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Marion County spooky tale told for generations

Times West Virginian photo illustration by Ted Sawyer This photo illustration represents the story of “Coffin Hollow,” which was included in the book of the same name by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick. The area, between Monongah and Watson along Old Monongah Road, apparently got its name when a skeleton rode its coffin down the hill from the cemetery to enact revenge against the Yankee who killed him.
Times West Virginian photo illustration by Ted Sawyer
This photo illustration represents the story of “Coffin Hollow,” which was included in the book of the same name by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick. The area, between Monongah and Watson along Old Monongah Road, apparently got its name when a skeleton rode its coffin down the hill from the cemetery to enact revenge against the Yankee who killed him.

(Editor’s Note: This story appears in “Myths of the Mountains: The Folktales, the Ghost Stories and the Urban Legends from the Hills of West Virginia,” which is on sale now at the Times West Virginian. Stop by our office or call 304-367-2500 to order your copy today.)

COFFIN HOLLOW, W.Va. — When you ask Carl Shaver to tell you the story of Coffin Hollow, he’ll ask you which version you prefer — the one where the Yankee kills the Rebel or the one where the Rebel kills the Yankee.

You could probably call him an authority on the hollow, considering he owns the bit of land between Monongah and Watson along Old  Monongah Road, which has been in his family since the 1700s. And he’s been asked about the story many, many times — especially since the publication of “Coffin Hollow,” a collection of West Virginia ghost tales written by the late Dr. Ruth Ann Musick.

The story — at least the version that appears in Musick’s 1977 collection — features a Rebel captured by the Union forces. A Yankee officer recognizes him as the man who killed his brother on the battlefield and shoots him in the head in an act of revenge. That officer later settled in Monongah and began to court a young woman from Watson.

The road between the two, Old Monongah Road as it is called today, is a curvy and hilly roadway and certainly was not well lit in the 1860s. As the officer traveled near the hollow where the rebel was buried, he looked up a hill and saw the skeleton of the man he murdered riding down through the trees on his coffin. The officer ran and made it safely home and told his friends about the incident.

The next time he made his way through the hollow, the officer was not so lucky. His friends found him shot in the head with an old and previously used bullet. Remembering the story the officer told, they made their way up the hill and unearthed the grave of the rebel.

There, they found a skeleton with no bullet in the skull, holding a still-smoking revolver.

“There’s no basis of truth at all to it,” Shaver said with a laugh. “The guy supposedly killed — as either a Confederate or as a Yankee — in fact was in the Civil War but never was a prisoner. He came back home, lived until his 80s and died a natural death.”

Makes for a good story, though.

It was a story told by Charles Shaver in 1967. Though they share the same last name, there’s only a distant relation between the two of them, Carl Shaver said.

Ida Shaver, the mother of the story’s author, said that the Shaver family has passed stories down for years. Her son, Charles, passed away in 1992, but was a student of Musick’s and the story was a class assignment. About a decade after he wrote the story, it was not only included in Musick’s 1977 collection of ghost tales, but gave the book its name.

Debbie Soles Shaver has been there quite a few times, as well. The story of Coffin Hollow was a favorite of her father’s, who grew up near Monongah. As a child, her father would take her to that spot the old folks call “Coffin Hollow,” park the car and start the story. Near the climax, he would turn out the lights to the squeals of fright and delight. No matter how many times she heard it, she remembers, she would still have the same reaction when her dad turned off the car’s headlights.

Cousins who visited the Soles family each summer from Cleveland would beg for the ride out to Coffin Hollow just to hear the story, though they’d heard it the summer before.

“It got our goats every year,” Shaver said. “In the 1960s, we didn’t have the things kids have now. Kids are kind of immune to things that were really scary to us back then.”

She remembers those summer nights fondly, as her father passed away at the age of 52 in 1977 — the same year “Coffin Hollow” was published.

The storyteller

The story passed down through generations is the reason Musick came to Fairmont. She was raised on a farm in Kirksville, Missouri, and attended college at the state university there. By 1943, she had achieved degrees in education, mathematics and English from the State University of Iowa.

And somewhere within her many years of education, she fell in love with the art of storytelling.

And that is what drew her to the hills of West Virginia, an area that had been “unmined” as far as collecting and preserving the oral tradition, said Dr. Judy Prozzillo Byers, the former director of the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University.

“Ruth Ann Musick had a sense from her folklore studies that this was an untouched area as far as collecting the stories,” Byers said. “We love the folklore here.”

So in 1946, Musick made Fairmont her home — she rented an apartment in the renovated Kennedy Barn, which is now the home of the folklife center. She began teaching in the mathematics department at Fairmont State — she had a renaissance mind, Byers said — and later moved to the literature department. It was there that she established folk literature as an area of study and began to collect stories from her students in freshman composition classes. Bob Nichols was one of those students in the 1960s. When asked to write a supernatural tale, he could think of none other than the one his grandmother Josie Nichols told him as a child — “A Slave Boy’s Revenge.” It is a tale of a young boy who decided he could not live under such harsh conditions any longer. He fled the farm, but his evil master called out the bloodhounds and tracked the young boy to the middle of a field. Though the dogs did their worst, the master was the one who finished the job and beheaded the boy with a sword.

