Prologue: The myth surrounding the place called "The Gore Orphanage" has been circulating throughout northern Ohio for nearly a century. Generations of youngsters have flocked to the site claiming to hear the voices of orphan children they believe died when a fire burned the orphanage to the ground in the early part of the 20th century. This tale, however fascinating, is untrue. While there was an orphanage in Swift's Hollow on Gore Orphanage Road near Birmingham, Ohio it was not called the Gore Orphanage, it never burned, and no one lost their life in the facility from fire or any other cause.
The real name of the Orphanage was the Light of Hope (also referred to as the Light and Hope). It was built by the Reverend John A. Sprunger and his wife in 1903 after their orphanage located in Bern, Indiana was destroyed by fire in 1899. Three orphan girls were reported to have died in that fire. The name Gore Orphanage was adopted by young thrill seekers over the years because it apparently fired their collective imaginations of murder and mayhem at Sprunger's home for orphans. The belief is/was that the word "gore" was referring to that of a bloody wound. Thus it amplified, and seemed to substantiate, the ever evolving horror story about the place. But in fact the word actually referred to a topographical description of the land running the length of the road in Lorain County, Ohio where it is located. In brief, it was simply a triangular piece of land (hence the name "gore"). Prior to the orphanage being established along the road it was called Gore Road.
I began a working research project on the orphanage in the early autumn of 2002 for a local newspaper article. I had no great expectations as to exactly what conclusion(s) I might come to as I searched through net files and library books. But the work led me in several directions. I learned that the site of the orphanage is not where most people believe it is. The site they claim to be the orphanage site is actually that of the ruins of a mansion built in 1840-41 by one Joseph Swift. When the aging Swift sold the property in 1865 a family by the name of Wilber bought it. Nicholas Wilber and his wife lived in the mansion with their son, Miller, and his wife, Henrietta. Nicholas lived there until his death in 1901 when it was, then, abandoned. His wife had preceded him in death in 1899. And while some historians claim that four Wilber grandchildren died in a diphtheria epidemic in 1893 while living in Rosedale and were buried along the river, that story is untrue. The children did die in an epidemic of Black Diptheria, but they were living on the Kellogg Family Farm in Berlin Heights, Ohio at that time. In 1904-05 Miller and Hattie moved from that farm to a home on State Street in Vermilion where he opened a hardware store on Division Street. The entire family is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery on Mason Road in Vermilion.
But as I said the mansion is not the site of the orphanage. The orphanage was located approximately 1/4 mile north of Rosedale just across the small Vermilion River Bridge. It is on Gore Orphanage Road just past the spot where it and Sperry Roads meet in the hollow. The ruins of the orphanage cannot be seen from the road. The most visible remnants of the place abut the Sperry Road hill and are quite substantial. To my knowledge few people have actually investigated the site other than myself and a friend, Kenneth Prindle.
The orphanage site originally consisted of four sets of farm buildings and others were added as needed. It covered 543 acres, and as many as 120 children were cared for at one time.
My research may seem a sad let-down for youngsters of the region who have long considered this place to be their own little Amityville house of horrors, but my work debunking this myth led me to what I believe to be a real life horror story. While it doesn't contain ghosts nor "things that go bump" in the night, the reality of that which actually happened at John Sprunger's orphanage in Swift's Hollow makes Charles Dickens' tales about 19th century English orphanages pale in comparison.
This is that story...
Rich Tarrant, July 1, 2003 ~Vermilion, Ohio
It was Bennie Sutliff's 5th birthday. He rose early to meet the day with only the greatest of expectations. His mother had had divorced his father a year or two before and was about to remarry. He hurried through his morning rituals of washing his face and hands, dressing in his threadbare dungarees and faded wool shirt, and ran downstairs. His older brother, John had promised him that today he could ride Ol' Brownie their shaggy horse and he had spent a sleepless night in anticipation of the event.
