Johnny Morehouse: A Boy and His Dog

Grave of Johnny Morehouse, Dayton, Ohio

“Where are we headed?” Zech asked as we crossed the Indiana and Ohio border.

“Woodland Cemetery in Dayton,” I replied. The two of us had were eastbound after spending the weekend exploring eastern Indiana, but we still had a couple stops to make before we arrived at our destination for the night.

The exit we wanted was closed, so we exited Interstate 75 at the next one and returned to Stewart Street. We crossed the Great Miami River as we followed Stewart Street. We made a left turn on Brown Street, before taking a right on Woodland Avenue. A short drive later the imposing entrance to Woodland Cemetery came into view.

“So whose grave are we looking for?” Zech asked as he pulled up information about the cemetery on his phone. “Erma Bombeck?  George Huffman?”

“Who?” I asked.

“It says he was the founder of the Huffy Bicycle Corporation,” Zech replied. “I know…the Wright Brothers!”

“I didn’t realize they were buried here,” I answered, though seeing they were from Dayton I should have realized they would be buried here. Obviously, I had not done the needed research beforehand as Zech continued listing off the famous burials in Woodland Cemetery.

“So who are we exactly looking for?” Zech asked again. “I’m running out of famous people buried there.”

“Johnny Morehouse,” I replied. The sad story of Johnny Morehouse was one that I had read about many years ago and, though I cannot remember where I read it originally, his story had remained fresh in my mind. Of course being a dog lover, Johnny’s story was one that definitely captured and held my attention.

With our journey taking us through Dayton, I made the detour to visit Johnny’s grave. But as I drove through the gates of Woodland Cemetery, I mumbled under my breath about finding one grave in the forest of stone monuments. In a wide spot just inside the gates, I parked and debated which direction I had to go to find Johnny’s grave.

By 1840, Dayton was rapidly growing and the grounds of the original cemetery, which was located near the junctions of Third and Main Streets, was not going to be large enough. Under the direction of John VanCleve, forty acres were purchased outside of the town limits and due to the variety of trees growing on those hills, the name of Woodland was selected for the cemetery. The cemetery was founded in 1843 and would become one of the nation’s oldest “garden” cemeteries.

Since John VanCleve and the original board of trustees purchased those forty acres, Woodland Cemetery has grown to more than two hundred acres and is the final resting place of more than one hundred thousand graves. Interestingly, the highest point in Dayton is Lookout Point, which is located on the grounds of Woodland Cemetery.

“Why are you stopping?” Zech asked as I sat there debating where to start on a nearly impossible task.

“Just thinking about where to start,” I answered, again mentally kicking myself for not doing enough research.

“You said it was a monument of a boy and his dog? Is it the one right over there?” Zech asked as he pointed towards a spot to our right. From where I had stopped, he was able to see Johnny’s resting place and a couple seconds later we were standing at one of the most visited memorials in Woodland Cemetery.

The grave of Johnny Morehouse is guarded by a monument featuring a dog standing watch over a young boy who eternally sleeps in the sacred grounds. Around Johnny’s sleeping body was a harmonica, the boy’s cap, a top and a ball – all items that had been in Johnny’s pockets when he perished at the young age of five.

Johnny’s story starts in 1860. Johnny was the youngest son of John and Mary Morehouse. John Newton Morehouse was named after his father of the same name. Little Johnny, as he was commonly known, had one older brother, Horrace, who was three years older. Note: Some records show that John (Johnny’s father) was married to a Barbara, who may have been John’s second wife. Many stories claim that Johnny was the son of John and Barbara, but newspapers at the time state Johnny was the youngest child of John and Mary. The cemetery website states he was the son of John and Mary, but I’m thinking that’s a spelling error.

On August 14, 1860, as Johnny was playing near the Miami and Erie Canal, which existed along present-day Patterson Boulevard, he slipped and fell into the canal. Unable to swim Johnny struggled in the murky waters of the canal. Johnny’s loyal dog jumped into the waters of the canal in an attempt to save the boy. Some claim that both the dog and Johnny perished in the canal that day, but the most common version of the story states the dog was able to pull the boy from the water but it was too late to save Johnny. Note: Some modern accounts state that he fell into the canal and froze to death, but seeing the accident happened in August, it is highly unlikely he fell through ice and froze to death.

Johnny’s parents buried their son in the grounds of Woodland Cemetery. According to many, several days after the burial, the dog began to show up at Johnny’s grave. The dog would lay there, waiting for his young master to return. The dog, whose name has been lost to history, would be taken home, but within hours would reappear at the grave site. Visitors to the cemetery worried about the dog and would leave food and water for it. Soon the dog too passed away and legend states it was buried next to Johnny’s grave. Note: While the lore is fascinating and I would like to believe this is what happened to Johnny’s dog, history doesn’t record what happened to it. One of the earliest versions I could find, which was still many years after Johnny’s death, merely states that one day the dog had disappeared. Whether it had died at Johnny’s grave or finally wandered off remains a mystery.

In 1861, a special stone was erected to commemorate Johnny and the devotion of his dog. The stone was created by Daniel La Dow, a local businessman. The front of the statue has “Johnny Morehouse” carved into it, while on one side are the words “Slumber Sweet.” It has become a common practice for people to leave little toys for the dog and trinkets for Johnny.

Local lore claims that Johnny and his dog have been seen wandering the grounds of the cemetery. On more than one occasion people supposedly called the police after seeing a young boy with a dog roaming about the cemetery at night. Nearby residents also claim to hear the sound of a barking dog coming from within the cemetery at night. Could this be the ghost of Johnny’s faithful companion or merely a stray that managed to wander onto grounds of the cemetery?

While we didn’t see Johnny or his dog, we finished paying our respects to young Johnny Morehouse, leaving a couple trinkets on the stone for them. We left Johnny’s resting place in silence, leaving the dog to eternally stand guard over his boy in silence.

Note: There are a number of other ghost stories about the cemetery and while I’m not going to go full into them in this article, I want to note a couple things that Zech and I both noticed that may explain some of the stories about the cemetery being haunted. The first thing is that on two different times we had vehicles “sneak up” on us in the cemetery. With the sound of the traffic on the main roads and the rolling hills of the cemetery grounds, both cars seemed to appear out of nowhere before either of us realized that they were there. If a car can sneak up on us, there is little doubt that another person or animal easily could do likewise.

Another thing that we noticed involves a lady we saw jogging on the roadways of the cemetery. Zech had caught sight of her first and pointed her out as she jogged on another roadway near us. She appeared and disappeared behind the stones and at one point we lost her completely. I soon discovered that the road turned and a large monument hid her direction change. This could explain people seeing figures appearing and disappearing on the cemetery grounds.

A third factor that may explain some of the ghost stories is the number of trees in the cemetery. The light filtering in through the leaves caused a lot of shadow play, which could be responsible for some ghost stories.

Now I’m not saying that this accounts for all of the stories, but I believe these factors may have something to do with some of the ghost stories.

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