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No tangible evidence suggests that, within Old Fort Niagara, the ghost of a French officer moans in search of its severed head.

Yet, visitors demand that the story be told, said Brian Dunnigan, executive director of the Old Fort Niagara Association.

Dunnigan addressed 25 people over brunch Sunday in the Holiday Inn at Amherst on one of the most important historical sites in Western New York.

Legend has it that at Fort Niagara, two unnamed French officers dueled with swords for the favor of an Indian maiden. One of them lost his head in the process. Dunnigan said the story dates back as far as 1839.

"People really want to hear the ghost story," he said during his slide presentation. The interest grew to the point where "10 years ago, we began to de-emphasize the ghost story," Dunnigan said, because some Fort Niagara staffers did not wish to perpetuate a story that has no factual basis.

"It just physically doesn't work out," he said, pointing out that the fort's interior around the well -- where the duel is supposed to have occurred -- was too cramped for the combat.

A search of the well seeking authenticity for the legend also came up empty. Searchers, he said, "found a half-dozen pair of sunglasses. . . . We're still counting the pennies that were thrown in.

"We still have yet to find this French officer who was killed and thrown into the well."

Yet, the legend remains bigger than life. "Everybody knows it," Dunnigan said. "Everybody wants to hear it."

The fort was established by the French in 1678. In 1759 the British took over, and it was used as a garrison until U.S. forces asagara
n demand
sumed command in 1815. More than 100 years later, after the fort showed signs of deterioration, it underwent restorations from 1926 to 1934.

Sunday's meeting was sponsored by the Western New York Skeptics, a three-year-old organization that challenges claims of the paranormal and is interested the origins of legends and unexplained phenomena.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences" is the group's motto, said Tim Madigan, the group's co-founder and chairman.

"How is it that if the ghost doesn't have a head, how is it supposed to moan?" Madigan asked.

But for Dunnigan and his wife, Candy, to know there is no such thing as a ghost wandering Fort Niagara is not quite as comforting as one would believe -- especially at night, when the winds rushing off Ontario create some eerie noises within.

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