Downstairs his mother waited nervously in the bare kitchen for him. The time had come to tell the boy. Her youngest daughter, Ruby, was dressed ready to leave. And when Bennie entered the room little Ruby rushed to him with tears welling in her eyes crying out, "Ruby tell mama we can't go today!", and there was a momentary silence in the room.
"I can't go today Mama, I can't! John is going to let me ride the horse. I'm all growed up. Oh no, Mama, we'll be good. Mr Bowens won't even know we're here.", Bennie cried. But to no avail. The die had been cast. Mr. Bowens, was his mother's betrothed and had two young children of his own. He was not a wealthy man. Bennie's mother had 10 children in all, and while the 8 oldest children had moved west to California and Nevada, the prospect of having four children to raise was more than Mr. Bowens could handle ~ or perhaps it was more than he wanted to handle.
Mrs. Sutliff's distress was almost as evident as her son's, and she held out her arms to him. But Bennie backed away with tears rushing to his dark eyes. The little round-topped trunk by the door, and the sight of Ol' Brownie hitched to the top buggy at the back porch convinced him that any further pleading would be useless. The horse that was to have made his birthday so wonderful would instead carry him and his little sister into a life of misery at J.A. Sprunger's orphanage.
Bennie, though only 5, vowed to himself that he would never speak to his mother again. Ten years would pass before he would break that silence.
(Adapted from: An Unforgettable Birthday by Ida Oppliger Sutliff, 1977; an original unpublished manuscript. Below is a photo of Ben, his mother, and sister Ruby just before they left for Sprunger's Orphanage. The story and photograph were provided me by Betty McMillen of Vermilion who is Ben Sutliff's niece.)
John A. Sprunger A Biography
Born into poverty in Muensterberg, Switzerland on August 12, 1853 John A. Sprunger migrated to America with his father, Abraham B. and mother Elizabeth (Curcher) in 1855. After spending their first 3 months in Ohio they moved to Adams County in Berne, Indiana. While his formal education was rather limited he was an industrious student and acquired a very good working knowledge of both English and German languages.
A young man of great ambition Sprunger concentrated his efforts on affairs of business and economy at an early age. At age 20 he bought he bought his time of his father for $100. He then bought a threshing machine on time. Working diligently he paid for the machine within three years which he followed by dealing in hardware and machinery at Berne. With an eye to greater things he started a lumber and warehouse business in the mid 1870's. Soon he added a grain business to his other business pursuits, and in 1879 he started a general store in Berne known as Sprunger, Lehman & Co.
On February 17, 1880 he married a girl named Katie, the oldest daughter of one Christian P. Sprunger, of Wabash Township. (ed. note: no explanation is given about Katie's surname being the same as her husband. However; the Sprunger name was a common name about Berne and it may have been common in their homeland like Smith/Jones etc. is in our nation.) They had two children; Hillegunda and Edmona who died soon after birth.
In 1881 he constructed the first brick store in Berne. In 1883 same year he built a fine residence in the city on North Jefferson Street at a cost of $3000. As his businesses flourished he and his associate, Jeff Lehman, constructed a second flouring mill in Berne, adding a sawmill, planing mill, and harrow factory to his growing enterprise. He also erected 12 houses and built the Champion Block where his firm conducted business. That was in 1884.
And then disaster struck. On September 12, 1888 the entire business went up in smoke. The $25,000 loss by the fire was then a very substantial amount of money. But with the help of his many friends the second mill was built on Water Street that same year. It was said that no business went forward in Berne without someone consulting Sprunger as to it's feasibility.
The year1888 proved to be a very sad and pivotal year in Sprunger's life. Aside from the fire losses he and his wife also lost their only living child, Hillegunda. It was then that his resolve and efforts began to move in another direction. Leaving his businesses interests over to the management of his close associates he began to devote all his effort and time toward religious pursuits. After devoting himself to a few home mission projects he and Katie traveled to Switzerland where they did some evangelist work. It was there he was ordained to the ministry. Back home he built the first deaconess orphanage home in Chicago, and established others (connected with hospitals) in several other towns throughout the area including one in Berne.
