-up hole at the top center of the third floor, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
But as I approached, my body reacted in a surprising and painful manner: With each step my stomach churned more uncomfortably. One moment I was completely fine and the next I was overcome with nausea. I stopped, startled by the sudden sickness.
“Whew . . . wow,” I said out loud as I buckled over in pain.
Cathi noticed and immediately stopped. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know, I just suddenly feel awful.” I’d barely gotten the words out when I began to dry-heave.
“I’ll be fine, I’ll catch up in a minute.” I was totally embarrassed.
Reluctantly, Cathi continued with the rest of the group toward the front of the building. She stood atop the platform outside the main door with her candlelit lantern as the small crowd oohed and aahed at her story. I couldn’t hear her over my own noisy stomach. I took a sip from my water bottle, composed myself, and started walking again. The sick feeling returned, with a vengeance.
I stopped again and waited for the feeling to pass before I dared take another step.
After another brief pause, I started toward the group, but the discomfort continued to build. I felt the blood drain from my face and a cold sweat cover my body. I was shaking, trembling, weak in the knees. I thought I might fall to the ground. I couldn’t stop the feeling of dread from overtaking me. Now I really did have to throw up. I staggered over toward the garden center and vomited into a garbage can.
That was it for me. I wasn’t going any farther.
Cathi finished telling her tale and returned to check on me. She tried to sit me on the platform by the front door, but every time I moved in that direction I just got more nauseated. I was mortified by the scene I was making—nice first impression, Theresa! Cathi took my arm and walked me away from the garden barn back toward the parking lot entrance.
The farther I got from Willoughby Coal, the better I felt. Like breaking away from the pull of some invisible force field, the bonds magically loosened as I headed back toward the street. The color returned to my alabaster face and the dizziness passed as my equilibrium stabilized. By the time we crossed the railroad tracks I was fine, except for the total humiliation.
I believe I was overwhelmed with the paranormal energy emanating from the three-story brick structure. It was oozing out like invisible waves, all focused directly at me. There is so much activity there, so many stories, so many spirits all fighting for attention, needing to be noticed, to be remembered.
Take the Haunted Tour—The First Floor
The moment you set foot inside Willoughby Coal, you know it’s no ordinary place. Part coal company, part hardware store, part curio museum, Willoughby Coal is definitely unique. Once, the need for coal was essential to the townsfolk in the area. It was a source of power and warmth in the days before electric or gas furnaces. Today only a few patrons actually come to Willoughby Coal for coal, but the resourceful owners have found other ways to stay in business.
Crossing the threshold of the front door, you enter a world filled with the past. An assortment of unusual antiques are displayed on walls, hanging from the ceiling, tucked in every corner. A seven-foot-tall railroad crossing light looms as you enter the store. An old barber’s chair sits in a corner next to a vintage phone booth and wooden wheelchair. A series of barbaric-looking handsaws hang from the rafters, dangling like deadly stalactites. A large rusty scythe is secured to the brick support column across from the counter.
There are classic children’s toys, outdated musical instruments, old faded advertising materials, even rusted push-pedal scooters scattered about in deliberate disarray all over the store. It is like a bizarro-world TGI Friday’s.
To the right of the front door, there is a large work counter where the proprietors do their business with the public. Several signs, both old and new, hang above the cash register and on the walls. Behind the counter is a door that leads to the offices and employee restroom. Directly across from the counter are the wooden stairs that lead to the second floor.
One thing that people notice, besides the antiques everywhere, is how dark it is inside the building. There are two front windows and two on the side, but even in the light of day and under fluorescent artificial light, it remains dark on the merchandise floor, which adds to the eeriness of the store, setting the scene for some good ghost stories!
Theresa Argie: Shadows Everywhere, Ho Hum
The first time I actually made it into Willoughby Coal was a few weeks after my queasy introduction on the ghost walk with Cathi. She invited me back to check out the inside and get a better feel for the place. I was a bit apprehensive, having become so violently ill in the parking lot, but I told myself this time would be different: no bad vibes, no stomach issues, no headache, no dizziness.
