"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Morristown Ghost; or, Beware of Goblins Bearing Gifts

"Her figure ’fore me. Now I ha’ ’t--how strong
Imagination works! how she can frame
Things which are not! methinks she stands afore me,
And by the quick idea of my mind,
Were my skill pregnant, I could draw her picture.
Thought, as a subtle juggler, makes us deem
Things supernatural, which have cause
Common as sickness."
-John Webster, "The White Devil"

Whether we acknowledge it or not, many of us have a deep-seated yearning to believe there are such things as ghosts. Many people have an even more fervent desire to believe there is such a thing as easy money. Put those two wishes together, and you're almost guaranteed to have the public flocking at your door. One of the best illustrations of this is the curious case of Ransford (or Rainsford) Rogers and the Morristown Ghost. Rogers, a native of Connecticut, was a schoolteacher in New York state. He was poor and only semi-literate, but he had, in the words of a later biographer, "the power of inspiring confidence...very affable in his manners and had a genius adequate to prepossess people in his favor...very ambitious to maintain an appearance of possessing profound knowledge"--a polite way of saying he was a born grifter.

Our story had its origins in a legend Morristown, New Jersey residents had long cherished regarding nearby Schooley's Mountain. It was said that during the Revolutionary War, Tories had buried for safekeeping large sums of money in the mountain, which had never been reclaimed. Over the years, a number of efforts had been made to find this treasure, but they all failed due to the "hobgoblins and apparitions" who were guarding the horde. This area of New Jersey was notable for a fervent belief in witches, ghosts, fairies and the like. Rogers, as we shall see, found a novel way to make use of both these local traditions.

In 1788, he "providentially" made the acquaintance of two men from New Jersey who were hoping to find someone to help them uncover this lost Tory treasure. What was needed, they said, was someone who could negotiate with these troublesome hobgoblins, someone "whose knowledge descended into the bowels of the earth, and who could reveal the secret things of darkness."

Rogers promptly assured them that he was just the man they were looking for. In short, he proposed to lead the good citizens of New Jersey on a supernatural treasure hunt.

By August of that year, he had relocated to Morristown. He brought with him a crony (named, with a nice touch of irony, Goodenough,) to help him with this elaborate plot. As many locals had for years been dreaming of finding the Tory gold, Rogers had no difficulty gathering together a band of about forty suckers like-minded gold-seekers, who became known as the "Fire Club," or simply "The Company." These were, we are told, Morristown's most honorable citizens, "honest, judicious simple church members." The Company included an "eminent jurist," two justices of the peace, two doctors, and a retired colonel.

Rogers gathered his comrades together and "communicated to them the solemnity of the business and the intricacy of the undertaking and the fact that there had been several persons murdered and buried with the money in order to retain it in the earth." He likewise informed them that those spirits must be raised and conversed with before the money could be obtained. He declared he could by his art and power raise these apparitions and that the whole company might hear him converse with them and satisfy themselves there was no deception. This was received with belief and admiration by the whole company without every investigating whether it was probable or possible." When Goodenough secretly accentuated Rogers' oration with some spooky rappings on the walls and ceilings and a sepulchral cry of "Push forward!" everyone was convinced that in this humble New England pedagogue, they had found themselves a genuine sorcerer.

Despite his lack of education, Rogers had somehow obtained some basic knowledge of "chymistry," which allowed him to convincingly pass himself off as someone gifted with deep supernatural powers. He concocted a chemical brew which he buried in the earth. After a few hours, the mixture--apparently some sort of crude gunpowder--would "break and cause great explosions which appeared dismal in the night and would cause great timidity." One night, Rogers and Goodenough secretly laid out in a field a design showing "a great variety of paths--circular, elliptical, square, and serpentine...That evening, when the dupes themselves saw these fanciful paths, they were convinced that a thousand men could not have performed the task...and they unhesitatingly ascribed it to demoniac power." These "uncommon curiosities" convinced even the most skeptical that Rogers was in communication with the Dark Side, and made his group "anxious to proceed."

One night in November 1788, the group convened in some local woods reputed to be haunted. They gathered in a circle, the scene lit only by some candles that cast "a ghastly, melancholy, direful gloom through the woods." Suddenly, they heard "a most impetuous explosion from the earth" nearby. Flames rose from the blast site, "presenting to the eye many dreadful objects." Hideous groans, presumably from ghosts, could be heard. Rogers declared that although these restless spirits were invisible to the rest of the group, they were speaking to him of the immense treasure they were guarding.

The ghosts, he related, were willing to reveal the hiding places of the money...if the price was right. Before the Company would be allowed to see the treasure, they would each have to pay the spirits £12 in silver or gold. It apparently did not occur to anyone to ask what use incorporeal beings would have for cold cash, because, we are told, members of the group positively fought over "who should be the first in delivering the money to the spirits." A number of these worthies went into debt in order to pay their ghostly bribes. The spirits also declared that the group must "acknowledge Rogers as their conductor, and adhere to his precepts; and as they knew all things, they would detect the man that attempted to defraud his neighbor."

This spectacular demonstration of ghostly power so cowed the assembly that they looked to their leader "for protection to defend them from the raging spirits; and after several ceremonies Rogers dispelled the apparitions, and they all returned from the field wondering at the miraculous things that happened, being fully persuaded of the existence of hobgoblins and apparitions. By this time they could revere Rogers, and thought him something more than man."

The bundle of money was left under the stump of a tree, where the "spirits" instantly scooped it up, lest their pigeons have second thoughts about being plucked.

By March 1789, Rogers' flock was naturally impatient to see a return on their investment, and they became increasingly insistent that the treasure of Schooley's Mountain should be excavated. In reply, the ghosts advised them to simply put all their trust in Rogers, and to follow him implicitly in all things.

