MIDDLEWAY — The story of Wizard Clip, at first glance, seems to be pretty simple.
Adam Livingston, a farmer in Middleway, took in a traveling stranger in 1797 and during the night, the stranger fell ill and right before death, requested a Catholic priest to perform last rites. Livingston, a devout Lutheran, told the dying man there weren’t any Catholic priests nearby and even if there were, he’d never let them pass through his doorway.
The man died and soon thereafter, a haunting for the ages ensued. As the man’s body lay in the Livingston home, candles had to be continually lit as a neighbor kept watch over the body; they kept blowing out no matter where they were placed. Livingston didn’t think much of the situation and assumed there was a persistent draft in his house.
It only got worse.
Clothes in the house were clipped into shreds in the shape of a crescent. Horses could be heard trampling in the house. Burning logs would fly out of the fireplace and into the family’s beds. All of their bedding was set aflame. Livestock died for no apparent reason. Livingston’s barn burned down. He found all his chickens with their heads cut off. His crockery was thrown on the ground and smashed.
The mischief at the Livingston household continued for months. But one night in a dream, a voice told Livingston that a man in a white robe would offer him relief. While in Shepherdstown on business, Livingston told the story of his dream to some folks, asking who might wear a white robe. The people referred him to a Catholic family in town, the McSherrys, who in turn, referred Livingston to their priest, Father Dennis Cahill. The priest subsequently visited the Livingston home, performed a few rituals, sprinkled some holy water and the haunting stopped.
As a result, Livingston converted to Catholicism and deeded 35 acres — the same part of his land where all of this mischief happened — to Cahill for ‘services rendered,’ before moving back to Pennsylvania in 1802 to be closer to his sons and daughters who had relocated there earlier.
It’s a neat story and a neat ending with a bow on top, right? Not quite.
Jon Erik Gilot, the director for Archives and Records in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said Wizard Clip is not like most ghost stories.
Said Gilot: “As far as ghost stories go, most of them are related by oral tradition. They are passed down from one person to another and they might eventually get written down but most ghost stories have their roots in oral tradition.”
That’s not the case with The Wizard Clip, said Gilot, who gave a presentation entitled “West Virginia’s Oldest Ghost Story” at the West Virginia Archives and History a few years ago. In it, he explained the documented history of the haunting.
“It’s likely one of the most well-documented early American ghost stories out there,” Gilot said. “It’s definitely the most well-documented I’ve come across. These were real events happening to real people at real places, all of which we can trace through historical civil and church records.”
All about Livingston
Adam Livingston was a man of German roots. Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1739, he was the oldest of 10 children. His original name was John Adam Leibenstein. But, by the 1770s, he’d Anglicized his name to Adam Livingston.
In 1771, Livingston’s father died and bequeathed to him 350 acres of land next to Smithfield, Virginia. A few decades later, the village changed its name to Middleway in order to avoid being confused with another, more well established town in the Tidewater region of Virginia.
As of 1790, Livingston was still living in York County, Pennsylvania. He was married and had six kids, along with four slaves.
“Things started to go bad for the Livingstons,” Gilot said. “Some of Adam’s livestock died, others disappeared. His crops failed. Things turned up broken around the house. The kind of stuff we might chalk up to bad luck today.”
Between 1791 and 1794, Livingston moved his family to Middleway.
“It was likely that he was looking for a new start and wanted to get away from his troubles in Pennsylvania,” Gilot said. “He was hoping his bad luck wouldn’t follow him. Unfortunately, it did.”
By 1797, the time of the visit from the unknown stranger who died in the night, Livingston had established his new homestead in Middleway.
Gilot said the part of the story about the visitor is flimsy.
“He died without Adam knowing his name,” Gilot said. “And that’s where I take some issue with part of the story. So, Adam stayed up with this man and sat with him through his final hours and he never learned the guy’s name. I don’t know. I don’t believe it.”
But, aside from that detail, there were quite a few stories that could be confirmed.
