Ghosts of Athens County: Enchanted Land [and] Jonathan Koons’ Hall of Spirits
Early in the history of Athens County, Ohio, in a small building no larger than a one-car garage, paranormal activity caught the attention of believers and non-believers alike. For about three years, spectators gathered, mediums entered the room, and soon musical instruments floated through the air and began to play ethereal musical compositions, a “machine” made of wood and wire. of iron with copper coils and occult symbols attracted the spirits of the deceased, the voice of an ancient spirit spoke through some kind of trumpet, and apparently disembodied hands glowed in the dark and wrote messages, sometimes from relatives deceased, often at a speed faster than “human” hands could write. Tales of these events in Athens County over 160 years ago may seem like great tales, a good heartbreaking Halloween story (and of course they are), but they were mostly reported as fact. , not fiction, by many observers.
Author Sharon Hatfield’s Enchanted Ground: The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons (published in Halloween 2018 by OU’s Swallow Press and available via Swallow Press for pre-order in paperback) is a fascinating look at the practice of Spiritualism by Jonathan Koons and his supporters and detractors, seen through the documents of the time.
Jonathan Koons was among the early settlers of rural Athens County, purchasing 262 acres near Mount Nebo in Dover Township. The family made a modest living from farming and planting fruit trees. Soon after establishing his farm, Koons, his wife Abigail Bishop Koons, an herbalist, and his children, especially his son Nahum, began to experience increased paranormal activity, to experience otherworldly sensations, and they quickly found themselves able to channel multiple minds, including those of Native Americans whose messages led Koons (along with witnesses) to discover buried relics mentioned during a session. Abigail received information about the healing that she shared with her neighbors and loved ones.
From 1852 to 1855, their hall of spirits became a great attraction; his fame quickly spread throughout Ohio, New York, New Orleans and even Europe. Spiritism was already gaining notoriety and many sought out Koons, despite the fact that the rural township of Dover was remote and difficult to access. Travelers arrived with varied intentions, some to demystify and others to enjoy and appreciate the encounters with spirits in Koons’ sitting room (and briefly a second sitting room built by close neighbors, the Tippie family) . Hatfield tells us that Koons, his wife Abigail and their children have been visited by “hundreds, [if not] thousands ”to view sessions and receive spiritual communications.
Even though the city of Athens and the University of Ohio were on the main travel routes, Hatfield tells us that “just get [to Koons’ farm on Mt. Nebo, 7 miles from Athens] it took stamina and determination. Some visitors took a steamboat up the Ohio River to the Muskingum River, then hired a private car for the last part of the trip. Others came by train to Lancaster, then another 40 miles by stage or canal to Chauncey. A horse-drawn carriage could only travel about 2 to 2.5 miles per hour. Some travelers have made the last 2-3 miles to Chauncey, which involved crossing streams, walking through the woods, and then climbing Mount Nebo, to find Koons’ farm, “over 300 meters above sea level. above sea level “.
Considering both the elevation and the mineral outcrops, as well as the richness of the soil, Hatfield reveals that more than one visitor has commented on “the unusual electrical properties that seemed to permeate this place.” A curious person once, ”asked the spirit president. . . why demonstrations were observed near the Koons farm. . . and he was told it was due to the particular geological formation. . . Another visitor called it simply “enchanted land”.
In the Spirit Room, Jonathan, his son Nahum, Abigail, and their guests gathered every evening to see what messages would emerge from various spirits. While it wasn’t always the case, most viewers came away with a great sense of wonder and a sense of having been fortunate enough to receive meaningful communications.
Some stayed, returning night after night. Some visitors stayed in a hotel in Chauncey, others stayed with neighbors or with Koons, dining with the family. Unsurprisingly, some visitors complained about the food, and some seemed to have gone beyond their welcome, as Koons needed to hint that the work should be done around the farm by those for whom he was providing board. Yet for all of the researchers who were able to get to his door, according to his beliefs, Koons never charged any money or seemed to profit from the sessions held.
