Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

A Ghostly Wife Leads a Grieving Husband to Her Lost Corpse

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

As we delve into the records of the Ananda Ashrama, we find yet another tale of the supernatural. This one involves Phillip and Ruth Reihl, a La Crescenta couple in their 30s who were followers of Swami Paramananda. They had both been involved in the “Miracle of La Crescenta” that I wrote about last week, in which the Ashrama incredibly emerged untouched from a raging wildfire that swept over and around it. Ruth had served food to the firefighters and cared for the sisters, while Phillip heroically manned the hoses.

The Ananda Ashrama was threatened and miraculously saved once again just a few weeks later from the raging flood that followed the fire. At exactly midnight of New Year’s Eve 1933/34, a cloudburst of Biblical proportions unleashed on the fire-denuded San Gabriels. In the inky blackness of midnight, the mountainside cut loose and sent roaring walls of mud and rocks (debris flows) speeding down and across the valley, killing scores of people, and destroying hundreds of homes. The Ashrama dodged that disaster, sustaining only minor damage to its water system, while on either side of the property homes were swept away. Not so lucky were Phillip and Ruth Reihl, whose home in the 2600 block of Piedmont sat directly in the path of the Pickens Canyon debris flow, the deadliest of the seven debris flows that cut swaths across the Crescenta Valley.

Just after midnight, as the heavy rain poured down, Phillip and Ruth embraced and cooed “Happy New Year!” in the warm, dry comfort of their little home. As they held each other, the ground began to shake, and a roaring sound like a speeding train approached quickly from the northeast. The noise and shaking reached a crescendo as a wall of massive boulders and mud slammed into their house, bursting through the front wall. Ruth was wrenched violently from Phillip’s grasp, and he heard her shriek, “Oh my God!” Phillip was then thrust to the back of the house, where his legs and arms were shredded as he was shoved through a hole in the stucco wire. He found himself being carried on the flow, bouncing on the top of rolling, moving boulders, grasping ineffectually at tree limbs as he flew by them. Fortunately he stayed on top and wasn’t pulled into the churning “rock grinder” effect inside the debris flow that tore some bodies to pieces.

Two blocks downstream at Honolulu, he was thrown out of the main flow and up onto the steps of an intact house. Through the darkness the occupant of the house saw the mud-covered form on his front steps. Not knowing if it was an animal or a human, he darted out and dragged the body inside.

As he washed the mud from Phillip’s face, he recognized an old friend, Sergeant Riehl, who had served with him in WWI. Phillip had landed in his old Army commander’s home!

Phillip was carried to an aid station, where after resting he set out into the dark night to search for Ruth. In physical and emotional agony, Phillip combed through wreckage from 3 a.m. until 11 a.m. looking for her. He stopped in the fire station to see if there was word of her. It was there in the relative calm of the station that Ruth’s ghost appeared before Phillip. Wordlessly her ghostly image raised an arm, and pointed toward their home on Piedmont, and then just as silently disappeared.

Phillip stumbled across the torn landscape to the site of their home, where he found her hidden body tangled in the wreckage. After retrieving her corpse, he collapsed and was carried to the Ashrama where he recuperated.

Ruth’s body was cremated and spread in the Pacific. Phillip, after losing his wife of 13 years, never remarried. His home gone, he lived on for several decades at the Ashrama, becoming an indispensable member of their community, save for two years spent in India studying yoga. Phillip Riehl was forever grateful that his wife had returned briefly to ease his agony, and to give closure to her death.

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