What I know is that the "Cale Betts ghost" was written about in newspapers and books over the years and the story lives on in the pages of the Hur Herald, an online newspaper from "Sunny Cal"--Calhoun County, West Virginia.
I read the article printed in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1884 and I was intrigued. Whose spirit had haunted that house and scared so many people? Was it just the hysteria that sometimes occurs when people hear such a tale and then believe they experienced something themselves? Was it really a murdered peddler seeking revenge? Or just vapors from the natural gas prevalent in the area? Many questions about an old story.
I traveled to Calhoun County looking for some answers but knowing there was probably little physical evidence to see. I knew from my reading that the house was gone and that the road had been moved. What did I expect to see, anyway, on a bright, crisp fall day?
I can't say. I only knew that I needed to go there, be on the place and get a sense of how it might have been back in the late 1800's when the Betts ghost was wreaking havoc with people's nerves. I also wondered about that story of the murdered peddler. Could it be true?
My research suggested not. Mr. Betts, the owner of the home where the story occurred, seemed to have been an upstanding member of the community. He owned land, court was once held in his home and he was at one time a commissioner for the proposed new turnpike. I can't reconcile those facts with a picture of him or his family as murderers of a lone peddler.
I did find, however, another murdered peddler story in Ruth Ann Musick's book The Telltale Lilac Bush that supposedly happened on up the road from the Betts farm. Was it possible that the two stories were confused over the years in the re-telling? I think it likely--ghost stories have a way of morphing over the years as new tellers add new details and impressions, or mix up two similar stories.
I know a bit more now. I saw where the old road--or perhaps the railroad?--curved away around the hill.
I found the home built by one of his daughters and her husband, next to the family graveyard.
I think I know where the Betts house was located, and I know the lay of the land in the area.
All of this adds nothing new to the mystery, except to give me as a storyteller a sense of the place where the story occurred, and after meeting many people during the day, an idea of the kind of people who probably lived in Mr. Betts' time--friendly, open, helpful and willing to talk to a stranger.
I've also learned a lot about the Betts family genealogy. I know that Mr. Betts was of English descent, coming from Nicholas county to Calhoun. I know that Calhoun county had a difficult time agreeing on a county seat, that the process took 13 years and that the location moved back and forth several times. I believe Mr. Betts was involved in the dispute because court was once held in his home which was very near one of the proposed locations. I have learned much more than that. All of it will go into a written story, and much of it will end up in a story to be told to audiences when I'm performing.
That kind of background provides the frame for what is otherwise a weak story, at least for a storyteller. The ghost story is simply a series of events that supposedly happened to various people who stayed at the Betts' house--seeing a headless form, hearing chains, hearing a dripping sound, moaning, etc. But surrounded by the history of the time and place and of the people who lived there--then the story gains substance and interest.
I need to go back, of course. I need a better photo of the son-in-law's house; I need to visit the courthouse for more records if I can find them. I need to visit the library and see if any old history books have photos of any of the Betts family.
The beautiful new moon over Calhoun's Heritage Park revealed no secrets, at least on this visit. But I will return to the area of the supposed sightings at night, to see whatever might be seen or hear what might be heard. Very likely it will be the sigh of the wind and the call of a hoot owl or a whippoorwill. But maybe, just maybe, there will be something else?