The Gore Orphanage
Sitting on the shores of Lake Erie, there is a small town known as Vermillion, Ohio.
Just south of Vermillion, there is a road that winds its way through the forest and farmland and over the Vermillion River, known as Gore Orphanage Road.
No one really knows for sure where the road got its name, but one thing that is known is that there once existed an orphanage here that harbored a sad tale.
Our story starts in 1902, when Johann Sprunger and his wife Katharina moved to the Vermillion area. Johann and Katharina had moved from Berne, Indiana, where they had been the caretakers of the Light of Hope Orphanage. The couple had 4 children. Three sons, who all passed away at a young age, and a daughter, Hillegonda, who also died young on July 7, 1887, at the age of 6.
The Sprunger family had migrated to the U.S. from Switzerland in 1854, and following the loss of their children, Johann and Katharina would spend some time in Tennessee before moving back to Switzerland for a short while, where Johann would be ordained as a minister and learn about the Mennonite Deaconess movement. The couple would bring this movement back with them to Berne, where they would start their own deaconess movement. They would train a small group of women in Berne to be deaconesses, sending some of them to Chicago to continue their work to spread the gospel. Through this movement, the Light of Hope orphanage would be founded in Berne, with the first children being admitted on April 1, 1893.
In addition to the orphanage, there were also hospitals that the group ran in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland. The hospital in Cleveland caught fire in 1895, with one of the deaconesses perishing in the blaze in an attempt to save patients.
In April of 1899, one of the buildings at the Light of Hope orphanage caught fire, and 3 of the girls in the home would not survive.
Following this tragedy, the Light of Hope orphanage would move to Vermillion, Ohio, where Johann had purchased the property formerly owned by Joseph Swift. The property had 4 sets of farm buildings on 543 acres, as well as a larger mansion where the Swift family had resided. Johann would utilize the farm buildings and attempt to create a self-sustaining community within the confines of the orphanage grounds.
In 1909 an investigation was launched against the Light of Hope orphanage based on allegations from W.B. Gatz, who had been told of terrible conditions in the orphanage by his grandchildren who resided there. The testimony included Johann Sprunger taking the stand in court to talk about feeding the children a cow that had died from overfeeding, and two of the boys who lived there testifying that they were routinely beaten and fed filthy food.
One of the testimonies during the trial read as follows:
“I have been beaten with a strap in the hands of hired men or the preacher, and the food we had to eat was often spoiled. On Mr. Sprungers birthday we were fed a chicken which had a large sore on its back, but we had to eat it or go hungry. The rooms were full of bedbugs, and the boys were covered with lice. They got rid of the lice after a while, but not the bedbugs, and rats ran over our beds and two of the boys were bitten by them. The rooms were cold, as the sitting room used by the boys was neither plastered or sealed, and the window lights were sometimes out during the winter.
Only one bathtub was provided for our monthly baths, and no soap or towels were furnished, and we had to dry our bodies with our dirty underclothes, the water in the tub being changed but once for twenty-five or thirty boys.”
This was just one of many testimonies that came out during the trial, including allegations of forcing the children to eat spoiled meat and an underground railroad that had sprung up to help children escape the orphanage.
This trial was a civil case, not criminal, as there weren't really any regulations around orphanages in Ohio at the time. Following the trial, another investigation was conducted by the Cleveland Humane Society when it was learned that 3 children were placed in the Light of Hope orphanage that were not supposed to be placed there. It appears that the trial and subsequent investigations resulted in improved conditions at the orphanage, but the conditions may have been greatly exaggerated in the first place.
There was at least one death of a child on the property in 1910, recorded in The Elyria Republican on February 10, 1910.
The story in the paper reads:
“Collision with a wagon while coasting cost the life of Charles Lewhead, 14, and dangerously injured Paul Berger, 12, on Saturday afternoon. Both were inmates of the Light of Hope Orphanage at Birmingham, six miles west of here. Sixty-five other inmates out for pleasure, looked on aghast as the fatal accident occurred. Lewhead’s head struck the wagon hub and death was instantaneous. Young Berger, his companion, struck the wheel with a terrific thump. His entire body is a mass of bruises. Dr. Bess, of Birmingham, stated Tuesday that the boy will recover. He was not taken to a hospital and is at present housed at the orphanage. Mrs. Millie Lewhead, of Rynersburg, Pa. took charge of the dead boy’s funeral this afternoon. The hundred inmates of the orphanage paid tribute in a body.”
Johann Sprunger would pass away in 1911 and the orphanage would change hands before being shut down completely in 1916.
The legend itself mentions the children all dying in a fire set intentionally by Mr. Sprunger, but this never happened. Other than the accidental death of one child mentioned above, there was never any large-scale tragedies that happened while the orphanage was in operation. If ever a place were to be haunted, it wouldn't be "Gore Orphanage".