Legend of Burnt House lives through strange town name

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The legend of the village of Burnt House is linked to one of the state's favorite old ghost stories.
Burnt House is linked to one of the state's best-known ghost stories. Photo representation by Jesse Thornton.*

Motorists traveling the old Staunton Turnpike (W.Va. Route 47) between and are sure to have noticed the little village of Burnt House and wondered about the name.

Like every good town name in West Virginia, there’s a good story behind it. In this case, it’s a ghost story.

Burnt House appears on a 1906 topographic map.

This story goes something like this: in 1855 there was a tavern along the Staunton and Parkersburg Turnpike in Ritchie County. It was among the more fashionable rests along the way. Known as the Harris Tavern, it had been built in 1836 by Jack Harris, his son William, and three slaves.

It was rumored, after a time, that peddlers who came to the tavern were rarely seen again.

Neighbors noticed that a slave girl named Deloris, of whom the younger Harris was noticeably fond, often appeared in clothing that was ordinarily sold by peddlers.

One night a stable boy saw William Harris cut the head off of a peddler with a corn knife. Deloris, he said, helped clean up the blood and drag the body to a nearby hollow for burial. The burial ground is still known by some as Dead Man’s Hollow.

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News of the alleged murders reached a stagecoach company, which hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate and soon thereafter Jack and William Harris sold the tavern and disappeared. Included in the sale were two slaves, one of whom was Deloris.

According to most versions of the legends, Deloris was angered by her treatment, and one day she dressed in her finest clothes, climbed to the glass-windowed lookout at the top of the tavern and set fire to the building. She burned to death with the house.

Locals afterward claimed that her ghost returned repeatedly, wailing through the night. Her apparition danced wildly in the ruins before drifting into Dead Man’s Hollow, where it would disappear.

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The phantom would return again and again until 1882 when William Harris, who had been masquerading as one Tex Howard, was hanged in Texas for robbery and murder.

That night a storm broke out over the village and the ghost of Deloris could be seen dancing over the site of the ruined tavern. Finally, with a wild scream, she disappeared over Dead Man’s Hollow for the last time.

Later a two-story building known as the Reynolds Hotel replaced the old tavern.

I spoke recently with the present owner, who’s renovated the hotel as a home and reports that there is no sign of a ghost, but that there is a strangeness, not unpleasant, that seems to permeate the property.

For one thing, he says, birds in remarkable numbers frequent the old hotel and attempt to roost there. And there is a notable lack of insects, perhaps because of the number of birds.

This ghost story is also told by West Virginia story-teller Susanna Connelly Holstein in the article “.”


*The photo used above to represent the long-gone Harris Tavern at Burnt House is an image of the Sites Homestead at Seneca Rocks provided by photographer Jesse Thornton. His photography is available through his website, .

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