In 1896 Ceely Rose killed her whole family with rat poison. She did it for a man who promptly left her. Now her murderous spirit haunts the house at Malabar Farm which replaced her house.

Another historic murder in the farm fields outside Mansfield was committed by Phoebe Wise, a well-known eccentric who wore costume jewelry and yellow taffeta with train, and carried on conversations with her horse and dogs. She eventually killed a young man whose infatuation with her turned into a violent obsession, shooting him with her Winchester .32. She was a distant cousin of Louis Bromfield, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who put Malabar Farm on the map, and he would eventually write about both Phoebe Wise and Ceely Rose--two strong-willed, eccentric, misunderstood women who seemed born to tragedy. (For more details about Phoebe Wise, and the place where her ghost is still seen on Reformatory Road, click here.)

The following account was sent to me by Mark Jordan, the author of a play about Ceely Rose which was performed in the barn at Malabar Farm.

I am one who believes that ninety percent of all the ghost stories floating around are a mixture of urban legends and overactive imaginations. It's that other ten percent that makes me wonder... At any rate, I can report on what happened to me when we produced my play Ceely. The play was staged in the large timber-frame barn across from the Big House at Malabar Farm state park. The original Rose Farmhouse is just around the corner and over the hill, about a quarter of a mile away from the barn. It is currently occupied by a park employee, so I have not yet had a chance to go inside it.

Anyway, Ceely's father was the final operator of the old Schrack Mill, which was located near the Rose farmhouse, behind where the Malabar Youth Hostel is now. After Ceely murdered her family with poison, the farm and mill were acquired by Clem Herring, who tore down the mill and used the beam in the contruction of a large barn near his house. Herring's farm was bought in the 1940's by Pulitzer prize-winning author Louis Bromfield, who added on to the house and added several more outbuildings around the barn. He named the farm 'Malabar Farm'. It is now a state park open to the public. In the mid-1990's, the barn was struck by lightning and a large portion of it burned down. A new replica of the old barn was built in its place, and they incorporated original beams where possible. Thus, parts of the mill Ceely's father ran are in the barn where they play was being produced. And you can see the Rose farmhouse from the windows in the back of the barn.

Due to the high amount of activities that go on in the barn, plus due to the driving distance for most of my cast members, we started rehearsals at the Mansfield Playhouse (who was co-producer along with Malabar Farm State Park). A couple of weeks before opening, we moved rehearsals down to the barn. Rehearsing a spooky play at night in a building with "personal" attachments to the story was more than a little unnerving, to say the least. Combining with that the cold nights of October, the falling leaves, the dark and foggy valley, and the occasional bat in the barn made the experience downright chilling.

But it got more interesting one evening during the rehearsal of the intense scene where Ceely decides to poison her mother a second time. I was standing back from the stage as the actresses playing Ceely and her mother Rebecca were running the scene. I began moving to different spots in the barn to check the view from different angles. At one point, I ended up down near the right corner of the stage, and as I looked across the stage, I could see that one of the lights up in the rafters on the other side was slowly, steadily pulsing on and off. It was the last light on a connected string of lights running along the rafters where the support beams rise up from the floors. The rest of the lights were fine, shining as normal. At first, I wondered if the light was shorting out, but it didn't do that sort of flickering. This was a slow, steady pulsing on, off, on, off. I tried to keep focused on the scene, but even after I started moving around again, I noticed that the light kept going through the end of the scene, where Ceely kills her mother. At that point, I looked away to write down some notes for the actors. By the time the next scene had begun, the light had returned to a steady shine. A few nights later, it was out completely, so I thought perhaps it was some odd electrical short. The next night it was on again. I noticed it pulsing again one performance night before the show started.

