The Twisted, True Story of the 'Glowing Green Man,' Charlie No-Face
The man may have nearly burned alive, his face melted like candle wax. He might have been struck by lightning as a boy. His skin could have been turned a radioactive green from a horrible accident at the Duquesne Power Plant. Some even said he was a specter doomed to stalk desolate western Pennsylvania highways for all eternity.
The details changed depending on who was telling it, but everyone growing up in the Pittsburgh area heard a story about Charlie No-Face eventually. The Green Man. The Monster of Beaver County.
Three hundred miles away in New Jersey, I learned about the legend from my dad, who'd grown up in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, not far from the tunnel Charlie No-Face supposedly haunted. I assumed it was just another Dad-yarn, not unlike his tales of being a top-secret Green Beret (he wasn't) and winning Olympic Gold in weightlifting (he didn't). But then I got a computer and promptly found some pictures.
Dad, I'm sorry I doubted you.
My dad even claimed to have met Charlie No-Face when he was 13, and today he still says it was the most terrifying moment of his life. Picture the subject of one of the most notorious urban legends of your generation sitting beside you in the back seat of a station wagon casually sipping a domestic light beer through a bendy straw.
But he was more than just an urban legend. He was a man.
And his name was Ray.
This story is true. In early August 1919, 8-year-old Ray Robinson was walking with his sister and a few friends in New Castle, Pennsylvania, when they noticed a bird's nest perched atop a tree next to an abandoned trolley trestle.
Wanting to get a closer look, Ray climbed up -- but he accidentally touched a wire that had once powered the trolley. Almost a year earlier, another boy who'd touched the same wire died after two painful weeks, yet the power line was still active when Ray reached for it.
He was severely electrocuted. His nose, lips, ears, and eyes were all gone or misshapen. His arms were maimed. One of his hands was blown clean off. His suffering was unimaginable.
Somehow he survived. Doctors marveled. But Ray didn't have much of a life after that, at least for a while.
"If you look at old Victorian homes, so many of them have isolated rooms with drains and plumbing and everything you need to live, right there," said Tisha York, a documentarian who spent three years researching Robinson for an unreleased film about the Green Man. "Back then, this is where families kept children like Ray. Things were different. And they kept people who were different hidden away from the world."
Ray wasn't exactly mistreated, but he did get isolated and ostracized, even by his own family, who would eat separately from him. He tried to make the best of it. An avid baseball fan, he listened to every game he could pick up on his radio. He learned to read braille and how to make wallets and doormats out of old tires. When he became a man, his family fashioned a small apartment for him out in their garage.
He managed to dodge notoriety until he began craving a respite from the prison his life had become. He started walking the local highways. Always alone. Always at night.
This is where the man becomes the legend.
Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, isn't exactly known for its nightlife. When Maya Ranchod was in high school in the mid-2000s, she spent more than a few boring Saturday evenings in her boyfriend's emerald minivan looking for Charlie No-Face along Route 351 and in front of Piney Fork Tunnel, known locally as the Green Man Tunnel. That's not too different than teens like me back in New Jersey half-heartedly shining their flashlights in the pine barrens to flush out the Jersey Devil. You expect some cheap thrills on the back of folklore, and not much else.
"Everyone grew up hearing about the Green Man," Ranchod told me, "but it's one of those things where you don't really think you're going to see anything. It's a ghost story. Something your parents talk about around a fire pit. But we still did it, and it was still scary, even though we knew it wasn't real. People have been looking for the Green Man for almost 100 years. If you had the guts, you went out and tried to find him."
On the night in the late 1960s that my dad met Ray inside that station wagon, he'd been night-swimming at the local pool with some friends who were curious about the legend they'd heard so much about over the years. Though my father was unsure who -- or what -- Ray was, he had certainly heard the stories. Everyone had.
