Phoebe Wise

Ohioans You Should Know – Phoebe Wise

I am sure you’ve heard a story like this before: A story about some guy or gal who was very frugal with their money, lived a solitary life and was either homeless or lived in a run down house on the edge of being condemned. Then, for some reason, usually old age or some kind of sickness, they died and then someone discovered they had hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, or hidden in the floorboards under their house, or something. When we hear those stories, we often find them easy to dismiss. Surely, if so-and-so had that much money, they could afford a better lifestyle, right? In reality, though, these stories do happen. And once such person was an Ohioan you should know named Phoebe Wise.

The Wise Family

In 1833, Christian Wise and his wife, Julia, moved to Richland County, Ohio from Baltimore. Both came from affluent families, were well educated, and well liked. They bought a small farm north of Mansfield, but just a few years later sold it and purchased an even larger farm nearby. By then, their family had already started to grow with the birth of their eldest son Franklin in 1834, and their first Daughter Mary Jane the following year. By the time Phoebe was born in 1848, she was the tenth child. 

Christian and Julia Wise

There isn’t much direct documentation about what young Phoebe’s life was like growing up, however there is enough information that we can start to get a general picture. For example, we know that her father, Christian, worked as a civil engineer and was often active within the local school and that her Mother taught there, as well. We also know that by the age of fourteen, Phoebe was helping to teach the younger kids as well. We also know that Phoebe was an excellent piano player and that she was extremely knowledgeable about classical music. Therefore, it’s relatively safe to assume that she was well smart and cultured (for the time period) and a typical young girl of the upper class.

Several photos of a younger phoebe do still exist so we can see for ourselves, but at the time she had been described as “picturesque” in the local media.

A Land Sale

Sometimes, a family’s outward appearance and their inner workings aren’t always the same. For most of their lives, the Wise family appeared to be financially well-off, however over time their wealth did seem to dwindle. In their younger days, Christian and Julia wise not only operated a sizable farm, but both worked jobs elsewhere. However, as the couple got older, they found they could do a lot less work and therefore their income started to dwindle.

Shortly before his death, Christian, Julia, and daughter Phoebe decided the best way forward was to sell half their land. With the family funds starting to wear thin, they were lucky when the perfect buyer happened to come along – Uncle Sam. just happened to be looking for some land to build a new reformatory … So after some negotiations and a few years of construction, The Ohio State Reformatory opened on what had once been Wise farmland.

If Phoebe or any of the remaining Wise family regretted this decision, they never said so publicly, or even hinted as much. According to legend, though, Phoebe is said to haunt the road outside what is left of The Reformatory. 

There’s Something About Phoebe

Even though, from the outside, Phoebe Wise appeared to be an ordinary young lady, if we begin to look closer we just might start to notice that there was something a bit different, perhaps a bit special, about her. 

There has been much speculation over the fact that Phoebe Wise never married and never had children. There are various sources that quote her saying that she did not like to be around men, in general, and that she found them untrustworthy. Some people have tried to label her as anti-male, but I haven’t seen nearly enough evidence to support this. Others suggested that Phoebe Wise was, perhaps, a lesbian, however not all unmarried men and women born in the 1800s automatically fit that bill. To be fair, Phoebe never showed any romantic interests toward anybody, male or female. The only interest she did show was how she just wanted to be left alone.

Even though Phoebe preferred to be alone, most of the people she met found her pleasant and friendly. Part of this might be due to her family’s influence (or, their financial status). Phoebe herself did comment quite a few times about those around her who were influenced by, or desired her family’s money.

Buried Treasure

There are those who say that after the death of her parents (and after all her brothers and sisters moved out of the family home) she buried a large sum of her family’s money somewhere on their farm. Of course, there is no proof she did this, but that did not stop at least a couple of men from trying to find it. 

One example of this is the day in December, 1891, three masked men broke into the Wise home, tied Phoebe up and demanded that she tell them where the family treasure was buried. Phoebe informed the men there was no treasure, buried or otherwise, but the men did not want to accept that answer. Instead, they tied her to a chair and proceeded to burn the bottom of her feet with a torch. Still, Phoebe repeated there was no treasure and after some time, the men gave up and left. According to some versions of this story, shortly before leaving the men politely asked if they could have some of the pie that had been found in the kitchen, but it is unclear what Phoebe’s response to that was. 

Ever since that day, Phoebe walked with a pronounced limp and never fully recovered from her injuries.

