The Ghosts of Athens County: Enchanted Ground [and] The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons

Early in the history of Athens County, Ohio, in a small building no larger than a single-car garage, paranormal activities attracted the attention of believers and non-believers alike.  For approximately three years, onlookers assembled, spirit mediums entered the room, and soon, musical instruments floated through the air and began to play ethereal musical compositions, a wooden and wire “machine” with copper coils and occult symbols drew spirits of the deceased, the voice of an ancient spirit spoke through a sort of trumpet, and seemingly dis-embodied hands glowed in the dark and wrote messages, sometimes from deceased relatives, often at a rate of speed faster than “human” hands could write. The tales of these events in Athens County over 160 years ago may seem like they are tall tales, a ripping good Halloween story (and of course they are), but they were mostly reported as fact, not fiction, by numerous observers.

Author Sharon Hatfield’s Enchanted Ground:  The Spirit Room of Jonathan Koons (released on Halloween 2018 by OU’s Swallow Press and available through 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 documents of the time.

Jonathan Koons was among early settlers in rural Athens County, purchasing 262 acres near Mt. Nebo, in Dover township. The family lived modestly by farming and planting fruit trees. Not long after he established his homestead, Koons, his wife Abigail Bishop Koons, an herbalist, and his children, especially his son Nahum, began to experience heightened paranormal activity, feel sensations of an otherworldly nature, and soon they found themselves able to channel multiple spirits, including those of Native Americans whose messages led Koons (with witnesses) to discover buried relics mentioned during a séance. Abigail received information about healing that she shared with neighbors and relatives.

From 1852 to 1855, their spirit room became a great attraction; its fame spread quickly throughout Ohio to New York, New Orleans, and even Europe. Spiritualism was already gaining notoriety, and many sought out Koons, despite the fact that rural Dover township was remote and difficult to access. Travelers arrived with varied intentions, some to debunk, and others to enjoy and appreciate encounters with spirits in the Koons séance room (and briefly a second séance room built by nearby neighbors, the Tippie family). Hatfield tells us that Koons, his wife Abigail, and their children, were visited by “hundreds, [if not] thousands” to view the seances and receive spirit communications.

Even though the City of Athens and Ohio University were on main travel routes, Hatfield tells us that “just getting [to Koons’ farm on Mt. Nebo, 7 miles from Athens] required stamina and determination.”  Some visitors took a steamboat up the Ohio River to the Muskingum River, then hired a private carriage for the final part of the journey. Others came by train to Lancaster, then 40 more miles through stage or canal packet to Chauncey. A horse-drawn coach could only proceed at about 2 – 2.5 miles an hour. Some travelers walked the last 2-3 miles from Chauncey, which entailed crossing streams, hiking through woods, and then ascending Mt. Nebo, to find Koons’ farm, “poised more than 1,000 feet above sea level.” 

Given both the elevation and the mineral outcroppings, as well as the richness of the soil, Hatfield reveals that more than one visitor commented on “the unusual electrical properties that seemed to infuse this locale.” One curious person once, “asked the presiding spirit. . . why manifestations were seen in the vicinity of the Koons farm. . . and was told that it was owing to the peculiar geological formation. . . Another visitor called it simply ‘enchanted ground.’”

In the spirit room, Jonathan, his son Nahum, Abigail and their guests assembled nightly to see what messages would emerge from various spirits. Although this was not always the case, most viewers emerged with a great sense of wonder and the feeling that they had a chance to receive communications that were significant.

Some stayed on, returning night after night. Some visitors stayed at a hotel in Chauncey, and others boarded with neighbors or with Koons, dining with the family. Not surprisingly, some visitors complained about the food, and some seemed to have outworn their welcome, as Koons needed to hint that work should be done around the farm by those whose board he was providing. Yet, for all of the seekers that were able to make their way to his door, in accordance with his beliefs, Koons never charged money or seemed to profit from the seances held.

A former journalist whose first book, "Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell" won both the Weatherford Award and the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award, Hatfield was accustomed to the kind of investigative work needed to fully explore a topic. She had heard of Koons, who was often included in tales of “haunted Athens County.” Once Hatfield discovered that there were no books that focused on Jonathan Koons, especially for the period while he was a resident of Athens County, Hatfield began compiling sources.

“My husband and I made Athens our home more than 30 years ago. I ‘ve always been intrigued by the place," Hatfield said. "When I had an opportunity to explore a part of Athens history that wasn’t very well understood, I jumped at the chance.”

Hatfield spent eight years investigating Jonathan Koons and his family, their renowned spirit room, and the notoriety and controversy that this brought to Athens County. The book reveals the interest in spiritualism that spread across America and provides glimpses of other ventures in spirituality in the U.S. and Europe at that time.

Hatfield explains in the preface that when she began researching, she thought she would use her journalistic skills to determine what was “genuine and what was false about the Koons phenomena.” Yet she tells readers that she soon realized that at its essence, this is a story “as much or more about the power of ritual and belief than about an actual physical reality.”

Hatfield goes on to say that “Some visitors. . . reported transformative encounters, whether their perceptions were ‘real’ or not.” For that reason, Hatfield says, when writing the book, she chose to report instead of to try to debunk or verify; she writes that with respect to her chosen authorial stance, she “did not presume to judge the validity of the religious experiences reported.”

"Enchanted Ground" delights the reader in the depth of exploration as well as in the telling. Hatfield weaves all the threads of research together to convey a rich tapestry of history through the locus of the fame of Jonathan Koons. The book includes details of spirit communications, letters and articles published in dozens of newspapers at the time, journal entries from fans and onlookers, sections of Koons’ autobiography, and sections of city and county historical records, as well as accounts from biographers of noted figures who advocated for or debated against the spiritualist beliefs.

Koons moved away from Athens County in 1858, and although he and his son Nahum both independently practiced mediumship, the Koons farm was sold, the spirit room was abandoned, and eventually the site of the building was lost. Yet this story remains a compelling part of Ohio history and American history. It intersects broadly with famous American spiritualists and clairvoyants, noted 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 their place in the text to aid readers who wish to follow up on information Hatfield compiled.

In the three years since "Enchanted Ground" was published, Hatfield has had many interesting experiences that keep her engaged in the subject. Although she had 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 memorabilia, including a large portrait in oils of Abigail and Jonathan with an image of an angel flying over their heads. 

One last aspect of the Koons’ story that remains elusive is the location of the Koons spirit room. During her research, Hatfield found the burial ground and broken grave stones 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 maintains a website about spiritualism and spirit communication, who was eager to come to Athens to search for the precise location of Koons’ spirit room. Hatfield had been able to obtain some specific details from 19th century documents about the trek to the Koons’ homestead. Yet, although Hatfield and Hodge met briefly in Athens and set out together for Mt. Nebo, their journey did not result in any artifact or clear indication of where the spirit room had been constructed. Given enough time, and enough community participation, Hatfield thinks that it is possible that this could be found.

Hatfield quotes Koons in the afterword of "Enchanted Ground": “’Whether or not these things are significant to any part of the history of my life, is a matter to be judged and decided by those who peruse it.’” As the nights grow longer and woodsmoke curls out of the fireplace, you can read "Enchanted Ground" to discover for yourself Koons' place in the history of Athens County.

Athens resident Bonnie Proudfoot has had fiction and poetry published in multiple 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 long-listed for the 2021 PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction.

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