Turnpike Terror—West Virginia

West Virginia Turnpike—Interstate 77
Between Princeton and Charleston

N.B. Part of this article was originally published 22 December 2014 as part of my article, “13 Southern Haunts You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.” This article has been revised and expanded.

If there was ever a place for a ghost, it’s that two-lane holocaust.
–Terry Marchal, “Always on Sunday,” Charleston Mail Gazette, 12 September 1971

The West Virginia Turnpike was plagued with problems from the very beginning. In the early 20th century the very mountains that made “The Mountain State” unique also cut off much of the state’s population from the outside world. To rectify this, the state looked into a major north to south thoroughfare between two major cities.

After a route was chosen, construction involved literally moving mountains at tremendous cost. By the time it opened in 1954, the project’s price amounted to $133 million—around $1.5 million per mile—over two years. But, the staggering statistics do not stop there; construction required the movement of 33 million cubic yards of earth, 16 million pounds of dynamite, 60% of excavation through rock, 116 bridges within the road’s 88 miles, and, sadly, five lost were lost during the project.

As it opened, some even deemed the highway “88 miles of miracle,” though that positive image did not last. Criticism followed with the two-lane road being called “the road to nowhere” by The Saturday Evening Post. As it became packed with the increased traffic brought to it by the Interstate Highway System, even more scorn was heaped upon the highway.

West Virginia Turnpike 1974
A two-lane section of the turnpike in 1974. Photo by Jack Corn for the EPA.

With the traffic and congestion also came a sharp increase in deaths on the road. Terry Marchal’s 1971 quip about the turnpike being a “two-lane holocaust” was apt considering the huge death toll. By 1975, the toll stood at 278 fatalities.

During the late 1970s and into the 80s, the road was expanded into a four-lane highway, which has eased some traffic woes, though congestion remained a problem. Another issue that arose—although the state government could not have foreseen such a thing—was ghosts.

congestion on the West Virginia Turnpike
Modern congestion on the turnpike in Raleigh County, 2006. Photo by Seicer, courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1971, tales had been told for years about ghostly hitchhikers along the road’s route, when an article appearing in the Martinsville Bulletin of Virginia stirred some interesting commentary among West Virginia newspapers.  The article reports that the Associated Press reported that a West Virginia radio station reported (many people are reporting on others’ reporting in what might be a classic example of the telephone game) that witnesses have encountered a ghostly hitchhiker on the turnpike.

Columnist Bob Wills in the Raleigh Register (in Raleigh, West Virginia) pointed out this farcical reporting in his column on September 20, 1971, describing it as “another case of ‘I know a man who etc…’” Wills reprints the original Martinsville Bulletin article to show how ludicrous it is. The original article in the Martinsville Bulletin takes a humorous turn with the author suggesting several “answers to the mystery of the vanishing hitchhiker,” including “Anything can happen in West Virginia…and will on the West Virginia Turnpike.”

Despite the article’s skeptical tone, it seems that the story itself may still bear a kernel of truth, especially when compared to more recent stories from the turnpike. Wills reprinted the entire Martinsville Bulletin article in his column of which this is the most interesting part, my own notes are provided in brackets:

According to the AP, as reported by a West Virginia radio station, 22 motorists on the turnpike between Princeton and Bluefield [this is the southern end of the turnpike] have reported they picked up a hitch-hiking man who later vanished from their cars. [I can find no evidence of the Associated Press coverage of the hitchhiker, though this may simply be due to the fact that many papers from this period are not yet available online.]

You read that correctly. The man just vanished from their vehicles—in some cases while they were traveling at 65 miles an hour.

Some motorists even reported the car seat belt was still hooked together on the front seat after the man disappeared.

According to the radio station, the neatly dressed man got into the cars when motorists stopped, but said nothing.

But in cases he later spoke one sentence—“Jesus is coming.”

And with that he vanished.

