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Village of Agnew once hotspot for communicating with the dead

Kevin S. Collier • Jul 21, 2015 at 2:39 PM

Agnew is located where Lake Michigan Drive meets U.S. 31. From the 1870s to the turn of the 20th century, nowhere else in the county was as actively engaged.

First known as Johnsonville — named for John Behm in the early 1860s — it became the Village of Agnew in 1889 when Edward E. Stites platted the land as a tiny, unincorporated community.

According to reports, paranormal activity began at the Johnsonville Saloon. The establishment, branded as “notorious” by the Grand Haven Tribune, was constructed in the late 1860s by Gideon Harris. An aged Agnew resident told the Tribune in an 1893 article that “spirits were seen in the building frequently” in the mid 1870s. “Darned bad ones, too,” he added.

Compounding the situation were characters like Bertha “Grannie” Gindle, an aged fortune teller who made her home in Johnsonville with her husband, John Webster, in the 1870s. Gindle, reportedly a practitioner of black magic, engaged in little more than card readings, predicting futures and conducting trivial illusions.

Interest in spiritualism developed as townsfolk attended séances, where mediums claimed to communicate with the dead — entertaining some, but convincing others the practice was legitimate.

After the passing of Bertha Grindle’s husband, she moved to Muskegon, where she died on March 20, 1890. She was reported to be 102 at the time of her passing. For some residents of Agnew, it wouldn’t be the last they heard from the fortune teller.

The late 1880s spelled the end of the Johnsonville Saloon when Edward Stites purchased the building, adding to the structure making his home. When business took him away to live in Millington, Ill., in late 1892, he rented the home to Richard Griffith and his wife. No sooner had they moved in that the Griffiths began to hear phantom footsteps and strange noises, compelling them to move out in March 1893.

Stites was notified of the disturbance and returned to Agnew to investigate. The Tribune published articles about the unusual events — one which featured a headline, “The little town of Agnew has a sensation: a haunted house.”

On June 8, 1893, a storm struck Agnew “a few moments after midnight,” according to the Tribune, and a number of unearthly yells were heard originating from the Stites haunted house.

“(It) awakened nearly every person in the village,” the Tribune reported. Several people rushed outdoors and claimed to have witnessed an unbelievable sight — a “witch” on the back of a horse at full gallop pass by the post office and vanish into the darkness.

“Oh, John, oh John, thou’ll get thy fairing,” witnesses said they heard the witch shriek. “In hell they’ll roast thee like a herring.”

“Several of our old citizens who saw the witch plainly by the lightning flashes, say it was old Grannie Grindle, the old Johnsonville fortune teller who died in Muskegon a few years ago,” the Tribune reported. “They say they also knew her voice.”

Efforts to conjure up spirits accelerated in Agnew after that. Word spread, which attracted outsiders to the area, like Joseph King, a spiritualist medium. He conducted a series of séances at Agnew. A female medium who went by the name of “Mrs. Strange” also arrived to communicate with the dead loved ones.

On Jan. 20, 1894, the Tribune reported the escalation of demonic activity in Agnew and sounded a warning.

“Young estimable ladies have been tried to be seduced into their devilish incantations by mesmerism or hypnotism,” the Tribune reported. “It is high time for right-thinking people who are raising families to speak out.”

However, one Agnew family — Daniel Suits and his children — appeared to be part of the problem. The Suitses, heavily into spiritualism, had become practitioners. Daniel’s 12-year-old daughter, Nellie, claimed to be controlled by the spirits of 12 wild Indians, and younger brother Elmer was “a medium controlled by a big Indian.”

Nellie Suits got townsfolk whipped up when she claimed a treasure chest of gold, buried decades ago by a man named William Overton, was a short distance northwest of her home. Agnew spiritualists, which the newspaper called “disciples,” grabbed shovels and headed to the location.

“A circle was formed ‘round the spot, the medium (Nellie) went into a trance, the ghost dance was performed by the leaders of the Agnew spiritualism, and digging commenced in earnest,” the Tribune reported.

But when the chest was uncovered, it mysteriously “vanished” before everyone’s eyes.

“The public here are thoroughly disgusted with the business. Nothing ever happened to Agnew that hurt it as this fanaticism has done,” the Tribune reported. “Those who are at the bottom of this iniquity are despised by all people who want to do right.”

After this, it appears the spiritualist movement in Agnew either died down or went underground. Either way, the village remains unrivaled by any other location in Ottawa County history for spiritualist activity and practice.

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