I thought it an odd building to be haunted, but Cathi assured me it was. As I walked through the door, I saw peculiar objects everywhere. It was as if I’d stepped into an exploded antique shop or wind-torn garage sale. But then I saw the store counter, the register, the security camera, things that indicated it was indeed a place of business.
My mind was bombarded with visual input from all around; I didn’t know where to start. Cathi suggested we tour the entire place first so I could get oriented. As we walked methodically through each area, my eyes darted back and forth rapidly, scanning each dimly lit corner. We were alone at Willoughby Coal, or so I thought. My heightened peripheral vision noticed a dark shadow peeking around the door to the back storage room. When I turned to face it, it disappeared only to reappear seconds later behind some shelving on the back wall.
“So, do you ever see shadow play in this area?” I asked as my eyes continued to search the dark.
“Oh yes, lots of shadows. I catch glimpses of them out of the corner of my eyes. Why? Did you see something?” Cathi was not the least bit surprised.
“Well, I’m seeing something, some sort of movement in the back there.” I pointed to the rear of the store.
“They’re everywhere in this building. I think they’re checking us out.” Cathi was unfazed by this familiar visual phenomenon.
“Let’s check out the stockroom. It’s a great place for EVPs, and it’s where I had my first paranormal experience inside this place,” Cathi said as we headed back into the storage rooms and loading dock area.
Karen-Mackay Argie (Daughter of Theresa Argie)
Having a mom who’s a ghost hunter can be, well, awkward. But growing up with the paranormal has become normal for me and my family. My little brother, Jack, and I have been around the ghosty stuff all our lives. We even get to participate in some of Mom’s projects. I help Cathi and her with the ghost walks in the fall, pushing tours and answering questions. It’s kind of fun, and I really like the history part!
Sometimes I help out with ghost classes: my mom’s Ghost Hunting 101 and Cathi’s Junior Ghost Hunting classes held at Willoughby Coal. The junior class is fun; it has lots of other kids, even some around my age. I feel more comfortable around the kids and they usually like hearing my stories. I’ve learned a lot about ghosts over the years!
Shadow Play: the visual phenomenon of unusual, distinct, and/or intelligent movement of shadows, typically with no apparent natural source.
Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP): ghostly voices or sounds not audible to the unaided ear that are captured on electronic recording devices, which detect a broader range of frequencies than the human ear.
In the summer of 2012, Jack and I were at the Junior Ghost Hunting class at Willoughby Coal. There were about a dozen kids there, ranging in age from about six (Jack) to eleven (me). A few of the parents stayed as well, just in case someone got scared. Mom and Cathi gave a presentation about ghosts and what to do if you want to find them. After a quick lesson on how to use the equipment, we started investigating.
We were all on the first floor, near the stockroom. There were all kinds of tools, industrial buckets, and boxes of tile stacked on the floor. There were huge shelves with lots of plumbing and building material on them as well. All the kids were huddled together between the shelves and the back stock area.
Mom led an EVP session. “Are there any spirits here that would like to come out and say hello? We’ve brought visitors today.”
Cathi joined in: “The children have come to meet you. No one will hurt you; we just want to prove to them that you’re here.”
Mom continued, “If you’re here, can you make a noise or move something for us?”
Right after my mom finished asking that question, we all heard this really really loud crashing sound. BOOM!!! It was such a big sound, I could feel the concrete floor vibrate.
“AAAAAAAAHH!” All the kids screamed at the same time. I’m pretty sure some adults did too.
Mom and Cathi ran over to where the crash had come from. We could see dust particles rising from the floor right next to one of the large shelves. Something big must have fallen off the top shelf. We all crowded in around Mom and Cathi. The parents waiting in the other room came in to investigate as well.
There was nothing on the ground—I couldn’t believe it! We had all heard it and seen the dust. I was sure it would be a huge box or large piece of something. Cathi looked all around with her flashlight, making sure something hadn’t dropped and maybe rolled away, but she found nothing.
