Straddling the netherworld, searching for witches
West Virginia seems to straddle the netherworld.
Huddled thick in the Appalachians, the state holds residence of more inexplicable tales than most other states combined. Our folk culture, after all, is colored with Ruth Ann Musick’s tales of headless miners haunting coal shafts; with stories of desperate midnight flights on horseback with the Devil riding sidesaddle; with her timeless telling of the telltale lilac bush. Consider the Mothman, the Flatwoods Monster.
And consider, as well, the paranormal notable you’ve probably never heard of: Rhoda Ward.
Otherwise known as the Bridgeport Witch.
A History of Witchcraft
Bridgeport is a blip on the map, some thirty miles south of Morgantown.
It has a knowable history dating to 1764, when the explorer John Simpson set first documented foot upon the land. An elementary school and the city’s major water source — a creek that twists and bows like a serpent — bear Simpson’s name to this day.
And 23 years later, in January 1787 — 90 years after the famous “Salem Witch Trials” — Bridgeport resident Rhoda Ward was tried for acts of Satanic witchcraft at Simpson Creek Baptist Church.
Records are scarce. Ward’s age at the time of trial, for example, is lost to the shadows of history; most information one can find today comes originally from A History of the Simpson Creek Baptist Church. But despite the thinness of information, the accusations found within are nothing short of bizarre.
They said she vomited blood and spat up crooked pins.
Ward testified for herself, before a jury of her church brethren. “This may certify to all it may concern that following I deliver as truth as I expect to answer it at the Great Day of Judgment,” she said. “On a time when I lay sick of the chicken-pox, it appeared to me that … [my friend] Elizabeth Stout showed me some crooked pins, which she said, I spewed up. If I did, I knowed it not, though it might be the case, and if the pins had not been showed to me, and I have been told that I spewed them up, I should have thought … [it] … had been a fiction, proceeding from being light-headed with fever. But this I know[:] that my throat and breast were sore, and I spit blood all the next day.”
Mary Smith, another friend present at the time of the supposed incident, further testified, “… I saw [Ward] spew up one or two pins that was crooked, and there were others laying on the floor.”
Evidently, Ward’s testimony was convincing: She was acquitted of the charges, spared a burning at the stake and allowed to return to her normal existence.
It is sad to imagine what happened to Ward after that, how she assimilated — or, more likely, failed to — after the accusations. Rumors surely must have haunted her every move, wary eyes trailed her, children quickly snagged away by leery parents from her path.
It is not surprising, then, that she was accused of witchcraft again some 12 years later, in 1799. Again, she was acquitted, but this time her accuser — Elizabeth Stout, the same woman who had claimed to have witnessed Ward spitting up pins — was excommunicated from the church.
Whatever happened to Ward after that remains hidden in mystery.
Two centuries later, Bridgeport is not unlike other West Virginia towns.
Fast food restaurants dot the rolling landscape; high school football is the high flat top of the social ziggurat, all else of descending importance. It also happens to be where I, the author of this article, was born and raised.
But unlike the leagues of other anonymous mountain towns, Bridgeport is home to a unique activity, practiced mostly by teens caught in the humdrums of high school. And that activity is called, affectionately, Witch Visiting.
Most Bridgeport residents are unaware of the tale of Rhoda Ward, or otherwise do not realize it is grounded in history; but high school is a time when the mystical qualities of local legends are at high boil, and while I was that age, it was common for those I knew to sneak into the Bridgeport Cemetery, near town’s end, at night.
That’s where they say Ward is buried, after all.
What they would do there varied. Some did charcoal etchings of what they claimed was her gravemarker; others took photos. But over time, and perhaps inevitably, spooky apocryphal stories were formed.
One friend showed me photos of an inexplicable rash that overtook him as he touched the concrete slab he said marked her grave; another claimed the temperature in a radius around it was 10 degrees cooler than all else.
Frankly, I didn’t believe a syllable of it.
The story of the Bridgeport Witch was passed along in my years in school with the same fervency of Hook-For-A-Hand-Man assaulting teenage sweethearts, and I gave it about as much credence.
In my research for this article, though, I discovered that strange stories concerning the grave are not merely domain of over-sugared modern high schoolers. In fact, they go back to at least 1970, when Bridgeport was struck by a West Virginia rarity: a tornado.
Sober history states the tornado destroyed the entire third floor of Simpson Creek Baptist Church’s educational unit, exploded the stained glass windows of the sanctuary and cleanly plucked its roof away like the top of a cookie jar. In all, $120,000 of damage was done to the church.
A neighboring Methodist church, no more than 20 yards distant, was utterly unscathed.
After ravaging the church that had once condemned Ward, legend tells that the tornado roared through town, straight toward the cemetery, vanishing only after it had reached “the witch’s grave.” One local historian tells of a young boy, member of a Catholic parish, who surveyed the damage and awed aloud, “Boy, that witch must have been really mad.”
And in one other spooky account by folklore specialist Diane Davis, it was said that “[a]nyone foolish enough to venture at least 10 feet inside the cemetery gates alone at midnight will see a wisp of smoke moving over his or her head, a wisp of smoke with several straight pins in its mouth.