Earlier that month, Bob Wills reported on a message the newspaper received on its reader tip line:

This is Charley Jackson, City Councilman at large, Beckley, West Virginia. Something happened to me not too long ago and people have been asking about it since. Also, it was announced on the radio that I was one of the witnesses that could explain it…it happened on the West Virginia turnpike…Well, this is it:

I was going down the Turnpike and I saw a hitchhiker. I picked up this hitchhiker and I had reached the climax of 60 miles an hour when this gentleman said to me, he said, “Jesus is coming soon.” And then he disappeared. Where he went to, how he left, only God knows. But I do know that it is mighty strange. There were no witnesses, no warlocks, no magic; but something is going on. There is a change that should be made in everyone’s life—and that is my story.

Wills says that the reporters who listened to the recording were well familiar with Councilman’s Jackson’s voice and the voice on the recording was not his.

While they also noted that the story was “a thin tale with an evangelistic bent” the story does seem to bear the hallmarks of more recent stories from the turnpike. In the intervening years, several state troopers have reported experiences here including one who discovered a little girl who appeared lost and wandering on the side of the road. After picking up the unusually quiet child and putting her in the backseat of his car. During the drive the trooper glanced in his rear-view mirror and was shocked to discover the child had vanished.

Another trooper encountered a pedestrian along the turnpike and arrested him as pedestrians are forbidden from walking along the road. Placing the handcuffed man in the back seat of his patrol car, the officer headed back to headquarters. At some point during the drive, the trooper looked in the rear-view mirror to find the back seat was empty. The pedestrian simply vanished leaving the handcuffs on the seat.

ghostly hitchhiker haunted West Virginia Turnpike
West Virginia Turnpike as it passes through Fayette County. Photo 2006 by Seicer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Blogger Theresa Racer writes in her blog of her own experience. She and her mother were traveling along the turnpike when they passed “a scraggly looking young man wearing dark clothing and carrying an olive green army-like sack” standing in a particularly lonely area of the interstate. After passing him, they looked in their rear view mirror to see the figure had vanished. They turned their car around and did not see anyone along that same lonely stretch of interstate.

Folklorist Dennis Deitz posits in his The Greenbrier Ghost and other Strange Stories that the road cuts across two creeks where tragedies have occurred. Along both Paint and Cabin Creeks there were many mines where miners were killed in accidents. He also notes that both creeks have experienced flooding that has killed residents in the area. During the turnpike’s construction in the 1950s there were also a number of old cemeteries that were moved, perhaps these hitchhiking spirits are trying to find their way back to their earthly remains?

For further stories of ghostly hitchhikers in West Virginia, see my article on Fairmont’s Old Grafton Road, and  WV Route 901 in Berkeley County.

Sources

  • Deitz, Dennis. The Greenbrier Ghost and Other Strange Stories. South Charleston, WV: Mountain Memories Books, 1990.
  • Gavenda, Walter and Michael T. Shoemaker. A Guide to Haunted West Virginia. Glen Ferris, WV: Peter’s Creek Publishing, 2001.
  • Monday, Christopher R. “The West Virginia Turnpike: “88 Miles of Miracle.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly. Volume 11, No. 2.
  • Racer, Theresa. “WV Turnpike.” Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. 2 March 2011.
  • “West Virginia Turnpike History.” West Virginia Parkways Authority. Accessed
  • Wills, Bob. “The Turnpike Ghost turns up on tape.” The Raleigh Register. 14 September 1971.
  • Wills, Bob. “Virginian enlarges TP ‘Ghost’ tale.” The Raleigh Register. 20 September 1971.

A host of stories—Georgetown, South Carolina

Heriot-Tarbox House
(formerly Harbor House Bed & Breakfast, private)
15 Cannon Street

N.B. This article was originally published as part of my 2011 article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, SC.”

Atop a bluff overlooking the Sampit River is the Heriot-Tarbox House topped with a distinctive red roof that can been seen from Winyah Bay. Constructed around 1765, the house was the home of Dr. Charles Fyffe, a Scottish-born physician and planter who also constructed the brick warehouse across the street. Just past the house is a small marina that was created by him as well.

Heriot-Tarbox House Georgetown South Carolina ghosts haunted
The Heriot-Tarbox House from Cannon Street. Photo 2011, by Lewis Powell IV, all rights reserved.

During the dismal days of the American Revolution, Dr. Fyffe remained loyal to the British crown and oversaw a loyalist hospital for refugees in Charleston. After the British surrender at Yorktown, the doctor faced deportation for his loyalties. In his appeal, he argued that he had treated wounded Patriots as well. He was allowed to stay, though his estate and property was seized. Remaining loyal to the Crown, he made his way to Colonial India where he served as a physician before succumbing to madness. He was committed to a mental asylum in Calcutta (now Kolkata) where he lingered until his death in 1810.