A former journalist whose first book, “Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell” won both the Weatherford Prize and the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Prize, Hatfield was accustomed to the kind of investigative work required to explore. fully a subject. She had heard of Koons, who often appeared in tales of “Haunted Athens County”. Once Hatfield discovered that there was no book that focused on Jonathan Koons, especially for the period he was residing in Athens County, Hatfield began to compile sources.
“My husband and I made Athens our home over 30 years ago. I have always been intrigued by the place, “said Hatfield.” When I had the opportunity to explore a part of the history of Athens that was not very well understood, I jumped in on the occasion. “
Hatfield spent eight years investigating Jonathan Koons and his family, their renowned Spirit Hall, and the notoriety and controversy it brought to Athens County. The book reveals the interest in spiritualism that spread across America and provides insight into other spiritual endeavors in the United States and Europe during this time.
Hatfield explains in the preface that when she began her research she believed she would use her journalistic skills to determine what was “genuine and what was wrong in the Koons phenomenon.” Yet she tells readers that she soon realized that, in its essence, this is a story “as much or more about the power of ritual and belief as it is about an actual physical reality.”
Hatfield goes on to say that “Some visitors. . . reported transformative encounters, whether their perceptions were “real” or not. For this reason, says Hatfield, when writing the book, she chose to point out instead of trying to debunk or verify; she writes that with regard to the author’s position she has chosen, she “did not claim to judge the validity of the religious experiences reported”.
“Enchanted Ground” delights the reader in the depth of exploration as well as in the narrative. Hatfield weaves all the threads of research to convey a rich tapestry of history through Jonathan Koons’ place of fame. The book includes details of spiritual communications, letters and articles published in dozens of newspapers at the time, newspaper articles from fans and spectators, sections of Koons’ autobiography, and sections of historical documents. of the city and county, as well as accounts from biographers of prominent figures who have advocated for or debated against spiritualist beliefs.
Koons left Athens County in 1858, and although he and his son Nahum both practiced mediumship independently, Koons’ farm was sold, the Spirit Hall was abandoned, and the building site was eventually been lost. Yet this story remains a compelling part of Ohio history and American history. It largely overlaps with famous American spiritualists and clairvoyants, renowned politicians, abolitionists, free thinkers and even women’s rights advocates of the time. The notes section of “Enchanted Ground” spans over 30 pages with sources referenced in their place in the text to assist readers who wish to follow the information compiled by Hatfield.
In the three years since the publication of “Enchanted Ground” Hatfield has had many interesting experiences that keep her engaged in the subject. Although she connected with some of Koons’ descendants during her research, Hatfield has since received emails and letters from other branches of the family. One letter included photographs of family memories, including a large oil portrait of Abigail and Jonathan with an image of an angel flying above their heads.
A final aspect of Koon history that remains elusive is the location of the Koons Spirit Hall. During his research, Hatfield found the graveyard and broken headstones for one of the Koons children outside of Millfield, Ohio. Just as “Enchanted Ground” was about to be published, Hatfield was contacted by Brandon Hodge, a researcher from Austin, Texas, who runs a website on spiritualism and spiritual communication, who was impatient. to come to Athens to research the precise location of Koons’ Hall of Spirits. Hatfield had been able to obtain specific details from 19th century documents on the journey to the Koons’ farm. Yet although Hatfield and Hodge met briefly in Athens and got together for Mount Nebo, their journey did not result in any artifacts or clear indications of where the Spirit Hall was built. With enough time and enough community involvement, Hatfield believes it is possible that this can be found.
Hatfield quotes Koons in the afterword to “Enchanted Ground”: “‘Whether or not these things are important to any part of my life story is a question to be judged and decided by those who walk through it.’ As the nights grow longer and wood smoke comes out of the fireplace, you can read ‘Enchanted Ground’ to experience for yourself Koons’ place in the history of Athens County.
Athens resident Bonnie Proudfoot has published fiction and poetry in several literary journals. Her first novel, “Goshen Road” (Ohio University’s Swallow Press, 2020) was a Women’s National Book Association Great Group Reads selection for 2020 and was longlisted for the 2021 PEN / Hemingway Award for first fiction.