A few of us had voice recorders running and you could hear the crash on playback.
To this day, I have no clue what made that noise or why nothing was there when we went to look. Mom and Cathi had everyone’s full attention for the rest of the class!
To the right of the main entrance is a doorway that separates the showroom from the stockroom. Once you go through that door, another side of Willoughby Coal is revealed. The stockroom is a place where merchandise is delivered, received, and stored. Past the stockroom is the loading dock, a raised platform that drops five feet into a ground-level pit filled with metal machines and stacks of unprocessed merchandise. The store’s first floor is elevated, hence the stairs at the front door.
Without the aid of artificial light, the stockroom is dark, very dark. But many reliable sources have reported seeing eye shine peering out at them from the gloom. Several years ago, during a routine “rattling door” check, a rookie Willoughby patrol officer stopped by Willoughby Coal on a winter evening to make sure everything was locked up tight and nothing was out of place. These door checks help businesses ward off crime and foster good community relations.
Eye Shine: the glowing reflection created when light from an external source strikes eyes, alive or otherwise.
Upon finding the front door ajar, the officer entered the store, looking for a presumed intruder. On the first floor he thought he heard someone right behind him, but when he turned, nothing and no one was there. This disturbing sensation was repeated on each subsequent floor of the store. After determining there was no human intruder inside Willoughby Coal, the cop made a mad dash for the front door.
During another routine check of the building, a different officer noticed some strange shadows in one of the downstairs windows. He climbed the front stairs and shined his flashlight inside but could find nothing out of place. He repeated this procedure at all the first-floor windows but couldn’t see anyone inside.
He ventured to the back side of the building near the loading docks. There was no window for him to investigate, so he shined his light through the slats on the large bay door. He cautiously placed his face up to the tiny opening and peered inside.
His heart nearly stopped when his light beam hit what appeared to be two glowing eyes glaring back at him! These faceless eyes appeared right at head level, so they couldn’t have been an animal, but they certainly weren’t human. The stunned officer beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of his patrol car and drove off.
Trying to rationalize the experience, he immediately telephoned the owner and asked who was living inside the storeroom. The owners assured him the place was empty; no one was inside Willoughby Coal, except for the ghosts.
Cathi Weber (Haunted Housewives Co-Founder, Paranormal Investigator, Author)
Willoughby is a magical place and I’m proud to call it my hometown. I started the Willoughby Ghost Walk because I was fascinated by all the history around me. Where there’s history, there’s haunting. I grew up surrounded by the iconic buildings and storefronts of this town and I was dying to know their stories, their real stories, the ones left out of the history books. My research had uncovered many ghostly happenings at Willoughby Coal and I needed to have an experience of my own!
It didn’t take much effort to persuade the then-owners of Willoughby Coal, Jay Byram and Dan Garry (Dan sold his interest in 2011), to let me do a paranormal investigation. They were curious to see what I would come up with spending the night inside the store.
I invited a small group to join me; some were experienced paranormal investigators, some just curious ghost enthusiasts. Since there were more than a dozen of us, I thought it best we break into small groups and take turns inside; this way we could avoid audio contamination.
The first group went in while the rest of us waited patiently outside. Not long after they entered the building, one young lady came bounding out the front door. She was terrified, shaking uncontrollably and nearly in tears. As she had entered the stockroom area, something very large had come rushing at her. She described it as big, dark brown, and hairy like an animal.
“Oh my God, that was so scary! I thought I was about to be attacked!”
I asked her to keep this incident to herself until the end of the night. I didn’t want to scare anyone or put ideas regarding what to expect in their heads.
The next group took its turn inside. When they came out, I asked if anything had happened. “No, it was really quiet. We didn’t hear anything at all. We didn’t see any shadows either,” a member of the group replied, a tinge of disappointment in her voice.
“Wow, really? Nothing, huh?” I was kind of surprised myself.
“Well, the only weird thing was the smell. It was awful,” she said.
I was confused. “What smell?”