In 1894 his second mill burned. With the help of public subscription he rebuilt the mill. And in 1899 his Berne orphanage was also destroyed by fire taking the lives of 3 orphan girls. This was a staggering blow to Sprunger who had no insurance. The cost of the fire was $9000. But with the help of his good friends he immediately erected a bigger and better facility. It would be the last building he was responsible for in Berne.
Suffering from the losses of his enterprises in Berne he opted to purchase a tract of 543 acres (ed. note: the Hughes/Shumauch farm later adding the Wilbur, Denman and Howard farms) in Birmingham, Ohio and there moved some the children from his orphanage. He died there on September 28, 1911. Even during his darkest moments the people of Berne considered him to be chiefly responsible for the building and growth of their community.
(Text and pictures adapted from Thirtieth Anniversary Souvenir Edition of the Witness - 1926
Birmingham, Ohio - 1903 to 1908 Ben's Story
"When Mr. Sprunger opened his orphanage in Birmingham, Ohio I was nine years old and was sent ahead with the cattle. I slept in the cold in the stockyards (near St. Mary's Church in Vermilion, Ohio) until Mrs. Sprunger arrived, then I walked to Birmingham, driving the cattle.
The boys dormitory was a building near the road. I helped build the barn when I was ten years old. We hauled stone for the foundation from the river bed. We had a buggy shed, a print shop (where the paper Light and Hope was published). We had a school house and a chapel also. (ed. note: a nursery was added for babies only a few weeks old in 1906) We raised our own food, even tapped the maple trees. My mother brought my clothes.
There were 100 children at a time living in that orphanage. My little sister was sent there when she was only two years old. I saw her very seldom. The girls and the boys each ate in their own dormitory. No, no, I wasn't happy. Some of the boys had welts on their backs from whippings.
We boys were loaned to neighboring farms. I often worked at the Andress farm. We worked until dusk, and I recall pulling the little express wagon loaded with hogs heads. Yes, we had enough to eat, but I sometimes think sick cattle were sometimes slaughtered. We bought some food at the Sid Simons grocery (ed. note: that store was in Vermilion), but most often staples were "begged."
When I was fourteen I wanted a bike to help pull the wagon. I guess I thought I earned it in hard work. So I took $5.00 from the sugar bowel. I was caught, of course. I ran away and that was the end of my orphanage life. I often lived with the Andresses and learned farming and carpentry. My father was a carpenter. I've kept in touch with all my brothers and sisters.
This isn't a happy story. You can ask any of the Vermilion children who lived there. There were many."
(As related in an interview with Mr. Ben Sutliff, December, 1976)
The Vermilion News ~ Thursday, January 21, 1909
Trouble Over Guardian
Last Thanksgiving Bennie Sutliff, who had been at the Light and Hope Orphanage for some seven years, left that institution without leave and came to Vermilion. He took up his residence at Peter Hahn's where he is at present. The people at the home have endeavored to locate him, but until lately have been unable to do so. This week the home authorities made application to Judge Hinman of Lorain County for the appointment of a Mr. Boyd who is stopping at the home, as guardian without giving the boy an opportunity, it is alleged of making any choice, as allowed by law, he being 14 or 15 years old. Several Vermilion people went to Elyria Wednesday, but the judge firmly refused to give them any satisfaction other than to advise that the guardian whom he appointed would do well to leave the boy with Mr. Hahn as it is a good home. A rehearing of the case was asked but without result.
It is alleged that things are not what they should be at the home and the boy in question complains of ill treatment at the hands of those in charge. This is not the first time such allegations have been made and it is reported that another boy is in or near Vermilion having run away. Some are of the opinion that an investigation is in order.
