Nothing captures the imagination more than a good ghost story, and newspapers are always willing to print them to sell papers. The 1922 case of the ghost haunting the Plotner family was covered in several editions of the New Philadelphia paper and carried by newspapers all over Ohio.
John Emerson (1789-1838) immigrated with his family from Ireland around 1820, originally living in New Jersey, and then settled in Tuscarawas County by 1830. His son, Robert Emerson (1812-1883), married Lydia Heller (1819-1887) in August 1837. The couple established their family on a farm in Hummel Valley in York Township, south of the city of New Philadelphia. Robert, in addition to farming, was also practicing medicine though where he received his education is unknown. The family eventually moved to South Broadway in New Philadelphia and the farm’s ownership changed hands.
By the time that Harry Plotner (1890-1968) and his family were renting the farm in the early 1920’s, it was owned by prominent New Philadelphian Lambert E. Fribley (1854-1928). Plotner was responsible for maintaining the farm, feeding the livestock that Fribley kept on the farm, and managing the crops and orchards. Not an easy task for a man who was also working full-time at the American Sheet & Tin Plate Company. Harry, luckily, had the assistance of his wife Elizabeth (1878-1947), young son Robert (1915-1976) and foster daughter Cordelia Butt (1912-?).
The farmhouse was built around the time of the Civil War and Robert Emerson had seen many of his patients there. According to reports by Plotner’s friends and neighbors, Emerson had kept a full-sized human skeleton in the home. Sometime in the spring of 1922 Plotner had complained to coworkers of sounds coming from the home’s basement. There was a shelf, hung on the wall with wire, that would regularly squeak as if moving on its own. One of his coworkers suggested that the cause of the squeaking was mice or rats in the basement. He recommended that Harry coat the shelf in sand so that he could see the trails left by the rodents and possibly find their hiding place.
Harry Plotner followed the advice and, in early May 1922, coated the shelf with the sand hoping to track down the rodents that were hiding in the cellar. When Harry went downstairs to check on the shelf on Wednesday, May 10 he was taken aback by what he saw. Crudely drawn on the shelf were pictures of a skull, thigh bone, and a treasure chest. The following Wednesday, May 17, there was another skull drawn in the sand, along with an arrow that pointed to a spot just under the shelf. Mr. Plotner was intrigued and confused, but not yet convinced, that a spirit was inhabiting the cellar.
While Harry Plotner was visiting his cousin, Jerry Plotner, in New Philadelphia on Thursday, May 18 the alleged ghost became active again. Elizabeth Plotner went into the cellar and noticed that a drain in the cellar had backed up and a mysterious milky froth was bubbling from the drain. Harry returned home and went to the cellar to inspect the drain. Every time that Harry stuck a wire into the drain to investigate the blockage, the shelf would rattle. He then witnessed the word “dig” scrawled in the sand on the shelf, as well as the imprint of two coins, and the letters “H.W.P.” Any doubts Harry had about the supernatural nature of the shelf writings were now dispelled.
As the day went on more and more images appeared drawn in the sand of the shelf. Pictures of an old shoe buckle, a shoe, and a bottle were among them. Harry was now convinced that the shelf was telling him to dig in the basement for some kind of buried treasure, and dig he did. He spent that day, and into Friday, May 19, furiously digging in the cellar and ignoring his farm chores and job at the factory. Finally, after the word “steady” appeared in the sand Harry left the cellar to tend to feeding the animals.
Shortly after, his foster daughter Cordelia called to Harry to return to the cellar after she discovered several new words scrawled into the shelf. The words “stop,” “fill up the hole,” and “don’t dare my treasure,” and “thanks” were all written in the sand on the shelf. Lastly the phrase “You go fast, I said steady” scolded Harry. As the day progressed, more and more words appeared on the sandy shelf, ending with the word “tell.” Harry did not need encouragement though and told everyone about the ghostly words appearing on the sandy shelf in the cellar. Soon the story was reported in the paper and the farm yard was full of the cars of people visiting the farm to witness the haunted shelf.
Meanwhile, the Plotner family refused to sleep in the house at night, instead staying with relatives in New Philadelphia. They would only spend days at the farm while visitor after visitor came to see the spooky writings on the shelf. One of those visitors, Frank Fribley (1880-1960), was the son of the Plotner’s landlord. While visiting the farm Monday, May 22, Frank saw fit to shake the shelf and knock all the sand on the floor in defiance of the alleged spirit. Later that day, the Plotner’s reported that the shelf was again covered with spilled sand and the words “Oh Frank, Oh Frank” were written on the shelf.
The Plotner’s landlord was growing more and more concerned about the number of people wandering around the farm, and how it was distracting Harry from his responsibilities to the farm. He warned the family that he might require them to put up a bond for the security of the farm or, worse yet, they might be evicted. At the same time, newspaper reporters and others were spending nights inside and outside the house hoping to witness some spectral phenomenon. Additionally, law enforcement began to become interested.
Harry Plotner was feeling the pressure being brought to bear on him, and his story, by his landlord, the press, the public, and law enforcement. Theories about how the words were appearing made the rounds in the press, with some accusing the foster daughter of doing it in order to encourage the family to move. Harry and Elizabeth denied that Cordelia would do such a thing and the investigations went nowhere.
Harry’s landlord Mr. Fribley, eager to see either the story disappear or his tenants, wanted things to return to normal on the farm. Harry, worried about being evicted, provided Mr. Fribley with a number of testimonials from neighbors stating what a good tenant he was. Mr. Fribley concurred that the farm was well maintained and kept up during the Plotner’s residence there, but the haunting hysteria had to end. Harry had it reported in the press that he was not going to talk about the haunting anymore and that, as far as he was concerned, the haunting was over.
It is unclear when the Plotner family left the old Emerson Farm, but eventually they made their home in Bolivar. Elizabeth Plotner died in 1947, Harry in 1968, and both are buried at the Fort Laurens Cemetery in Bolivar. Harry’s obituary in the Dover Times Reporter makes no mention at all of his residence in Hummel Valley, the haunting, or even Cordelia. In spite of his death and burial in Bolivar, the obituary claims that he lived in Canton for 59 years. Harry, true to his word, left the ghost of Hummel Valley behind him.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2021.