Inspiration Behind ‘The Apparition’ by John Hagan

Preface by Judy Crist, executive director of communications and creative services | Audio reading by First Name, field of study

John Hagan ’67 was one of the first Villa Madonna alumnus I met after being employed at Thomas More in 2012. He was featured as a “Remembering VMC” history column guest. We hit it off immediately and have continued that relationship ever since. John is a wonderful success story. After nearly flunking out of college as an undergrad (he was saved by registrar Sr. Irmina Saelinger), he went on to achieve a master’s degree and doctorate. He spent the majority of his career in academia but also dabbled as an author, writing several books of short stories which have been published as the years have gone by. John was good enough to send me copies of his books and instructing me as to which stories and characters are based on experiences and people he met while at Thomas More. 

After several invitations to visit John on his farm in Highland County, Ohio, a colleague and I took a road trip and spent an afternoon in a gorgeous, bucolic setting – enjoying lunch and discussing campus news both past and present. It was during this visit that John asked if I had read “The Apparition” from the collection of stories in “A Long Farewell.” I had but it was several years ago. With John’s prompting I soon remembered the tale, which is part historic fiction/part ghost story – a combination I love. I would now like to share with you both the story itself and the inspiration for the story. I will use John’s own words written to me sharing where his inspiration for the story occurred:

“The ten short stories in ‘A Long Farewell’ are inspired to some extent by personal experiences and populated by characters who are blends of two or three actual people whom I have known, observed, or heard described. The idea for ‘The Apparition’ is based on two visitors to my farm and their related discussions, and follows the theme ‘Truth is sometimes as strange as fiction.’ 

“In the summer of 1976, I was working in the yard of my 40-acre farm when up the long lane drove an elderly woman by herself in a small blue sedan. This very gracious and deferential lady identified herself as Helen (Powell) Purdum and asked if I would mind if she looked about the grounds of the farm near the farmhouse. She told me that she was one of nine Powell children who had lived in the house and that she had been born in the first-floor bedroom.

“During the course of our conversation, I asked Helen if she would like to come inside and see the house again and her delighted reply was, “Oh, could I?” After the tour, I mentioned to Helen Purdum that while replacing some rotting siding on the side of the house between the ceiling of the first floor and the planking of the second floor, I had found a letter sent from Fort Bliss, Texas with a postmark of 1918. When she read the letter, Helen nearly cried, and she identified the writer (soldier) as her mother’s brother writing to his sister (Helen’s mother). I gave the letter to Helen the next week when she returned with one of her sisters and as a kind response or thank you, Helen sent me a letter (dated Nov. 2, 1976) that included historical information about the farmhouse and ‘the little house in the holler,’ and pencil sketches of both. During one of her subsequent visits, Helen told me that her great-grandmother was a Morgan and a first cousin to General John Hunt Morgan, famous (or infamous) for leading Morgan’s Raiders’ campaign through Indiana and Ohio. She told me that while passing through Highland County, General Morgan had ridden by ‘the little house in the holler’ and picked up his cousin’s young daughter and brought her by horseback up to the main house during a surprise visit to his cousin.

“Around 2004-2005, a group of my retired friends were playing poker and drinking beer one afternoon in the kitchen of the old farmhouse. During the poker game, I told them of the story told to me by Helen Purdum. A month or so later, one of the friends suggested that I build a short story around the tidbit shared by Helen Purdam.

“Virtually all of the characters are purely fictional, but, of course, the general and his raiders were real, and they did raid in Indiana and Ohio before attempting to cross the Ohio River into West Virginia near Buffington’s Island in July of 1863. In fact, after writing the story, I happened upon an historical marker in Winchester, Ohio (not far from the farmhouse) where Morgan and his men had conducted one of their raids. The proximity of the marker gives further credence to the story told by Helen Purdum.”

What follows here is the short story “The Apparition” by John Hagan, shared in audio format with John’s permission. Enjoy!