The peculiar situation and question is, has the boy a right to choose his own guardian? Is he a resident of Lorain or Erie County? According to law a man would be after living in the County the same length of time. (ed. note: the inference here is that the boy is a resident of Erie County as opposed to Lorain County where the hearings are being conducted)
The home authorites (authorities) claim that the boys were inticed (enticed)away by some person or person who were at the time at the Home that they were unruly.(ed. note: the jist being that someone lured them away from the orphanage because someone at the Home thought the boys were unruly) They (i.e. Orphanage officials) also say that the story of ill treatment is not true that they are, as a rule too lenient, if anything, with the children, and that they are cared for as well as possible under the circumstances.
The Vermilion News ~ Thursday, September 9, 1909 The Orphanage Again The Light and Hope Home Again In The Limelight
Vermilion has a railroad which has just been discovered. It starts at the "Light and Hope Orphanage" and its terminals are variously located. One peculiarity is it is "underground".
Ever since the Bennie Sutliff incident last year, boys have been coming from the home. They have found good friends in and near Vermilion who have aided them in finding homes. They have brought stories of alleged misusage and abuse. It has been only the boys who have run away.
About three weeks ago two girls ages 12 and 13 respectively ran away by wading across the Vermilion river and came to Vermilion. They found refuge with ladies here. Mrs. G.B. McConnelly, Mrs. Peter Hahn and Miss Griswold aiding the parties. Mrs. McConnelly cared for one of the girls. They reported misusage.
The attention of humane officer Lawrence of Lorain County was brought to the conditions of affairs in an action brought by W. B. Glatz of Lorain to secure charge of his grandchildren. The testimony given was about as follows:
The afternoon session of the hearing of W.B. Glatz charges against the Light of Hope Orphanage of Birmingham, closed at 4:30 o'clock, Friday, both parties coming to the agreement that Mr. Glatz should be given charge of his grandchildren Dora, Minnie and Augusta Brunk, with the privilege of adopting them at any time he sees fit.
Tom Baker, aged sixteen years and until recently an inmate of the home, was the first witness of importance to take the stand. He stated that he ran away from the institution on account of harsh treatment and had found a home with a farmer in Vermilion.
When asked if it was true, that the food furnished the children was poor, he said that the boys had often brought calves' lungs and heads to the farm and that the stuff had been cooked and served on the table. He also said that although there were a number of cows on the farm, that the children were only given butter once a week and that on very few occasions were they furnished with pepper or sugar.
As to the condition of the sleeping quarters, he stated that the bed clothing was insufficient in winter and that the rooms were infested with rats and vermin. On occasions, which he remembered rats had crawled onto the beds and bitten boys while they lay asleep.
When questioned regarding the bathing facilities at the home, Baker stated that there was only one bath tub for the boys, which they were allowed to use once every two weeks, and that on several occasions fifteen to twenty youngsters had been compelled to use the same water.
George Lambert, a bright boy of eighteen years and a former inmate of the home, substantiated the statements of Baker and told of some of his own experiences. He said that he and his companions were often beaten by Supt. Sprunger and the farm overseers until great raw welts appeared on their bodies inflicted by the use of the strap.
When asked the reason that he left the home Lambert said that he wanted to learn something, which was almost impossible at the institution, as the children were only allowed to go to school where (ed. correction when) there was no work to be done on the grounds.
The story of fifteen-year-old Bennie Sutliff was very similar to that of the other two boys. He perhaps was even more vehement in his denunciation of the treatment received by the orphans.
Charles Wetly of Cleveland, was called for the defense. Wetly was a former inmate of the home, but his opinion of the treatment, conditions, etc., was exactly the opposite of the three, who were questioned before him. During the course of the examination it was intimated Wetly, was rather of a privileged character, as he was appointed as an overseer, during the latter part of his stay at the orphanage.
Peter Fiebach a resident of Henrietta township, when called to the stand stated that as far as he knew the home was conducted in a correct manner. He also said that several of the boys appeared to be incorrigible and that on one occasion two of them tipped over his sap buckets for which they were thrashed by Mr. Sprunger, but not enough to suit him, he added.