“If the intruder does not run fast enough, the specter will knock him in the head and stick pins into his flesh.”
Baloney and B.S.
Sam Hartley, Bridgeport Cemetery superintendent, does not believe in spooks.
He is a constantly moving, electric man, perhaps 60, with a snowman belly and a personality so vibrant it could glow in the dark. His office is located in a barn-like building near the high point of the cemetery. When I knock the door, no one answers; for the glare on the glass, I can’t see inside.
After three sets of knocks, a call:
“C’mon in! Gawd, I ain’t got tahm to git up and open the door fer ya!”
I enter, smiling.
I had spoken with him the day before to schedule our interview. On the phone he was cordial, but a little exasperated, too, as if this were a yearly routine with him, talking about the witch. In truth, exasperation was hitting me as well: Research had shown me that there was no record of Ward’s death in Harrison County; and in fact, Bridgeport Cemetery’s own records show no one named Ward being buried there at all.
“Here ya go, this’s pretty much all I know,” he says, without a greeting, handing me a piece of typewriter-typed paper. I look at it, and an edge of disappointment sinks in me. It’s the same information I’d found in “A History of Harrison County.” I’m surprised by this disappointment, though, and it occurs to me for the very first time that I might be, for some reason, truly hoping there is something to all this witch stuff.
“You must’ve had this handy,” I say, forcing a smile.
He adjusts his belt, nodding, heading for the door, not once meeting my eye. “There’s always questions about that grave. They want to know if it’s there.
And with that, he leads me out into the hazy morning.
He asks if I want to follow him in my car or take his with him. I’m stunned that the location of Ward’s grave is actually known, and taking out my voice recorder I plop down in a seat next to him in his old white sedan.
Before I can ask a question, he rips back in reverse and begins booming through the cemetery. It crosses my mind that his driving may be the most horrifying thing I could discover today: I eye the speedometer, and on these winding, eight-foot-wide roads, Mr. Hartley is getting very friendly with 40 miles an hour.
“So does the witch’s grave ever cause you any hassle?” I ask as he navigates. “I remember in high school, the kids used to sneak in — “
He rubs his day’s stubble. “Nah. ‘S’just ol’ wive’s tales anyway. Just people trying to get scared in the cemetery.”
“Do you ever get scared in the cemetery?”
A smirk: He gets this a lot. “No. Ain’t dead people gonna hurt ya; it’s the crazy live ones.”
He stops the car at the bottom of the hill, not far from the cemetery’s entrance. “Well, there it is.”
He points past me, out the window. I see any number of gravemarkers, but they’re all too recent to have been created in the early 19th century, and not one of them is labeled Ward.
And then I see it. There is no gravemarker at all. Four wooden beams, laid in the ground and aged to gray, surround a plot that sinks two inches beneath all earth around it. A smile I can’t reason with crosses my face, and I think inexplicably of that scene from “Halloween” when Dr. Loomis finds Michael Myers has stolen his sister’s headstone.
“Supposedly, someone stole the headstone,” Hartley tells me, on cue.
“How do you know it’s hers?” I say, remembering the research I’d done. My smile fades a little.
“That’s what I was told.”
“By your predecessor?”
He nods, putting the car back into gear. “Yep. Now, whether he knew what he was talkin’ ‘bout or not, I dunno. Hard to say.” He explains that the information was passed down from superintendent to superintendent. That certainly doesn’t make it false, but then again …
I try to distract myself, asking about the legend of the spectral witch who would stick pins in your flesh.
Hartley just laughs: Aw-hee-hee-hee.
“Hell, I’m here offen enough after midnight. Ya seen any pins in me?”
I have to admit I don’t.
Our rollercoaster ride back to his office ends. And once more — maybe the kid in this writer; I don’t know — I’m compelled to push for information that might lend some credence to the tale.
“So … why do you think the story is so popular?”
“It’s, ah, there’s jus’ wive’s tales about everythin’ anymore in cemeteries.”
“So you don’t believe in witches?” I grin.
He grins back. “Well no. I mean, yeah, there’s witches, but I, ah, I dunno. From what I seen, she wasn’t a witch, she warn’t burnt or nothin’. I mean, that stuff about her head floatin’ at ya and spitting pins — aw, that’s baloney. I mean, I used to live in the cemetery.”
“Ever have any spooky experiences?”
“No — but I give out a few of ‘em!”
He explodes in laughter, a raucous frat boy You-had-to-be-there-buddy detonation. He adjusts his belt. I chuckle, too, and boy do I sincerely like this man, and I’m about to thank him for his time when he says:
“’Course, there was that guy what called me up with his one-a-them cameras that can shoot, y’know, ghosts and stuff.”
Now I get out of the car with him and fumble with my voice recorder, almost dropping it as I make certain it’s pointed at him correctly. Hartley looks at it, and then at me, and for the first time this morning he meets my eye.
