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Hunting the Ghosts of Put-in-Bay

On the surface, there’s nothing spooky about Put-in-Bay, a colorful Lake Erie island just a 20-minute ferry ride from mainland Ohio. The bustling destination, dotted with Key West-like bars and family-friendly tourist traps, seems a far reach from the cornfields across the pond.

The endless waves of color and kitsch are enough to distract the casual visitor from a dark 200-year history that seems to plague this place. And if you’re curious—as I was—to uncover the “other” side of Put-in-Bay, the island’s ghost tours deliver.

We meet our tour guide Marc Bellizzi on a crisp summer evening at the Put-in-Bay Resort and Conference Center. Marc is quintessential Sicilian: bulky build, booming voice and totally capable of scaring the heck out of people when he wants. This is going to be a blast.

Our small group of eight “ghost hunters” hops into golf carts—the preferred mode of transportation on the island. A lakefront breeze whistles through the carts as we approach Put-in-Bay Winery, a cutesy tasting room housed in the imposing Victorian-Era Doller House. As we step off the carts, Marc’s eyes bulge like a cartoon character. He stops in his tracks, completely unsettled. “I always get a strange feeling when I’m here,” he says. “Follow me, guys.”

And we do, snickering a bit about our theatrical guide before heading through the tasting room and into the living space of the 1800s-era home where Marc dishes on the dark Doller family history. To sum it up, a maniacally controlling father kept his adventure-seeking daughter Olga from leaving the house. When she escaped one night to see a boy, the father found out and forbade Olga from ever leaving the house until her dying day...and beyond. See where this is going? Marc pointed at the wheelchair in the room. “This is where Olga likes to sit,” he says with all sincerity. And then, silence. We wait for the chair to move. Marc shudders…then tells us to take a picture in case we capture an “orb” of Olga. I snap a quick photo:

As we leave the building, Marc invites us to take one last look at the top turret of the Doller House. “Olga likes to look out from this window a lot,” he says. “Just turning toward it gives me the creeps.” We wait in silence. No ghost sighting. But maybe at the next stop.

As darkness falls, our two-cart caravan speeds along dimly lit roads, worlds away from the island’s packed bars and glowing hotels. We stop at a graveyard, flashing photos like paparazzi, trying to capture those elusive orbs.

Our final stop is at the South Bass Island Lighthouse, where Marc shares stories of mysterious drownings as we stare silently into the mist-veiled, moonlit waters of Lake Erie. For the first time, I get chills. And it isn't because of the breeze.

One of the golf carts breaks down on our way back to the resort, forcing some participants to wait for a rescue vehicle. “Maybe it’s Olga,” someone says. Marc cracks up. Finally.