Fiebach at the end of his testimony was soundly scored by Human Officer Lawrence, who asked him what kind of reputation he had among the neighbors. Fiebach was compelled to admit that he was not overly popular.
John A. Muller, who said he worked on the farm for the sake of the children, said that nothing more could be asked for their comfort and maintenance.
President J.A. Sprunger asked that the investigation started last Friday be continued again Wednesday, in order that the good name of the institution might be rescued from the smirch put upon it by former inmates of the place who claim the conditions there are rotten to the core.
Here is some of the evidence offered by Mrs. Sprunger in an attempt to exhonorate herself and husband of any blame for the statements made by several of the orphans under their charge at one time or another.
"I have charge of the ninety odd boys and girls and am responsible for their care while they are with us."
"We have butter nearly every morning, somewhat oftener than we did before the neighbors began to complain regarding the manner in which the place was conducted."
According to Mrs. Sprunger, ham, bacon, tongue and hash is served the children, and about three years ago heads of cattle were fed the inmates and attendants.
She also testified that it used to be the custom to feed the boys and girls the lungs of cattle which were secured from the slaughter house.
Corn, which is to be dried, is first boiled in a huge kettle in the laundry, the same kettle being used to steam the white underwear worn by the children, which is boiled before being washed, she added that the kettle was cleaned first before the corn was placed in it.
Nonwhithstanding that she had personal supervision over nearly one hundred children, Mrs. Sprunger could not remember when the children had been served eggs at table, claiming she had too much else to do.
Mrs. Sprunger also said that when several of the children were afflicted with sore eyes, she took one of the girls named Dorothy to Dr. Stewart in Cleveland, and that the medicine prescribed for her was used on all the others, but that the little girl thought the prayers helped her the most and that she allowed the children to trust the Lord to cure them, as she had known him to cure all kind of diseases in the past eighteen years.
She admitted that four or five girls bathed in the same water which was carried from the roof of the building into a tank in the bathroom.
She said bedbugs and lice came into the orphanage with clothing which was shipped in or from the new children, but that they tried to get rid of them when the other children became covered with vermin.
Rose Virginia Kaiser of Cleveland, herself an orphan, connected with the mission school in that city maintained in connection with the Light of Hope Orphanage, claimed she was competent to judge conditions at the orphanage, which comprises 500 acres, although she had been there but four hours prior to last Saturday.
Mary Smith, who cooks the meals furnished the boys admitted that she could not remember when the children had been served eggs, but she thought they had been allowed to have them twice in the past eight months.
She at first refused to tell why the boys and girls were not furnished butter last year but finally admitted she did not know.
The latter part of the morning was partly devoted to the examination of pupils, especially with regard to their schooling
Some of the questions also disclosed the fact that Supt. Sprunger had been in the habit of renting out the inmates of the home to neighboring farmers. The latter were expected to turn the wages over to Sprunger.
Probabilities point toward the continuance of the investigation at least until Saturday, as there are many witnesses to be examined.
The disclosures in the papers have led to the withdrawal of at least two children by their relatives. One of them, Irene Davey, 16, was taken by her father, J.E. Davey of Port Clinton. She had been placed there following the divorce of her parents. Mr. Davey reports since securing her, that she seems afraid to tell about the surroundings at the home, especially to speak on any matters that might reflect on the Sprungers.
Miss Griswold, a former teacher in the institution now a resident of Vermilion testified that the children were allowed to attend school irregularly. (ed note: a Mrs. McQuinston who was deceased by 1916 was also an instructor).
One girl is reported as suffering from tracoma a contageous disease of the eye and it is alleged that some salve and prayers was all that was used to allay her sufferings.
In testimony Wednesday Mr. Sprunger was scored for the condition of things.
There seems to be something radically wrong with the management of the institution.
