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Debunking "The Trolley Tragedy of 1957"

Posted: 18th October 2015
In: Blog

Figuring out where to begin when debunking the bizarro lies of Seph Lawless, the online pseudonym of a Cleveland con artist/urbex photographer whose real name is Joseph Melendez, can be a daunting task. Do you lead off with the way he has harassed, threatened, and slandered anyone who has publicly questioned his increasingly ludicrous, grandiose, and largely untrue claims? Maybe you'd want to start with the fact that he frequently claims to be working with and donating the proceeds of his sales to charities who often have no idea who he is and no records of donations? Even if you stick to the news stories covering his work that are largely based on falsehoods he tells reporters to hawk e-books, the amount of fraud is so overwhelming that it merits a multi-part series. This site has never been about attacking or debunking the work of others in the field, but at a certain point as a leading website devoted to the contemporary portrayal of abandoned buildings and the culture surrounding them, Joe Melendez' scams need to be addressed.


Recently, Melendez made the rounds of local and national media with a story about his discovery of the scene of what he claimed was a train wreck (above) that would be featured in his new e-book about the "Trolley Tragedy of 1957." This previously-unheard-of tragedy involved streetcars he found in the woods in Jefferson County, OH. According to Lawless/Melendez, he was working with the producers of the popular AMC show The Walking Dead and the haunted trains were being considered as a filming location for the series. "Being at this place was like stepping into a time warp back into a time where the whole world had died," Seph Lawless solemnly opined. The story was featured on a variety of outlets including many Fox affiliates, the Daily Mail, Pix11, the Mirror, the Weather Channel, and many others. Disappointingly, none of these outlets appear to have verified a single fact in the entire story before publishing it, or even to have run the press release Melendez must have sent them through a spell checker as some articles are rife with the same spelling errors that he makes on his own website - note the same misspelling of the word "trolley" as "trolly".

The problem, of course, is that absolutely none of this story is remotely true. I've been visiting the site for years and have a personal friendship with the owner, which is part of the reason that I've been able to run photography workshops there for the past year or so. While I won't disclose the location per his request (to discourage visits from vandals, scrappers, and other trespassers), it is not in Ohio. It's not a train wreck, there has been no contact from anyone involved with The Walking Dead, and the Trolley Tragedy of 1957 is a complete fabrication - one of many outright lies that Melendez tells news outlets to make his stories seem more lurid and haunting and therefore marketable. The site is in fact an operational salvage business that moved the cars onto the tracks for storage in the 1990s. The property owner can tell you a detailed history of every car on the site, and to his knowledge, not a single one was ever involved in any accident, ever.

Above: PIX 11 briefly flirts with the concept of journalistic integrity

Soon after the stories were published, a flurry of comments appeared on the Facebook pages of the media outlets, pointing out that many of the facts were untrue and could be disproved with a quick check, including my offer to pay $50 to the first person who could prove the claims and/or that I would take any reporter to the actual trolley graveyard to see the truth firsthand. Several of the cars weren't even in use until after the so-called Trolley Tragedy (like the streetcars that were used during the bicentennial celebrations in Philadelphia), and most were retired long after 1957. The news outlets displayed little interest in correcting the information. Pix11, one of the first sites to share the story, initially put up a disclaimer that they were verifying the facts with the photographer, then a day later removed the disclaimer and amended the text to say that the scene “looked like something you might see in a horror movie,” and that a man who lives in the area claimed they were part of an accident. They removed their Facebook post about it but kept the article up on their website. Melendez/Lawless, in sharing the link to the post on the Weather Channel, later wrote on social media, "... the title is based off a folklore. Folklores exist for a reason, because we want to believe." The town where the streetcars are located in is tiny and local residents know how the trains wound up there. No mysterious figure in the woods would materialize to make up a story about the cars except Melendez himself. Anyone who wanted to find out what really happened could easily contact the owner or the tenant who rents a house on the property.