"Ray developed a reputation for walking around Route 351, and neighboring roads in Beaver County at night," said York, who also grew up in Ellwood City. "Obviously, the way he looked garnered some attention. Rumors spread. People started to actually seek him out. And for many, he embraced that. He loved to smoke, he loved to drink beer. These late-night encounters became one of his main connections to the outside world."
Though for Ray, that wasn't always a good thing.
Not everyone who tracked down Ray on those backcountry roads was content to share a beer with him, take a picture, and move on. As anyone who has gone through life being different knows, and as Ray certainly knew, the world can be a cruel place.
"People would beat him up. They would urinate into beer bottles, then give it to him, so he never drank an open drink. Sometimes people would pick him up, drive him to the middle of nowhere, and toss him out of the car. People were just so cruel to him, and he never understood why," York said.
So when a car would approach him as he walked, Ray would stop and wait nervously for what might come next. The sound of tires and engines made him skittish. Rumor had it that Ray even carried a pistol in his belt, after one particularly nasty encounter.
My dad and his friends gunned it for Wallace Run Road, packing Green Man bait: a case of beer, a straw, some cigarettes. When they eventually found Ray, they pulled the station wagon up next to him as he walked. The driver, who said he'd met Ray once, hopped out, as my dad and the others in the car watched through the fog.
When Ray climbed into the car, my dad screamed. Can you blame him? Ray's blank face glowing off the dashboard light was like nothing he had ever seen before -- the Green Man in the flesh, just a pencil's length away.
According to York, the "Green Man" moniker came not from the rumors about him working at the power plant, but from something a little more gruesome. "His nose was basically an open wound his entire life," she said. "It would get infected quite often and that would make it turn green." (Why he's called Charlie No-Face instead of Ray No-Face remains a mystery.)
After the palpitations ceased, my dad realized he had nothing to fear. It was like meeting the boogeyman and discovering he's just a misunderstood guy who likes beer, shooting the shit, and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"People need to understand: This was a human being, a real person. And someone who endured one of the most tragic lives I've ever encountered," said York. "Underneath it all, was this beautiful, kind man."
Recently, I pulled up photos of Ray online and showed them to my dad. He didn't say anything for a while. He just looked, and remembered. The only thing he could say, is that he was sorry he was ever scared of the man in the first place.
"I interviewed hundreds of people about Ray all over western Pennsylvania," said York. "They were mostly young men, like your father, who would go out with Ray, or pick him up and drive him around. And I wouldn't even be able to count how many of these grown men broke down in tears talking about him. A lot of them regretted the way they treated him, understandably. But so many people just cried, remembering what Ray meant to them, and what he did for them. Or just reflecting on his life, and how sad and bittersweet it actually was."
There's a photo of him posing with a woman -- maybe the only woman other than members of his family he ever touched. You could tell he was happy and that she wasn't scared. There was the young man who lost a brother in Vietnam, who credits Ray's companionship and unending empathy as a major force of positivity during his grieving period. He taught countless people who would spend long nights sitting in a car or on a porch with him about the virtue of looking past the superficial, of swallowing fear and abandoning preconceptions. He showed so many people that it was OK to be different. He actually changed lives.
"And through it all, Ray was never angry. He was never upset. He never asked 'Why me?' He kept being positive. Being genuine. And being the kind of person and friend we all wish we could be," York said. "Everyone will remember the legends, but he meant so much more, to so many people. And it really made him happy."
That's the thing about urban legends: most of them are grounded in some truth -- more often than not, in tragedy. Ray Robinson had a face that was unforgettable. He had a reputation that kept children up at night, and continues to. They still talk about him in Beaver County. They talk about him all over the world. No one can keep him hidden anymore.
He died in 1981 in a nursing home. He's buried in Beaver County, just a few feet away from the little boy who was electrocuted one year before him. Occasionally, you will see fresh flowers placed on his grave. He was a gleaming example of someone being given the worst and making the best of it.
Charlie No-Face. The Glowing Green Man. The Monster of Beaver County.
He was more than just an urban legend. He was a man.
And his name was Ray.