Buried Alive!

It was a cool October night just before midnight, and the crowd gathered at a grave near the haunted forest. As they looked on, pallbearers lowered a casket into the ground and began shoveling dirt on top of it. No one in the crowd made an effort to stop them, even though they all knew the man inside the coffin was still alive.

The man buried alive was local radio personality Scott Shawver, and on October 13th – Friday the 13th to be exact! – of 1989, the 23-year-old Marion native was a willing participant in his own funeral. The 24-hour burial was all part of an effort to promote the Marion Jaycees’ annual haunted forest fund-raiser out on Pole Lane Road.¹

Caption: According to the Marion Star, after burying Scott the pallbearers placed a wreath and a tombstone on the grave. The tombstone read: “Here lies a man who never died. Just buried alive.”
According to the Star, after burying Scott the pallbearers placed a wreath and a tombstone on the grave. The tombstone read: “Here lies a man who never died. Just buried alive.” Source: Bill Sinden / The Marion Star

I first ran across this story in an old Marion Star. My interest piqued, I pestered Scott into letting me interview him, and a few weeks ago he invited me out to the WMRN station (he’s still in the radio business) to discuss the nearly 30-year-old stunt.

The idea, he told me, was for people to come out to watch him get buried alive and then stay for the haunted forest. It was also good way for WMRN to promote Scott himself since he had recently been hired as the station’s new morning guy.

He told me the “casket” was, in reality, more like a good-sized wooden shipping box. There were two little hatches, one over his face and one over his feet, which he could open and close. Both hatches had air tubes going all the way to the surface, and people could look down these tubes and see him lying there. The box was also outfitted with a little light, a ventilation fan and working telephone.

Scott estimated he received a couple hundred phone calls in the 24 hours he was underground. He said the phone rang and rang, the callers generally asking inane questions like “Are you really down there?” and “How do you pee?” He said he eventually had to take it off the hook so that he could get some sleep.

A magician named Bill Shayner supervised the whole process. Although Scott said he’s not claustrophobic, he did request for a backhoe to be standing by in case the box collapsed. However, as Mr. Shayner was preparing Scott for the burial, Scott noticed there was still no backhoe.

“Where’s the backhoe?”

“Well,” Bill said, “that was the responsibility of the Jaycees…”

In the end, however, the whole event went off without a hitch, and the next night, a group of men dug him back up (sans backhoe).

Today Scott is the senior vice president of programming for Marion and Mansfield at WMRN as well as co-owner of Marion’s iconic OK Café. He told me that even now people occasionally come up to him and say, “You were the guy who got buried!”

death's head spacer

Believe it or not, Scott was not the first person in Marion to make the Star for being buried alive.

On September 4th, 1929, the paper ran a story about a man calling himself the “Great Pasha” who was also buried alive in Marion County.²

great pasha

For those unaware, Marion was once home to an amusement park, Crystal Lake, which was located north of town on Rt. 4. During a carnival sponsored by the local Elks Lodge, the Great Pasha was buried alive for two hours.³

Unlike Scott Shawver, the Great Pasha claimed his coffin, once sealed, had only a limited amount of air in it. In fact, the public was invited to inspect his coffin for air tanks or hoses before he was lowered “into the earth six feet and covered with fine earth.” Once buried, he claimed to work a spell on himself that reduced his heart rate to three or four beats a minute.

Whatever the case, the Great Pasha wowed the large crowd when he was dug up and revived two hours later. According to author Charles J. Shields, The Great Pasha performed his act all over the country until the day his show coffin became a real one:

Then…in another city, [his assistant] ordered the Pasha to rise, but he remained still. She repeated the command. He was motionless. When she screamed, it dawned on the audience that the Great Pasha was dead.

- Josh Simpkins

Notes:

¹ The now-defunct Jaycees are a community service organization that was once active in the Marion area.

² The Great Pasha was not a local. He claimed to be Egyptian, but he was actually just a guy from the Bronx named Sam Goldberg. Interestingly, Goldberg was managed for years by Arch Capote, father of In Cold Blood author Truman Capote.

³ The Star article states that local undertaker WC Boyd assisted in burying Pasha. The Boyd Funeral Home, which was founded by Mr. Boyd in 1922, is still in business and located on Columbia Street.

Sources:
Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke
The Marion Star, October 15, 1989
The Marion Star, September 4, 1929
“Doing in the Great Pasha — plus a deleted scene from Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” by Charles J. Shields

 

A Gruesome Find

Imagine you’re going about your day when you come across something completely unexpected. Something, well, gruesome. The following stories, culled from Marion’s past, demonstrate that even in the most mundane situations can take a horrific turn.

boys find human head headline medium
The May 21st, 1934, Marion Star headline.

What the Boys Playing in the Dump Found

On May 21st, 1934, five boys playing at the city dumping grounds on Marion-Agosta Road found a human head. The boys, all of whom lived on Bennett Street, notified police. The county coroner, Dr. Axthelm, examined the head and determined it had been discarded by a medical school. According to the Star:

 He expressed the opinion that it is an elderly woman, probably a Negro. The head and some of the preserved face muscles were covered with a coat of shellac, and the veins and arteries were filled with a colored paste to enable students to study them.

