The Legend of Fiddler’s Green

By: Jessica Lohner

File Under: cecil hale hartzell, fiddlers green, old mount

On certain nights, an eerie green glow rises up from the grounds surrounding the Darby & Lee Cemetery on the grounds of the old Mount campus. The distinct sound of a fiddler at his bow can be heard. Spooky, huh? In 1963, this story inspired Cecil Hale Hartzell to pen "The Legend of Fiddler's Green," a play that combined the legend with history--abolitionists used a green lantern and fiddle music in the cemetery to signal to runaway slaves that it was safe to cross the Ohio River, and to scare off any slave catchers!

For your enjoyment, we "dug up" (no pun intended!) this article that was originally published in Mount News in October, 2006. 

A ghostly legend surrounds an old cemetery nestled  in the woods of the old Mount Campus. While the resting place of the Darby and Lee families is largely unknown to today’s students, it spawned questions and sometimes uneasiness with pre-1960s alums who ventured onto the burial ground. Few are left who remember the supernatural legend surrounding the  cemetery – that on certain nights, an eerie green aura  rises up from the graveyard and the distinct sound of  a fiddler at his bow can be heard.

Cecil Hale Hartzell learned of the legend during his tenure as professor of speech and a playwright in residence at the Mount. In 1963, he wrote a two-act play, The Legend of Fiddler’s Green, which was presented as part of the week-long ceremonies commemorating the dedication of the new campus. It was the first  theatrical performance in the then-new College Theatre.

Professor Hale based the play loosely on Henry Darby (1781-1852), whose monolith dominates a tiny graveyard hidden among the trees on the grounds of the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse.

In an interview he gave shortly before his death in 1987, Professor Hale said he started planning the script in August 1962. “Knowing that I needed more than this legend to give it reason for being, I began to do research and discovered that the period of the Underground Railroad coincided with the period in which the legend arose.”

So the play interlaces superstition with the story of abolitionists who used a green lantern and fiddle music in the cemetery as a signal and guide to runaway slaves that it was safe to cross the Ohio and to scare off would-be bounty hunters. The real life Henry Darby (called Henry Yarborough in the play) was a charter member of Cincinnati’s abolitionist party, but if there is any truth to the legend, it’s been lost in time among the hills that hold his remains.

Deanna Wedmore Pelfrey ’64 played Henry’s widow, Pricilla Yarborough, who rescues a fugitive slave and her child by playing “Old Man Tucker” on her husband’s fiddle in the cemetery, as slave hunters came after them.

“I remember very clearly standing on a dark stage with a spotlight on me pretending to play the violin,” Deanna says. “I had to learn how to hold the bow so it looked like I was really playing while someone performed off-stage.”

She also said it was natural for the Mount to bring the moral issue of slavery into the play. “It was a free-thinking time, and it’s my belief that the College was very open about discussing the issues of the time.”

Ronnie Brandner Mitchell ’65 vividly remembers the play. “I only had a small part – I played the love interest – that added a little lightheartedness to the play.”

While Ronnie doesn’t recall Cecil Hale in speech class, she does remember that he was a good director.

Cecil Hale had an outstanding reputation in the Cincinnati area as an actor, playwright and radio broadcaster. From the late 1940s to 1960s, he hosted an evening of music, poetry and musing on WLW radio. In addition to his “Moon River” program, which was nationally acclaimed, he worked in community theater as a writer, director and actor. Most alumnae of the 1960s and 1970s can recall his dramatic flare in the classroom – during his time at the Mount, speech was a required course for all students. After his retirement in 1978, he continued his involvement in community theater. He died at the age of 80 in 1987.

As for the tiny cemetery – it sits in solitude amid the tall trees that first shaded Henry Darby’s headstone in 1852. And perhaps – on a chilly October night – you can still hear the fiddler play out strains of “Old Man Tucker.”