Tales of mischief
A few weeks after the haunting began, Livingston started looking to the Bible for answers. He traveled to nearby Winchester, Virginia to enlist the help of priests of the Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian faiths. In the end, none were helpful.
Gilot found the account of an Episcopal priest from Winchester, Alexander Baughman, who visited the Livingstons at the height of the haunting.
“Baughman came to the house and attempted an exorcism only to find his prayer book disappeared and was found in another room and I quote ‘in place which indicated no great respect for our admirable liturgy on the part of the ghost.’”
“Where do you think that would be?” Gilot quipped. “Probably the chamber pot.”
There’s also an account of a woman from Martinsburg who visited the homestead and upon entering the house, wrapped her hat into a handkerchief to keep the ghost from cutting her hat into slivers. Her visit was uneventful. But when she went to retrieve her hat from the handkerchief, she found it had been clipped into shreds.
After Cahill’s initial visit to the Livingston farm in 1797, things quieted down for a few days, but then it all started back up. Father Cahill came back out again and this time celebrated Mass in the house and instructed the family in the Catholic faith — but after another period of peace the destruction began once again.
The McSherry family, who lived in Shepherdstown, became close with the Livingstons and one night in Shepherdstown, a cradle that contained their son, William, started rocking violently by unseen hands. William grew up to become a Provincial of the Society of Jesus. That particular cradle is part of the archives and special collection at Georgetown University.
Cahill, who was assigned to the Diocese of Baltimore, shared his story about the strange happenings at the Livingston Farm with Bishop John Carroll. Eventually, Carroll decided to send a priest to Middleway to investigate these occurrences.
The right man for the job
Carroll wanted answers and he wanted someone who was preferably a skeptic running the investigation of the Livingston homestead. These qualities and the fact that his native tongue was German made Father Demetrius Gallitzin a perfect fit. Being from Lancaster, the Livingstons likely spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, an offshoot of the German language.
Gallitzin was educated by the most learned men of Europe. His father, Prince Dimitri Alexeievich, was the Russian Ambassador to the Netherlands and an intimate friend of Voltaire. His mother was a Prussian countess. Gallitzin was also the first priest to be ordained in colonial America.
In the fall of 1797, Gallitzin moved in with the Livingstons for three months. After arriving, he became convinced that something supernatural was occurring on the farm, but sought out whether it was an infestation or if it was a possession. An infestation would mean that it’s the house, the things or the land infested with spirits. A possession would mean it’s a person. Gallitzin believed it to be an infestation.
Gallitzin, with the help of Cahill, performed an exorcism and at last, the problems stopped. Gallitzin wrote a detailed report of what he observed. He submitted it to his superiors, which everyone read and passed around – and of course, lost.
But, in 1839, at the request of McSherry’s daughter, Gallitzin wrote a letter where he spoke of the haunting at the Livingston farm.
“My view in coming to Virginia and remaining there three months was to investigate those extraordinary facts at Livingston’s, of which I had heard so much ... and which I could not prevail upon myself to believe; but I was soon converted to a full belief of them. No lawyer in a court of justice did ever examine or cross-examine witnesses more strictly than I did all those I could procure.”
Gallitzin was a footnote in the story of Wizard Clip, but would go on to forge his own story. After leaving the Diocese of Baltimore in 1799, he spent the majority of the next four decades in the wilds of Pennsylvania, where he served as a priest for an area that spanned 150 miles.
Later on in life he was known as the Apostle of the Alleghenies, where he worked tirelessly to build a Catholic mission, which he named Loreto, and is still in Pennsylvania today. For his efforts, Gallitzin, has been a candidate for sainthood since 2005.
Something that impressed Gallitzin about the Livingston household was that for being Lutherans, the Livingstons knew a great deal about the Catholic faith. There weren’t any priests or any other Catholics in the area. Cahill had quite a large area to cover and only came around sparingly.
One of the side stories about Wizard Clip was a disembodied voice that talked to the Livingstons and foretold events to them. It instructed them in the Catholic faith and would even call them to prayer, sometimes for hours at a time.
