“Some people believe that when you die, you cross the River of Death and have to pay the ferryman. People don’t seem to worry about that these days. Perhaps there’s a bridge now” ― Terry Pratchett
Given the mythological significance of ferrymen in the conveyance of dead souls to the afterlife, one might think that the gods of death and insanity might extend a little professional courtesy to their living counterparts. If you want to play the odds, it generally pays to make the proper obeisance to whichever preternatural archetype is closely associated with your career choice, but when it comes to psychopomp ferryman, there’s just so darn many. You’ve got your “A-listers” like Charon, the ancient Greek and Roman ferryman for Hades (and his Etruscan analog “Charun”) and Urshanabi, the ferryman across the Hubur, river of the dead in Mesopotamian mythology (with an Assyrian incarnation called Hamar-tabal). Then you have your Irish Manannán mac Lir and the Norse Hárbarðr (who may or may not actually be Odin himself). Long story short, there’s a lot of ferrymen out there conducting us to various chthonic netherworlds or idyllic playgrounds, and preternatural entities have proven themselves to be rather fickle and jealous creatures over the years, exacting disproportional revenge for relatively minor slights. Which brings us to the cursed Lawrenceburg Ferry of Kentucky (and Indiana) which resulted in death, madness, or ruin for a fair proportion of everybody associated with it over the years. Come to think of it “Death, Madness, or Ruin” would have been a good follow-up album for the Pogue’s “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash” (If I Should Fall From Grace with God), should you need a musical interlude to put you in the mood for tales of woe. Back to Lawrenceburg.
In 1820, prominent Kentucky businessman Moses Tousey decided it would be a profitable venture to establish a ferry across the Ohio River between Lawrenceburg, Indiana and Touseytown, Kentucky. Initially, this consisted of a single rowboat for passengers, along with an unwieldly, flat-bottomed barge for heavy freight that was towed across the river by cables (arduously hauled by laborers on the opposite shore). Now, Tousey was just the idea guy and financier and wasn’t about to get his hands dirty doing such strenuous manual labor. For that, he hired William McGregor, a recent arrival to Touseytown (along with this reputedly beautiful teenage daughter, Elinor). Where William was described as an unsociable, “low-browed, evil-looking individual”, associated with villainous men who visited under cover of night, and no doubt involved in all manner of nefarious and illegitimate enterprises, his young daughter was so winsome and good-natured that she quickly became “the belle of the village”.
As rumors spread across Boone County about William McGregor’s alleged criminality, a handsome new schoolmaster arrived in Touseytown named Randolph Chester. Randolph and Elinor started dating, which initially was welcomed by William McGregor (Chester was regarded as a distinguished member of the community, and seemed a fitting match for the popular Elinor), but McGregor suddenly soured on the relationship and forbade Elinor from seeing Randolph. The sudden change of heart may have been precipitated by a visit from McGregor’s questionable confederates, who likely informed him that schoolmaster Randolph Chester was actually an officer of the law investigating a series of robberies in the Ohio Valley. Nonetheless, Elinor, very much in love, continued to clandestinely meet with Randolph.
McGregor speedily became aware of the duplicity practiced by his daughter, and his rage was boundless. He cunningly concealed his chagrin, however, and bided his time until he could adjust matters after a heinous manner peculiar to himself. One night, when Elinor supposed him to be in Lawrenceburg, he secreted himself amid a clump of cottonwoods that commanded a view of the great oak. Later, the lovers sought their trysting-place, ignorant of the fact that a pair of venomous, vengeful eyes glared out upon them as they met in loving embrace. At that moment McGregor deliberately aimed a rifle at the young man and fired. His aim, however, was faulty, and the bullet intended for Chester lodged in the brain of his own daughter. Crazed with grief and rage at the miscarriage of his dastardly plan of assassination, McGregor dashed from his concealment and advanced upon the stunned and horrified lover, brandishing the empty weapon for a death-blow. Chester stepped aside just in season to evade the descending gun-stock, and the next instant swift retribution came to McGregor. A shot from the schoolmaster’s pistol penetrated the treacherous ferryman’s heart, and he fell lifeless in his tracks. In reporting the double tragedy to the authorities, Chester showed his credentials as an officer of the law, and declared the ferryman to have been the moving spirit of a band of robbers that had for months infested the Ohio Valley between Cincinnati and Louisville. A search of the ferry-house disclosed ample evidence, in the form of stolen goods, to substantiate this allegation, and Chester was legally exonerated from all blame attaching to the death of McGregor and his daughter. He is said to have been killed some time afterwards while attempting to apprehend some of the ferryman’s confederates (Piatt, 1910, p244).
Up until then, Touseytown had been relatively prosperous, but most folks date the end of the town to the time of Elinor McGregor’s death. It seems the townsfolk began to abandon the area, until very few residents were left. Touseytown is now listed as one of “the lost river towns of Boone County”. Nevertheless, a good place for a ferry is a good place for a ferry, and despite the virtual abandonment of the town, the ferry kept operating. The Ferry passed to a prominent Boone County family named Piatt from about 1839-1862 (the Piatts were a few brothers who originally received land grants in the Ohio Valley for their Revolutionary War service, and operated a number of other Ohio River ferries). The Piatts installed a steam-powered ferry boat in 1845 at the Lawrenceburg ferry, but it was destroyed in 1846 in a heavy flow of ice, so they reinstated an old treadmill version. Abraham Sedam Piatt sold the ferry to John Kizex in 1862. Kizex seems to have been a reincarnation of McGregor, as he was described as an “evil, quarrelsome character, guilty of many acts of lawlessness”, who surrounded himself with a band of criminal cronies. One gets the sense that the ferry business is a bit rough and tumble. Although the Piatts had divested themselves of the Lawrenceburg Ferry, they did not remain unscathed. Farmer Jacob Piatt, the son of Abraham Piatt had a scary run in with Kizex and his gang on the Ferry.
