It was a cold night, too cold for any reasonable man to go outside. The caretaker knew because he had been out a little earlier, nipping off of the bottle hidden in the carriage house. The warm glow in his belly was beginning to fade and fog on his brain to lift, so he decided to make another run out for another nip. With a little heater full of hot coals in one hand and a lantern in the other he headed for the door. The kids would never know.
The caretaker stumbled and dropped the lamp. Oil splashed everywhere. Cursing, he put down the heater and grabbed another lantern. It would be cold, but he needed his nip.
Once outside he put a bar across the front door. His main responsibility as the night caretaker was to make sure none of the kids ran away. The Master had strange ideas about childcare that most people found pretty cruel. The kids didn’t appreciate it either, so many of them often tried to escape at night. The bar would keep them in as he strolled out to the carriage house. As he turned he heard a noise from inside and smelled smoke, but his alcohol drenched brain didn’t register the senses.
The first sip of gin knocked the cold right out. The second warmed him to his toes. He was about to take a third when he heard a crash. What were the kids doing? The sound of a child wailing filled the air. “One of the brats must have hurt himself,” the caretaker mumbled to himself as he went out into the cold Ohio air to investigate.
But it wasn’t cold, it was warm and as light as day. The orphanage was burning. He could now hear the kids screaming. He ran to the front door to try to unbar it. The intense flames pushed him back. He stood and watched, listening as the screams grew fainter and were silenced one by one. As the carriage house lit up he ran in to grab a rope. He could hear the neighbors coming down into the hollow to investigate. He didn’t have much time. He climbed into the huge oak at the entrance to the orphanage, tied one end to a branch and the other around his neck. He jumped.
If you approach the old cellar hole where the orphanage used to lie late at night you can still hear the babies crying and smell the smoke. Occasionally you will be greeted by the hanging body of the caretaker, just as the neighbors were that first night.
This was one of the first versions of the legend of Gore Orphanage that I ever heard. I found that there were many more out there. Most didn’t include the hanging caretaker while in others the body had nothing to do with the orphanage, but was an old drunk who hanged himself over Gore Orphanage Road late one night. The legends not only changed from person to person, but shifted over time.
With or without the hanged man (most recent versions skip him), the legends are a powerful draw. It is a right of passage for teens from up to a hundred miles away to sit all night in Gore Orphanage. Even the name lends itself to the ghoulish and outlandish. And the Vermilion River brings about visions of flowing red blood in many people’s minds.
I used to hang out down in Swift Hollow, the location of all of the legends, and explored the old cellar hole. When I was about 11 or 12 I talked to an old neighbor. He must have been in his 90s and lived in a small, one room house not far up the road. Back then there were several of these old tiny houses with old men in them. They are all long gone.
The old man told me that the orphanage had been closed for years before the fire took down the abandoned buildings. In fact, the orphanage was at the top of the hollow, not in the hollow itself. The cellar hole was the old Swift Mansion. There used to be several houses in the hollow. He told me where to look and sure enough, I found the cellar holes for three or four houses across the river from the old mansion.
Swift Hollow had a reputation around town, not just the legend of Gore Orphanage, but as a rough, outlaw place. I remember as a very little kid passing old, beat up VW microbuses with bearded faces. The haunted, sad eyes in those lined faces as they watched me ride my bicycle past were far scarier than any legend of crying babies. And later the beer cans piled up, beer cans and gun shells. I started collecting gun shells down there. I literally found hundreds of different types, many military. There were also blast holes where people tested homemade bombs. I was there once when someone tried to blow up the bridge with dynamite. Except for the people trying to blow up the bridge I rarely saw anyone doing any of these things. I never saw people drinking. There was rarely people shooting. It all happened late at night. A very scary place.
Several years ago I had an idea for a book based on the legends. The legends wouldn’t be the story, but would provide a background for the real story. I did a little research and found more details.
There were many complaints against Gore Orphanage about mistreatment of the kids. The state finally closed it down.
The owner of the Swift Mansion was a rich oddball. He believed in the occult and used to have weird parties at the mansion. Many said he was worshiping the Devil or practicing black magic.
Around the time the orphanage finally did burn down there was a fire in a school twenty miles closer to Cleveland. The doors of the school opened inward. The panic tide of kids pushed up against the doors and they weren’t able to pull them open against the weight. Many kids died.
It was only a few years after the fire that the legends started showing up, combining the stories of the cruel orphanage with the school fire and adding a dash of occult from the mansion.
I still plan on writing that book. It is on my to-do list. In the meantime, last Halloween I wrote a short story based on the legends and the truth behind the legends. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a link to Blood Hollow.
I hope you enjoyed this little bit of Northern Ohio lore, dredged up from the Vermilion River valley.
Note – the photo at the top is of Mill Hollow. It is a couple of miles down the river from Swifts Hollow and is a very popular park. Of course as a kid I didn’t want to be in a popular park, I wanted to hang out in the place with a dark reputation and few people.