Delays, however, could only be made for so long, and Rogers finally was forced to name May 1st as the great day when the ghosts of Schooley's Mountain would lead them to the treasure. On the night of April 30, the Company assembled in an open field outside of town to await instructions from the Great Beyond. Two "ghosts" appeared some distance away, in a very angry temper. They delivered a sharp lecture to the group, accusing them of bad conduct and violating their vows of secrecy. They closed their furious harangue by declaring that as punishment, they were delaying--perhaps indefinitely--permission for the Company to excavate the loot.

The Company was understandably disappointed by this setback, but their faith in their leader was unshaken. Perhaps they felt they had gone too far to turn back now.

Encouraged by his success, Rogers began to cast his ghostly web farther. With the help of two friends, he pulled much the same stunt in another town near Morristown, this time relying on "spirit writing" to communicate with the ghosts. Late one night in June of 1789, Rogers wrapped himself up in a white sheet and rode over to one of his candidates for Company II. He summoned the man by rapping on his doors and windows, announcing that he was a ghost come not to haunt the man, but to enrich him. He explained that he was "in charge of an immense treasure." He would like to give this wealth to some local organization, but he could not do so until certain upstanding church members banded together to take charge of the money.

The gentleman he visited ate his story up. The man gathered together all the other men the "ghost" had named as suitable guardians of the treasure, and all twenty-six of them happily forked over their twelve pounds each. After all, they told themselves, it was an investment that would soon pay off big. Rogers led them in a series of seances where they received many encouraging "notes" from the spirit world.

It did not end well, however. The menfolk were entirely under Rogers' spell, but their wives were a good deal more skeptical.

As part of Rogers' rituals designed to fill his flock with the proper fear and respect of the ghosts, he had pulverized some animal bones, and gave them to one of his new Company, "declaring that it was the dust of their bodies, and each man must have some of the powder in a paper sealed, as a token of the spirits’ approbation, and that he was one of the company. This powder was to be kept secret, and no one touch it upon his peril." One of the group, Alexander Carmichael, accidentally left his paper in his house, where it was discovered by his wife. She opened it, and when she saw the contents she "feared to touch it supposing it to be witchcraft: She went immediately to the priest for advice--he, not knowing its composition was unwilling to touch it for fear it might have some operation upon him.

“When her husband discovered what she had done, he was much terrified, declaring she had ruined him forever, in breaking open that paper. This made her more solicitous to know the contents; and she declaring not to divulge anything, he told he: the whole proceedings; she insisted on it they were serving the devil, and thought it her duty to put an end to such proceedings."

This setback should have inspired Rogers and his co-conspirators to just take their ill-gotten gains and run. However, by now they were thoroughly drunk with power and had an arrogant confidence in their continued success, and they carried on as before.

Alas, even the best scams must one day come to an end, and the Morristown Ghost was no exception. As it happened, it was Rogers' own careless stupidity that caused the downfall of his little enterprise. One night when he performed his ghost impersonation for the benefit of one of his followers, he made the mistake of having too much to drink beforehand. His "spirit costume" was put on more carelessly than usual, and he made a few unghostly sort of errors in his conversation. The lady of the house grew suspicious of their spirit visitor, and spied on him through one of the windows, and saw enough to confirm her worst suspicions.

After the "ghost" had left, she asked her husband "My dear, do spirits wear shoe buckles? Those were very like Ransford Rogers' buckles!"

The couple traced Rogers' footprints to the fence where he had tied his horse, and then traced the animal's hoofprints to the schoolteacher's home, and then to the stable of the horse's owner, where they found a discomfited Ransford Rogers. The game was well and truly up.

Rogers was arrested and thrown in prison. However, like any good con man, he asserted his complete innocence so vehemently and convincingly that one of his True Believers put up his bail money. Rogers rewarded this confidence in his probity by immediately fleeing town. After being arrested a second time, we are told he "acknowledged his faults and confessed." After unburdening his conscience, Rogers "absconded, and under the auspices of Fortune saved himself by flight from the malice of a host." His cohorts in fraud seem to have gotten away completely. The two Companies had between them given Rogers some $1300, "none of which was ever recovered by the unfortunate and humbugged company."

Despite this narrow escape, our hero had developed an irresistible taste for crime. The next we hear from him was nine years later. In York County, Pennsylvania, a man named John Dady was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for swindling a number of people through various faux-supernatural means. Among his accomplices was a man calling himself "Rice Williams," who turned out to be none other than Ransford Rogers. True to form, this slipperiest of fish somehow managed to escape the long arm of the law, and subsequently disappeared from history. Although his ultimate fate is unrecorded, it seems virtually certain that he continued to pull different swindles, in different towns, under different false names.

It's hard to keep a good ghost down.

[Note: The tale of the Morristown Ghost is preserved in several contemporary pamphlets. The most famous account was written in 1826 by a prominent almanac maker named David Young. However, the earliest, most detailed exposé was published by an anonymous author in 1792. It is an extremely rare pamphlet, as most of the copies were bought up and destroyed by the son of one of Rogers' dupes, who was understandably anxious to bury this embarrassing proof of his father's gullibility. Many students of this case believe this pamphlet was written by Ransford Rogers himself, squeezing one last bit of fun and profit out of his most famous escapade.

I'd like to think this was the case.]

1 comment:

  1. That was a good story. As usual with con-men, as you pointed out, he should have taken the money and run - but he stuck around for more money.

    I like the bit about "a great variety of paths--circular, elliptical, square, and serpentine...That evening, when the dupes themselves saw these fanciful paths, they were convinced that a thousand men could not have performed the task." Does this sound like crop circles? Instead of spirits, they are now supposed to be made by aliens.


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