The Strange Case of Edmonson, Kentucky

December 13, 2016 at 12:00 AM

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I.

On October 16, 1962, every man, woman, and child disappeared from the town of Edmonson, Kentucky. The date is relatively easy to pin down. The day before – October 15 – a traveling salesman named Arnold Johnson passed through the small town in an unsuccessful attempt to sell an exciting new product – the bagless vacuum cleaner.

During an interview with authorities afterwards, Johnson said he noticed nothing unusual about Edmondson in the day before the disappearances. He did, however, remark that none of the housewives he spoke with during his brief stay seemed remotely interested in his product – something he found slightly surprising compared to the response he typically received when demonstrating the vacuum cleaner to similarly-sized towns.

“Not only did I not sell a single vacuum cleaner, but no one even wanted to see the product in action,” he said during the interview. “If you could get in the door and show the women what that vacuum could do, you were guaranteed a sale.”

Johnson chalked up his failure to the apprehension related to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had begun a day before and had been dominating the airwaves.

“It’s hard to sell a vacuum cleaner when your audience thinks there’s a possibility they’ll be radioactive dust by the end of the week,” he said.

Johnson left the town of Edmonson the evening of October 15. The next town on his sales route – Clement – was eighty miles away. He drove all night and didn’t think about Edmonson until investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation knocked on his door two weeks later.

During the early morning hours of October 17, Randall Pierce – a farmer who sold his produce to the only grocer in Edmonson – drove into town to discover empty streets and closed storefronts.

“It was eerie,” Pierce told the county newspaper later. “Usually at seven in the morning that little town was bustling. I thought I had maybe driven up during a holiday.”

Pierce lived with his wife and three children on a farm fifteen miles outside of Edmonson. Like most farming families in the early 1960s, Pierce’s wife homeschooled their children when they weren’t helping their father tend the farm.

“But I couldn’t think of any holiday that would close up a town in the middle of October so I started getting a little spooked,” Pierce said. “I knocked on the doors of a few houses and didn’t get a response from any of them. Around eight o’ clock, I realized there wasn’t a single soul in Edmonson.”

Shaken and a little disoriented, Pierce returned home to his wife and children. He told them what he had seen (or not seen) in Edmonson and with nationalistic fears of a Communist invasion running rampant, his wife convinced him to drive to Clement and report what he had seen to the authorities. The Pierce family had no phone at their farm.

Pierce arrived in Clement shortly after noon and immediately pulled into the parking lot of the local police department. He told the authorities what he had witnessed in Edmonson.

Initially, as Pierce tells it, his story was met with disbelief and ridicule. But after multiple calls to Edmonson’s police chief went unanswered, Clement’s Sheriff – Jonathan Ambrose – gathered a group of men and traveled to Edmonson to investigate Pierce’s claims.

Sheriff Ambrose died of lung cancer in 1968. However, in spite of being a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, on his deathbed Ambrose said that his visit to Edmonson on October17th was “the most disturbing and haunting experience of my entire life” and thinking about the events of that day would still “turn the blood in his veins to ice.”

II.

According to the most recent census, 236 individuals lived in Edmonson in 1960. It was a small town, nestled between the hills of western Kentucky. Named after a Captain who killed during the Battle of 1812, Edmonson was populated primarily by the ancestors who founded the town in 1825.

Edmondson had one public school, a grocery store, a bank (Wells Fargo), a hospital clinic, two churches (Baptist and Methodist), and a post office. Most of the men worked small farms – like Pierce – or ran a trade. Edmondson, like most small communities in rural areas, was self-sufficient and self-sustaining. Every two weeks the grocery store would be restocked and the post office would deliver mail every Tuesday. For entertainment, residents of Edmondson would have to visit Clement or another nearby town.

On October 17, 1962, Clement Sheriff Ambrose, two deputies, and the Clement’s primary physician piled into a squad car and followed county farmer Randall Pierce back into Edmonson. Ambrose carried his service pistol – a M1911A1 .45 ACP – and ordered his
deputies to bring their shotguns – Browning 12-Guage pump-actions. The physician – Alan Cathey – was brought along in case a mass casualty event had
taken place.

Before he died in 1968, Ambrose recounted the events of October 17th to his older son, who transcribed his father’s testimony and published it in a men’s magazine to little fanfare in 1974.

“It was a two hour drive from Clement to Edmonson, and we all expected to show up in that little town and find nothing wrong except for a drunk police chief who overslept his shift,” Ambrose said. “However, I couldn’t deny the fact that a palatable tension was present in the squad car. My two deputies kept fiddling with their shotguns and
Cathey wouldn’t stop rummaging through his physician’s bag. It was the same
type of behavior I observed among soldiers before we were set to launch a big
assault.”