“Oh God, the horrible smell back in the stockroom. It was overpowering. Gross.”
I’d been in the building dozens of times and never noticed any unusual smell, certainly nothing “gross.”
But the group insisted. “It smelled like old wet dirty dog or something. Yuck!”
Group three entered the building. When they came back out, I noticed confused looks on their faces. I asked if anything had happened. The group leader said they hadn’t seen anything, but their audio recorder had picked up an unusual sound.
When we played it back, there was a low growling noise. The animalistic sound was unmistakable and terrifying.
Now I was really puzzled. What was going on inside Willoughby Coal? I’d soon find out for myself, as it was my group’s turn to go inside. We headed immediately toward the stockroom, where everyone else had had their experiences. We gathered by the loading dock, careful not to fall off the ledge. Tiny slivers of streetlight peeked through the slats in the loading dock door from the security light outside. Other than that, it was pitch black.
We stayed perfectly quiet for a few minutes, hoping to hear the growl or see some sort of strange movement. I strained my eyes in the darkness trying to make out any shadow forms in the area. My nose prepped for a foul odor, but there was nothing unusual in the air. It was time for some EVP work.
“Is there anyone here with us? Are you trying to get our attention?” I asked.
At that moment, I felt the sensation of a large furry animal scurrying over my sandal-clad skin.
“OH MY GOD! There’s something by my feet!” I screamed.
I didn’t have a flashlight to see the fifty-pound tarantula that must have been attacking me in the dark. My companions rushed to my aid, but we could find nothing. No giant spider, no rabid squirrel, no rat. But this was no small rodent or bug, this was something large, with weight and mass to it, not a tiny mouse tickling my toes.
Well, that was enough for us, and out we went to share our story with everyone outside. We packed it up for the night and headed home. I pondered the strange happenings at Willoughby Coal. It certainly wasn’t what I had expected.
The next morning, I went back to the store to return the keys to owners Jay and Dan. They were curious and anxious to hear what had happened during our investigation. I recounted our experiences, thinking they were odd and unrelated. I saw a knowing grin spread across Dan’s face.
I asked, “What? What is it?”
“Well, Cathi, there are a few things I didn’t tell you about this place. Maybe this will make sense to you now.”
Yukon was a large chocolate lab Dan had had since he was a puppy. Yukon often came to the store with his master and was very comfortable around customers. He had the run of the place and went in and out as he pleased. In his later years, Yukon had still come to work with Dan, but the years had taken their toll. He was losing his hearing and partially blind. Instead of happily greeting customers with a wagging tail, he would often rush up to them growling, then sniff and circle around their feet before retreating to his spot by the door. He also hated taking a bath. The poor thing smelled awful, like an old dirty dog would.
One cold winter day Dan was ready to close up shop. He noticed Yukon was not in his usual spot, curled up in front of the warm potbellied heater by the door. The employees frantically called for the dog and looked around the store, but he was nowhere to be found. Finally they looked outside, where they found paw prints in the snow leading to the railroad tracks. They rushed over to the tracks and found poor Yukon, lying motionless on the side of the rails. He had been hit by a train. They carried his battered body back to Willoughby Coal and laid him down by the front door, where he passed away in the loving arms of his master.
After we heard the story of Yukon, things clicked. Everything that had happened the night before made sense: the growling, the lunging shadow, the rancid smell, and the furry encounter at my feet! Yukon was still watching over Willoughby Coal, greeting guests who entered his territory and letting them know he was there.
Yukon is one of the many resident spirits at Willoughby Coal. He’s used to me now and no longer scares me when I come to visit.
A psychic friend of mine who had never heard the story of Yukon asked me on her first visit, “Who owns the big chocolate lab?”
I was stunned. “A lab? Where?”
“Right there,” she said, pointing to the door. “He’s lying right there in front of the door. He’s kind of dirty, actually, but he’s not going anywhere. He thinks he owns the place.”
