Monday, June 20, 2016

The Ratliffe Mystery

Murdered peddler stories are rampant in West Virginia folklore. I used to wonder about that but after doing some research I think I have discovered why so many poor peddlers met their Maker in the Mountain State.

I've identified 5 factors:

1. Peddlers often came to America from middle/Eastern Europe. They spoke little English and what they had was probably limited and broken. The came and worked, saved enough money to buy a big leather sack and some cheap goods to sell along their travels.
2. They had little or no family here to come looking if something happened to them.
3. They had long unpronounceable names that were often shortened to a nickname, or given more Anglo names.
4. They traveled in lonely places, out on the frontier and through sparsely settled countryside. They usually traveled alone.
5. As they traveled, the peddlers sold their ware from their big packs. As the supplies in the pack dwindled and the bag flattened, their flat pockets began to bulge with cash.

So: foreigners with strange names or nicknames, traveling alone in lonely country, and at times carrying a lot of cash. They were sitting ducks.

The murder tales often include the fact that the corpse was headless. Because removing the head was a simple way to hide a body's identity in the days before forensics and fingerprints. In this particular story from Summers County, WV (probably Virginia at the time), there is a slightly different twist.

From The History of Summers County West Virginia (©1908), by James H. Miller:

Photo from my blog post about the tunnel, linked above.
"During the building of the Big Bend Tunnel in 1872 a peddler by the name of Ratliffe disappeared and was never heard of after. He had on his person $375.00 and left the tunnel accompanied by Harry Gill, who lived in the mountains back of Bradshaw's Run in Forest Hill District.

Mr. Henry Milburn saw the peddler and Gill cross the Greenbrier River near his place and they went on the the direction of Gill's. That night a Mr. Lowe who lived in the neighborhood heard the cries of distress of someone appealing for help. At first he thought the cries came from his father's and he ran in that direction on Bradshaw's Run, but discovered that the trouble was in the mountains.

The cries ceased and later in the night a great fire, was seen in the direction of Gill's. The next day it was learned that Gill's stable had burned during the night, claimed to be accidental. The peddler was never seen or heard of afterwards, and no evidence could be found of him except a piece of his trousers was found in a hollow hickory tree in the neighborhood of where the stable was burned, with a hole near the waistband, indicating and appearing to have been made by a bullet.

No arrests were made, as no evidence could be found for certain that Ratliffe was dead. A few years ago this same Harry Gill died and during his last illness the neighbors came in to attend him and administer to his wants, and during this last illness he seemed to be in great despair, although perfectly sane in mind, and he would cry out, "There is Ratliffe! Take him away!"

Finally he secured a pair of scissors and demanded to know if Ratliffe was gone. He kept hold of this weapon until his death. People were present at his death who were not in the state at the time of the disappearance of the peddler, and had never heard of him or of the circumstances. Gill lived to be an old man, and was in later years elected constable. Whether Ratliffe was killed was never known."

A strange tale, following on the heels of my last post and the story of the Civil War soldier's terrible wound and amazing recovery!

Southern West Virginia--a place of beauty, mystery, and history.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Wanda Violet said...

Always a good read - your stories.

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

Pedlars and itinerant traders were also frequently scapegoats for crimes which they probably didn't commit. All in all it was a hazardous way of life.


Enjoyed reading this story and couldn't decide if it was the truth or simply a tall tale. Either way it makes for interesting reading. All the things you learned about the history of peddlers during that time period makes sense. Thanks for sharing this. Always enjoy what you write. Hugs, B

Susan Anderson said...

That is indeed a compelling story. I was interested to learn about peddlers, too. Had no idea their lives were so risky back in the day.


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