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Local historian remarks on local legends

October 30, 2011

Pictured above is the head stone of Father Cornelius T. Cooney at the St. Mary's Catholic Cemetary. Legend has it that Cooney impregnated and murdered a girl and that on moonlit nights, the marker oozes a blood like substance or casts a shadow of a figure holding a dead girl in its arms.

Do you believe in ghosts? Chances are, even if you don't, you have at one time or another heard or even told a ghost story. Ghost stories, urban legends or local folklore exist and persist in every corner of the world, and Elk County is no different.
Most area residents have heard stories involving local surnames, locations, or geography, and most maintain a healthy skepticism of these tales, but they persist nonetheless.
Ray Beimel of the Elk County Historical Society, in seeking to clarify various aspects and correct historical inaccuracies contained within particular local lore, offered his unique perspective on the backgrounds and circumstances surrounding the legends of Elk County. Beimel said that a proportionate amount of the legends emerged from a region like that of Elk County because of the cross-section of laborers in dangerous vocations, including the lumber, coal, railroad, and farming industries, as well as an element of religiosity.
One of the most enduring and widely known local legends involves a parish priest by the name of Father Cornelius T. Cooney. According to the most common account in circulation, Father Cooney is claimed to have impregnated and then murdered a girl in the early 20th century. Following his death in 1935, Father Cooney was buried in a plot in the St. Mary's Cemetery. Cooney's obituary, which ran in The Daily Press on Feb. 6 of that year, indicates that Cooney was pastor of the Beloved Disciple in Grove City.
According to legend, on moonlit nights a blood-like liquid could be seen oozing from his headstone. Another, lesser-known version claims that a full moon reveals, in the shadow cast by the marker, the figure of a man holding the dead body of a young girl.
Beimel said that Cooney never served as priest here and that there is no documentation to support that he ever lived here either. Beimel said that Cooney was buried here because his relations resided here. Beimel added that there had been a stain on Cooney's gravestone before it was replaced and said that there is no demonstrable evidence that Cooney was anything but an "inoffensive parish priest." Even so, as Beimel said, as so many like it, the story refuses to die.
Another area legend, a story about the origins of Devil's Run in the Penfield area, involves three 18th-century trappers camping in the area. The story goes that one night while sitting around the fire and planning the next day's hunt, the devil appeared before them. Upon seeing the devil on the other side of the fire, the three men ran into the woods, towards the nearest settlement some 15 miles away. Supposedly the devil gave chase and while two of the men made it to safety, the third was never heard from again. According to the legend, the ground they covered in fleeing, an approximately 15-mile stretch that came to be known as Devil's Run, was left barren and reportedly nothing will grow on it to this day. Some claim that Devil's Run follows the length of a glacial deposit and that only small vegetation will grow there. Beimel said he was playing "devil's advocate" and that there were, in fact, no glacier deposits in this area.
"The last glacier, the Wisconsin glaciation, did not come this far," he said.
Beimel added that there are two glaring problems with the circumstances of this story. First of all, he contends that there were no settlements in what would become Elk County until the 1790's.
"Also, the area was covered in a climax forest of pine and hemlock, which had little enough in the way of big game animals," he said.

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