Although we have given only a small part of the testimony it brings to light a condition of things which could be improved especially in regard to cleanliness and comfort.
The Cleveland Press has been devoting considerable space to the affair, with pictures of some of the principals in the case.
(The newspaper accounts are printed as they appeared without corrections or changes. The pictures are from The Vermilion News on microfilm; September, 1909; courtesy of the Cleveland Press)
The Vermilion News ~ Thursday, September 16, 1909 Result Of the Investigation
The investigation of the affairs at the Light and Hope Orphanage has closed. It seems that some of the accusations were admitted while others were not verified. The State has no control of such institutions so no further action could be taken. The humane officer says he will watch affairs at the house. It is thought however that some of the alleged practices will in the future be eliminated and that the investigation will be a benefit to all concerned.
Epilogue: Through the clouds of time it is difficult to conclude precisely what the truth about the Light of Hope orphanage might have been. Were John and Katie Sprunger responsible for the severe mistreatment of the children placed in their care; or were they hapless victims of 100 unhappy orphans who held them in contempt for the situation in which they found themselves?
Almost everything I found out about John Sprunger's life before he and his wife came to Birmingham, Ohio was very positive. Those who knew him thought very highly of him as both a businessman and a community leader. It is clear that the death of his daughter, Hillegunda, in 1888 had a profound effect upon him. Until that point in time Sprunger's religious beliefs didn't appear to play any critical part of his life. But afterward he completely abandoned his former way of life embracing Christianity with what can only be seen as an unfeigned passion.
The 1976 Interview with Mr. Ben Sutliff and the story An Unforgettable Birthday written by Ida Sutliff, Ben's wife, do not appear to be fabrications of the truth. Indeed, Ben's departure from the orphanage the year before the investigation by Lorain County humane officer, Lawrence, seems to have opened the floodgates for complaints against Mr. and Mrs. Sprunger. None of the testimony by the Sprungers, themselves, totally refutes the orphans claims.
Perhaps more telling than any of the testimony given is that of Mrs. Sprunger, herself, who admits that she "had too much else to do" than "remember when the children had been served eggs at the table", and that "she had known him (sic. the Lord) to cure all kinds of diseases in the past eighteen years" when the questioning had turned to the health of the girls. For if it were common to feed the children eggs it would not have been a matter of remembering anything; and had the health of the children truly been a matter of her concern prayer practiced in concert with a physician's recommendations and medicines would have been more to the purpose.
The diet of calves lungs, hog heads, sick cattle, corn boiled in the same pot used to boil soiled underwear, lack of regular schooling, beatings, infestations of lice and rats, and the practice of what amounts to be slave labor were accusations that could not be taken lightly. However; because the State of Ohio had no laws or regulations pertaining to the operation of such institutions nothing, formally, could be done about conditions at the orphanage. Laws and regulations or not, it seems very clear that what happened at the Light of Hope orphanage was not common practice among similar institutions of those times.
One sincerely has to wonder if the Sprunger's religious fervor might have got the best of them. Did they somehow lose sight of the mission they took up nearly two decades prior to this investigation, and did they begin to look for financial gains for their troubles? They could have not, seriously, thought that any good would come from their persecution of the children in their care. Whatever the case it was the beginning of the end for the orphanage.
Mr. Sprunger died two years after the investigation, and the doors of the place permanently closed in July of 1916. By that time the management of the home had passed into the control of the Friends Church of Cleveland, and J. Walter Malone became superintendent.
The home had never been a financial success, and for a long time it was understood that it would have to be closed. The children were dispersed throughout the community or returned to their relatives or guardians. The few who were left were taken back to Berne, Indiana by Mrs. Sprunger and the nightmare was over for the children of the Gore Orphanage. Ironically it was exactly 13 years after it had first opened.
The census lists of some of the children in the orphanage in 1910:
(Picture: Orphanage foundation - June, 2003; by R.N.Tarrant)
Rich Tarrant ~ July 11, 2003
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