history

The Underground Railroad and the Anchorage

The Anchorage Marietta Ohio

Whispers of tunnels, secret rooms and runaway slaves have swirled around the Anchorage, Marietta, Ohio’s mysterious mansion on the hillside, for more than a century.

Family Ties

Douglas Putnam was the richest man in Marietta in 1855 when his strong-willed second wife Eliza informed him she wanted a new house. But Eliza did not want just any house. She wanted a mansion that was larger, grander and more beautiful than the one her friend in New Jersey had. Douglas agreed. It was easier than arguing. Besides he knew Eliza would manage the entire project from groundbreaking to drapery selection. All he had to do was pay the bills.

Eliza knew he'd say yes. She was used to getting what she wanted. She came from a wealthy, influential family in Zanesville. Her father was Levi Whipple, an ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad, the secret network that helped slaves escape from Southern plantations and travel north to freedom. Eliza shared her father’s views on the evils of slavery. So did her new brother-in-law, David Putnam, Douglas’s brother.

When Eliza married Douglas Putnam she had moved to Marietta on the banks of the Ohio River. Today the opposite bank is in West Virginia. When Eliza was planning her dream house, West Virginia did not exist.  The other side of the river was in the slave-holding state of Virginia, enemy territory as far as Abolitionists like Eliza were concerned.

Eliza could see slave-holding Virginia from her mansion's tower

Hindsight

Local historians insist there was never a connection between the Anchorage, as Eliza’s mansion is known now, and the Underground Railroad. They point out that by the time construction on the house began the Underground Railroad was in decline. The vast majority of people who fled along its secret routes had already left the South. That’s clear now, but would it have been obvious in 1855? No. It wouldn’t.

Try to put yourself in Eliza’s place. She and her extended family were keenly aware of the growing likelihood of war. She, her father and brother-in-law were committed Abolitionists with access to unlimited funds. They were planning to build a mansion practically on top of the boundary between the North and the South. To think they would not have discussed adding secret hiding places is laughable. Of course they talked about it. Did it go further than talk?

Tunnels to Nowhere

There are tunnels in the basement of the Anchorage that lead into the surrounding hillside. The question is not whether they exist. They do. I’ve seen them. The question is why they are there and how far they go.

The Anchorage’s hillside is riddled with springs. It’s soggy and unstable. Geologists, engineers and construction experts believe the tunnels were designed for drainage. Without them, the weight of the enormous house would cause the ground to slip and possibly cave in. Henry Burke, local expert on the Underground Railroad, agreed with this explanation. However, just because something is designed for one purpose does not mean it can’t be used for another.

The Anchorage was once known as The Palace Beautiful

Imagine the mindset of wealthy people like the Putnams during the run up to the Civil War. They were worried about protecting their cash, jewelry, documents, paintings, and other valuables. A band of bloodthirsty Confederates could cross the Ohio River and raid Marietta. It could happen without warning. It would be critical to have a safe place to hide things quickly. The drainage tunnels may have served that purpose.

We’ve all heard rumors that there are or were tunnels from the house to the banks of the Muskingum River. Not true.  A tunnel that long would be unstable. It would need to be reinforced several places and there would have to be dozens of fresh air sources along the way. It’s just too complicated. It’s a myth.

My mother grew up in Zanesville. Oddly enough, she heard the same stories about tunnels leading from grand houses to the Muskingum. Her parents warned her to stay away from them. Like everyone else in the area, they were afraid kids would find a tunnel opening along the riverbank, crawl in and drown.

Competing Interests

Some people claim all you have to do is examine the life of Douglas Putnam to realize the Anchorage could not have been part of the Underground Railroad.  Assisting runaway slaves was a serious crime – even in Ohio.  Douglas was a cautious, conservative businessman. They argue he would never have put his wealth at risk, especially not for a political cause. That’s probably true. But this wasn’t just about Douglas. To see the complete picture, you must add Eliza, her father, and David Putnam. The fight against slavery was not a political matter or a business calculation for them; it was a moral and religious crusade. I suspect they had plenty to say about whether secret passages should be included in the Anchorage. Perhaps, once again, Douglas found it easier to say yes than to argue.