Upon arriving in Edmonson, they immediately realized something was, in fact, very wrong. Pierce and Ambrose parked their cars in front of the grocery store along the main street.

It was just as Pierce had described it – the town seemed completely devoid of life. Ambrose, who personally knew Edmondson’s police chief and where he lived, decided they should check out his home first.

The five men set out on foot into the residential neighborhood. All the men were struck by the silence. It was then that one of the deputies realized that not only were there no people in town, there were no animals to speak of. Yards with fences that clearly meant to keep in dogs were notably empty.

The men arrived at the police chief’s home to find the front door unlocked. Ambrose, with his gun drawn,entered the house first, and was followed by his two shotgun-toting deputies.

“I don’t know what we were expecting to find,” Ambrose said. “I honestly thought we’d find a body. Maybe poisonous gas had leaked from the ground at some point during the night and killed off the whole town. But I think what we found was worse.”

The police chief’s house was empty. The bed was made up in the bedroom and the fridge still contained bottles of fresh milk. The men were baffled. Maybe, they thought, the townspeople had left to attend a large community picnic. But as the hours dragged on and the search continued, that possibility grew less likely.

“We searched six other houses in the neighborhood after we canvassed the police chief’s house,” Ambrose said. “It was always the same story – the house seemed fine, no sign of forced entry, unlocked doors, and no occupants.”

However, a few similarities began to make themselves apparent as the men made there way from house to house. For one, there was no luggage to be found anywhere in the homes and it appeared as if a majority of the clothing was missing from drawers and wardrobes. Pierce – the farmer – also noticed that much of the food left in the pantries and refrigerators were perishable – there were no canned goods.

Ambrose, who had just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, remembered thinking “it’s as if the whole town just packed up their belonging
and boarded a bus to Heaven.”

Some of the discoveries were less benign. In the backyard of one home, the men discovered a dead Labrador retriever. One of the deputies stumbled across the animal and thought at first it was sleeping. The dog was wearing a collar and was loosely chained to a tree in the backyard. It was the first animal they’d seen in Edmonson since arriving two hours earlier.

While the men searched the home, Cathey – the physician – performed an ad-hoc autopsy on the animal. Rigor mortis had only recently set in, indicating the dog had not been dead for more than a day. Additionally, Cathey found raw hamburger meat in the animal’s stomach – hamburger meat that had been peppered with small, white pills.

The dog had been poisoned.

In another home, they found the words “Revelation 9:1“ scrawled on a bathroom mirror in light pink lipstick. The men were unfamiliar with the Bible verse and this led to the next disquieting discovery: they could not find a single Bible in the town.

Edmonson had two churches, and it can be deduced that a majority of the township probably attended one or the other. In the early 1960s, a vast majority of Americans considered themselves ‘Christian’ and even those who wouldn’t consider themselves very devoted could be expected to at least own a Bible.

However, Ambrose and his men couldn’t locate a Bible in any of the homes they searched. When they inspected both churches, they found only hymnals or Books of Common Prayer in the pews.

Except for the poisoned dog, during their three-hour search of Edmonson, they found no signs of violence or struggle. Every home’s interior looked impeccable, and running water and electricity appeared to be in working order. Ambrose was reminded of the model communities the U.S. Army had built in New Mexico to test the destructive power of the atomic bomb.

As the sun began to slip beneath the trees and the men’s shadows grew longer and dimmer, Ambrose detected another palpable sense of urgency brewing among members of the group.

“It was obvious the men didn’t want to remain in Edmonson after sundown,” Ambrose said. “And I felt it too. I somehow sensed that if we stayed in Edmonson overnight, there’d be another group of men from Clement trying to find us the next afternoon. And I don’t think they’d find us.”

Before twilight ended, the men loaded up in their cars – the two deputies, Cathey and Ambrose in the squad car, and Pierce in his truck – and left Edmonson. Even though they knew the town was empty, each man reported a creeping sensation that they were being watched from the darkened windows of the homes they passed on their way out of town.

“We didn’t talk much on the ride back to Clement, and I’d be lying if I said I was driving with any regard toward the speed limit,” Ambrose said. “We had to get out of there. At that point, I was convinced we had stumbled across ground zero of some new Communist weapon system. Something that could vaporize the inhabitants of an entire town without causing any collateral damage. But even then I knew that story didn’t
completely add up.”

