Skip to main content

Drowned by the Ghosts of Johnstown

Editor's Note: The following was sent to us recently by a reader named Barry Noles, and has been slightly edited for formatting. You can submit your own story of the paranormal by sending it to

My grandfather's brother, Nicholas Esterhazy, was quite young when he died in 1925. Although he was born and raised in Latrobe (Westmoreland County), he and my grandfather went to Johnstown each summer when they were young and stayed with a relative living on Prospect Hill, about a quarter mile north of downtown. Nicholas was obsessed with all things aeronautical-- he loved blimps, zeppelins and airplanes equally. He especially loved to fly kites, and had amassed quite a collection before he died at the age of 12.

It was a breezy day in middle of June, and, as family legend states, Nicholas took his aunt's dog and left the house on Prospect Hill to fly his kite in a clearing on the hills above Johnstown, not far from where the William Penn Avenue runs. Back in those days I believe it was known as the Old Ebensburg Road. My grandfather, Harold Esterhazy, had accompanied Nicholas, but he wasn't much for kite flying, so he soon lost interest and returned to his aunt's house (I believe her last name might have been Namath, or possibly Nemeth. She had come over from Hungary in the 1910s with her husband, who died in a coal mine less than a year later. They did not speak fluent English and, as a result, their last name was spelled a variety of different ways in family records).

When night came and neither Nicholas nor the dog had returned to the house, Mrs. Namath implored Harold to go out and look for them. He set off for the clearing with a lantern, and returned less than thirty minutes later, white as a sheet and crying uncontrollably, accompanied by an old man. The old man was the night caretaker at the St. Petka Serbian cemetery, which was located down the street from the house, and Mrs. Namath assumed that the young boy was crying because he had been yelled at by the caretaker for trespassing. But this was not the case.

The old caretaker, whose name escapes me, explained to Mrs. Namath that he had seen a young boy carrying a lantern through the woods above the cemetery and, concerned for his safety, went to investigate. When he reached the boy, he encountered a ghastly sight-- lying in a clearing in the woods was a little boy and a tiny dog. They both appeared to be dead. Harold was hysterical, and so the caretaker brought him back to Mrs. Namath's house and went downtown to notify the police.
An autopsy was performed on Nicholas, and it revealed that the boy had drowned-- on dry land! Surely this must be some kind of mistake, everyone reasoned-- for the weather was gorgeous and it had not rained in days-- and so the chief of police ordered the coroner to perform an autopsy on the dog as well. Once again, it was revealed that death had been caused by drowning.

It was certainly strange, the coroner agreed, but not impossible. He told Mrs. Namath about a rare phenomenon called "dry drowning", which can occur days after a victim has gone swimming and has gotten water in the lungs. After a few days the fluid buildup causes spasms and the airway constricts. Harold confessed that he had gone swimming with Nicholas the previous afternoon in the creek behind Prospect Hill, but declared that the dog had not accompanied them.

Even though the dry drowning theory did not explain how the dog had died, my family accepted the explanation. Nicholas' body was prepared for burial by a Johnstown undertaker, and the tiny coffin was put on a train and sent back to Westmoreland County, and buried in a churchyard a few miles west of Latrobe. My grandfather died many years later in France during the war. Sometime in the early 1950s, Mrs. Namath died and her house on Prospect Hill was sold to another family. I wasn't born until 1955, so I never had a chance to meet any of them.

My parents and I didn't give much thought to Nicholas' strange death until many years later, when my mother was reading a book about the Johnstown Flood of 1889, in which 2,208 people died. I was still a young boy at the time, and so I figure that what I'm about to tell you must have happened around 1969 or 1970.

"Barry!" cried my mother from the living room. She was waving her book in the air as if the pages were on fire. "Read this!"

According to the book, 777 of the unidentified victims of the flood were buried in the "Plot of the Unknown" at Grandview Cemetery in Westmont, just west of Johnstown.
"So what?" I asked. She told me to keep reading.

Well, according to the book, before the unknown victims were finally laid to rest at Grandview Cemetery, they had been dug up from shallow makeshift graves on Prospect Hill, which had been known as Camp Hastings after the flood. It was here, in the days and weeks immediately following the grim disaster, where Clara Barton and thousands of volunteers had treated the wounded and buried the unidentified victims. But that wasn't the part of the story that had caused my mother to scream, it was the following passage, which I was able to locate years later on a website devoted to the Johnstown flood:

"The guards at Camp Hastings, near the Prospect Hill burying ground, reported today that they are having great trouble with the dogs that are constantly disturbing the dead interred at that burying ground. Over 100 dogs were driven from the place last night, and several of them were killed. The graves so hastily dug there are very shallow, and the dogs have been uncovering and devouring the dead."

The date of that original article? June 18, 1889. The day Nicholas died? June 14. Not identical, but close enough to change my mind about the "dry drowning" theory.

Here's what I now believe; that the spirits of Johnstown were still angry about having their corpses destroyed by dogs, and when a young boy and his dog trod the sacred ground, the nameless dead reached out from beyond the grave and exacted their revenge.

Popular posts from this blog

The Hunt for the Osage River Monster

It's spring of 1844 in St. Clair County, Missouri. A mile or so from the banks of the muddy Osage River a pioneer settler named Matthew Arbuckle is plowing his field when he hears a banshee-like wail in the distance, coming from the direction of the river. Shrill and unearthly, the demonic howl fills the farmer with terror. Wasting no time, he unhitches his plow, jumps on the back of his horse and heads for the hills.

One hour later Arbuckle arrives in Papinville, a town fifteen miles from his farm. The exhausted horse is white with foam; its rider white with terror. In a gasping voice he tells of making an escape from an awful monster. Although he had not seen the beast, he had heard its voice, from which he could tell that it was a monster of immense proportions.

Those who heard Arbuckle's story were bewildered, and those who did not know the pioneer personally could tell, just by the bloodless pallor of his trembling skin, that the man was not telling a lie. Whatever terrify…

The Ticking Tombstone of Landenberg

If you look closely at a map of Pennsylvania, you'll see an anomalous semi-circular border at the extreme southeastern part of the state. This circle, known officially as the "Twelve Mile Circle", serves as the border between the Keystone State and Delaware. Much of the strange circle is surrounded by Chester County, one of the three original Pennsylvania counties created by William Penn in 1682. While there are many historical points of interest in Chester County, few are strange or as steeped in legend as the Ticking Tombstone.

Near the London Tract Meeting House in Landenberg is an old graveyard which contains a tombstone which is said to make eerie ticking noises, much like the ticking of a pocketwatch. Landenberg locals claim that the ticking is the result of two very famous surveyors who arrived in town during the 1760s- Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.  A young child supposedly swallowed a valuable pocketwatch owned by Mason and later died, and the boy's head…

The Incest Capital of the World?

At the far eastern edge of Kentucky, nestled in Appalachia, resides Letcher County. In spite of its isolation and poverty (approximately 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line), Letcher County has managed to grow at an impressive rate, from a population of just 9,172 in 1900 to a present-day population of nearly 25,000. However, even if Letcher County tripled or quadrupled its present population, there's still a pretty good chance that virtually all of the county's inhabitants would be related to each other-- thanks to one particularly fertile family whose astounding rate of reproduction can put even the friskiest rabbit to shame.

Around the year 1900, Letcher County was the home of a man by the name of Jason L. Webb, who made national headlines for having the one of the largest families in the world. According to newspaper reports of the era, Jason had 19 children, 175 grandchildren, and 100 great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more impressive was his b…