Daniel Hooven (Paranormal Investigator) with Rebecca Kirschbaum (Psychic)
Last year Theresa and Cathi introduced me to Rebecca Kirschbaum at the Para-Ex 2012 fund-raiser for the Lake County Historical Society, an event Cathi puts on every November. The event always features celebrity speakers and guest investigators such as Michelle Belanger (A&E’s Paranormal State) and Jackie Williams.
Rebecca was introduced as Michelle’s good friend and newest protégé. I was impressed by her undeniable gift and easygoing personality. We hit it off immediately. We’d both been featured on a Syfy show called School Spirits, so we had quite a bit in common. I enjoyed watching her gentle and personal approach to the paranormal. Rebecca and I have been working together ever since.
Rebecca lives in Ohio, not far from Willoughby, the hometown of my favorite Haunted Housewives, so I visit as often as I can. In June 2013, Rebecca and I joined Cathi one evening after one of her ghost walks. Rebecca had never been to Willoughby before, so I asked Cathi if she could show us around.
We were intrigued by Willoughby Coal—the building has an energy about it that draws you in. Rebecca felt it right away; something was calling to her. We went inside and Cathi gave us a quick tour but didn’t give away any of the history. She didn’t want to influence Rebecca’s impressions.
As soon as we walked in the front door, Rebecca asked, “Whose dog is that? I see a big dog, a black lab maybe?”
Cathi grinned. “You’re not the first psychic to pick up on the dog. That’s Yukon.”
We continued inside, heading toward the loading docks and stockroom. I couldn’t shake the sensation of eyes watching us from the dark. Rebecca walked slowly toward the back corner of the stockroom and spotted something only she could see.
Calmly and quietly, she said with a comforting smile on her face, “Hey there, don’t be afraid. You don’t have to hide from us.”
She said an older man and a young boy were cowering in the corner. They were very thin, wearing tattered clothes and no shoes. They were African American.
Turning back to Cathi, she asked, “Was this place part of the Underground Railroad?”
“Not that I know of, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t. They didn’t always keep records of that kind of thing back then. But this location, right by the railroad and near the water . . . this could have been a safe house.” Cathi pondered the idea.
Rebecca tried to talk to the two spirits, but they were frightened of us. “They saw our lanterns and think we’re slave catchers. They’re afraid of the dog too!”
Cathi was surprised. “Yukon? Wow, they can see Yukon? He’s from a totally different era.”
I was amazed by the possibility. Could ghosts from the antebellum era be aware of a ghost from the 1990s? Since Rebecca was the only person who could see the two slave spirits, I thought I’d try another avenue of communication. I pulled out my recorder and started an EVP session.
“Can you see us? We won’t hurt you. We want to help you. We are not slave catchers.” The light on my voice-activated recorder was solid red, indicating an EVP had been captured. I anxiously played back the file.
“We’re still scared,” came the heartbreaking response. We all heard the fear in the whispered voice on the recorder.
Rebecca tried to psychically communicate with these two poor souls and assure them that we would not hurt them, and they had no reason to be afraid of us. But I knew that even after we left for the night, they would still be stuck in the building with the spirit of the dog. I hoped Rebecca had convinced them the dog was harmless, the war was over, and they were now free.
What a horrible way to live your afterlife: hiding and afraid, huddled in the corner of an old dusty building far away from home, yearning only to be free. It makes me wonder how much choice we have in what happens to us after we die. I couldn’t imagine anyone would choose to stay in this frightened, confused state, and my heart broke a little.
Take the Haunted Tour—The Second Floor
A set of wooden steps leads from the main floor of Willoughby Coal up to the second. An old Inuit dogsled hangs overhead—it’s an unusual sight to see, even in a place full of unusual things.
The second floor is beset with more bizarre items: A battered table and child’s school desk are positioned next to an old steamer trunk; the skin of a white wolf hangs on display by the dressing rooms; a black baby carriage, a rusty tricycle, and a vintage Singer sewing machine are scattered about. Interspersed between these treasures are rows and rows of brand-new jackets, overalls, and work wear, neatly arranged for easy shopping, if you don’t mind walking around the fully intact, highly polished speedboat that takes up about a third of the showroom area. If the owner knows how it got up there, he isn’t saying.
