Thursday, October 20, 2016

The White Lady of Wopsy

Finding the Historical Roots of a Pennsylvania Ghost Tale

Painting by Joe Servello.
As Halloween approaches, tales of ghostly occurrences and mysterious happenings invariably drift into our popular consciousness. With its rich history spanning multiple centuries, Blair County, Pennsylvania certainly does not lack legendary stories of the supernatural. One of the most persistent of all tales revolves around the so-called “White Lady of Wopsy.”

The celebrated story first appeared in a Halloween 1973 issue of the Altoona Mirror, which stated, “The White Lady of Wopsy [the nickname for Wopsononock Mountain] wanders the misty wooded lookout area atop Wopsononock Mountain, seeking revenge. Neither man nor woman is safe as the ghost floats on the dark, mysterious mountain breezes, venting her wrath on unsuspecting individuals.” The “legend claims that she was the victim of an auto crash and fire after being left waiting at the altar on her wedding day. She avenges herself on all who see her three times by causing horrible death. Some couples vow they have heard her scratch on the car roof.”

The traits of the tall tale vary depending upon the storyteller. In some renditions, the apparition committed suicide because of the death of her newborn. In other instances, the bride hurled her carriage off the road (with her husband onboard) after she learned of his infidelities on their honeymoon at the Wopsononock Resort (destroyed by fire in 1903). One question remains, however: From where did this story originate? I am certainly no believer in paranormal activities yet the legend has long intrigued me, as it has many others from my region. Granted, many tragic accidents have occurred on the perilous curves of the Buckhorn Road descending from Wopsy. Yet, one particular incident from 1926 stands suspect above all others.

Shortly after midnight on October 11 of that year, Margaret Gray and Chester Troutman (a WWI veteran) were presumably returning to Altoona when their large touring car skidded on the meandering highway. In September 2016, Gray’s great-grandson, Greg Sheets, noted that according to family legend, “she was supposedly running moonshine from Cambria County” with Troutman. Such activity on the remote mountain roads of Central Pennsylvania was not uncommon. 

Six years prior, the Volstead Act forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating beverages. Pious and law-abiding citizens fully supported the measure amid the tumultuous era known as Prohibition. Preacher Charles Bame said in an impassioned sermon at Juniata’s Park Church of the Brethren the same year as the Gray-Troutman accident, “We have too many older folks who make their bodies a swill-pail for rot-gut booze, robbing their families and society of the help they ought to give.” Meanwhile, some blue collar workers desired nothing more than a frothy glass of beer after a day in Altoona’s railroad shops or mills.  Others were opportunists who saw a chance for illegal profiteering or daring entertainment. Gray and Troutman likely fell within that latter category.

Near the aptly-named “Devil’s Elbow,” where the “White Lady” presumably roams, their vehicle rolled down the ominous embankment on that night of October 11. Gray suffered a compound depressed fracture of the skull, among other injuries. Admitted to critical care at the Altoona Hospital at two in the morning, her injuries were beyond repair. She succumbed to her wounds at 11:10 that morning.

The Gray-Troutman accident is steeped in mystery. First and foremost, the female passenger was married to another man, John Gray. He was apparently not aware of her late night cruising with Troutman. According to newspaper reports, “the family was under the impression that she had gone to Gallitzin to meet a [visiting] woman relative.” Troutman, who suffered only minor abrasions and dizziness in the accident, later claimed to be returning Gray home that night.

Additionally, the circumstances of the wreck itself were unusual. For these reasons, Troutman was brought up on manslaughter charges a week later. According to court testimony, Troutman contended that he and Gray stopped and switched seats multiple times coming down the Buckhorn and that she was the one who lost control of the vehicle. He said this despite the fact that in his initial hospital interview he claimed he was passing another car at the time of the accident. Regardless of this conflicting testimony, Troutman was acquitted of any wrongdoing by the jury. Troutman married Olive Pearl Jones in 1937 and likely tried to move on to the next chapter of his life. He was highly involved in local veterans’ organizations and lived until 1965. Naturally, these were luxuries Gray could not enjoy. Accordingly, this unfortunate anecdote of lost love, death, and a possible miscarriage of justice represents all the ingredients of a classic ghost story.

Does Gray’s spirit roam the woods in which she was mortally injured? This article cannot claim to answer or promote that. However, one can carefully speculate that she did have important tasks remaining in her incomplete life. She left behind five children.

Margaret Gray pictured at left. In 1962, local WWI vets held a reunion at Altoona's Penn Alto Hotel. Chester Troutman is the last man on the right--seen thirty-six years after his fateful Wopsy accident. The Gray photo is courtesy of Greg Sheets, Gray's great-grandson. The WWI veteran photo is courtesy of David Seidel.

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