The voice predicted that the Livingstons’ land would become “a great place of prayer, fasting and praise. It later became Priest Field Pastoral Center. The voice told Adam’s wife, Mary Ann, who remained a devout Lutheran and often defied the voice, that she would die in her own house, which, she did.
But before Mary Ann died in 1798, she was blamed by a local newspaper, the Potomak Guardian, for all of the mischief at the farm. The publication even went as far as to accuse her of either causing the infestation, being the voice or even the ghost itself.
The Guardian said that Mary Ann “with the assistance of some other knavish hussies of the neighborhood, is the ghost herself and has played on the poor old man, her husband.”
Mary Ann responded:
“The trouble still remains in the Livingston family despite any priestly arts,” She wrote in a letter to the editor, “Whatever it is, it is wonderful and unaccountable to the most penetrating mind … What’s most unhappy for me is ‘it’ aided by priest craft has been the means of secluding me from business of my family, the embrace of an affectionate husband and has fixed me as an object of public contempt.”
Priest Field and its legacy
A few years after his wife’s death, Livingston sold his property in Virginia and deeded 35 acres to Father Cahill as a proof of his esteem for the man and Catholicism. He knew that Cahill lived in Hagerstown and likely couldn’t use the land, so he appointed several trustees to care for the property. A condition was that in the event that Cahill or his successors couldn’t use the land, it should be rented and the proceeds should be put toward building or the upkeep of a chapel on the land. The land became known as the ‘Priest’s Lot” or “The Clip.”
The story of the haunting at the Livingston farm left a lasting mark on Priest Field. Some area Catholics regarded it as holy land and wanted to be buried there, and they very well may have been, as Gilot pointed out. He said there are a couple of areas on the 35-acre plot that might include cemeteries. But, he was quick to add the proof that most people would look for concerning a graveyard, headstones, etc. were all gone.
Even by 1864, when renowned journalist and sketch artist James E Taylor had found the farm, little remained of it. He sketched the dried up spring where the Livingstons got their drinking water and the cellar of the house that had been haunted a mere 65 years earlier. Taylor noted that the foundation stones from the house and any head stones were all gone by that point, taken by farmers who wanted to use them for the foundations to their homes — and by curiosity seekers.
Taylor was relieved to be done sketching the property, as he had been contracted to do by John Gilmary Shea, who wrote “The History of the Catholic Church in The United States,” in the late 1800s.
“With my commission of Dr. Shea accomplished, I felt like I’d been freed of a heavy load at that blasted farm where brooding silence reigned,” Taylor said.
The land was ignored until the 1920s when the heirs of the original trustees decided they wanted to keep the land for themselves. Clergy were not being allowed to live on the property and the rent from it was not making its way back to the Diocese of Richmond, which at the time, was the legal owner of the property.
In 1922, the Virginia courts settled the case between the Diocese of Richmond and the heirs of the original trustees. The court ruled that the land was in fact the property of the Diocese of Richmond.
The next year, more than 120 years after Livingston left ‘The Clip,’ the church built a chapel on the land, All Souls Chapel.
In 1974, the land which had remained unused and largely forgotten switched ownership. The Diocese of Richmond traded the Eastern Panhandle to the Diocese of Charleston and Wheeling for a few counties in southern West Virginia.
In 1978, construction of Priest Field, a pastoral retreat center, began on the property as part of four pastoral centers in the state of West Virginia. To this day, the center remains busy hosting support, service and religious groups, regardless of denomination, from all over the region.
The history of the land is ever present, as a marker honoring Livingston has been erected with a wooden statue. And there’s also a grave marker for the unknown stranger that visited Livingston on that fateful night 222 years ago.
Gilot said that the grave marker was already on the property when construction of Priest Field began in 1978. No one with the church or otherwise has attempted to see if the site is actually a grave and if you ask Gilot or anyone at Priest Field whether the unknown stranger is actually buried in that spot, their answer isn’t ‘yes.’
But it isn’t ‘no’ either.