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Unnatural History

The one-tank tripper shares stories of statewide strangeness.

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Neil Zurcher claims he's no historian -- just a history buff. However, one can't help but be impressed by his scholarship after reading Strange Tales From Ohio, a collection of mostly forgotten curiosities from the past. "It's a history book for people who don't like history," says Zurcher, the host of WJW-TV Channel 8's One Tank Trips.

For his second tome on statewide strangeness (Ohio Oddities: A Guide to the Curious Attractions of the Buckeye State came out in 2001), Zurcher set out to chronicle "things that happened a long time ago," he says. "And nothing is left but the memories of them."

Strange Tales includes bite-sized accounts of a real-life horse whisperer who lived in Grovesport, an armed rebellion that happened in Holmes County, and the site of the world's very first car accident (that would be Van Wert County). "Some of the stories I stumble on," says Zurcher. "The other ones I start looking for, because I've heard something years ago."

Zurcher's greatest score was tracking down and verifying a rumor that's persisted for years: In 1932, in the tiny Amish enclave of Millersburg, there was a public whipping -- "the last in America, I think," says Zurcher. A pair of petty thieves were sentenced to 20 lashes each. "I spent two years tracking that story down," says Zurcher. "Nobody knew anything about it. I finally found an old member of the sheriff's department who had a picture [see photo]."

Occasionally, says Zurcher, he'd run into a snag or a cold lead. And since many of these tales happened decades ago, many eyewitnesses were no longer alive to give firsthand accounts. So Zurcher had to rely on stories passed down through generations. "And there are always people who -- I don't want to say they lied to me -- they just sort of ignored my questions," he adds. "They don't want some of these stories brought up."

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