Riegelsville: More Dead Than Alive

Riegelsville: More Dead Than Alive

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

In some ways, the small town of Riegelsville is more dead than alive, and some people believe the line dividing those two states is thinner than usual.

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Wargo, pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ on the hill overlooking much of the town, points to the Riegelsville Union Cemetery. 

Although legend has it that ghosts have been seen roaming the burial ground, Wargo said he’s walked through there at night and he’s had no ghostly encounters – “no anything.” But, if you stand in the exact center of the cemetery, “every building you can see is haunted,” he pointed out. That includes the local firehouse, the library and the parsonage where he has lived for about a decade. He’s been collecting and recording ghost stories since he moved to Riegelsville.

Although Riegelsville appears to be just another small river town, Wargo said, “It is unique. Spirits may be drawn to this ancient place because it was once a Lenape village. The Indians believed it was sacred ground and came here to be cleansed. The local chief was also a shaman,” he said.

The minister’s first ghostly encounter was up close and personal the first night he spent in the parsonage. He was still single, had just earned his master’s in divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary and had been assigned to St. John’s. In the middle of the night, he said, he was awakened by the sound of someone pacing back and forth, back and forth, on the third flood, just above his bedroom. He knew that room was vacant.

Then he heard the steps coming down the stairs to the doorway outside his bedroom.  “Then they stopped, just stopped.”

The new pastor finally managed to get back to sleep, but the next day he took off for his parents’ house and stayed there for a month. That was just the beginning – and fear has since turned to fascination – for the most part.

Now Wargo is married to the Rev. Stephanie Thompson, a visitation pastor at another church. They are the parents of a five-year-old son and they live in the haunted parsonage.

All of them have seen a man wearing “old clothes” and heard footsteps.  So have previous occupants of the parsonage. They’ve become accustomed to the apparitions, to doors opening and closing mysteriously and lights turning on and off.

Unafraid, they seem to live amicably with all that. “It’s almost run of the mill,” said Wargo. “This is not someone aggressive. He’s never hurt or threatened us and he’s had ample opportunity.”   

The church office was in a house built in 1858 by Cyrus Stover, who had married into the founding Riegel family. He then joined the Union Army and died in Tennessee, possibly of combat injuries, in 1864. He lies buried in the Riegelsville cemetery, but Wargo said the ghostly soldier hasn’t just faded away.

He believes the sudden icy chill he has felt and the footsteps he has heard in the office are those of a cantankerous Cyrus, who objects to alarm clocks, copy machines and computers and interferes with their functions. The church has since sold that house; Wargo now works at home and the new owner seems to have inherited Cyrus.

Ghosts roam all over town. The ghost of Mary Louise Aughinbaugh, who died in 1867, is said to roam around the church property. Just next door to the Stover house is the Riegelsville Library, where a little girl has frequently made her presence known to a series of librarians and visitors.

People have also reported hearing the clip-clop of horses’ hooves as though a funeral procession is entering the gates of the cemetery. A woman with a parasol has been spotted on a corner near the cemetery, her presence reported by several eye-witnesses.

Wargo even possesses a photograph of her. He also has two spectral photos of his own house taken during a ghost tour. One clearly shows the image of a man in an upstairs window; the other, taken seconds before at another window in the same room shows the man’s profile. Wargo believes the photos offer back-up evidence for his stories.

Wargo is chaplain for the town’s Community Fire Co. No. 1 and he said firefighters there have come to accept the presence and ghostly complaints about changes at the station voiced by a former colleague who died young but whose spirit seems to live on in the engine bay.

In 1996, Wargo discovered he was not the only Riegelsville resident to have seen ghosts so he started to collect their stories. He had majored in journalism at Millersville University, has written two books and launched a website, ghostsintheville.com. His books, “Ghosts in the ‘Ville” and “More Ghosts in the ‘Ville,” are now out of print but available in Kindle editions.

The minister said he is a skeptic at heart and admitted, “Sometimes people see what they want to see. The power of suggestion can be very strong.” That is one reason he investigates activities with such care. He said he believes interest in the paranormal has grown because “so much turmoil in the world has forced people to seek reassurance in an afterlife.”

He’s worked successfully with some paranormal investigators and with a Bucks County spiritual medium. He said what scares him about a ghost is that, “He can see you, but you can’t see him, so you can’t determine his motives. You don’t know if he’s dangerous or not.”

The pastor has no trouble reconciling his Christian beliefs with the spirit world, citing passages in the Bible to support his findings.  He has been asked to bless homes where spirits have disrupted the household and the blessings have produced more peaceful surroundings.

There is at least one house in town, though, the minister refuses to enter at night. “Whoever roams there is not friendly,” he said.   

The pastor does pull out all the stops and adds some drama during his annual Ghost Tours each autumn. “One year a ghost actually appeared during the 90-minute walking tour. They were college kids and they couldn’t wait to get out of the building,” This year’s tours are scheduled for Oct. 31 at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and Nov. 1 at 9 p.m.

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