There is a legend in Ohio that a hidden cave a few miles from Middletown contains many skeletons of people who died there, 21 of them enslaved people traveling the Underground Railroad. The cave produced poison gas, and was eventually sealed up so that no one else would enter. The origin of the legend was a series of newspaper articles that appeared in 1892, written by a man simply named John. No one today know who he really was.
According to John’s account, one summer night in 1849, a group of escapees took shelter in the home of a Hamilton, Ohio, abolitionist and physician, about 10 miles south of Middletown. As the night wore on, the physician grew nervous that bounty hunters were approaching. He loaded his guests into two wagons and headed north, following an empty road that wound along Elk Creek. John claimed that the doctor ushered the group into a little-known cave, where they’d be cramped and cold but safe and unseen. The cave was on the property of an abolitionist sympathizer—John’s father.
In the newspaper story, the doctor runs to the farmhouse and knocks. It is well after midnight. “I told him what I knew of the cave, that it was a deathtrap and that I was sure not one of the twenty-one would emerge alive,” John’s father says. He tells the doctor that geologists from the “Department of Washington City, DC” had also visited the cave, several years before, and had never returned.
People have been searching for the cave ever since the story resurfaced in the 1980s, yet it has not been found. After all, those who found it died, and if it was sealed up, it is no longer a visible cave, right? But on the other hand, the entire story could be fiction. Read about the enduring mystery of the deadly hidden cave at Atlas Obscura.
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