October 2007 Issue
Searching for Utopia
One writer's past converges with a small town's history on the banks of the Ohio River.
The southern Ohio heat is visible. It pools in dips and valleys across the endless stretch of road, creating the illusion of water, and floats next to us on U.S. Rte. 52 above the blacktop, taking on an ethereal form. The small river towns blur together in the humidity, despite the fact that they all have distinct stories to tell. Somewhere behind us — about 50 miles to the west — is Cincinnati, but city life feels light-years away as my husband and I get closer to Utopia.
This small, unincorporated town on the border of Clermont and Brown counties receives little fanfare in Ohio, short of the occasional salute to its unique history. And it’s no wonder: Blink, and you’ll literally miss the small sign marking Utopia and the Village Market convenience store on the edge of town. It covers less than one mile of Rte. 52 and has only two residential streets that snake down toward the Ohio River, dead-ending at its banks. There are no antiques stores, no mom-and-pop restaurants, no river walk. In fact, there is no access to the river at all, and the homes along its shore post a variety of signs threatening trespassers with dogs, guns and, in one case, an attack pig.
In short, Utopia doesn’t rank among Ohio’s idyllic river towns. Rather, its appeal lies in its mythical stories and remote location. Tales of spirits and apparitions roaming along the river are the draw, and at night it’s not difficult to picture this place as the ghost town it is rumored to be.
As a child, I loved the supernatural, and I sought it out through ghost stories, haunted passageways and cemeteries at night. I was the Girl Scout who told the story of Three-Fingered Willy on camping trips, and then — deep into the night — did my best 10-year-old rendition of him, tucking my thumb and index finger into my palm and scraping away at the canvas tents, sending screaming campers into the adult cabin.
Years later, I still believe in ghosts, despite a lack of firsthand evidence that they exist. And although I no longer consider midnight the witching hour, when I stumble on a ghost story with deep historical roots, I need to learn more. That’s how — armed with nothing more than a lack of common sense — my husband and I ended up on a five-hour drive in search of Utopia.
The town’s original founders had high hopes of creating an ideal society, much like the imaginary island of perfection described by Thomas More in his 16th-century book Utopia. Charles Fourier, a French philosopher and one of the three most prominent Utopian Socialists, founded the Ohio community in 1844, bringing with him pre-communist ideals that involved sharing work and profits in self-contained cooperative units. But Fourier was as zealous as he was enterprising, and the locals whom he recruited soon lost interest in his philosophies and bizarre predictions — namely, that the world was about to enter a period of peace that would last 35,000 years, that the seas would lose their salt and become oceans of lemonade, and that all women would have four lovers or husbands simultaneously.
As the debts of the community mounted (and, not surprisingly, the oceans remained too salty to drink), Fourier’s followers lost faith and soon began to search for another Utopia. A mere two years after he settled the land, he sold all 1,400 acres to John O. Wattles, a spiritualist leader with some peculiar notions of his own. Wattles’ goal was to find a remote location in which his band of followers could conduct séances and summon the spirits of America’s deceased ancestors, such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, to help guide the country through what he viewed as unreliable leadership. He wanted to avoid the persecution and violence his followers had experienced in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, and Utopia’s remote setting — along with its proximity to water — made it the perfect location for the spiritualists.
But the water he found so attractive would also prove to be the demise of Utopia’s new residents, and the spiritualists would be around for even less time than the settlement’s original founders. Shortly after Wattles moved about 100 people to the area, he had them build an underground church (away from the skeptical eyes of disbelievers) and a three-story shelter at the edge of the river that could only be seen when the water level was extremely low. The house was built quickly and poorly in an attempt to get everyone inside before winter descended. Almost immediately after its completion, Wattles held a party. On that night, December 13, 1847, the weather grew rainy and violent and the river flooded suddenly, killing nearly all of the spiritualists. The few who remained left shortly thereafter.
Those who died are rumored to haunt Utopia. A variety of stories have been told, ranging from flashing lights and weird noises to all-out sightings of “dripping” ghosts, mainly in and around the former home of Wattles on rainy nights. Many past residents have given detailed (and matching) descriptions of six people who enter the home, walk up the stairs and disappear.
The only moisture present on the night my husband and I visited was the humidity. It hadn’t rained in weeks, but the air was heavy. I envisioned the ghosts hibernating in the murky water of the Ohio, holding séances and biding their time until they could resurface as a reminder of everything that went wrong with Utopia’s beginnings. The locals seemed just as surreal as the town’s ancestors. As we drove up and down the side streets, middle-aged men emerged from modest homes or trailers and stood barefoot on the hot pavement, each silently watching as we scouted ghost-hunting locations near the river. When asked about sightings, the owner of the Village Market broke eye contact and lowered her voice, eyes darting from side to side to see who was listening. “The woman up the road says she sometimes hears things at night. I’ve never heard anything.”
She tried to sound mocking, but her posture gave her away. Suspicion kept her from elaborating or giving me an address, and I think she intentionally steered us in the wrong direction by vaguely describing a house with a chain-link fence that didn’t seem to exist. I imagine that her guarded nature grew out of a reasonable fear that I would set up camp until the dry spell was over, which has probably happened in the past.
As the day wore on and darkness loomed, the idea of drenched ghosts sent my imagination into overdrive. I couldn’t help reminding myself that so many horror movies start out this way: A young, unsuspecting couple wanders into a remote area at night … and I am always the person yelling at the screen, until the inevitable happens and I cover my eyes. I wasn’t a Girl Scout anymore, and my adult intuition — along with a healthy belief in karma — kicked in.
Since there was limited access to the riverbank, my husband and I chose to park by the Ohio Historical Marker, which was erected in 2003 and marks the spot where Wattles’ people died. We pulled over, killed the lights and waited. It was dark, quiet and decidedly creepy. Stories from my camping days floated through my head. “This could be where Three-Fingered Willy lives,” I thought. In the distance, an old house sat illuminated by a dim spotlight, a faded American flag painted on its siding. I noticed some movement in the darkness. Squinting, I tried to focus.
“Do you see that?” I asked my husband, excited and scared.
“I don’t see anything,” he answered. Through the shadows, a man came slowly toward us.
“Maybe we should get out of here,” I said, watching my husband’s hand hover over the ignition while scanning the yard through the passenger window. Some time passed, and I let out a deep breath as heavy as the night air around us. That’s when I saw him approaching again. I don’t know if he had been watching us from somewhere secluded, or if he just reappeared, but I had seen enough. “Go! Go, go, go!”
My husband revved the engine, hit the gas, and we skidded toward Rte. 52. I kept my head turned, searching the road behind us. As the sign for Utopia grew smaller, I noticed headlights in the distance. “Do you think he’s following us?”
I didn’t get an answer. My husband held the steering wheel firmly and kept a straight path west, heading back to city life.
Most likely, the man was a resident trying to enforce the town’s “no trespassing” policy. Still, the incident gave me shivers in spite of the southern Ohio heat, and brought me back to a time when utopia was a campground where we told horror stories and toasted marshmallows around a fire.
While we didn’t see ghosts that night, we did experience a town with more legends than most of Ohio’s largest cities –– not to mention, a history as deep as the river that once drew believers to an elusive Utopia.
Jessica Esemplare is Ohio Magazine’s associate managing editor, custom media.