I arrived at Hammersley Fork and stepped out into the heat of the July afternoon. Parking in the area of the bridge was non-existent, so I grabbed a couple items and made the short walk to the bridge where Route 144 crosses over Kettle Creek I scanned the bridge as I walked onto it and found a spot where the trees parted and allowed me a view of the creek below. Although I knew I arrived at the wrong time of the day, I still had a plan to see if I could conjure up the Headless Frenchman.
As far as I can determine, the area of the bridge over Kettle Creek was the last “official” place the Headless Frenchman was spotted during the late 1950s and if there’s been any modern sightings of this ghost, those stories have not made the newspapers. But it was here two Lock Haven residents, photographer Jim Patterson and reporter Peter Stevenson, had an experience that captured the attention of the nation.
The August 12, 1950 edition of The Lock Haven Express asked “Does Frenchman’s Ghost Still Roam Gas Field?” However, the August 17, 1950 edition of The Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah) more accurately records the events of the sighting of the Headless Frenchman under the headline “Cave ‘Ghost’ Flees Reporters.”
According to the story, Patterson and Stevenson parked near the bridge that crosses over Kettle Creek at Road Hollow. This location is where Route 144 crosses over Kettle Creek at Hammersley Fork. At some point during the night, a strange figure appeared near the creek, roughly one hundred feet from where they waited. The figure was described as being five-foot tall and was “flickering, wavering” with an “eerie reddish-white” color. It let out a low moan as it moved up the bank and onto the road. The figure followed the road and the two chased after it, but the figure managed to move faster.
The chase ended when a metal film canister fell from Patterson’s pocket. The loud sound of the canister hitting the road echoed in the darkness and as the two reporters stopped to pick it up, they noted the figure vanished.
Note: What is recorded above is the version of the story that was picked up by the Associated Press. The article was reprinted across the United States in the days after the event. However, The Lock Haven Express has a much different ending to the story.
While Patterson and Stevenson picked up the film canister, they noted that the figure seemed to be standing roughly two hundred yards ahead of them. And then the figure began to chase after the reporters, who fled the scene and headed to Cross Fork.
After a couple drinks to calm their nerves, they decided to return to the bridge to get a picture of the ghost. The two waited it out, but saw nothing. At roughly two in the morning, the ghost would reappear when Stevenson decided to comb his hair. Note: It was later reported in the article the reason the ghost appeared at the sight of the comb was because “if he ever does find his head, he’ll want it to look nice.”
As he was combing his hair, the headless figure appeared about ten feet away. The figure moved towards them, with arms outstretched when Patterson took the picture. The flash of the bulb illuminated the woods. The figure let out a loud, long scream and as their sight readjusted to the darkness, they noted the figure disappeared.
Once again, the two fled the scene. This time they fled the wilds of north-central Pennsylvania to the safety of Lock Haven. In the safety of daylight, the picture was developed and the front page of The Lock Haven Express ran a picture of the supposed Headless Frenchman’s ghost.
When I arrived at Hammersley Fork I was armed with the picture, a silver chain and a comb, I was hoping to figure out the picture, or possibly entice the Headless Frenchman to make an appearance to explain himself. Though I knew it was not nighttime, I was hoping for a special appearance, but he failed to show.
After taunting and teasing for a couple minutes, going as far as offering him exclusive usage of my comb, I gave up and turned my attention to the ghost picture.
Note: Before I go any further, I want to note I am not saying the picture that ran on the front page of The Lock Haven Express is real or fake. I have not personally seen the original, only copies and copies of copies. As far as I can tell, neither Stevenson nor Patterson ever admitted to faking the picture – if they did, I have not found it.
With that being said, the picture I am examining is a photocopy of a scanned copy of the original article. Again – what follows is my opinion and thoughts.
I am very mixed when it comes to the picture that ran on the front page of The Lock Haven Express. There are things that I like and some that I do not like about it. My first problem with the picture is at no point do they say exactly where they took the picture and if it was recorded, it does not appear in any newspaper articles I’ve read.
What I do like about the picture is there is brightness caused by the flash that continually lights up the area leading to the illuminated figure. In the flash, it does appear to be either leaves or possibly the waters of Kettle Creek. There are clearly “boots” the figure is wearing.
However, the lighting also causes a problem, because the flash only illuminates the immediate foreground and the figure. Nothing else is illuminated – none of the trees that surrounded the unidentified figure appear in the flash. It could be argued that the ghost absorbed all the light of the flash, but I’m not convinced.
Examining the picture, I have one major issue with the background. To the right side of the picture there is a difference in the background. To the extreme right of the picture trees can clearly be spotted, but next to it is a solid black background that continues behind the figure and on to the left side of the picture. This would lead me to believe that either 1) something was directly behind the figure or 2) they took two pictures and placed one over the other.
However, the figure does not appear just in the black background. Looking at the figure’s feet, it appears it is standing in front of this background. Whatever this background is, it passes behind the figure at a spot just above its boots.
Not knowing what to think about the photograph, I sent it to a number of people who do professional photography and asked their opinions on the picture. Of the five responses I got back, one thought it was real, two thought it was faked, and two were not sure what to make of it because they had a lot of questions that cannot be answered.
“If you brighten it up a lot, you can see there are trees behind the figure and leaves on the ground,” I was informed by Rachel, one of the photographers to whom I sent the picture. “However, there appears to be a discoloration in the area immediately behind the figure. I cannot state for sure, but I would suggest it was two different pictures and one was placed a top the other. But honestly, it’s hard to tell.”
I had to agree that it is hard to tell what is going on with this picture and with the passing of Patterson and Stevenson, the truth behind the picture disappeared into history.
I know the mystery of the Headless Frenchman is far from being over, but this journey to Kettle Creek was coming to end for me. I escaped the afternoon heat into the air conditioned vehicle. As I left the Kettle Creek Valley and the Legend of the Headless Frenchman behind, I had to wonder if and when the Headless Frenchman would make another appearance.