Jan Helen McGee has a lot of stories rattling around in her head. Most of them deal with local history and, perhaps more interestingly, local ghosts.
And she loves to share them.
“I’m a nerdy historian,” says 72-year-old McGee, who is a Lebanon County author, psychic and piano teacher. “And that’s how I teach – a mix of facts and stuff you can’t prove.”
“I want to preserve the stories of Lebanon,” she adds. “I know a lot of fascinating stuff about dead people.”
One way McGee has found to share her stories with a lot of people is her annual ghost tours of the city, which she runs in conjunction with the Community of Lebanon Association.
The idea for the tours germinated in 2019, when McGee was giving lessons to a child of Joya Morrissey, then owner/manager of Lebanon Farmers Market. The market, of course, is notoriously haunted, and they thought a ghost tour would be fun and informative.
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This year, the tours run at 6 and 8 p.m. Fridays, Oct. 20 and 27, and 6 p.m. Saturdays, Oct. 21 and 28. Cost is $25 per person, and each tour is limited to 25 people. (Reserve a tour slot here.)
“We’ll add more times if they get full,” McGee says.
Each tour takes about an hour, although McGee says it’s not a terribly long walk. “Just five or six blocks,” she explains. “We walk a little bit and I talk. Then we walk a little bit and I talk. We have six or seven places where we stop.”
Tours start in front of the Farmers Market, which stands on South 8th Street and is allegedly the home of Lebanon County’s most infamous ghosts – the Blue-Eyed Six.
The market stands on the site once occupied by a local prison, and that’s where, in the late 1870s, the Blue-Eyed Six were imprisoned, and where five of the six were hanged. Their story begins with the violent death on Dec. 7, 1878, of 60-year-old Joseph Raber, a reclusive and impoverished Union Township man.
Initial reports suggested Raber suffered “an attack of vertigo,” fell into the Indiantown river and was drowned. But later investigations revealed that four men – Israel Brandt, Henry Wise, Josiah Hummel and George Zechman – had taken out a $10,000 life insurance policy on Raber, and two men – Franklin Stichler and Charles Drews – were hired to help make that payment come due.
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All six men were found guilty of murder, and five of them eventually confessed. The sixth, Zechman, was granted a retrial and ultimately found not guilty.
The killers, Drews and Stichler, were hanged on the site on Nov. 14, 1879. The conspirators – Brandt, Hummel and Wise – followed on May 13, 1880, after a failed escape attempt by Brandt and Hummel. On the gallows, Wise announced that all six men, including Zechman, were guilty of Raber’s murder.
“Everybody asks me about the Blue-Eyed Six,” McGee says with a laugh. And she talks about them on her tour, certainly, but she tells other stories, too – from the ghosts of pirates at the Union Canal, who have been witnessed since the 1800s, to colorful orbs floating in a popular downtown business. For this tour, she also did some research on theater ghosts.
There are also old tunnels, some of which were used to hide during Indian raids, some of which were used during Prohibition and some, McGee believes, that were part of the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the Civil War.
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“When I talk about this, I’m very guarded,” McGee says. “First of all, I’m a scholar. My good name is what I have, so I’m very cautious.”
She chuckles when asked if most of the people who take her tour or believers or nonbelievers, spectrally speaking.
“Oh, they’re believers usually,” she says. “Or they’re right on the edge. It’s like going to a new church for the first time – you might not believe everything they say, but you’re interested in gathering information and hearing what they have to offer.”
Folks who’ve taken the tour in previous years won’t be bored, McGee adds. Each year she does a lot of new research – this year, she estimates she did as much as 50 hours’ worth – to prepare new material for the tour.
“It’s not only quirky facts about ghosts,” she says. “It’s also local history. Also local folklore. I weave it together.”
McGee admits that some sites give even her the jitters – and she’ll let her audience know when that occurs.
“I tell them when I get the heebie-jeebies,” she says. “But I don’t try to make people frightened. Sometimes there are kids on the tour.”
She explains: “I don’t think ghosts are scary. They can be creepy … but I think they’re fascinating.”
In the end, she says, it’s about telling good stories.
“Dead people are alive in our minds. That’s the only way we can keep them alive: pass down their stories,” McGee says. “And nobody wants to hear a boring story. You gotta move and be fun the whole way through.”
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