Even today, people are still suggesting that there still might just be some treasure of some sort buried on lands that had once been the Wise farm. Again, there is no proof of this and it is nothing more than mere speculation, usually from people trying to figure out where the Wise family fortune went.

A Deadly Affair

For a period of time immediately following the masked intruders incident, Phoebe Wise received a lot of attention. As I am sure you can imagine, she was now the talk of the town. The story of her attack was featured in newspapers all across the state, and eventually the nation. She received quite a bit of fan mail, or messages from concerned people who wanted to hear directly from her whether she was truly okay or not.

A good share of this mail included messages from men, offering their protection, and this often came with proposals of marriage. These proposals she would kindly turn down, or ignore altogether. A few gentlemen callers did show up at her doorstep, but they, too, were politely turned away.

One of these gentlemen was named Jacob Kastanowitz, and he was determined to win over her heart one way or another. He was relentless in his pursuit, writing letters, proposing marriage, or just doing his best to show up any place that she might be so he could spend time with her. Unflattered by all the attention, Phoebe contacted the police who found the guy and told him to stay away. When that failed, he was arrested and spent several weeks behind bars. This, too, did not seem to lessen his infatuation with Phoebe Wise.

This story would come to an end on May 22, 1898, when Jacob showed up at Phoebe’s home and attempted to gain entrance through a rear window. According to nearly every newspaper account, when confronted by Phoebe and her firearm, Jacob told Phoebe that she either had to marry him or shoot him. She obliged and with a single shot rid herself of her stalker (or whatever they called them back in those days) once and for all.

Phoebe was detained by police and a public inquest was held. The only thing Phoebe Wise is believed to have said in her own defense was “I’m not guilty” which caused the gathering crowd (the vast majority of which were women) to erupt in cheers. The prosecutor determined it was a “justifiable death” and the police refused to arrest her.

Phoebe Wise Immortalized

All of this press coverage had one unintended (and, probably in Phoebe’s mind, unwanted) side effect – she was becoming more and more famous. Her level of fame may have started in her small community, then grown to the nearby town of Mansfield, and ultimately the entire state of Ohio and beyond. 

In an earlier post, I mentioned how author Louis Bromfield came to Ohio, built Malabar Farm, and when he found out about the murder Ceely Rose committed, he wrote about her and her story in The Ceely Rose Play.

That wasn’t the only play Louis Bromfield wrote, and in case you hadn’t guessed, he also wrote one called … Phoebe Wise.

Phoebe Wise, The Witch of Mansfield

While in her early years, Phoebe Wise appeared to be an attractive woman who easily fit into the society around her, that was certainly not true for her later years. With every passing year, she began to rely less on the normal fashion trends of the year and more on what can only be described as her own unique fashion sense. It’s rather hard to reconcile the photos of Phoebe as a young lady to those of Phoebe as an older woman.

Some of this can be explained by the fact that Phoebe lived alone in the house she had been born in and in her later years made trips into town a lot less frequently. She rarely accepted visitors, preferring her own company to that of others. But, there very easily may have been one other thing at play here as well.

There are those who believed that she was “teched” (“touched”). In other words, they say she was able to connect to The Spirit World. They say she was connected with “nature” in a spiritual, or religious way. Today, we might classify that as some sort of natural pagan witchcraft thing, although in her day that same thing might have been viewed very differently. Whether or not she practiced any form of paganism or witchcraft we might never know for sure. 

The Mystery of Phoebe Wise

How does one describe Phoebe Wise? Colorful? Perhaps. Eccentric? Sure. Reclusive? Definitely. Yet, none of that seems to come close to who Phoebe really was or what she was truly like. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand her because she was truly one-of-a-kind.

Legends often have a way of exaggerating what people are like, yet in this case no exaggerating is necessary. She was, just by being herself, a larger than life presence that was hard to turn a blind eye to.

There is also the mystery of Phoebe Wise – questions that are hard not to ask, yet with answers that are impossible to fully comprehend. How does someone go from a fine, well-educated young lady to a hag of a woman ready to curse you out if you glance at her for too long? Why did she want to be left alone … and why did that seem to be impossible?

I do wonder what we would make of her if she were alive today?  

Phoebe Wise died on March 13, 1933 and was interred at the Mansfield Cemetery alongside most of her family. However, there is no gravestone marking her final resting place. Ordinarily I would say that is a shame, but … maybe its best that we give her what she wanted all along – to be left alone.

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top