The fact that there are no spooky local "folklores" about a trolley tragedy, that there was no train wreck at all, and that neither the owner nor anyone else involved with the site has been contacted by the producers of The Walking Dead did nothing to deter other outlets from sharing the bogus story. When people questioned the news station, a fake Facebook account appeared under the name Tori Skees; it was based on the identity of a real young lady of the same name. The fake Tori account viciously attacked anyone questioning the veracity of the stories, claiming to be a supporter of Melendez who had risen to defend his integrity. The fake Tori account had no images, posts, or friends, had been created that day, and frequently made oddly phrased statements and spelling mistakes strikingly similar to those made by Lawless/Melendez. In fact, the fake Tori account even referred to herself as Seph by mistake, something that was captured in the edit log for the comment. “Tori” threatened posters, insulted them and their families, accused them of stalking him/her, and bragged about the many news outlets that have featured Seph’s photography. “Tori” claimed, as Melendez frequently does about critics, that anyone who dared call out the blatant lies in the story was jealous of Seph's success or was an obsessed stalker (myself included) when in reality most were upset at the dishonesty in the story and were trying to find answers as to why it was published in such a state.

Above: Seph Lawless inadvertently admitting to using the fake account of a teenage girl to harass others, as captured in the comment's edit log.

I'm not jealous of Joe. I think his behavior is abysmal and I have enjoyed enough success through my own work that I don't need to compete. I am jealous of people like Rebecca Litchfield, Andrew Moore, Joe Elliott, Richard Nickel, Sean Galbraith, Tom Kirsch, Sherman Cahal and dozens of others. I wish I had space to name them all. I admire them for their legitimate accomplishments – accomplishments made without fabricating their identities or making up facts about the places they visit. They are talented photographers and sometimes diligent historians as well. They inspire me to improve, see new places, and if possible to partner with them on future projects. Many photographers of abandoned spaces change names to protect the locations they photograph because they don't want them to be destroyed; none that I am aware of have made a career out of deliberately spreading falsehoods about the entire histories of the places they photograph. Melendez' pseudonym "Seph Lawless" was created to hide an unrelated criminal record and he has continued to use pseudonyms and fake accounts to bully and threaten dozens of people who have looked into his unethical, dishonest, and fraudulent behavior.

I encourage you to check out other sources which detail not only the calculated dishonesty that defines everything he produces (including several dealing with this individual story) but also the threats and abuse endured by those who have challenged them. I also encourage you to check the facts in any stories presented in the media about Melendez' work yourself, and to contact the news outlets involved directly to ask why they are not doing a better job of verifying the facts in the stories they publish. Sharing this article makes a difference too. You deserve not to be lied to or misled, and not to be conned by someone who dupes people that trust his word.

Abandoned America image of Philadelphia Bicentennial streetcars taken in 2010

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Photo comment By Ross Judd: Isn't the "news" we watch on TV not real news any longer,but only "info-tainment"? The "Main stream" news is often embellished and/or just plain made up these days in most markets. It's a darn shame people suck it up though, just like sugary soda!
Photo comment By Jason Toews: Wow, how brave of Lawless (whom I shall hereafter refer to as "Lawl," said in my best Stimpy voice) to face down an actual tornado! In a Prius, no less! Seriously, though, Lawl's weirdness seems to increase with each passing day. Here's hoping he either a) gets some professional help, or b) flames out in an spectacular and entertaining way. Nice job including all the sources and screen caps, Matt. I look forward to the rest... of the story (Paul Harvey voice).
Photo comment By Llew: This whole fiasco really put the veracity of news outlets under the microscope. Funny how they simply push through whatever without fact-checking anything themselves.
Photo comment By Yaggy: First photo is of a Septa bullet car from the Norristown High Speed Line, a one-of-a-kind suburban line with a third rail and ability to go very fast as there are zero intersections or crossings along the line.
Photo comment By Jen: I saw him on Fox news. So smarmy. Grandiose. Full of sh*t. He steals other photographers photos and then promotes the hell out of himself.
Photo comment By Mamie: Belongs right there with the rest of the garbage they report on Fox "news".
Photo comment By Linda: I myself have been harassed and threatened by him for making truthful statements on his blog. He also accused me of making up a fake FB account and called me Matthew Christopher!
Photo comment By David Glowka: this looks like the back of the trolley museum in windsor ct lostinnewengland

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