A couple years after Dr. Fyffe’s death in India, his former home and docks became entangled in another legend. In December of 1812, the lovely Theodosia Burr Alston, the wife of the newly sworn governor of South Carolina, Joseph Alston, may have stayed in the home before boarding the schooner, Patriot, headed to New York to visit her father.

Theodosia was the daughter of the disgraced former Vice President Aaron Burr. Serving under President Thomas Jefferson, Burr was suspected of treasonous acts and was arrested in the wilds of the Alabama territory. He was carried to Richmond, Virginia where he was put on trial. Though he was acquitted of the charges, Burr sought refuge in Europe for several years before returning to New York in 1812, just before the outbreak of war between the Americans and the British.

Theodosia Burr Alston painted by John Vanderlyn.
Contemporary portrait of Theodosia Burr Alston painted by John Vanderlyn.

Burr’s daughter, married to wealthy South Carolina planter, Joseph Alston, remained in America during her father’s exile in Europe. Theodosia waited until December, after her husband’s inauguration as governor, to travel to New York to see him. After the birth of her son, Aaron Burr Alston, Theodosia’s health had deteriorated, but that was worsened with his death from malaria in June 1812 at the age of 10. Therefore, travel for Theodosia would be difficult on her health, not to mention the risks of travel. While the two-week carriage ride from South Carolina to New York would be extremely taxing, travel by sea also proved dangerous, especially now that the country was at war with Britain. Indeed, stormy winter seas and the threat of pirates also presented their own dangers.

As Governor Alston could not leave the state during wartime, he engaged a friend, Dr. Timothy Greene, to accompany his ailing wife on her journey. Passage was secured on a schooner, the Patriot, which had been working as a privateer, in other words, the vessel carried guns and was authorized to attack British ships.

Before her departure on New Year’s Eve, 1812, Theodosia, accompanied by her husband, Dr. Greene, and servants, traveled to Georgetown from her husband’s plantation, The Oaks, on the Waccamaw River. Local legend tells that the group was feted at the Mary Man House (528 Front Street) that evening. Where the group stayed the night, however is a matter of speculation, and stories point to them staying at Dr. Fyffe’s former home.

The next morning, she boarded the Patriot at the docks just outside the house for her journey. The ship sailed out of Winyah Bay past the Georgetown Light on North Island into oblivion and legend. Whatever became of the Patriot and Theodosia after leaving Georgetown is unclear. Stories abound as to the fate of the Patriot and its passengers often involving romantic hallmarks like piracy, plank-walking, murder, wreckers on the North Carolina coast, and suicide. According to Richard N. Côté’s Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, recent research has uncovered facts relating to a severe storm off of the North Carolina coast just days after the departure of the Patriot from Georgetown.

Since her disappearance, tales have swirled about her tragic figure making appearances in spiritual form from the Charleston Battery, up the coast to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In Georgetown, these tales are rife, with Theodosia supposedly making appearances at the Mary Man House, where she may have been feted the night before her final journey. Legend holds that she also makes appearances in and around the Heriot-Tarbox House as well as being seen near Charles Fyffe’s brick warehouse across the street.

Heriot-Tarbox House 1963 HABS Library of Congress
Heriot-Tarbox House in 1963, taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The house, however, also hosts another legend involving the daughter of a later resident. This young lady, which sources do not identify, like so many other local ladies, fell in love with a sea captain. As fathers of this period were wont to do, he disapproved of the relationship. His daughter did find a way to communicate with her lover by placing a lantern in one of the top floor windows of the house.

Though the couple never married, the woman continued to hang the signal lantern hoping for her lover’s return. By the time the Civil War, the woman lived alone as a spinster surrounded by a pack of loyal dogs. She used the lantern hung in her high dormer to signal to blockade runners after the Union bottled up the bay. Not long after the war, she grew more and more reclusive. One evening after her dogs were heard baying through the night, concerned neighbors broke into the house to find her body surrounded by her beloved dogs. Her wraith is still supposedly seen followed by spectral dogs while the light still appears in the dormer window.