After the men arrived back in Clement, they agreed that Ambrose would contact the Federal Government in the morning. None of the men expressed any interest to return to Edmondson. That night, Ambrose retrieved his family’s Bible from their study and flipped to Revelation 9:1.

And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from Heaven unto the earth; and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.

“I didn’t know what to make of that,” Ambrose said.

III.

The next morning, Ambrose reported what he had seen in Edmonson to the governing authorities in Frankfort. Things began moving very quickly after that.

While the rest of the world was transfixed by the escalating tensions between Cuba and the United States, the FBI sent an investigative team to investigate the disappearances at Edmonson.

Fearing a Communist plot or (as Ambrose had suspected) the use of a powerful
new weapon, the FBI shut down access to Edmonson on October 19, 1962. The strange case of Edmonson made its way into a few local papers, but it was story that always buried behind pages of international news. Because much of the town’s
inhabitants were ancestors of the people who founded the town, there weren’t too many relatives inquiring about the status of their loved ones. The roads that passed through Edmondson (there were very few) were rerouted around the town.

The FBI finished their investigation in 1967, but by then no one really cared about Edmonson anymore. In between the town’s disappearance in 1962 and the FBI’s final report on the incident the nation’s attention had been distracted by a number of earth-shattering events – the assassination of President Kennedy, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, the result of the FBI’s investigation were sealed and deemed confidential. As the decades progressed, nature began to overtake Edmonson, Kentucky. No attempt was made to rebuild or resettle the town. Edmonson soon became a little-known historical footnote in Kentucky’s history. While many of structures collapsed due to exposure, a handful of homes and one of churches remain standing, enshrouded by thick vines and a thriving deer population.

In 2002, the official report from the FBI was made public after a local historian placed a Freedom of Information Request. Dennis Miller, president and sole member of the Edmonson Historical Society, learned the FBI officially declared the reason for the town’s spontaneous abandonment as “fears related to the possibility of nuclear annihilation and unexplained atmospheric phenomenon led to a panic-induced dispersal of the town.”

“Of course, that reasoning was bullshit,” Miller said. “The report doesn’t even mention the fact that none of the townspeople had ever been accounted for, there were no reports of ‘atmospheric phenomenon’ by anyone in the area.”

However, by then, a new theory had emerged regarding the fate of the Edmonson’s inhabitants. A theory that began circulating after two self-proclaimed “backyard adventurers” stumbled upon a hatch in the basement of the abandoned First Baptist Church of Edmonson.

IV.

The Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s largest known cave system. At least 400 miles have been mapped, and some scientists estimate there could be another 600 miles that are unexplored and have never been seen by human eyes. As of 2016, twenty-six entrances into the cave system have been discovered.

And in 1981, one of those entrances was discovered in the ruins of Edmonson, Kentucky.

During the late 1970s, the abandoned ruins of Edmonson attained a cult status among backpackers and hitchhikers in the area. With the roads leading to Edmonson in disrepair, getting to the abandoned town is extremely difficult. But every year, intrepid amateur adventurers and curious locales would make the trek to one of the country’s greatest – but forgotten – unsolved mysteries.

Nineteen years after the disappearances, hikers Emilio Stevens and Julie Page parked their vehicles thirty miles outside the edges of the forest that surrounds the abandoned township and began their trek to Edmonson.

“We’d visited Edmonson two years before that day,” Stevens said to scientific journal afterwards. “It’s creepy as hell. It takes about a day and a half to reach the town from the trailhead and when you get there, you really don’t feel like sticking around. Most hikers pass through it or camp overnight on the outskirts. That November, Julie and I planned on staying overnight in the church. I think it was more about testing our nerves than anything else.”

The church Stevens is talking about is the First Baptist Church of Edmonson. It’s the largest structure still standing in the town. The grocery store and Methodist Church collapsed in the late 1960s.

“We arrived in Edmonson around nightfall on the second day,” Stevens said. “Julie wasn’t feeling too hot and it was beginning to sprinkle. We set out tent in the center of the church and prepared for our night. I could tell it was going to be a miserable night. The roof [of the church] leaked and a lot of pews had been destroyed by vandals and raccoons.”

As they settled in for the night, Stevens and Page both couldn’t shake a creeping sense of dread. Even though they had hiked into Edmonson before, they both felt unprepared for degree of uneasiness they were experiencing. Around midnight however, exhaustion got the better of the two of them and they fell asleep.

Two hour later, Stevens awoke to a loud cracking sound.