More interesting yet was the Sunday before we opened. I stayed late that night by myself in the barn to hang up pieces of black fabric along the edge of the barn to cover up the lower area where animals were still kept. The fabric couldn't block all the animal noises, but at least it cut them down some! As I was stapling up fabric, I came up to a support beam where we had put up an expiramental sign box. I should explain, one of the audience's favorite things about the play was how spooky the opening was--we would turn out all the house lights (including the pulser!) and in the dim darkness, whispering would start in one corner backstage and gradually spread across the stage and down the side of the barn, which was also part of our backstage area. The audience could only make out certain words in the murmurring, such as "murder", "poison", and "tetched" which is an old local word for "different" or "crazy." It established the uncanny mood of the play instantly, but I must confess, it wasn't the original plan-- My original idea was to have a bunch of signs made which would light up, showing various words and phrases related to the case-- the same words and phrases we ended up whispering. My tech director Dan and his father designed and built one of these boxes and had hooked it up for testing. It lit up showing the words "mysterious deaths", which were taken from one of the original newspaper articles about the killings. It worked well, but soon after that, we discovered that our rented lighting equipment would not have enough channels to accomodate all the different lights. So at that point, we cut the signs and necessity led to the idea of the whispering. We left the "mysterious deaths" sign hooked up to the light board; we just didn't program it into any of the light cues. So as I was stapling up fabric, I decided that I would just cover the sign as I went along instead of taking it down and unhooking it. That night, it was very cold in Pleasant Valley, lows in the upper 20's, and it wasn't a whole lot warmer inside the barn. In fact, I would guess it was in the low forties in the barn because I could see my breath as the temperatures plummetted outside. Since I knew I was going to be there a while, I turned all the stage lights on to raise the temperature a few degrees. I left the sign's channel turned all the way down to 'zero'. It was somewhere around 1:00 a.m. when I was bringing a piece of fabric to be stapled next to the sign. As I reached the place where the fabric went, I noticed off to the side that the sign did a brief, weak flash, lighting up and going out very quickly. Stunned, I stood there a moment then backed up to see if I had somehow merely seen a reflection. I moved all around the area where I had been walking, and in no area was there a reflection which looked anything like what I had seen. I went over to the light board and checked it. That channel was still turned down. And turned it up to full and the sign lit up as normal, and when I turned it out, it worked fine. Nothing in the system seemed to account for the sudden flash-- as far as I could tell, no other lights in the building, including the stage lights, did anything when the sign flashed, so it can't be easily explained away as a power surge. One thing is for sure, it was spooky, but I decided that I wasn't going to panic and leave, or we'd have to give up the whole show. So I calmly said, "Thanks for the company," and went back to hanging up fabric, covering up the sign. If it ever flashed again under the fabric, no one could see it.

Last but far from least, was later that week when our entire sound system went berserk just a couple of days from opening. I was running the sound board myself, when suddenly, it no longer emitted sound. I called a halt to the rehearsal and fiddled with the equipment, plugging and unplugging lines, twiddling dials and everything. The sound system which just moments before had worked fine, would now emit no sound except for an occasional burst of static from the speakers. I resumed rehearsal, sans sound, and called my tech director that night. The next evening, he brought down a replacement board, CD player, and amplifier. Assuming the problem would be simple, he unplugged each original piece of equipment one at a time and plugged in each new piece, trying to isolate which part of the chain failed. He found that he couldn't isolate any piece of equipment as the culprit. None of them seemed to be working. After issuing a few obscenities at the recalcitrant equipment, Dan muttered, "That's not possible," and began unhooking everything. By this point, the rehearsal was late starting and it looked like I was on the verge of having the whole production sunk by three pieces of equipment that somehow did the impossible and died all at the exact same moment, just days before paying customers would be flooding the barn, expecting to see a show. Feeling a little foolish, but so desperate that I didn't care, I stepped off to the side and said quietly, "Please, Ceely! We cannot tell your story unless you help us." I went back over to the booth, where Dan was finishing hooking up the three replacement pieces. He turned them on and everything worked fine. After that, I decided to take no chances and made it part of my business every night to thank Ceely for her help and cooperation, and we never had any further strange equipment problems (except for the night we jammed the board by turning it off wrong, but that was definitely my fault!).

There are those who will say I'm telling tales to boost the publicity for my play, for we are indeed performing it again in October 2004. That's why I want to acknowledge that aspect. But I hope that perceptive readers will feel the honesty of what I've told here. If I were making up stories, I'd expect to put something a little less mundane in than flashing lights and the like. No ghostly apparitions or blood on the walls here, I'm afraid. And I won't argue with anyone who can demonstrate that these were merely misperceptions or misunderstood events-- but I tried to explain them away to myself, and could not build a convincing case. My friend Dan surmises that maybe all the strange electrical phenomena were somehow related to static electricity, but I don't know. That doesn't easily explain why all the odd things settled down after I started thanking Ceely for her help.

Now that the playhouse uses Malabar Farm for productions, the ghost of Ceely Rose has apparently become a "theater ghost." Mark mentioned visiting Ceely's grave at the Lima State Hospital, where she spent her final years, and getting a response of sorts when a shaft of light fell on the tombstone.

In addition to Ceely, Mark is now staging the second play in his "Mansfield Trilogy," Phoebe. The third will be called Louie and will be about the famous writer who used both of their lives as material for his plays.

Phoebe Wise: The Ghost of Reformatory Road
Bandits, Stalkers, and Murder: Life of the Tetched Phoebe Wise by Brett J. Mitchell
Mark Sebastian Upcoming Productions of Ceely and Phoebe



Mitchell, Brett J. Bandits, Stalkers, & Murder: The Life of the Tetched Phoebe Wise. Mansfield, OH: Instantpublisher, 2005.