American Folklore

American Folklore: West Virginia

American Folklore: West Virginia

West Virginia used to be part of Virginia, but its unique geography and culture made it an ideal candidate to be its own state. It received this gift in 1863, and has been the epitome of rural mountain living in the United States ever since. It has some unique folklore suitable to such an intriguing and unusual place. Here are some of the highlights of the tales of West Virginia.

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Admitted to the Union in 1863 as the 35th state, West Virginia is one of only two states to be admitted to the Union during the Civil War (the other being Nevada). It is also the second time one state was created by carving territory out of another (the previous time being when Maine was carved out of Massachusetts). It used to be part of Virginia. The separation occurred because the people in that area believed the government of Virginia was dominated by elite and wealthy plantation owners, and their own rural, mountain-dwelling interests were largely ignored. Also, the people of West Virginia were mostly opposed to slavery and did not want to secede from the Union, while Virginia was pro-slavery and pro-secession. So, West Virginia became its own state.

Before that, it was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. These Native Americans were quite sophisticated, farming and keeping flocks of turkeys early on, centuries before other tribes, and also were among the first to build cabins in which to live, instead of tents. They traded extensively with the early European explorers before the Europeans pushed them out of their territory.

The Europeans who came to live there settled in mostly isolated communities in rural, mountainous areas. This created a distinctive culture and fascinating local folklore that is still in present in the area today. Here are some of the highlights of it.

The Mothman

If you ever saw the movie, The Mothman Prophecies, you saw something that was based on a bit of West Virginia folklore. This half-man, half-moth creature of about six to seven feet tall was first spotted in Clendenin, West Virginia in 1966 by two married couples outside of a TNT factory. A building contractor saw the Mothman later that same evening and described it as having eyes like the reflectors on bicycles.

During the next year, there were more than one hundred reported sightings of the Mothman, mostly in West Virginia, but also along the Atlantic coast. Sometimes, those sightings were accompanied by encounters with so-called “men in black,” who were believed to be government agents. Then, in 1967, the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia collapsed, and killed forty-six people. An author named John Keel wrote about this event in a book called The Mothman Prophecies (which was made into the movie of the same name), in which he claimed the bridge incident was caused by this mysterious West Virginian creature.

The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder

In 1897, a young woman named Elva Zona Heaster mysteriously died in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, after only being married a year. She was a newlywed, in that magical time when wedded bliss is still normally a real thing between couples. Her husband seemed devastated, as one would expect. Except, her husband, Erasmus Shue, refused to let the local ladies clean and dress Elva’s body, as was the local custom. Instead, he did it himself.

Because of this, people began to suspect that Erasmus had killed Elva, but they could not prove it. Elva, though, seemed to take it upon herself to let people know what really happened to her. Her ghost began to appear each night at the bedside of her mother, and during these visits, she told her mother all about how Erasmus had been the one to kill her. Elva’s mother took the information Elva’s ghost had given her and gave it to the local prosecutor. The prosecutor ordered Elva’s body to be exhumed and examined. When it was done, it showed that Erasmus did indeed kill her, and he was prosecuted for it. Elva was avenged, thanks to her own initiative from the other side.

The Mystery of Middleway, West Virginia

In 1794, there was a traveler staying at a boarding house in Middleway, West Virginia. As he was not from the area, no one knew who he was or his real identity. However, he became ill while staying there, and asked for a Catholic priest to be sent for, to perform the last rites for him. The owner of the boarding house, Adam Livingston, said that he was a Lutheran who did not like priests and that there were no Catholics nearby, anyway.

The traveler died without receiving his last rites, and immediately began haunting the boarding house. Almost from the moment, he left his body, people at the house began to hear disembodied footsteps and found half-moons (and sometimes other strange shapes) mysteriously carved into their belongings. It unnerved Adam Livingston so much that he sent for a Catholic priest to come perform a cleansing on the boarding house.

After the cleansing, the haunting stopped, and Adam gave his property, which consisted of thirty-five acres, to the Catholic church. It still belongs to the church, with the Priest Field Pastoral Center being located on the property to this day.

The Monster of Flatwoods

This monster isn’t just some typical Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster type of creature. In fact, it is entirely unique, as far as anyone can tell. Roaming the area of Braxton County, West Virginia, this creature has long, thin arms, and resembles both a human and an owl. Anyone who has come into contact with it has reported becoming quite ill afterward, usually with hay fever symptoms or severe nausea.

One such encounter occurred in 1952 when a group of people went out into the woods in Braxton County to explore some mysterious lights they thought might be from a UFO. Instead, they came face to face with the Flatwoods Monster, and all of them reported being ill for some time afterward.

No one knows what the creature is. Some think it is a hybrid between an evil shadow person and an owl. Others believe it is an extra-terrestrial being. Either way, this monster is something most people should steer clear of if at all possible.


Will Moneymaker

Will established Ancestral Findings in 1995 and has helped genealogy researchers for over 25 years. He is also a freelance photographer, husband of twenty-eight years, father of four children, and has one grandchild.