OK, here's what happened: The scene is a golden prairie near the banks of Jester Creek late in the nineteenth century. Amid plenteous fields of life-giving grain there lives a peaceful "Indian tribe," as we then innocently called them, giving thanks for an abundant harvest on a mild Kansas afternoon.
Suddenly, according to the website where I gleaned this information, "something happened and the calvary [sic] came." The certainty of bloodshed looms in the air, palpable as the breeze. Among the hardy oaks along the banks of the creek we find a lovely young… squaw, I suppose, named Theorosa, out gathering berries with her infant daughter strapped to her back in a leather papoose. But a bloodthirsty cavalryman has found her too, defenseless and cut off from her clan. Before Theorosa so much as turns to face him, he has driven his sword through Theorosa's innocent babe, hurling the carcass into Jester Creek just yards below.
Cavalrymen? What I meant was cowboys. It wasn't a cavalryman but rather a cowboy that wrested the precious newborn from Theorosa's grip — there was no papoose — and flang her into the turbulent Jester.
Goddammit. That's still not right. What it was is that Theorosa was the baby's name, not the mother's. And they weren't Indians, they were settlers. That's better. So we're back on the golden prairie on a mild Kansas afternoon where, in the searing heat and blazing Kansas winds, scratch "mild" above, a group of fearless Christian settlers in handmade wagons arrive at the twisted banks of the forbidding Jester Creek. Who should greet these honest travelers but the perfidious red man? Even as Theorosa (which must be an Irish name or something because it sure as hell isn't German) lay cooing in her simple yet sturdy bassinet did a godless red warrior snatch her from out her mother's loving gaze and ride away with her strapped to his snorting, brimstone steed. Mama resolved then and there that she would rather Theorosa die than be raised as a savage: she herself would retrieve this angel, whom God had entrusted to her, or die — yes, die — in the trying.
Start over. On the fenced, flat plains of southwest Kansas, near a bend in the timid Jester, there lived an honest farmwife named Theorosa. (Russian? Czech?) Together with her husband, Theorosa and tens of thousands like her had tamed the wild prairie, pushing the frontiers of civilization ever westward, with grit, piety, and determination their only tools. But even without a burbling newborn daughter, the existence could be hardscrabble. Theorosa had noted well the furrows gathering on her husband Jebediah's brow, etc., etc., until, his eyes raging with madness, he drove her grandfather's ivory-handled knife ("Keep this and think of me, beloved child," Old Pa had told her tremulously, pressing his prized whittling knife into her hand as the wagon pulled away) deep into Theorosa's heart and then into that of their daughter, and released them to tumble limply into the trickle of Jester Creek below.
Yes, gentle reader, and but one question remains: Just what could bring such a tragedy to pass? How, oh how? The answer is that, deceitful jezebel though she was, some frayed shred of conscience lived yet in Theorosa's tattered soul. She clutched the bastard child to her desiccated bosom and peered down into the stony Jester far, far below. In her black heart she resolved to finish it — now, before gentle Jebediah returned from a day of back-breaking labor and stooped to kiss that which was no kin to him, the shrieking fruit of her vile sin.
A Thousand Words
My editors hope to receive around 1,000 words a week for this column, so following the gratuitous 600-word passage above, we'll have to economize to cover my topic in less than triple the column's desired length. My topic, to state it now very briefly, is Valley Center's legendarily haunted Theorosa's Bridge, known officially as the 109th Street Bridge and located on 109th only yards to the west of north Meridian. No one is certain of the legend's origins, as I tried to indicate above. (The Eagle, which will have to serve as our authority in the absence of any real scholarship on the topic, wrote in September that "Theorosa supposedly was the name of a pioneer family's baby killed by Indians. Her mother, crazed with grief, fled the wagon train, trying to find her child"; we'll accept that premise for our purposes here, although my own research revealed that a family that once lived near the bridge offered a plausible alternative: it's a "fabrication from teenagers in the early 70s.") The upshot, regardless, is that the ghost(s) of Theorosa and/or her mother now haunt the bridge and the nearby creek, and, depending on who you ask, visitors there might expect to hear the mother calling for her baby or the sound of her baby crying; see "eerie shapes," an apparition of a woman, or floating balls of light; experience meteorological anomalies such as cold breezes; or, again in the words of an Internet user, that "she will encounter with you in small ways like shutting your car down or whatever." Theorosa's mother is also reported to have "rushed up from the water" and attacked the curious, as well as having "shaken" cars off the bridge. To enhance your chances of being attacked and having your car shaken into the creek, you may repeat the phrase "Theorosa, I have your baby" three times (although the Eagle maintains that Theorosa is the baby), or simply claim to be the child yourself.
See how, from within the locked, lighted house in which I'm writing, I feel free to mock the legend of Theorosa's Bridge? The truth, of course, is that my friend Johnny and I drove out there recently at three or four in the morning on a night with a waning moon and managed to scare the daylights out of ourselves in no time at all. After being blatantly followed through Valley Center by the local fuzz ("fuzz" because those early 70s teens are on my mind), we overshot 109th and came close to miring our car in the shoulder while executing a three-point turnaround. We managed it, though, and arrived at the bridge, which we drove over before parking by the side of the road. We then got out of the car and approached the bridge on foot.