“I first I thought it was thunder, but then the floor slanted and we were falling,” Stevens said. “There is nothing more disorienting than waking up in a tent and experiencing the sensation of free fall.”

The floor of the church had collapsed in the middle of the night, flinging Stevens and Page into an as-of-yet undiscovered basement. Luckily, both Stevens and Page survived the fall without any serious injury.

“We were both pretty shaken and, frankly, a little banged up,” Stevens said. “But in all the time we had spent in and around Edmonson, we had never heard of a basement in the Baptist church. We knew we had found something no one else knew about it.”

Armed with only their flashlights, Stevens and Page set exploring the decrepit basement. The room hidden beneath the floorboards of the church was small and appeared to have been carved into the bedrock beneath the building’s foundation. Stevens said there wasn’t much to see – it looked as if the room had been used to store extra tables and chairs, presumably for after-church socials.

But then they found the hatch.

“Page found it in the far corner of the basement,” Stevens said. “It was set flush against the floor of the basement, and it was made of four thick wood planks, and the hinges had been bolted into the bedrock on the left side. The door had one of those old fashioned drop-ring handles.”

Stevens gripped ahold of the drop-ring handle and, after several tries, wrenched the hatch open. A square of darkness stared back up at him. Page activated and dropped a glow stick into the shaft. The pale green glow of the stick stopped about five feet from the mouth of the hatch.

“Well we had to go down there,” Stevens said. “It was probably three in the morning and we for sure as hell weren’t going back to sleep. “

Stevens tied a climbing rope to his back pant loop and dropped down through the hatch. Page stayed above and metered out the rope as Stevens progressed into the darkness.

“At the bottom of the shaft, a passageway opened up to my left – pointing westward. It was obvious by then that I was traveling through a cave tunnel, and that it was not manmade,” Stevens said.

Eventually, the tunnel tightened and Stevens found himself crawling on his hands and knees. The roof of the passageway scratched his back and his hands began to get rubbed raw by the cave’s rough floor.

“I’m not claustrophobic, but it started getting pretty tight,” Stevens said. “I began to worry about not being to turn around and get back to the hatch. But I started to hear something coming from up ahead of me. I should have been freaked out, but at that point I figured I had gone too far to bail out.”

After fifteen minutes of crawling, Stevens was straining to push his shoulders through the ever-tightening passageway. But the eerie noises emanating from ahead drove him deeper into the cave. However, his adventure came to an abrupt end.

“The passageway ended at pile of rocks,” Stevens said. “Each rock looked to be about the size of my head and they completely blocked any further spelunking. I could hear the noises clearly now – could even distinguish words and phrases. But my journey was done.”

However, right before the passageway terminated at the cave-in, Stevens found a couple of objects. He put them in his jacket and began backing out. It took him thirty minutes to back up out of the tight passageway. When he made it up out of the shaft and back into the church’s basement to a relieved Page, he took out the objects and inspected them.

“I had found a pair of eyeglasses – like old-fashioned reader’s glasses, and a woman’s shoe with the heel missing,” Stevens said. “It didn’t mean anything to us at the time.”

Stevens and Page hiked out of Edmonson early the next morning, battered and spook. When they reached their car, they immediately headed into Mammoth National Park and reported what they had found to a park ranger.

In the investigation that followed, it was determined that Stevens and Page had discovered an entrance into an unmapped portion of the Mammoth Cave System. Unfortunately, geologists determine that the cave-in that had stopped Steven’s progress was at least one hundred feet thick. Unless they used to explosives, there was no way to investigate further.

However, it was the discovery of the cave entrance coupled with the objects that Stevens found that held disturbing implications for the unsolved mystery of the disappearances in Edmonson twenty years prior. Historians dated the eyeglasses and the woman’s shoe to the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Most historians and geological experts are now in near-unanimous agreement about what happened to the inhabitants of Edmonson, Kentucky in 1962: Driven by fears of a first strike by Cuba during the missile crisis and religious fanaticism, the people of Edmonson sought refuge in a secret, labyrinth cave system underneath their town. Unfortunately, a cave-in – perhaps triggered by their panicked influx through
the tight passageways – trapped every man, woman, and child deep underground.

“It’s deeply unsettling when you realize that at the same time Sheriff Ambrose and his men were exploring the town, that everyone they were searching for was probably about four hundred feet underneath their feet,” said Sam Tso, a ranger at Mammoth National Park.

If they had fresh water and food, and if the cave had a clean air supply, some experts believe that the people of Edmonson could have survived for at least six months underground.