On a spring 2013 investigation at Willoughby Coal, I endured the frustrating experience of “chasing shadows.” Sometimes the ghosts in the building like to toy with us, make us question our sanity. As I stood on the first floor, the footsteps I heard above me were so loud, so clear, I thought there had to be someone up there!
Cathi was accustomed to this phenomenon and it barely fazed her, but I implored her to investigate with me.
“Come on, Cathi, let’s check upstairs. Something is up there. Don’t you hear it?”
Cathi shrugged. “Yeah, I hear it, but we won’t find anything.”
Still, I needed to find out for myself. The sound of quickly moving footsteps resounded above me, as if someone were rushing into position, angling into a hiding spot.
We grabbed our recorders and cameras and headed up to the second floor. The first thing that greeted my eyes was a tall shadow darting across the room at the top of the landing.
And so it began.
“Did you see that?” I asked Cathi.
“Oh yeah, I saw it. Let’s see if we can get it on video.”
Cold Spot: a distinct and presumably unnatural area of cold air that can manifest and dissipate suddenly and/or move with intelligent intent. Cold spots are thought to form when a spirit absorbs energy (heat) from the air.
We took our places, sitting side by side in the middle of the room. I faced the north wall; Cathi faced the south. With our cameras and recorder ready, we tried an EVP session.
“Okay, we know you’re here. We heard you walking around. I also saw someone when we came up the stairs.” I tried a straightforward, logical approach.
Cathi chimed in, “You must want to be seen; you play this game with us every time we’re here! Don’t be shy now. Tell us what your message is.”
Suddenly, it was very cold—I could almost see my breath.
“Damn, do you feel that? It’s cold.”
Cathi felt it as well. “Are you making it cold in here?”
I continued questioning. “Please just tell us who you are. What do you want to say to us?”
When we played back the audio file, “Get out!” was the response on our recorder.
This answer just pissed us off. My dander was up and I wasn’t going anywhere. “Now why would you so obviously want us to know you’re here and then tell us to get out? Who are you?”
Our session was interrupted by the sound of more footsteps, precise and rhythmic, coming from the third floor this time! Whatever was walking had moved up to the top floor of the building.
“You’re kidding me—do you hear that? Now it’s upstairs!” Cathi was amused. I was not.
“Why do they do this to us all the time? What do they want?” We headed up to the third floor to investigate the footsteps, even though we knew we wouldn’t find anything. When we got upstairs, the footsteps stopped . . . momentarily.
Less than a minute later they started up again, but this time they were coming from downstairs. We heard the strike of each heel and the distinctive squeak of the floor.
Back down we went, frustrated. This was the behavior of an intelligent and very annoying spirit. Or maybe there was more than one.
Cathi tried reasoning with our invisible guest. “We don’t mean you any harm, but we would like to know why you’re doing this. Why do you stay here?”
When we played back the recorder, an angry voice on the tape screamed at us, “AHH! GO!”
At that point we stopped our investigation. We packed up our stuff and headed down to the main floor, but not before witnessing another strange sight. This wasn’t a shadow but more of a mist, light in color, semitransparent with an undefined shape and erratic movement that appeared right in front of the stair landing on the first floor, blocking our descent. It hung in midair, pulsating for a few seconds before fading into nothingness.
“Um, okay. That was weird,” I noted. Was this something good? Something evil? Was it a spirit or something completely different? It moved with intent, one last show of power from an entity inside Willoughby Coal.
Cathi said, “Yeah, I think something is mad. We’d better not push our luck tonight. We’ll be back.”
The shadows, the footsteps, the cold spots, and the EVPs all added up to a successful night of ghost hunting. The spirit we encountered wasn’t shy; it wasn’t afraid to let us know it was there. It was angry or at least seemed that way.
I theorized that sometimes the ghosts try extremely hard to get their voices heard. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe they get upset when they’re unsuccessful. Or we were dealing with multiple spirits, with different agendas and personalities.