“Yeah, two-three years ago. Took a bunch’a pictures of that grave. Told me he’d give me a call back if he ever saw anything on ‘em, ghosts, what-have-you.”
“Whoa, did he? I mean did he ever call you?”
“No letter, nothing?”
And then he seems to realize at the same moment I do: I’m not really objective here at all. I want there to be a witch.
And a wry smile cuts across Sam Hartley’s face.
“Y’know, buddy, c’mon,” he says, “this story is just a bunch of B.S.”
Which is what I tell myself two nights later as I sit in my car outside Bridgeport Cemetery at 11:58 p.m.
Lights off, engine dead: The dim glow of my cellphone face — opened so I can see the time — is the only light. Rain taps the darkened windshield and cuts rivers across it.
“Are you scared?”
My brother, 14 years old and fellow explorer for the night, asks me it and shatters the silence. I jump.
“No,” I say. “Why? You?”
“No. Sorta. No. OK, yes.” He looks out toward the cemetery before us. The gates glitter dully as a car roars past behind our own. Beyond that, by the clouded moonlight, one can only make out a few feet of the winding drive toward Ward’s grave.
“Why’re we here?” he says, though I know he knows.
“For the story.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“Because of her head, to see if her head floats.”
“Let’s go home.”
I smile; I can only imagine how frightened I would have been 10 years ago, at his age.
And it’s as I begin to tell him this that something buzzes my leg.
My cellphone alarm. Midnight.
We eye each other, and the dread in my belly I’ve been denying for the last two hours boils over.
“See ya,” is all I can say; and then somehow I’m out of the car, into the restless night, heading toward the cemetery gates.
I pull out my voice recorder; later, I will marvel at how much my speech shakes.
“OK, I’m going toward the gates. I — ah crap, puddle, puddle! — I measured my steps earlier. So, like, six big steps and I’ll be more than ten feet in, like the legend says.”
Another car rips past outside, and it glitters the gates once more, and I’m shocked to find that they’re already behind me. How could that happen?
I pause, troubled by the disorientation. Despite the storm, fireflies pulse ahead of me, and my mind helpfully points out their similarity to warning beacons before a cataclysm.
“OK, so — One … Two …”
I feel a weird tension in my knees, like they’re aching to run.
“Three … Four …” Wind strikes a great tree beside me, and a fusillade of hanging raindrops hits my neck, thick and cold.
And I go six steps. And I don’t see any witch.
And I go 12. And Rhoda Ward is not in sight.
And I’m 20 steps and maybe 35 feet in when I snap out of some kind of fright-induced trance and say, “Oh, OK, so I’m — yeah, I’m more than 10 feet in. There’s no witch.
“But I’m still really, really scared.”
And I jog back, slowed only by a fear of sliding on the slick cement and slapping down on my rear-end, all knees and elbows toward the car.
I rip open the driver’s side door and toss myself inside.
“What what what’d you see?” gasps my brother.
“N-nothing. Just — I didn’t see anything.”
His terror morphs to disappointment almost instantly.
“So there’s no witch? Awwww man. Then what were we so afraid of?”
Witch To Believe?
I stay up all night, sanding the rough edges of this article, and trying to answer my brother’s question. Compelled for I-don’t-know-why, I take a break and I put in my copy of “Halloween.”
I’m especially struck by the scene where Tommy, an eight-year-old boy, sees a shadow across the night-street and just knows it is The Boogeyman. Of course, in the film, he’s right: Michael Myers is stalking him, and he is Evil, capital ‘E.’ But what if he’d been wrong? What if it had been just a shadow?
Rhoda Ward of Simpson Creek Baptist Church has grown into something both greater and much more horrible than what she was in mortal life: She is, to Bridgeport, quite simply The Boogeyman.
We’re all of us afraid of something, the cold wind against the windowpane, the wedge of darkness in the closet — the inexplicable rash that we notice only as we’re nearing a local burial plot. And history here has given us the opportunity to thrust the mask of Rhoda Ward upon it, in order to contain the fright.
Let us not forget: Ward was never convicted; she lived her life, as far as is known, to its natural end. The real “witch” or villain in history is more likely Elizabeth Stout, Ward’s supposed friend and constant accuser. Surely a great story could be found there, if only a record of it existed.
I mull this and I turn off “Halloween.”
Three hours later, I’m finishing this story. By the dim and distant glow of dawn — flaring those beautiful West Virginia hills — it seems absurd, silly, that I was too frightened to get out of my car and snap pictures of Ward’s grave last night.
But then again …
As I look out upon those glowing mountains, I remember the netherworld that seems to pulse beneath these rich coal lands … and in the full-blazing dawn, when fog rolls like a cauldron’s smoke, it is difficult not to think back upon that unmarked grave.
And as I do, a feeling overpowers me: neither fright nor wonder, but some brew of both — the same weird feeling that struck my legs hours before as they longed to high tail it — a prickling that ripples my whole being.
I try to think of some metaphor for the sensation, knowing I’ve just got to put this in the story —
And then it hits me, and I smile: It feels like there are pins in my skin.
Contact Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org