Heriot-Tarbox House 1963 HABS Library of Congress
The river elevation of the house. The ghostly light is supposed to appear in one of the upper dormers. Photo taken 1963, for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

According to author Elizabeth Huntsinger, the high dormer was later used during Prohibition to signal to rum runners at work in the bay. Part of me wonders if perhaps the story of the lantern in the dormer window is an invention of those smugglers. Certainly, it is a reason for locals to not question the odd light. Ghost stories are sometimes used to keep the curious at bay; perhaps this is at work in this house on the bay.

For further ghosts of Georgetown, see my article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, South Carolina.”

Sources

  • Côté, Richard N. Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy. Mount Pleasant, SC: Corinthian Books, 2002.
  • Huntsinger, Elizabeth Robertson. Ghosts of Georgetown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1995.
  • South Carolina Picture Project. Heriot-Tarbox House—Georgetown, South Carolina. Accessed 10 July 2019.
  • Theodosia Burr Alston. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 8 July 2019.
  • Zepke, Terrance. Ghosts and Legends of the Carolina Coasts. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2005.

The scarab’s sting—Georgetown, South Carolina

Cleland House (private)
405 Front Street
Georgetown, South Carolina

N.B. This article was originally published as part of my 2011 article, “Ghosts of Georgetown, SC.”

Standing proudly on the corner of Front and St. James Streets among the oak and moss shaded residential section of Georgetown, the Cleland House is among the oldest houses in town, having been built in 1737. From this corner it has witnessed the whole panoply of American history, some of it even passing over its thresholds.

During the American Revolution, the Prussian General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben; French generals Baron Johann de Kalb and Gilbert de Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette; made visits to the house while they were giving aid to American forces. Later, Vice President Aaron Burr stayed at the home while visiting his daughter, Theodosia.

Cleland House Georgetown South Carolina ghost haunted
The Cleland House, 2011, by Lewis O. Powell IV, all rights reserved.

The story behind this house reads very much like an old-fashioned ghost story. Anne Withers, possibly related to John Withers who is listed on the historical marker in front of the house as one of the owners, fell in love with a dashing sea captain. After one of his voyages he returned to Georgetown, and presented his fiancée with a rare gift, an ancient Egyptian bracelet, which featured a series of scarabs.

The scarab, an Ancient Egyptian amulet representing the common dung beetle, is found throughout the ancient world. Some scarabs were used as ornaments, while others were used as seals. During the era of the New Kingdom (1535-1079 BCE), scarabs began to be included in the wrappings of mummies. To the ancient Egyptians, the lowly dung beetle symbolized resurrection and new life as it laid its eggs within animal dung which it rolled into a ball. In the ancient religion, the beetle, personified as the god, Khepri, was believed to roll the sun into the sky.

Ancient Egyptian Scarabs
A selection of Ancient Egyptian Scarabs in the Bibel + Orient Museum, Freiburg, Switzerland. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Anne Withers, the blushing bride, saved the bracelet to wear on her wedding day. After putting on her wedding gown, she placed the bracelet on her wrist and carried on with her other preparations. Just as she was about to descend the staircase of the Cleland House, the bride let out a scream and fell down the stairs. By the time she tumbled to the floor at the foot of the stairs, she was dead.

Rushing to her side, her family discovered blood dripping from underneath the bracelet. When it was removed, the scarabs were found to have tiny legs that had dug into the bride’s pale flesh.

Leaving Georgetown soon after his fiancée’s death, the heartbroken took the bracelet to London where it was examined by a chemist. He discovered that the legs on the scarabs had been rigged to open by the warmth from human skin. Each leg contained poison that would be injected into the hapless victim. He surmised the bracelet had been made to afflict the person who stole the artifact from a tomb.

Ever since Anne Withers’ wedding day death, her form, still wearing nuptial white, has been seen in the gardens of the Cleland House.

A search of cemetery records on FindaGrave.com does not bring up a burial for Miss Withers.

Sources

  • Huntsinger, Elizabeth Robertson. Ghosts of Georgetown. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1995.
  • Roberts, Nancy. Southern Ghosts. Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper,1979.
  • Scarab. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 6 July 2019.