Take the Haunted Tour—The Third Floor
When empty, the third floor of Willoughby Coal is like an enormous attic. The wood floor creaks as you tread upon it, and the arched ceiling is crisscrossed with thick beams. The dark redbrick walls are broken only by the six windows paired on three of the four walls. Remnants of old scaffolding remain sticking out from the rafters. The point of the roof ends above the round bricked-in circle that was once open to the outside directly above the front door, the spot of the mysterious Norris death in the 1940s.
The proprietor of Willoughby Coal uses the third floor for a number of different purposes: storage, meetings, it’s even a great spot for photography. But even when empty, it isn’t vacant. Many of the resident spirits of Willoughby Coal like to hang out on the third floor, occasionally making their presence known.
Whenever Cathi and I get the ghost-hunting bug, we head on over to Willoughby Coal. It’s where we teach our classes and do all our training, and whenever we get a new piece of equipment, we try it out there first. It offers as close to a controlled environment as we can hope for, and being accustomed to a place helps us separate normal from paranormal experiences.
In August 2012, we bought an expensive new audio recorder, one we’d been dying to get our hands on for years. We were headed down to Waverly Hills Sanatorium in a week’s time, so we wanted to get familiar with the device before the trip. Late one Monday night, after the kids were safe and snug in their beds and the town was shut down for the night, we met at Willoughby Coal for the christening of “the Oracle,” the name we chose for our new, completely overpriced recorder.
Conditions were superb for spirit communication. Although the Oracle is highly sensitive and picks up sounds barely audible to us, noise contamination from outside was minimal. The occasional train rumbling down the track next to us made a distinct sound we could easily identify later.
I felt called to the third floor—someone or something was waiting for us. I love the third floor. It’s different every time I visit, so I never know what to expect. Voices echo and sound carries up there, making it perfect for EVP work, since spirit voices don’t usually echo and are therefore easily discerned from those of the living.
It was hot and muggy, the air thick and stifling around us. “How about right here?” Cathi asked, pointing to the desk. I pulled up a chair and we proudly set out our new recorder next to an older model.
We began with short-burst sessions, anxious to hear the results immediately. “Hello. It’s me, Cathi. Theresa is here with me tonight and we’re hoping we can talk again.”
I joined in, “You remember me, don’t you? Tonight there’s only the two of us. There’s no need to be afraid. We’re trying to understand your story.”
After a few minutes, with the formalities out of the way, it was time to get specific. We referred back to the history of Willoughby Coal, and specifically the strange death of Don Norris in 1947.
“Mr. Norris, are you here?” Cathi asked.
“If you’re not Don Norris, what is your name?” I asked.
The Oracle responded with, “Mike,” an all-too-familiar name to us. “Mike” shows up at many of our investigations, even coming through at Cathi’s house once.
“Mike? Are you the same Mike from the Ohio State Reformatory?” I almost didn’t want to know. The idea that a ghost can follow you from one place to the next is creepy and disturbing.
“Yes . . . NO!” the Oracle screamed at us. Now we were confused. Was Mike here or was he not? Was someone else here too? I asked Cathi if she thought we were dealing with more than one entity.
“I don’t know—I think there’s someone else trying to come through.”
“Okay, well, we can only talk to one of you at a time. Please, Mike, who’s with you?”
No answer. Maybe Mike was done talking.
“Do you know Mr. Norris?” Cathi inquired of our mystery guest.
“Yes,” the Oracle responded. Now we were intrigued. Was this Don Norris or someone who knew him? We pushed for more information.
Cathi asked, “We know something terrible happened here a long time ago. It was very sad and we still have questions about it. Do you know what happened to Mr. Norris?”
“Yes, he died. How did Mr. Norris die?” I asked.
“MURDER!!” the answer screamed from the voice recorder.
This emotional response shocked us! Cathi looked at me, eyes wide and mouth open.
“Murder? Was Mr. Norris murdered? By whom?” She pushed a little too far.