In the autumn of 1861 Piatt, in company with Wesley Adams, a wealthy Boone county farmer, in returning from Cincinnati, where they had disposed of a large herd of cattle, crossed the river after nightfall; Adams having upon his person nearly $ 1,000. As the farmers embarked in the ferry skiff two villainous – looking men who had been frequenting the vicinity for several days, emerged from the shadows along the river, and after a whispered consultation with Kizex, also entered the craft. Feeling a vague premonition that the newcomers had evil designs on his companion and himself, Piatt adroitly informed them that he had placed all of his money in the bank before leaving Cincinnati, but, despite a warning nudge from his companion, Adams openly lamented the fact that he had failed to do likewise. No overt demonstration was made until after the Kentucky shore was reached. Piatt, who was seated in the bow of the skiff, was first to disembark; Adams, on reaching land, was compelled to pass the strangers, who still retained their seats in the middle of the craft, and was immediately set upon and knocked, half stunned, to the bottom of the boat, where the robbers proceeded to rifle his pockets in the search for his money. At this point Piatt drew a revolver and, after several shots were exhausted, the robbers fled (Lodge, 1934, p93).
Kizex, of course, denied any foreknowledge of the attempt to rob Adams, and nothing could be definitively proven, but one year later in 1862 Kizex would meet his fate. The country was in the throes of the U.S. Civil War, and Kentucky in particular had a lot of partisan violence. Kizex and his colleagues were Southern sympathizers. A gentleman named George Fulcher lived close to the Ferry, and he had lost an arm serving in the Union Army, so of course Fulcher and Kizex felt themselves to be mortal enemies, especially since Kizex liked to tease Fulcher about his missing arm. One day Fulcher needed to cross the river, and Kizex, typically liquored up proceeded to abuse him, finally threatening to kill Fulcher by bashing his head in with a rock. Fulcher plunged a long-bladed knife through his heart. That was the end of Kizex. Fulcher was arrested and acquitted, as it was clearly self-defense. Oddly, Fulcher later died in a madhouse. The Lawrenceburg Ferry then reverted back to one of the Piatts, who subsequently died in an accident.
The ferry was then sold off to a Kentucky state legislator, Captain George W. Terrill, who hired Maurice McNealey as his ferryman. The Lawrenceburg Ferry was proving unprofitable at this point, and one month Terrill found himself unable to pay McNealey (although some say the source of their dispute was that Captain Terrill had fallen in love with McNealey’s daughter). At any rate, they met on the ferry for a pistol duel where Terrill was fatally wounded. McNealey was tried and acquitted, but not long after was killed by a streetcar in Memphis, Tennessee.
By 1882, Captain William Huff had taken over the operation of the Lawrenceburg Ferry, and was attempting to cross the river in a heavy gale with five passengers, and a heavy load of cargo, when a drunken brawl broke out, overturning the ferry. All survived, but a heavy toll was taken on Huff’s health, and he eventually died. Then, Louis Terrill, a relative of Captain George Terrill was said to have suffered near fatal injuries at just about the spot where George was killed by McNealey. The ferry was at the time owned and operated by a William Hartman.
The fate of William Hartman, who ran the ferry just long enough to fall a victim to its besetting fatality, is one of the most pathetic incidents in the annals of the Ohio Valley. Hartman was ferryman at the time Louis Terrill received his injuries, and the affair preyed upon his mind so continuously that he went mad. He is at present confined in a private sanatorium for the insane, where he must end his wretched days with reason dethroned—the most recent victim of the evil fate which is said to over shadow the ferry and all connected with it. And the end is not yet, say the superstitiously inclined. Dire disaster is prophesied for the thirteenth man who dares to defy the peculiar and baneful law that apparently governs the destiny of Lawrenceburg Ferry (Piatt, 1910, p248).
The Lawrenceburg Ferry seems to have changed hands a lot after that, and there are some indications that the ferry even operated until 1947, when it was eclipsed by the Aurora Ferry and shut down permanently. Curiously, there were four or five other ferries across the Ohio River in the vicinity during the Lawrenceburg Ferry’s lifetime, and none have the same sordid history, or such an inauspicious record of fatalities and madness. Local opinion was simply that the ferry was cursed, and many attributed it to the original killing of Elinor McGregor. Perhaps “curses” should be regarded as “folk-statistics”. As author Louis Sachar once observed, “A lot of people don’t believe in curses. A lot of people don’t believe in yellow-spotted lizards either, but if one bites you, it doesn’t make a difference whether you believe in it or not”.
Lodge, N. Louise. Tribe of Jacob (Piatt). 3rd ed. Springfield, Mo.: Young-Stone Print, 1934.
Piatt, David A. The Haunted Ferry. [n.p.], 1910.
Piatt, David A. “The Haunted Ferry”. The Wide World Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly of True Narrative, Adventure, Travel, Customs, And Sport v24. London: G. Newness, 1910.