Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Headless Peddler

In central West Virginia in the mid-1800’s, a certain peddler often came around at the same time every year, selling his wares. Everyone knew him and looked forward to his arrival because he brought news of the outside world and goods that were not easily available in the secluded mountain hollows and ridges.

In the early spring one year, a young man moved to area and began to make his homestead there. He was fairly quiet and stand-offish, but earned the respect of his neighbors because of his hard work. One day a few of the neighborhood men came by to help him with work on his cabin. The peddler stopped for a visit and the men chatted for a while; the neighbor’s left while the peddler and the young man were discussing the peddler’s wares.

That was the last anyone ever saw of the peddler. His pack was found some time later, floating in the river, empty. Soon those traveling along the riverbank began to complain of seeing a headless apparition that followed them and spooked their horses.

A day or so after the peddler’s disappearance was noted, the new neighbor asked some friends over to help him set a new stone doorstep for his cabin. The stone he had chosen was unusually large and heavy. The work made them very thirsty, and their host brought them water in new tin cups. The men noted the newly-dug ground at the site where the stone was to be set, but thought the young man had dug it up to level the ground for the stone.

As people talked about the peddler they realized that the last time he’d been seen alive was at the young man’s cabin. A few men resolved to question the young man about the peddler’s movements after he left the cabin, and about those new tin cups they’d drank from when they were at the house.

When they arrived at the young man’s cabin, it was clear he had left in a hurry. Belongings were strewn about; even the door stood wide open. They looked at the doorstep and without a word they began to lift it up. One fetched a shovel and began to dig.

It took only a few shovelsful of dirt to see ragged cloth, and then the peddler’s body was uncovered. But not all of his body—the head was missing. The mystery of the missing peddler was solved for the most part, but where was his head?

A few days later, several miles downstream, the head was found. Why the young man carried the head to the river to throw it in was not clear. Perhaps he thought the body would not be identified without the head? Whatever his reason, the young man was never seen in the area again, and the peddler was given a proper burial.

From that time on, no one reported a headless apparition following them along the riverbank. The peddler’s spirit went to rest with his body, in the grave.

Based on several “murdered peddler” stories in central West Virginia, collected in the books by Ruth Ann Musick and James Gay Jones. There seem to be quite a few of these stories, scattered through various counties. As I wrote this story, I did not reference any of the tales I've read in various places. I thought I was writing about one particular tale based in Glimer County; as it turned out, my memory of the story was completely off-base, although a few details of it seeped in.
I wonder if this is the case with the ghost stories that have been passed down through generations--people re-tell a story as they remember it being told to them, when in reality they are picking up details from other, similar stories they've heard. I expect that more often than not, this is the case, particularly with stories that were not written down but passed on only via oral tradition.
Ah, storytelling--that's what makes it so wonderful! It's not usually history, but "heard-story."


Anonymous said...

I have read many stories where the peddler came up on the short end. Apparently in times of war and want it must have been too much to see a fella with a pocketful of money and a bag of goodies... Out... By hisself... All alone... All that money...


Granny Sue said...

Exactly, Chick. I think you pointed out the danger these fellows lived in. And many of those who lived in the backcountry were there because they'd been in trouble somewhere else.

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