“AAAGGHH!!!” The screaming response from an angry spirit confirmed our suspicions. We both believe Don Norris was indeed murdered, but we can’t prove it. Was this his spirit crying out for justice?
After that, the Oracle went silent. The heavy, stagnant air thinned a bit and it became easier to breathe. Our new toy had worked like a dream. A terrifyingly wonderful dream. We thanked the spirits for talking to us, asked them to please forgive us if we had upset them, and, for God’s sake, NOT to follow us home. We left.
Theresa: The Enigma of Mike
Cathi Weber and I have a spirit named Mike who follows us around. This is one of the dangers of our field: Spirits can and do attach themselves to the living, sometimes following them home. We believe we first encountered him during an investigation at the Ohio State Reformatory (OSR), and he’s been with us ever since, appearing at investigations at Prospect Place, the Lake County Historical Society, Waverly Hills Sanatorium, and more recently Willoughby Coal.
We have consistently captured EVPs with the same voice claiming to be Mike. He knows us, knows who we are and what we do; he even knows our maiden names! This spirit scares me. He usually becomes very agitated whenever I am around and has sworn and cussed at me on several occasions. With Cathi, he is calmer, less threatening, but I have warned her to be careful with him, to not interact with him, especially at home.
Cathi thought something strange was afoot after the investigation at OSR: weird shadows darting around her kitchen, cold spots developing suddenly, and the intense feeling of being watched. But then she encountered a large black mass in human form in her house. The tall slender shadow man boldly passed by her, without any attempt at subtlety. Was this Mike? To find out, Cathi broke the golden rule of ghost hunters: She did an EVP session in her own home. She wasn’t surprised when Mike came through on audio confirming her suspicions. She told Mike he must not hurt her and must stay away from her children and grandchildren.
As I was writing this in the summer of 2013, Cathi was visiting the zoo with her six-year-old granddaughter Emma. Cathi and I had been communicating throughout the day, something we do regularly, especially while I’m writing about our adventures.
My writing was interrupted by a frantic text from Cathi. She’d been standing with Emma at one of the animal exhibits when the little girl turned to her suddenly and asked, “Did you hear that?”
Cathi had heard nothing but animal noises and asked Emma what she was talking about.
Emma insisted, “That man’s voice in my ear. You didn’t hear him?”
“No, Emma, what man’s voice? What did he say?” Cathi saw the sincerity in her eyes and heard the earnestness in her voice.
“He just said his name, right in my ear, ‘Mike! Mike! Mike!’”
Cathi’s heart sank as an unsettling mixture of anger and terror welled inside her. Could this be the same Mike?
“Are you sure you didn’t hear him, Nana?” Emma asked.
Cathi could tell Emma had heard what she said she had heard, a man’s voice saying “Mike!” three times. Cathi dropped the subject—she didn’t want to frighten Emma—but she was livid. She called me immediately. I had literally just finished reviewing our audio recorder and writing up Mike’s Willoughby Coal cameo.
A few days after the incident at the zoo, Cathi felt the presence of Mike in her home, but this time things felt different, wrong. As she settled into her bed for the night, she felt the bed start to shake, moving rapidly in an unnatural manner. The sensation was sustained, lasting for almost a full minute. She called out to her son, the only other person in the house, who was downstairs at the time. The moment he opened the door to her bedroom, the shaking stopped.
Cathi and I have decided it’s time for Mike to go. We are exploring different avenues to help this spirit move on. We’re not sure we have the power or the right to “get rid of” a ghost or spirit, but a boundary has been crossed and we refuse to be haunted or bullied by someone from the other side.
Last Stop Willoughby
Most horror fans are familiar with the seminal 1960s television series The Twilight Zone and its creator, Rod Serling, but relatively few are aware of the connection between the show and Willoughby, Ohio.
In one of the most memorable and haunting episodes in the classic series, an overworked, underappreciated, mentally exhausted New York City media buyer drifts into an idyllic dream of a simpler time in a quaint little town, Willoughby, that exists only in his dreams.