Going Ghost Hunting? Beware of Pareidolia!

It’s a cold December night, and Bill and I are trudging along a country road just outside of Prospect looking for an abandoned barn. We have flashlights with us, but we’re not using them because we don’t want to attract unwanted attention.

“Okay,” I say. “It should be up here in this stand of trees.”

We push our way through the brush, and in a few minutes we’re in a clearing with the outline of the barn and a few other buildings just barely visible in front of us. For the moment the road we’ve just left is free of traffic, and the only sound is the winter wind blowing through the bare branches of the trees.

“So, um, what do we do now?” Bill says.

“I don’t know,” I tell him. “Maybe look inside? Take a few photos?”

We poke around. It turns out there’s nothing even remotely interesting inside the barn or the other buildings.

Bill says, “So is this place supposed to be haunted or what?”

“No, not that I’ve heard. It’s just some old abandoned buildings someone told me about. I thought it might be cool to come out here and check it out.” If Bill could see me in the dark, he’d see me shrugging.

“Well, take some photos and let’s get out of here.”

“Why, are you scared?” I say, teasing.

“No, but it’s cold, man!”

A half an hour later we’re warming up and eating burritos at the Taco Bell on Delaware Avenue.

“I’ll tell you what,” Bill says. “When you look at those pics later, I’ll bet you’ll see something spooky.”

At the time I was skeptical, but Bill ending up being right. When I got home and opened the photos in Photoshop, I saw what appeared to be a spectral face peering out from between the slats of one of the smaller buildings:

pareidolia
The image in question. It’s only when the section is blown up that the ‘face’ is plainly visible.

Is it a ghost? Maybe. But there’s another explanation for this image that’s worth discussing: pareidolia. Put simply, pareidolia is the natural tendency to see or hear something we recognize as human (e.g. a face or a voice) in what is essentially random or vague stimuli.

man in the moon
Seeing the man in the moon is a well-known example of pareidolia.

Ghost hunters often take copious photos and record hours of audio while in the field with the intention of analyzing this data later. They make the assumption – arguably a false assumption – that their equipment will pick up images and sounds they themselves may not detect. As a result, when they go over their data later, they’re already primed to see and hear patterns that are perhaps just not there. This isn’t to say that unexplained images or sounds can always be explained away with pareidolia, but it’s certainly something ghost hunters should keep in mind.

Personally, I don’t think that the image I photographed that night in December is a ghost. Still, I have to admit that I did get a little chill when I spotted that otherworldy ‘face’ staring at me from between the slats of that building. Bill was right; ghost or no ghost, the image was definitely spooky.

- Josh Simpkins

An Ice Cold Murder

Note: In May of 2012, Marie Felt Christiano sent me the following message:

I graduated Harding in ’72. During the ’60s the Girl Scouts took a tour of the old city hall and there was an ax on display that had fingerprints on it from a murder between neighbors on Fairground Street across from the east entrance to Fair Park. One house is gone, but the other may still be there. I remember it because I lived in Fair Park, and the two small houses were both still there at that time. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when the murder occurred.

Curious about the story, I posted a message on the Facebook group “Growing up in Marion, Ohio” to see if anyone remembered the names or dates associated with this tragic story, and many people responded. GUIMO member Dennis Fabian in particular was very helpful in digging up the original newspaper articles as they appeared in The Marion Star. The Marion County Historical Society also generously shared high quality scans of the original Star articles.

Just before Christmas

 A Canadian immigrant originally from London, Ontario, The Marion Star article described Mrs. Stewart as "semi-invalid" and weighing only 115 pounds at the time of her murder. Image scan courtesy of the Marion County Historical Society.
A Canadian immigrant originally from London, Ontario, The Marion Star article described Mrs. Stewart as “semi-invalid” and weighing only 115 pounds at the time of her murder. Image courtesy of the Marion County Historical Society.

Wednesday, December 23rd, 1959, was a cold day in Marion. The weather forecast called for a high of only 31, and there was a chance of snow. Perfect Christmas weather, in other words. People in Marion were busy with the last minute shopping and baking and choir rehearsals and school plays that fill the days leading up to Christmas. Amid this hustle and bustle, Willis Stewart went to check on his widowed, 83-year-old step-mother, Rose Stewart, in her East Fairground Street home. Nothing could have prepared him for what he would find there.

Mrs. Stewart was dead. She had been strangled and struck multiple times with an ax, and her killer was on the loose in Marion.

The Murderer

As hard as it may be for us to imagine today, Mrs. Stewart did not have running water in her home. As a result, she relied on her neighbor, a sporadically employed 52-year-old named Daniel Hunter, to carry it to her twice a day (once in the morning and once in the evening). Early in the investigation, police noted that Mr. Hunter, most likely the last person to have seen Mrs. Stewart alive, showed very little emotion about Mrs. Stewart’s murder and very little interest in the investigation.

When police later sat down for a formal interview with Mr. Hunter later on the 23rd, he insisted that Mrs. Stewart had been alive and well when he had gone by with water that morning. Police weren’t buying Mr. Hunter’s story, though. They had noticed some of the buckets of water in the house were frozen, and they concluded that Mrs. Stewart had been dead since at least the previous night. After further questioning, Hunter finally confessed to murdering Mrs. Stewart on Tuesday evening, and police promptly charged him with first-degree murder.

Hunter reportedly showed no signs of concern or remorse when he was arrested. When asked to give his profession during booking, Hunter joked with policemen that it was "Just set'n around." Image scan courtesy of the Marion County Historical Society.
Hunter reportedly showed no signs of concern or remorse when he was arrested. When asked to give his profession during booking, Hunter joked with policemen that it was “Just set’n around.” Image courtesy of the Marion County Historical Society.

During his police interview, Hunter dispassionately laid out the details of the murder as it happened on the evening of the 22nd:

Hunter said he carried the two buckets of water into the kitchen, put them down, went back out to the rear porch, picked up a long-handled ax that Mrs. Stewart kept there, went back in and stuck her on the head with it.

He next went back out to the rear porch and found an electric light cord which he took back in and wrapped around the neck of the prone woman.

After wrapping the cord around his victim’s neck…he struck her again a number of times with the ax but could not remember how many times.

One of the most troubling aspects of the crime was the lack of a clear motive. After killing Mrs. Stewart, Hunter rummaged through her house; when police asked him what he had been searching for, he replied, “I guess I was looking for money.” Finding none, he left empty handed, locking the door behind him.

Mrs. Stewart, it seems, had died for nothing.

Mr. Hunter’s Sentence

Mr. Hunter initially pled not guilty to the first degree murder charge. Just one week before his trial was scheduled to begin, however, he agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder. Judge Paul Smith sentenced him to life in prison on June 30th, 1960. The entire proceedings, from the time Hunter entered the courtroom until the judge passed sentence, took just seven minutes.

Despite his life sentence, it appears Mr. Hunter died a free man in 1976. His death certificate lists a Pearl Street address as his residence.

The Ax

There’s also one loose thread I should mention: the ax that Ms. Christiano saw hanging on the wall. I got in touch with Kathy Caudill, who has been the property manager for the Marion City Police for the past 17 years. Unfortunately, she was unable to find out what had happened to the ax. However, she has promised to let me know if she hears anything.

-Josh Simpkins

_______

Sources:

The Marion Star, December 24th, 1959

The Marion Star, June 30th, 1960