The master could not find rest after the death of the boy, and one night he followed the familiar voice in the middle of the night to the same field where the murder took place. The master was found in the same field, beheaded with the same blade he used to kill the boy, and the bloodhounds were never able to trace any scent to follow the culprit.

Nichols’ story was included in “Coffin Hollow,” which was started by Musick and finished in 1977 three years after her death by the University Press of Kentucky.

Nichols never knew his story had made such an impression. And he certainly didn’t know that his work would be published in a collection more than a decade later.

“She just gave an assignment — I think she gave the assignment to all of her classes and she just picked the ones she liked,” Nichols said.

Arnold Kittle was also one of Musick’s students.

“I will never forget what she told us,” Kittle said. “It was the first day of class and she said she wanted ghost stories, real ghost stories. And she could tell the difference.”

In the forward of her 1965 collection “The Telltale Lilac Book,” Musick explained why she turned to her students as a source for many of the stories within her collected works.

“It seems unlikely that one collector, working alone with a tape machine, could do as much as several hundred students, working for the collector through relatives and neighbors,” Musick explained. She didn’t just use her students to collect the folklore of West Virginia. Musick was not just an avid collector, but a prolific one. She wrote columns for newspapers, reaching out to readers to share the stories passed down from generation to generation. And she visited area families, spending hours in parlors and around dinner tables listening, gathering, collecting, documenting.

That’s how Byers and Musick met — when Byers was 5 and her family gathered weekly. Musick was a welcome guest in the Prozzillo home.

“She would go out and find ‘informant’ families — she went out to find families that would talk about the past and share their stories,” Byers said. “It was a custom in our family that every Sunday after Mass, the whole family met and brought covered dishes to my parents’ home on Maryland Avenue.”

And when Musick came, she brought her reel-to-reel tape recorder, Byers said, and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations and stories.

One of those, included in Musick’s 1970 collection “Green Hills of Magic,” was called “A Visit from the Dead.” The setting is San Giovanni in Fiore, Italy, the village in Calabria from where Byers’ family hailed.

 A grieving widower marries in haste to care for his three young daughters. While he spends time in the vineyards, the stepmother spends her days in town after locking the children in the house without any food or care. When the stepmother notices the girls are well fed upon her return, she stays behind one day and finds the ghost of their mother preparing food and caring for the little girls. The ghost warns the stepmother about her cruel behavior, grabs the woman by the arm and brands her with the letter “M” — her name when she was among the living was Maria.

The story

For Byers, Musick was the woman with the “twinkling eyes” who would sit down at the table with her family members and say, “Ah, tell me your stories.” She was also the inspiration for Byers’ own lifelong study of folklore.

Byers explained that the ghost story is actually a sub genre of the supernatural tale. They include simple settings, simple characters, simple story lines, simple resolutions.

“They present the human condition,” Byers said.

But more than that, the stories are almost parables or morality tales.

“That’s why in a traditional community, the storyteller is like a shaman — a wise woman or man who taught through stories,” she explained. “In many cases, the stories were used for entertainment. It was before television, computers, YouTube. The children gather around and pass down the traditions and stories on a long winter evening.”

The ghostly or ghastly tales usually feature one of three types of spirit: The helpful spirit, like the mother in “A Visit from the Dead,” who cared for her children; the revengeful spirit, like the Rebel in “Coffin Hollow” who came down the hill, riding his coffin to kill his murderer; and finally, the poltergeist.

The poltergeist isn’t necessarily evil or out to harm the living, Byers explained, and is quite the opposite of what has been portrayed in movies and television.

“We have a very misunderstood belief in society, especially among the young, about poltergeists,” she explained. “The movie presents the poltergeist as evil spirits, which haunt through the television.

“The real poltergeist is an ornery, unrested spirit who had died suddenly or tragically, often a young person,” she explained. “Therefore this haunted spirit has this energy that is still emitted and floats upon the earth attaching to other energy … attaching to family place. That place becomes haunted.”

A good example of that type of spirit could be “Post Inspection,” a story from Musick’s “The Telltale Lilac Bush” collection. In an Idamay mine, poor Sam McCormick was killed when his motorcar overturned while coming around a corner. After work resumed at the mine, Mr. Freedman was working in that particular section of the mine when he heard someone walking about behind him. Assuming it was the foreman, he paid little attention to the sounds. But after some time, he called out to the one making the sound and received no answer.

Puzzled, Mr. Freedman stopped his work to investigate the sound. He could barely distinguish a figure, who seemed to be bending down to inspect the rails. When Mr. Freedman called out to the man, he straightened up and began to walk toward him. By the time the shadowy figure had reached the light, Mr. Freedman realized that it was not the foreman at all, but the wandering spirit of Sam McCormick.

Musick herself supposed that perhaps these spirits stay with us because, like her, they are drawn to the hills of West Virginia.

“It may be that many of them come back in a kind of nostalgia — to get another look at the hills,” she wrote in the introduction to “The Telltale Lilac Bush.”

“Even the victim of a scythe murder, over 100 years ago, did not come back in malice,” she explained. “The poor thing evidently preferred West Virginia to wherever he was — and particularly wanted to locate his head, which had been separated from his body in death.”

Email Misty Poe at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MistyPoeTWV.

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