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The Petrified Woman of Wanatah

From the Valparaiso Star May 29 1891 (edited by Norm Grieger)

Mary Ann Grier, who lived two miles south of Wanatah, abruptly disappeared about 1851. Forty years later (1891) her body was recovered from a long abandoned bog-iron pit.

She appeared almost as natural as she did in life. The last shred of clothing had long ago been destroyed by the iron-saturated water in which her body had lain all these years. The same chemicals that had eaten away her clothes had preserved her body.

Her coloring was almost unchanged. The arms and shoulders that were visible above the bottom of the pool seemed as white as life. The hands were brown, and stained as though with berries. The cheeks were slightly brown, with a ruddy cast, and had it not been for the unsightly cavities that once contained the eyes, the rock-like figure of the young woman which had lain almost half a century in the soil, would have appeared to be sleeping.

No event that ever occurred in Northern Indiana had aroused as much interest as that of this missing woman's discovery. Her parents were well known in this area. Her mother had died only a few years before. Her father was still living on the farm that he occupied at the time of the girl's disappearance.

Two of her brothers were still living in La Porte County. A third brother was killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Her only sister was married and living here in 1850, and moved to Belle Plains, Kansas, where she now lives.

When the body was found at 8 o’clock the morning of May 23, 1891, the men who made the discovery believed that she had been the victim of a recent murder and was buried in the swamp to hide the body.

Coroners from both La Porte and Valparaiso were notified, and pending their arrival, a crowd of people from Wanatah, Tassinong, Valparaiso, Chesterton, Boone Grove, LaCrosse, and all the intervening areas, gathered.

The body had been uncovered from the head almost to the hips, and was in a semi-prone position. The woman doctor from Valparaiso dipped water with her hands, and washed the body's face and shoulders and then tapped the figure with her finger. She found it like a rock.

Will Staunk, one of the men who had made the discovery while in the company of others, was digging post holes, leaned forward and tapped the figure on the shoulder with the handle of his pocket knife. The sound was like striking a stone, and someone exclaimed petrified - "she's petrified".

By the time representatives of the Porter County Sheriff's office and Mr. Heard and the La Porte County Coroner arrived, the body had been removed and rinsed off, and was placed in a linen lap robe.

For hours no one could figure who the woman was but Bailey Timmons, who had kept a county store ever since the Pottawatomie Indians had inhabited the area, finally arrived and identified the remains as those of Mary Ann Grier.

John and Absolom Grier, her aged brothers were sent for, but before they arrived the old man Grier, then over 80 years old was brought to the prairie.

The aged man looked upon the face and broke down utterly. He laid both hands gently on the body, and wept with grief that he had not slept all these years. "My Girl," he cried, "My Mary and I thought you had gone away".

The story of Mary Ann was told and retold by the old neighbors. She had chosen a rather light-weight young man in the neighborhood, and in spite of parental protest had declared her intention of marrying him. He was Henry Whitsel, who owned only an ox team, and was engaged in hauling bog iron to an experimental foundry at Michigan City.

Mr. Grier and the boys both ordered him off the place, and had administered some physical punishment to convince him of their determination.

The next day after the quarrel, Henry went as usual with his load of ore. Mary Ann had slipped out of the house to meet him saying she was going to the neighbors. She was never seen again in life.

The parents and neighbors concluded that Whitsel had lured her away. They searched the neighboring towns, but found no trace of the girl. Whitsel became alarmed, and left the country, He was never heard of again.

Now it was realized that going into the bog, she had fallen into one of the water-filled bog pits and drowned. Probably pulling the wall of gravel over her as she sank. Under the blanket of iron and lime saturated water, she had become the petrified body unearthed 40 years later.

For several days the body, still attractive, as a young farm girl, lay in state while the neighbors, the curious, and the family and friends paid their last respects. She was interred in the country cemetery beside her mother, and the soldier, in the shadow of a tall headstone that honored the Gettysburg Veteran, and became the family marker.

Old men and woman who had known the girl, came from afar for the last rites and gazed in awesome wonder at the unmarred face. They turned to weep afresh, as they had done 40 years ago when they mourned her disappearance.

A few crumbling newspaper clippings constitute the only remaining record of the petrified woman of Wanatah.

The Petrified woman of Wanatah is a very interesting and believable story, but it is just that — a story. It is a well written hoax. Written by Harry Darling. Harry Darling had a great imagination, and was a newspaper man most of his life. When things got slow, his imagination took over and he made his own news. He worked for several different newspapers and at the time of this story, he worked in Valparaiso for the Valparaiso Star. I have always loved this story and I am sure that you do too.

It is said that a lot of people came to Wanatah on the train to view the body of the of the Petrified Woman and were disappointed when told there was no Petrified Woman, that it was a hoax. Remember, in 1891 there was no television or much of anything to entertain people, so this was a big story for the day.


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