Pinpointing the exact origin of a legend is rare, so this example from Minnesota is invaluable to folklorists.
I once listed Sturges Park in Buffalo, Minnesota as the fifth most haunted park in the Midwest in a Top 10 list on my old website Mysterious Heartland (to be fair, there aren’t many haunted parks). In response, Mac Loomis of Hoofprint.net published an article revealing the true story behind the park’s legend.
Historically, Alfred E. Sturges and his wife Adelaide opened this five-acre plot of land to the public in 1903. The City of Buffalo purchased the park in 1958. According to legend, Mr. Sturgis’ ghost reportedly haunts the park, and visitors have also seen orbs of light dancing through the trees. It is also rumored that names written in blood appear on the bathroom mirrors.
According to Mac Loomis and Ryan McCallum, an English teacher at Buffalo High School, the source of this legend is none other than Ryan McCallum himself. He says:
“It was 1987, I was a bored and lonely kid because I had just moved here from Arizona. My class took a field trip and I didn’t have anyone to go with, so I went down to the lake and found a huge dead carp. I had an idea. I started cutting it open with a stick. I brought [the fish parts] to the girls’ bathroom and started smearing it all over. I wrote ‘help me’ and ‘you’re next’ and put the eyeballs on either side of the sink handles. When my classmates asked why I didn’t do anything I told them that I was going to the bathroom but I saw horrifying things, and I saw a ghost. I saw Old Man Sturges.”
The legend spread from there. You can read the rest of the article at this link.
Mr. McCallum was pleasantly surprised when students began to tell him the story years after the fact, much like I was when folks started talking about the ghost of Elva Skinner at Ashmore Estates (a story I invented for my book Tales of Coles County). Rather than undermine or discredit the story, I believe this information offers an opportunity to know the exact origin of a legend, and to study the evolution of that legend over time—an opportunity we rarely have.
In most cases, it is impossible to track down. I have read literally hundreds of ghost stories about allegedly haunted places, and rarely, if ever, are the origins of those legends clear. Sometimes, if we are lucky, we can point to a historic event. Most of the time researchers scramble to dig through old newspapers and archives to come up with even the flimsiest evidence of a tale’s origin.
After many years, word of mouth distorted McCallum’s actions. Or perhaps there were copycats who did write their names in blood on the mirror. And what about the mysterious orbs of light? Were those details added because that phenomenon seems like something that would happen at a haunted park? No one can say for sure.
The most important takeaway from this article is that we should not take legends at face value. There is usually some kind of explanation for the tales, but that explanation does not diminish their significance for the community. As soon as that story is shared among successive generations, it becomes a part of the area’s folklore and adds a layer of meaning to that location.