Taking a historical walking tour with Dayton’s scariest man
By Jason Webber
You wouldn’t think it when looking at the guy, but Leon Bey is the scariest man in Dayton. The guy knows so much about Dayton’s sordid, bloody past it’s terrifying. That’s what makes the Ghosts, Cemeteries and Murders historical walk such a ghoulishly good time.
“I hope everyone believes in ghosts,” said Bey to the evening’s participants at the rear of the Dayton Courthouse in Courthouse Square. “If you don’t, try to believe in them just for tonight.”
Even the most hardened skeptic will be entertained — and possibly made a believer — after the Ghosts, Cemeteries and Murders walk, one of five historical walks Bey has been operating for the past several years. A lifelong history buff, Bey worked in the Local History Room at the Dayton Metro Library for 35 years. Now retired, he continues his love affair with Dayton’s history via his walking tours, which also cover less gruesome fare, such as the Oregon Arts District, Walk of the Miami and Erie Canal, Historic Main Street Walk and Historic Ludlow Street. But tonight, it’s all about spirits, murder and the blood-soaked legends of the Gem City.
A natural storyteller, Bey tells his ghost stories in such a charming, folksy way, you feel like you’re 7 years old and sitting around a campfire. He opens the walk by telling the gory tale of Dayton’s very first murderer, Mr. John McAfee. In 1824, McAfee was tried and hanged after killing his wife at the urging of his mistress, a woman named Hettie. Following the hanging, which attracted hundreds of spectators, jailers and officers reported hearing strange noises and seeing strange sights in the former jail, which was located behind the Dayton Courthouse. So McAfee may have also been Dayton’s first ghost as well as its first murderer.
Along the 90-minute walk, Bey introduces some of the other ghostly denizens of downtown, including Headless Hattie, the spirit of a decapitated seamstress who used to work in the former State Theater in the early 20th century. The long-gone State Theater was located where Dave Hall Plaza now sits, and reputedly her ghost still roams the park. In fact, Bey swears he has felt her presence a few times.
An even creepier ghost story is the one about the ghost of a woman whose husband killed her and stashed her body in the former Dayton Daily News building. According to Bey, this spirit, which supposedly still haunts the building is an “unhappy” spirit, someone who dies due to a tragedy or an injustice and cannot rest because of the unfinished business.
“On the walks, I point out three different kinds of spirits — happy ghosts, confused ghosts and unhappy ghosts,” said Bey. Downtown Dayton is positively awash in “confused” ghosts, which are usually spirits whose earthly remains have never been given a proper burial or have been disturbed. Since much of downtown was built upon the graves of some of Dayton’s earliest citizens, it’s no surprise that so many ghosts still haunt the area.
In addition to the macabre historical details, there are some lighthearted ghost stories on the walk, such as the mysterious bump-n-grind music that can sometimes be heard inside the Dayton Convention Center, which in a bygone era was known as the Mayfair Burlesque Theater (random trivia: Tempest Storm, arguably the most famous burlesque dancer of all time, worked there for a few years). Then there’s Vicky, the spirit who haunts the Victoria Theatre. Bey said he once felt her presence while watching a movie on the balcony a few years back. “I could totally feel someone sitting next to me,” he said. “You could just feel that someone was there.”
While the Ghosts, Cemeteries and Murders walk makes for the perfect Halloween season outing, Bey’s walks are fascinating all year long, and Bey truly enjoys educating citizens on all aspects of Dayton’s history — especially the gory parts.
“In an old city like Dayton, you’re always going to have ghosts.”
Upcoming Ghosts, Cemeteries and Murders walks take place Saturday, Oct. 1, Friday, Oct. 7, Saturday, Oct. 8 and Friday, Oct. 28 – Sunday, Oct. 30. All walks begin at 7 p.m. behind the Dayton Courthouse in Courthouse Square. $10 per person. Advance registration requested. Visit www.gemcitycirclewalks.wetpaint.com or call (937) 274-4749 for more information.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jason Webber at JasonWebber@DaytonCityPaper.com.