“Tale of the Walking Boots” a legend in Palouse History
By Bob West
March 19, 1998
A tragic event happened in this area in 1889 that leads to the story of a haunted house and the “Tale of the Walking Boots” . A local farmer poisoned his wife, son and daughter and then took his own life with a gun. One member of the family survived. The personal property of this family and the farming equipment was sold at a public auction and the house abandoned.
This house became known as the Haunted House on Cedar Creek. (Grinnell Road). Neighbors and even some townspeople reported seeing someone walking from to room at night carrying a lantern. Some people even claimed they heard moaning and sobbing sounds coming from inside the house. The “Someone” was never identified.
The house mysteriously burned to the ground one night. Prior to the fire, and the auction sale, a nearby neighbor bought a pair of fancy, very expensive boots. He immediately put them on and wore them the rest of the day. At bedtime, he took them off, left them on the living room floor and went upstairs to bed. About midnight he was awakened by a strange noise, like someone walking on a wooden floor wearing heavy boots. Convinced he was dreaming, he went back to sleep. This happened several more times during the night. No other members of the household heard this strange noise. After hearing this several nights in a row, he sold the “ghostly “boots to his hired man for a dollar more than he paid for them.
One day the hired man was sent to town for supplies. Seeing his chance to show off his new boots, he decided to wear them to town. After his duties were finished, he went to a saloon to have one drink and brag about his boots.
One drink led to another, and by this time, there were several customers listening to his boasting. The bartender tired of all this talk talk and asked him if these were the famous “walking boots.” The hired man apparently did not know the story, so the e bartender rendered his version of the tale. Upon completion of the story, the hired man got off the barstool, sat on the floor and removed the boots. Barefooted he left the saloon and walked to the bank of the Palouse River and threw the boots in and watched them float away.
This “haunted house” and “walking boots’ belonged to Roland Johnson, local farmer and Civil War veteran. Upon his discharge from the Army, he migrated to the Oregon Territory where he met and married my great aunt Louisa McConnell, 17 years his junior. (Louisa was a sister to my grandmother Mrs. George (Olive) West, who some in this area will remember.) A son William was born to them in 1875. A year later they moved to the Palouse Country and made their homestead on Cedar Creek, a few miles north of Palouse City. A daughter, Ora, was born in 1882.
Roland was apparently a successful farmer and a devoted husband and father. What happened July 6, 1889 shocked everyone in the area.
One of the neighbors was on his way to Palouse City to pick up supplies and being a good neighbor, he stopped to see if the Johnson’s needed anything from town. He knocked on the kitchen door several times. Nobody answered. He turned to leave when he thought he heard someone crying softly. Opening the unlocked door he saw no one, but again, heard crying. It seemed to be coming from upstairs. He climbed the stairs and was horrified when he saw the body of Roland Johnson on the hallway floor. He had been shot in the head.
He stepped over the body and looked in the one of the bedrooms. Ora was lying on the bed, covered with blood. The body of her mother was on the floor. In another bedroom he found the body of 13 year old William.
Seeing that Ora was alive and needed immediate help, he frantically ran out of the house, got into his wagon and went for town. He informed the city marshal of the event and together they found a doctor and headed back to the farm.
Ora was still alive. She had been shot in the head and the bullet had passed back of her left eye and came out the right one. It was truly a miracle she was still living. It was later learned the seven year old had been lying in that condition since the day before. She recovered, but was blind for the rest of her life.
The county sheriff and coroner were called and the events of the previous 24 hours were pieced together. Mr. Johnson, then 55, had planned to take his own and his family’s lives. He made a pitcher of lemonade to serve his family. Into each glass he put a lethal dose of strychnine and extra sugar to help hid the taste of the poison. William and his mother must have died almost at once, but little Ora could not keep the lemonade down so she did not get enough poison to take her life, just enough to make her very ill.
It was assumed that after he had served the drink, he went back downstairs, wrote a note about what he had done and why (the though he and his family would be in a better place if they were not longer o this earth) and tacked it on the front door. Going back upstairs, he found the bodies of his wife and son, but Ora was on the floor writing in pain. He then put the pistol to her head and pulled the trigger. Thinking he had completed the job, he stood in the hall and turned the gun on himself.
The oldest sister of Louisa and her husband were wealthy farmers in Heppner, Oregon and were appointed Ora’s legal guardians and administrators of the estate. They came to Palouse and made arrangements for public auction of the farm and personal property.
Ora also inherited her mother’’ share of the McConnell estate in Lane County, Oregon, so she had ample funds to care for her for the rest of her life. She was sent to the Washington State School for the Blind, where she received her education. She spent her summers and vacations with her friends and relatives in Oregon and Palouse
My dad told me he could remember her visits and she was a very happy person and seemed to enjoy life like anybody else. In her mid 20’s she was diagnosed as having epilepsy and since there were no treatments for the disease at the time, it was just left o run its course.
As the seizures became increasingly worse, she was sent to a hospital in eastern Oregon where she spent the rest of her life. She died in 1920 at the age of 38, the same age as that of her mother when she died.
Ora is buried beside her grandmother, Mariah McConnell, her father Roland Johnson, Mother Louisa and brother William in the Palouse Cemetery. In the early 40’s vandals destroyed the headstones of Roland and his son, and these headstones were replaced by my grandmother, Olive McConnell West. The original stones of the woman are still standing.