If you’ve ever had the opportunity to descend into a West Virginia coal mine, you’ll likely come away with a sense of the absolute darkness that exists hundreds of feet beneath the surface. The coal itself seems to absorb what little light might survive in the deep.
Though the darkness alone can be enough to inspire dread, the deadly nature of mining, often in low coal, can lead the mind further beyond the brink of horror. Agonizing death was a companion in the earliest days. Rock falls, explosions, and suffocation from invisible black-damp were daily threats.
Not surprisingly, many mines world over were said to be haunted. Ukranian miners were notably apt to believe in mine ghosts, which they called “shubin.” These ghosts usually had good intentions, warning miners of coming disasters and leading them out of mines.
The tale of one such ghost came out of the mines at Grant Town, West Virginia, where a Russian miner was said to have haunted the Federal No. 1 mine, which operated from 1901 until 1985 and was long among the world’s largest coal-mining operations.
The tale of the Ghost of Big John is one of four that originated in Grant Town and were incorporated into Dr. Ruth Ann Musick’s collection The Tell-Tale Lilac Bush, which helped popularize West Virginia folklore.
Musick described the town as imbued with a sense of isolation that provided it a supernatural quality. It was also enhanced by immigrants of many nationalities, many of whom brought ghostlore from their own countries.
“Surrounded by hills, it is a kind of a sunken garden—a well at the bottom of the stairway of hills and highways, so that it seems to be in a world of its own,” Musick wrote.
“In a way, perhaps, it is. At least fourteen different European nationalities live in the town and work in the mine.”
The tale of Big John was later popularized by Jimmy Dean in his performance of the country music song “Big Bad John,” which he wrote and composed it in collaboration with Roy Acuff.
The following recitation of the tale is perhaps the least elaborate and was published in 1976 by Jim Comstock in the West Virginia Heritage Encylopedia.
BIG JOHN’S GHOST
They called him Big John because his name was John, and his frame was big. He was a native of Russia, and he found his way to the coal mines at Grant Town, and he went to work. He lived in a little shack near the mine.
Big John became an expert at explosives, and that was his undoing because one day he got careless and blew himself to Kingdom Come. The other coal miners heard the explosion, and they came running, but Big John was dead. His head was blown clean off.
Not long after that, one of the miners was reporting to work early, and he went down into the mine in the cage alone. That is, he thought he was alone. Or should have been. He walked in and shut the door, and there wasn’t anybody there. Then he heard somebody breathe and kinda grunt, and he turned around so the light on his cap would shine on whatever it was.
What it was was terrible. There stood a man without any head on his shoulders. The coal miner could look clean down the inside of him. He turned his light downward, and there he saw Big John’s head. He was holding it in his arm, and the head was smiling and happy, just like it had been in life. The poor miner didn’t know what to do, so he shut his eyes and put his hand over his own mouth to keep from screaming.
When the cage landed, the headless ghost was gone.