BURNT HOUSE, W.Va.—Motorists traveling WV-47 between Weston and Parkersburg are sure to have noticed the village of Burnt House and wondered about the name. Like every good town name in West Virginia, there's a story behind it. In this case, it's a ghost story.
The tale goes something like this: in 1855, there was a tavern along the highway in Ritchie County, among the more fashionable rests along the way. The Harris Tavern, as it was known, was 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 also noticed that a slave girl named Deloris, of who 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. He said Deloris helped clean up the blood and drag the body to a nearby hollow for burial. Some still know the burial ground as Dead Man's Hollow.
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.
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, 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 neighborhood.
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 "West Virginia storyteller shares five favorite ghost stories."
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, Reflections in a Pool.
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