“I reckon it’s a pretty good theory,” Stevens said. “But it still doesn’t explain what I heard that night – the reason I dropped down through that hatch and crawled on my hands and knees for fifteen minutes. It doesn’t explain the singing I heard. While I was crawling down there, I clearly heard voices singing the hymn “Come Thou Fount.””

V.

Dennis Miller started the Edmonson Historical Society in 2001 to raise awareness about the town and the mystery surrounding it. He was twelve years old.

“It really is a 20th Century Roanoke,” Miller said, referencing the New England colony that disappeared in 1590. “And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to figure out what happened.”

Miller lives in Clement and on his days when he’s not researching Edmonson, he runs a small pawnshop. Many people would consider Miller’s fascination with Edmonson to border on obsession, but when they learn about Miller’s personal history with the area, it begins to make sense.

During a family camping trip in 1997, Miller’s father and mother went missing after making camp in the wilderness three miles north of Edmonson. Miller – who was seven at the time – was with them when they disappeared.

“We camped often, and we used a big tent for the three of us,” Miller said. “That night, we went to bed around 9 after cooking hot dogs. I woke up around 1 in the morning and realized my parents weren’t in the tent anymore and the front flap was open.”

Miller spent two days alone in the woods, never straying far from the campsite in case his parents came back. After sustaining on hot dog buns and marshmallows, he was discovered by another of campers passing through the area.

“After searching the area for two weeks, the police officially concluded that I had been abandoned in the woods by my parents,” Miller said. “But that’s not true. My parents loved me. I never doubted that. And if they had abandoned me, why didn’t they hike to their car? It was found untouched at the trailhead.”

After the investigation closed, Miller spent the next decade of his life in and out of the foster care system. Driven by a desire to protect his parents’ reputation and validate their love for him, Miller began reviewing historical records in libraries and did a sweep of the police records in the surrounding areas.

Some might accuse Miller of attempting to connect unrelated dots, but some of his data and findings are shocking, to say the least.

For example, the three counties that border the location of Edmonson have a missing persons rate seventeen times higher than similarly sized counties in the United States.

“It’s an area we sometimes refer to as the “Kentucky Triangle,” said FBI agent Brittany Hooper, head of the state’s missing person division. “For some reason, a lot of people seem to disappear in those counties.”

Some of the disappearances can be attributed to caving accidents, the vast swaths of unmapped wilderness, and the recent bloom of meth operations in rural areas.

Also, Stevens wasn’t the first person to report hearing strange voices and singing in and around the Mammoth cave systems. Some people consider Mammoth National Park to be the “most haunted national park in the United States.” There have been dozens of accounts of people hearing strange noises in the woods and caves since the 1970s, as well as sightings of a tall humanoid-like creature (called “The Black Demon” according to unrelated local lore).

Geologists and historians dismiss many of these accounts. After Stevens told authorities he had been following the voices of singing as he made his way through the passageways, expert cavers were quick to point out that even if he had heard people singing, it could not have come from behind the caved-in rocks – the cave-in was too thick for sound to penetrate.

Also, because Mammoth National Park sits on top of the Mammoth Cave System, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a lot of the strange noises and voices are a result of sound bouncing and echoing throughout the caverns. Caves are, after all, notorious for their disorienting acoustics.

But Miller has a different theory – a theory as macabre as it would be revelatory if it turned out to be true.

“I think some of the trapped people of Edmonson are still alive,” Miller said. “I think they’re down there in an unmapped portion of the cave system and that have chosen to stay below. It’s been about seventy years since they went in, which means the first generation has probably mostly died off and there’s an entire second or third generation that only knows life underground.”

As for the disappearances, Miller has an answer for that as well.

“I think they’ve found other exits and every now and then they come out and take people – hikers, drifters, campers and locals,” Miller said. “I think that’s what happened to my parents. And it has been happening years before they were taken and it continues today.”

On his off-days, you can find Miller searching the forests around Edmonson and the outskirts of Mammoth National Park for additional entrances into the Mammoth Cave System. He carries a GPS locator, rappelling gear, multiple flashlights, and a Colt .45 Automatic Pistol.

“For some reason, they don’t want to be seen by us,” Miller said. “I don’t know what they do with the people they take, but I know what it takes to maintain an underground society. It requires food and a fresh gene pool. I don’t like thinking about what that meant for my mom and dad, but even if the truth is ugly at least I’ll know. And I be able to do something about it.”

In spite of being armed, as soon as the sun begins to slink behind the trees Millers makes sure to abandon his search and head back to his vehicle.

“You’ll never find me spending the night in those woods again,” Miller said.

Credit: Joe Terrell

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