I'd say we lasted ninety seconds. I can't report that we experienced anything like the phenomena enumerated above, although we experimented with the idea of agreeing that we heard a vague "wailing" noise; this was a very, very subjective noise if we did hear it, but it was enough to send us not running, but walking quickly back to the car all the same. We drove back across the bridge slowly, emboldened by all the Detroit steel that separated us from the paranormal, and then fooled the Valley Center cop by taking Seneca home.
I'm working on the assumption that those of us who grew up in Wichita know all about the vast store of unreported phenomena adhering to the legend of Theorosa's Bridge — far more than what I've reported, because each and every one of us has had a nearly fatal encounter with the supernatural there, or knew someone who did, or knew someone who knew someone who did. (In this third case, that of a friend-of-a-friend, the person always dies, because who can prove otherwise?)
The verifiable facts of the bridge's history are these: print references to the 109th Street Bridge in the context of the paranormal seem to coincide roughly with a 1974 fire that destroyed the largely wooden structure. It appears that the bridge was quickly rebuilt, but fire claimed it again within a few years; the bridge was then left in ruins until the current concrete-and-spray-paint structure was opened in 1991. If official documents, such as police blotters, bear accounts of harm befalling visitors to Theorosa's Bridge, no one has yet unearthed them.
It's the unofficial accounts that keep the legend of the bridge alive. My favorite of these to date, a charming first-person testimonial given by a certain Sarah in 2004, appears on a blog. Here's an excerpt:
At midnight one evening, [Angel and I] headed to the bridge. We got out and just stood around for a bit, and we didn't experience any of the "spooky" things that had been mentioned from other people. So Angel said, "Well, Sarah, you have to say that little rhyme or whatever it is." So, I stood at the edge of the bridge, and I said, "Theorosa, Theorosa, I have your baby!" I did this 3 times, and on the 3rd time...I know you're not gonna believe me, but I swear on my baby's grave it happened...on the 3rd time I said it, Angel's car started. I looked over because I thought he had gotten scared and run to his car, and he was standing right next to me! Both of us looked at each other, and we made a mad dash for the car to get the heck out of there...and the doors were locked! So there we stood with no way of leaving. The next thing I knew, Angel was on his cell phone talking to the police to come get us...The police showed up, unlocked his car, and we headed for home in a hurry.
Based on my experience, I imagine that the police were there very quickly indeed.
Kansas Paranormal Investigators
I want to believe Sarah and yet I have nothing from my own visits to the bridge to offer as corroborating testimony. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe I'm doing something wrong. I decided to find out how professional ghost hunters get the job done.
I met up with Antonia Keil ("Tonia" to acquaintances), the 33-year-old founder of Kansas Paranormal Investigators, at a café in El Dorado. Tonia had a goth appearance at our meeting: she was dressed all in black, wore a pendant on which a snake wended its way through a pentagram, and bore a tattoo on her right forearm that depicted a hybrid of a skeleton and a dragonfly. I thought that I had met people rather like Tonia before and what I expected was the cant and salesmanship of a recruiter. In this frame of mind, I asked my first question: Was her involvement in the paranormal the product of a supernatural encounter in her past?
I now expected to hear that Tonia had grown up amid horrors, perhaps that the ghost of a murdered child had left her pillow wet with his tears every night and that magical powers allowed her to commune with the spirit world.
Instead she said, "No."
I had been disarmed. "I've just always had an interest in the paranormal," Tonia continued. "So I did some shopping on the Internet and ran across the American Ghost Society. They didn't have a Kansas representative, so I joined." She later formed the independent organization Kansas Paranormal Investigators.
This course of action — acknowledging an interest and then researching it — seemed very sensible to me. Tonia, I began to see, held beliefs much less batty than I had anticipated: I wouldn't have to worry that she might suddenly drop her voice and whisper to me conspiratorially that she could fly.
She described for me the process she uses to investigate the homes and businesses of those people who contact her with their paranormal concerns.
"Skepticism is key," she said. "You can't take everything you see and everything you're told as fact. You have to go in and doubt what these people are telling you." She said that she might also research the people involved: perhaps the phenomenon is related to an individual as opposed to a location, and then there's the possibility that the person with whom she is dealing has a history of delusions.
On site, Tonia takes a very small crew with her ("I try to keep it at a bare minimum — less confusion, fewer mistakes") which includes her husband, a licensed electrician. "He makes sure that whatever they're experiencing isn't electrical, that their major appliances aren't feeding extra energy into the area, that the breaker box isn't malfunctioning, that they aren't getting an effect from surrounding power lines. We need to know that there isn't anything electrical, mechanical, or chemical in the house causing problems."
