As It Were: Relocated cemetery provides grave inspiration for John Kerr ghost story

Ed Lentz
Guest columnist

Halloween is with us once again.

It is that time of the year when the weather is becoming a bit chillier. The time is right for some of the younger people among us to go trick-or-treating – and maybe some of the older people among us, as well.

Ed Lentz

The Halloween tradition is a very old one. It is the Christian adoption and reorientation of an older pagan holiday festival marking the change of seasons from summer to autumn.

In its current form, Halloween is Allhallows Eve, or the night before All Saints' Day. It also is the night when all sorts of ghosts, hobgoblins and other not-so-nice folks are supposed to be out and about.

Over the years, Halloween transformed to a more holiday spirit and the young – and young at heart – took pleasure in dressing in outlandish costumes and calling on local residents, saying, “Trick or treat.”

Halloween also is a time for the telling and retelling of ghost stories.

Columbus and central Ohio both have their share of ghost stories. One of them involves one of the founders of Columbus and his lost grave.

Columbus is a created city. No town was on this site after Native Americans left until four men made an offer to the Ohio General Assembly in 1812 to place a new capital city on the “High Banks opposite Franklinton” at the forks of the Scioto River.

The four men called themselves the “Proprietors” and offered the General Assembly two 10-acre lots, on one of which the Statehouse still stands. They also offered a large sum of money for buildings on the site. The offer was accepted, and a village called Columbus was brought into being.

One of the four Proprietors was a young enterprising Irish immigrant named John Kerr. Trained as a surveyor, he also seems to have been a friendly and outgoing person. He was selected by his partners to be their agent in the sale of lots in the town plan of Columbus.

John Kerr

Kerr established himself in a small frame building on the north side of Statehouse Square and did a lively business with people seeking to invest and often live in the new town.

Columbus was similar in some ways to other Midwestern new towns of this period. Streets were quite wide to avoid the congestion of eastern cities and their narrow byways.

But Columbus had one major difference: The lots set aside for churches were quite small. Unlike what one often found in the established East, where large churchyards were set aside as cemeteries, Columbus had no churchyard cemeteries. The usual reason given for this was that the water table was quite close to the surface, making the wet ground unsuitable for cemetery use.

Responding to this need, Kerr offered a cemetery to Columbus on a small 2-acre plot he owned on high ground close to the north boundary of Columbus at what was then called North Public Lane and what we today call Nationwide Boulevard. The gift was confirmed by the Proprietors and later by the first Council of the Borough of Columbus in 1816.

Kerr’s tract soon was expanded by gifts and sales by other nearby property owners. A spacious 10-acre tract was fenced and came to be called the Old North Graveyard.

With the establishment of the borough, Kerr’s work was completed as an agent. He continued working as a surveyor and became the second mayor of Columbus.

Two of the other Proprietors went on to make unwise investments and found themselves soon impoverished.

The fourth Proprietor, a man named Lyne Starling, stayed in Columbus and, like Kerr, made a lot of money selling lots in the town.

Unlike Kerr, he lived to enjoy his wealth for many years.

In 1823, a malarial fever swept through Columbus, killing many people old and young. Kerr, with a wife and young children, died of the fever and was buried in the Old North Graveyard. In a few years, his old friend and the first mayor of Columbus, Jarvis Pike, would be buried there, as well.

Over the years, hundreds of people were buried in the Old North Graveyard. But with the growth of Columbus, the valuable land of the graveyard was sought by the city for redevelopment. New graves were prohibited in 1862, and by 1876, hundreds of remains of people known and unknown had been removed to Green Lawn Cemetery to the south and other locations.

But Kerr and Pike were not among them. Their graves were lost, and they lie as yet somewhere near what is now the North Market on Spruce Street.

For many years, it has been said that on dark and foggy nights, a man in the coat and hat of an older age can be seen walking in the area. But if he is approached, he vanishes into the fog.

Is it Kerr? Or is it just a man in an old coat?

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.