Full Circle

A critical piece of the puzzle comes from one of the last private residents of the Anchorage, Eddie MacTaggert.  He grew up on a farm outside Williamstown, WV, just across the Ohio River from Marietta. His grandfather was active in the Underground Railroad. He told young Eddie the Anchorage and the people who lived there were key players in the struggle.  After MacTaggert made a fortune in the Oklahoma oilfields, he returned to Marietta intent on buying the Anchorage. He told everyone the main reason he wanted the house was its connection to the Underground Railroad.

Eddie MacTaggert - in the white suit - knew the Underground Railroad rumors were true

There is one final clue. There is a tiny room directly beneath the kitchen in the basement of the Anchorage. You have to squeeze through a concealed opening to get inside. It’s little more than a large crawl space. I’m 5’2” and I can stand up inside, but just barely. Anyone taller would have to stoop or sit. The room is there. There’s no denying that. So far no one has come up with an explanation for it – other than the obvious. It’s a hiding place.

Based on what I’ve seen and read, I believe the Anchorage contains emergency hiding places for both people and things. Were they ever used? I sort of doubt it, but who knows? This is my opinion. Not everyone agrees. What do you think? What have you seen or heard? Post your comments below.

The Secret History of the Ouija Board

Ouija_Board_Wallpaper_JxHy
Ouija_Board_Wallpaper_JxHy

Many people believe the Ouija board has an exotic and mysterious past. Its real history is a modern tale of market dominance and brilliant promotion. The Wonderful Talking Board was invented in Maryland in the 1880s. The developers claimed the game named itself by repeatedly spelling "Ouija" during a session. They said the board told them Ouija meant good luck in Egyptian. Several archeologists and historians came forward, insisted the word was not part of an ancient language and accused the developers of inventing more than the game. But the public was not interested in the opinions of experts and the first Ouija legends began to spread. America was in the midst of a Spiritualism craze in 1892 when William Fuld acquired the rights to produce the Ouija board. Record numbers of people were consulting mediums, holding seances and using a variety of other methods to try to contact loved ones who had crossed over to the "Other Side." Fuld capitalized on the public's obsession by marketing Ouija as a parlor game that facilitated communication with the dead. The Wonderful Talking Board caused such a sensation that Fuld had to expand his Baltimore factory several times to meet demand.

In an attempt to duplicate Fuld's phenomenal success, dozens of other companies introduced talking boards with mystical sounding names such as "Genii," "The Wireless Messenger" and the "I Do Psycho Ideograph." Unlike the drab black and brown Ouija, the new boards included colorful images of turbaned swamis, pyramids, camels and crystal balls. However, none of them remained on the market long.

Fuld decimated the competition by suing anyone who dared to copy his design. He also intensified his marketing efforts. He spread outlandish rumors about Ouija's supernatural powers; obtained false testimonials; expanded the legend of the board's ancient origins; and concocted the story that Ouija was a combination of "oui," the French word for "yes," and "ja," the German word for "no."

Thanks in large part of William Fuld's relentless promotion, Ouija's popularity did not fade when the public lost interest in Spiritualism early in the 20th century. Parker Brothers purchased the Ouija trademark and patent from Fuld's heirs in 1966 and has produced the game ever since. The company introduced a deluxe, glow-in-the-dark version. Otherwise, Fuld's basic design has remained unchanged.

Not only has the board's reputation as a gateway to the spirit realm survived, many Ouija superstitions and tales have evolved into full-fledged urban legends. Defendants in court cases have testified that Ouija boards forced them to commit crimes, including murder. Others swear they won fortunes by playing lottery numbers revealed by the board. The game has allegedly reunited lovers, driven careless players insane and destroyed the lives of countless teenagers.

Parker Brothers' boxed sets include instructions for playing the game. However, a separate, unwritten set of rules also exists. Cleanse yourself before consulting the board or the spirits will be offended. If you burn a Ouija board, it will scream. Everyone who hears the scream will die within 36 hours. You are vulnerable to spirit possession if you play while you are sick. Never play alone and never, never ask Ouija when you are going to die. The list goes on. William Fuld would be proud.

Did Fuld know the Ouija board would still have the power to capture the public's imagination more than a century after its introduction? Did he realize the rumors he created would become part of American popular culture? Could he have predicted an army of teenagers would step in after his death and function as a de facto marketing force? We'll never know, but one thing is certain. The fact that we continue to play the game and repeat Ouija rumors is a testament to William Fuld's marketing genius and his ability to spin a timeless tale.