This seemed practical and even a little mundane to me, as though Tonia and I were discussing origami or canning peaches rather than tracking the restless departed. But what evidence did she seek? Maybe that's where the proceedings became uncanny. Did she listen for rattling chains?
Again Tonia debunked me. "Electromagnetic field disruptions and temperature changes are big ones," she said. "Unexplained spikes in an area's EMF or drastic temperature changes can be a good indication of activity."
What about orbs? On the Internet I had inspected photos taken by paranormal researchers in haunted places that were dotted with little circles of light. These, an essay by ghost researcher David Juliano informed me, are possibly "orbs… energy being transferred from a source (i.e. power lines, heat energy, batteries, people, etc.) to the spirit so they can manifest. This may not even be a conscious thing the spirit is doing, just a natural way they get their energy." (The text continues with a doozie: "This would explain why the orbs are round balls.")
Tonia demurred. "Orbs are kind of… questionable," she said almost apologetically. "We don't use orbs as proof."
Supposing that I didn't have access to equipment capable of measuring electromagnetic fields and ambient temperatures, what other advice could Tonia offer me?
"This is very important. A lot of people have gotten away from the gut feeling — how the area feels, if it changes, if it feels heavy one minute and then clear the next. We do a lot of that — just sitting, sizing up how and what we feel."
I thought of Johnny and me race-walking back to the car at Theorosa's Bridge. How had we felt?
The second time we drove right to it. It was now much nearer Halloween than on our first visit and the cooler, darker night seemed promising for ghostly manifestations. Our friend Amy was with Johnny and me for additional emotional and psychic support and I was armed with a flashlight and Tonia's advice.
It was earlier in the night on this visit — around midnight, surely the most auspicious hour for the paranormal. We parked where Johnny and I had before and were heading for the bridge on foot when another car arrived.
Intellectually I saw our job on this second "investigation" as being a cool-headed evaluation of the claims set forth by those who branded Theorosa's Bridge as haunted. Emotionally I saw our job as being to strain our eyes and ears for anything that might in any way be extrapolated as scary, terrify Amy, and freak each other out even worse than we had before. As we met the occupants of the other vehicle, I saw that this might be harder to do than I had expected.
The other car bore 13-year-old Breanna. It was, in fact, Breanna's birthday, and her guests on her birthday excursion to Theorosa's Bridge were Talyr, Courtney, Baylie, Caitlyn, Matt, and Tammy, the driver and only legal adult. Breanna had wanted to do something scary for her birthday, just as I probably had when I turned 13, and so here they were.
I asked the kids if they knew the story of Theorosa, and a kaleidoscopic array of variations on the stories given above overlapped and filled the air. Talyr understood there to be a ruins nearby that had once been Theorosa's home — it was "just over there" he said, pointing randomly into the darkness — and he wanted to walk there. The others didn't, so instead all ten of us — the kids, Tammy, Amy, Johnny, and me — somehow ended up clambering down the weed-covered bank of Jester Creek and thus arriving under the bridge itself.
I can't imagine what dollar figure would have lured me down the banks of the Jester and under Theorosa's Bridge when Johnny and I were there the first time; the number can probably be defined mathematically as impossible or abstract. Yet here we all were, and now I found that I worried less about the supernatural and more about snakes, control of the only flashlight, and mud. Thinking that he saw a figure standing behind Amy, Johnny came a little unspooled at one point, lapsing temporarily into language inappropriate for a thirteenth birthday party, and some glowing spots in the mud generated momentary excitement until we determined that they were only bugs. But no one's car got shaken, and if an apparition called out to us we talked right through it.
An Elvis Sighting
Walking back to the car I thought about my conversation with Tonia. She had talked about regular cranks — the kind who emailed her asking if she had seen Elvis — but she had implied the existence of other kinds: people who jumped on the paranormal bandwagon for attention, or those so overly prone to suggestion that you could persuade them to see Bigfoot in a keeshond by tweaking the lighting just a smidge. It was her stated opinion that the legend of Theorosa's Bridge has been kept alive through the testimony of people like those.
"I've checked it out over and over again and come up with nothing. I've done it for years and years."
Before I made it back to my car, though, Tammy called me over to hers. She had taken her digital camera with us on our expedition under the bridge and there was something she wanted to show me.
"Look at this," she said as she scrolled through the images. "See how these pictures are just normal…" She showed me images of our descent down the bank and of the bridge shot from below. "But then these circles start to show up."
She handed me the camera, and as the ten of us move farther under the bridge in the images, the frames begin to fill up with orbs, orbs exactly like those I'd found in the ghost photos on the Internet. In some of the later photos these orbs completely obscure whatever Tammy had intended to shoot.
Johnny and Amy came over and I showed them what Tammy had found. In one of the pictures the two of them stand with their backs to the camera while orbs crowd around them, an especially large one floating over their heads like a thought that came to them both at exactly the same time.
Amy said, "That's so creepy."
At the conclusion of Amy's quote, we have 3,131 words, section headlines included.
In reference to the orbs, I said, "We don't use those as proof."