THE HAUNTED MUSEUM:
THE KOONS FAMILY SPIRIT ROOM
WHAT HAPPENED TO MAKE ATHENS, OHIO SO HAUNTED?
During the heyday of Spiritualism, "home circles" were all the rage among those who were fascinated by the mysterious workings of the spirit world. In these small, close-knit groups of family and friends, members would gather around the dining room table and, curious about tales of rappings from elsewhere, would try and see if they too could receive communications from the spirits. Quite often they did --- they might hear a soft tap, followed by louder ones and soon deafening noises that could be heard all over the house. Questions would be asked, codes devised and soon information would be flowing from the other side. In many cases, especially with socially prominent families, such manifestations would be kept private, in order to save themselves from ridicule.
However, in other cases, when social standing was not a concern, spirit contacts would be widely publicized and neighbors would be called in for free performances. This sometimes led to members of the home circle becoming professional mediums, as if had with the Fox Sisters. Another family, about whom much less is known, was the Koons family of Athens County, Ohio. Though they did not gain much material profit from their venture, the Spirit Room in Athens County became, for a short time in the 1850's, a Spiritualist destination that attracted hundreds of believers from all over the country.
What was nearly as amazing as the fact that so many people came to Athens County was the ordeal that they had to go through to get there. Although still somewhat remote today, it was a virtual wilderness in the 1850's. It was located in a rough and hilly area not far from the Virginia (now West Virginia) line. To reach it, one had to travel by stagecoach from Columbus over rutted and often washed out roads. Then, to reach the Koons' cabin, visitors still had to walk another two miles along a wooded trail. However, few pilgrims regretted their journey and felt completely rewarded by the manifestations that awaited them.
Jonathan Koons, the head of the family, and his wife Abigail had nine children. They were self-educated farmers but well versed in politics and the philosophy of the times. They settled and farmed an area in Athens County, called Mt. Nebo, a hill that towers over the town that is now located nearby. Early in 1852, Koons had come across newspaper descriptions of the Fox Family rappings and had at once made a personal investigation of the growing phenomenon. He attended several séances throughout Ohio and allegedly learned from the spirits that he was a gift medium. When he returned home, he also discovered that Abigail and his oldest son, Nahum, were also endowed with psychic abilities.
After holding a number of séances of their own, the Koons' were ordered by spirits to build what was dubbed their "Spirit Room". They were given the exact specifications on how to build it, the size, the furnishings and the equipment to use. The Koons' immediately went to work and following the spirit's instructions, constructed a log cabin that was 12 x 14 feet, had three shuttered windows, a single door and a seven foot-high ceiling. The room was then furnished with benches that would hold about 20 people. The spirits also requested that they equip the Spirit Room with a number of musical instruments: a tenor drum, a bass drum, two fiddles, a guitar, an accordion, a trumpet, a tin horn, a tea bell, a triangle and a tambourine. Koons was not a wealthy man and could not afford all of the instruments (plus, he had trouble finding them in this remote part of Ohio) but managed to order some and borrow the rest from neighbors. After another séance, the spirits then demanded two tables, a rack for the musical instruments, and wire with which to suspend a few small bells and some images of doves that were cut from sheets of copper.
After faithfully following all of these instructions, the Koons' began giving public séances. Koons, Abigail and Nahum acted as mediums and in the darkened cabin, the spirits began giving lengthy communications on various spiritual subjects, as well as concerts on the musical instruments. Neighbors from all over the region began descending on the Spirit Room and Mt. Nebo, attracted by not only the rumors about what was taking place there but also because the racket made by the spirits could be heard for a mile in any direction.
It was not long before visitors from other parts of the country began to arrive as well. Charles Partridge, a well known New York publisher, later wrote that he found at least 50 people gathered for the first performance that he attended. Many of them were from various parts of Ohio, but there were representatives from other states too. Koons, on the advice of the spirits, gave preference to those coming from far away. There were no admissions or other charges to attend the séances but those who stayed the night at the Koons' home usually contributed some offering. Throughout this, Koons was still working and maintaining his family's farm. He was at times so exhausted that he fell asleep during the séances and so there is little reason to believe that the Spirit Room was ever a money-making project.
And while it may not have made money, it certainly attracted attention. Published accounts soon began to appear in journals and Spiritualist newspapers and from these reports, it becomes quickly obvious that the séances were not for spectators with fragile nerves. The exhibition was often loud and the spirit's performances on the musical instruments was usually ear-shattering. All of the reports (whether we choose to believe them or not) agree that in the total darkness of the crowded room, it would have been impossible for the Koons' themselves to provide the deafening and boisterous entertainment.
The program usually followed a set routine. After the audience was seated, the lights were turned out and the door and windows closed. The start of the séance was usually announced by the banging of the bass drum, which one witness compared to the firing of a cannon in the close quarters. Then Koons, who sat at a table with his wife and son beside him, would start to plat a lively tune on his fiddle. In moments, all of other instruments would join in, keeping perfect time although played with unseen hands. What is more astounding, the reports all stated, was that the instruments did not remain stationary but would circle the room, playing wildly as they danced above the heads of the spectators.
During one séance, Dr. G. Swan of Cincinnati wrote later of a flying tambourine: " One moment I would feel it on my head or brushing my hair and the next moment, it would be on the other side of the room." The triangle was also carried about the room and played in the same manner. Another witness, John Gage of Illinois, reported that the triangle dashed about over the heads of the visitors and was "occasionally thrust almost in my face, so that I was afraid that it would hit me." On one of its flights, the triangle dropped into his wife's lap and then smacked him up side of the head. Both agreed that it weighed close to 20 pounds.