Dr. Axthelm planned to forward the head to the Ohio State medical school.

The Discovery in the Erie Rail Yards

Strangely, on the very same day as the human head discovery, railroad workers unloading sheet metal at the Erie yards discovered three men in one of the freight cars. Two of the men, Arthur Wells and Leo Shultis, both of Poughkeepsie, had died instantly when a load of metal shifted and fell on them. The third man, Thomas O’Brien of Boston, was found alive but later died from his injuries at the city hospital. The three men had met up in Sharon, Pennsylvania, and were hoping to make their way to Mitchell, South Dakota, where Mr. O’Brien had family.

This story appeared in the Marion Star during the Great Depression when it was common for men to ride the rails from town to town looking for work.

The Murder of Violet Elswick

On the morning of December 6th, 1953, at another dump just east of the Little Scioto River in Green Camp, an unnamed Marion man – a “junk man” according to the Star – and his son were picking through the dump when they spotted a hand “showing above a pile of rocks, tin cans and other debris.”

elswick mug shotThe hand belonged to 31-year-old Violet Elswick, and investigators soon determined that someone had strangled her to death. When investigators later picked up her husband, 37-year-old Bert Elswick, for questioning, he quickly confessed to the crime.

Both Violet and Bert had checkered pasts. Violet Elswick had served two years in the Marysville Reformatory for Women after she burned down a house near Martel. Bert Elswick had served time in a Maryland prison for armed robbery.

Though originally from the Ironton area, both had ended up in Marion, presumably to see if their fortunes improved. They didn’t. At the time of his arrest, Bert was only marginally employed doing odd jobs, mostly as a welder. The two were sharing a dilapidated 6’ by 12’ shack with a man named William Baker on the north side of the Little Scioto River in Green Camp.

According to the confession Bert gave to investigators, after spending the evening drinking in both Marion and Green Camp taverns, the two had gone to the dump, which was a few hundred yards way from the shack, to search for a bottle of wine they had hidden there earlier. They got into an argument, and Violet hit Bert in the nose. Losing control, Bert grabbed her by the throat and strangled her. After she slumped to the ground, he told investigators he sat there drinking wine for a time and “thinking what to do.” Eventually, he went back to the shack and passed out until investigators came knocking the next morning.

On March 26th, 1954, a common pleas jury found Bert Elswick guilty of manslaughter, and he received a sentence of one to twenty years at the Ohio Penitentiary. He died in 1985 at the age of 69 in Ironton, Ohio.

The junk man and his son were never mentioned again in any of the Star articles. However, one can only imagine that the image of what they found that morning stayed with them for a long time.

The Fetuses

At the turn of the century, it was not particularly unusual for the residents of Marion to chance upon the tiny, lifeless bodies of a fetuses. What follows are a few examples of these heart-breaking discoveries.

On November 22nd, 1894, the Marion Daily Star reported that a fetus has been discovered on the property of a man named Jacob Findling on Girard Avenue. The exact circumstances of the discovery – who made the discovery or how the details became public – are not given. The article only states that an “indignant” Mr. Findling, in a meeting with the mayor, had claimed that “his name and his family name had been connected with the find and he wanted to know if there was not some way to stop this talk and comment.” The unvoiced implication is clear: a fetus found on the Findling property suggested that someone – possibly an unmarried Findling family member – had been pregnant and either miscarried or had an abortion.

coroner order foetus buried
The April 1, 1908, Marion Daily Star headline.

Another very short article appearing in the March 11th, 1902, edition of the Star mentions that two fetuses had recently been found by boys playing “in the commons at the rear of Leader Street.” The article goes on to state that coroner Robert Ramroth was carrying out an investigation that had brought to light “some facts that may lead to something sensational.” Oddly, this is the only mention of either the discoveries or Mr. Ramroth’s investigation to appear in the Star that month. What (if any) “sensational” information Mr. Ramroth hoped to make public remains a mystery.

This last incident, described in the April 1st, 1908, edition of the Star is perhaps the most macabre. Farming Street resident Orville McCombs told officials that his wife spotted their dog with something in its mouth, and when he went to investigate, he realized that his dog was carrying a fetus. Unsure of what to do, he buried it at the rear of his property. Some of his neighbors later notified the police of the incident. In response, the chief of police sent a sanitation official as well as the county coroner to Mr. McCombs’ property to dig up the 4-month-old fetus. Apparently finding nothing worth pursuing, the coroner ordered the fetus re-buried. The final resting place of the fetus as well as where the dog originally found it are unknown.

Note: A special thanks to Dodi Mawer at the Marion County Historical Society who helped research this article.

Sources:
The Marion Star, May 21, 1934
The Marion Star, December 6, 1953
The Marion Star, December 7, 1953
The Marion Star, March 26, 1954
The Marion Daily Star, November 22, 1894
The Marion Daily Star, March 11, 1902
The Marion Daily Star, April 1, 1908