According to another witness, the floating instruments would play in unison and were so loud that it made the "whole house roar so as to almost deafen us." No one seemed to recognize any of the tunes that the instruments played, but they were melodies of some sort and not just noise. Charles Partridge stated that the instruments would start together and then stop abruptly, "as if by some signal." The music was sometimes accompanied by songs that were sung in what seemed to be "something like human voices". John Gage described them as "unearthly". The words, all of the witnesses agreed, were apparently not in English.
Throughout all of this though, the "master of ceremonies" was not Jonathan Koons, but rather a spectral voice that came through the tin horn. He called himself John King and he proclaimed that he was the leader of the spirits present, which numbered 165 in all. He was said to be the spirit form of the Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan, who died in 1688. King, and his daughter Katie (who became most famous when attached to medium Florence Cook) became popular fixtures at the Koons' séances and later, with the famous Davenport Brothers as well.
The musical part of the evening was usually followed by the appearance of spirit hands that were either luminous themselves or illuminated by phosphorized sheets of paper that were prepared by the Koons'. Visible to a little above the wrist, the hands felt like real flesh and according to witnesses were sometimes either hot or cold. Dr. Swan, who requested that a hand be placed in his own, reported that "it felt precisely like the hands of the subjects that I have handled in the dissecting room." Partridge, who also held out a hand and asked the spirits to take hold of it, said that it gave a distinctive grasp when it touched his hand but added that "it did not feel like the hand of a living person."
These phantom hands also played a part in the last feat of the evening, when the luminous appendages would write messages on pieces of paper. All those who described their visit to the Spirit Room saw the hands write out messages and at incredible speeds. Many of the witnesses watched the hands from a short distance but one fascinated spectator pressed so close to watch that the hand playfully poked his nose with the end of a pencil! Six witnesses from four different states testified that they watched the armless hand write with a pencil. It wrote very slowly and so one witness asked it to write faster. At this request, the pencil began scrawling so rapidly across the paper that "we could hardly see it go." In five minutes, it had filled the page, which it passed to one of the witnesses, a Mr. Pierce of Philadelphia, who was then given an opportunity to examine the mysterious hand. He reported that it was human in all respects, even to the fingernails, but was slightly cooler than his own. Pierce then took another sheet of paper and the spirit's pencil and began tracing an outline of the hand on the paper as far as the wrist but "found nothing any further than that point." The hand then shook hands with him and immediately vanished.
Reports of these wonders traveled out across America and hundreds came to Mt. Nebo, claiming that it was a place of spiritual significance and a sacred site to the Shawnee Indians. According to some sources, a psychical society christened Mt. Nebo as "one of the most haunted spots in the world". Despite the fact that the Koons' have long since vanished from the memory of those in Athens County today, the reputation of this being a haunted place has remained behind in tales of ghostly cemeteries and local legends.
As for the Koons', their Spirit Room continued to operate and attract visitors until the end of 1858. By this time, they were competing with another Spirit Room that had been started by the Tippie family, who lived three miles across the valley from the Koons'. It was never as popular but it managed to draw some of the visitors who came searching for the spirits of Mt. Nebo. The Tippie's, who had 10 children, also boasted musical performances by the spirits but visitors were reportedly disappointed that no spectral hands appeared. Both families later moved out of the area with the Tippie's to Colorado and the Koons' to Illinois. After this, Jonathan Koons announced that spirit John King had departed and his tin horn was now silent. Koons contributed letters to the Spiritual Telegraph for a time and then lapsed into silence himself. Eventually, he and his family disappeared from the annals of Spiritualism altogether.
What really happened at the Koons' Spirit Room in Athens County? Could such wonders have really occurred? It is human nature for us to seek an explanation but in this case, does one exist? It is almost automatic for us to say that the whole thing must have been a hoax -- but then how do we explain the independent accounts of strange happenings? Even if all of the reports were made by avowed Spiritualists, who visited the Spirit Room only to confirm their beliefs, the general agreement of the separate accounts seems to offer evidence pointing toward the fact that the Koons' were not putting on a fraudulent performance. What could they have had to gain from it? Only notoriety, for it was not money, as they did not charge for their séances. And if it was fame they were seeking, then why vanish without a trace after only six years as mediums? And what happened to them after they left Athens County?
The Koons' apparently gave up their medium performances and moved to Illinois. In an obituary for Nahum Koons, which was discovered by Sherry Pierce and passed on to me, I learned that he died in 1921 at the age of 84 in Franklin County, Illinois. He and his family had accompanied his father and month to Franklin County, where they lived for about ten years before moving to Perry County, near DuQuoin. Nahum them moved to Perry County, Missouri until 1880, when he again returned to Illinois and the farm that he and his father purchased after leaving Ohio. He also lived in Oklahoma and Arkansas for a time, after the death of his wife in 1899. He remained a Spiritualist throughout his life, which was described by those who knew him as "exemplary". He passed away in his sleep on October 26 -- leaving no clue as to why he had abandoned what was apparently an amazing career as a medium.
Students of Spiritualist history are sure to recognize through that the Koons' were ground breakers as far as manifestations go. Many of the happenings at their séances were also reported at later séances, under the control of entirely unrelated mediums. The mobile musical instruments were part of the attractions offered by the Davenport brothers and the spectral hands were seen at many séances, including those of D.D. Home. The hands that materialized during his sittings resembled in every respect the hands that were seen and felt in the Spirit Room. In some cases, these manifestations were exposed as being fraudulent but not in all cases. And for the most part, in the ones that were fraudulent, the methods used to make the instruments fly and the hands appear were beyond the means and the skill of the Koons family.
The case of the "Spirit Room" -- like some of the other aspects of Spiritualism -- remains unsolved.