GRANT TOWN, W.Va. — If you've ever had the opportunity to descend into a West Virginia coal mine, you might have come away with a new sense of the absolute darkness. The coal itself seems to absorb what little light might reach into the deep.
Though the darkness can inspire dread, the deadly nature of mining can lead the mind beyond the brink of terror. Agonizing death has been a companion of miners since its beginning. Rock falls, gas and dust explosions, and sudden suffocation by unseen blackdamp are continuous threats.
Not surprisingly, many mines the world over were said to be haunted. Ukrainian miners were notably apt to believe in mine ghosts, which they called "shubin." These spirits usually had good intentions, warning miners of coming disasters and leading them out of the 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. In operation from 1901 until 1985 and was among the world's most extensive coal-mining operations.
The tale of the "Ghost of Big John" is one of four originating in Grant Town that was incorporated into Dr. Ruth Ann Musick's collection The Tell-Tale Lilac Bush, which helped popularize West Virginia folklore in the 1970s.
Musick described the town as imbued with a sense of isolation that gave it a supernatural quality. This was also enhanced by immigrants of many nationalities who 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 European nationalities live in the town and work in the mine," she noted.
In the U.S., the story evolved into that of a folk hero, somewhat like John Henry, with whom Big John shares many attributes, chiefly victimization by industrial interests. In many senses, there's a Big John in every 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 in collaboration with Roy Acuff.
The song frequently ranks as one of the best country songs of the 1960s and of all time. Dean wrote the beginnings of "Big Bad John" on a flight from New York to Nashville because he realized he needed a fourth song for his recording session. Roy Acuff later helped him polish it. Floyd Cramer, who was hired to play piano on the song, came up with the idea to use a hammer and a piece of steel instead
Dean said his inspiration for the character of Big John was an actor, John Minto, whom Dean had met in a summer stock play, Destry Rides Again, who was 6 foot 5 inches. Dean would call him "Big John" and grew to like the rolling sound of the phrase.
Dean's song is about a mysterious and quiet miner who earns the nickname Big John because of his physique: "He stood six foot six and weighed 245." One day in a mine, a support timber cracks. The situation appears hopeless until John "grabbed a saggin' timber, gave out with a groan, and like a giant oak tree just stood there alone," then "gave a mighty shove," opening a passage and allowing the other miners to escape.
Just as a rescue crew is about to enter the mine, it collapses, and John is believed dead. The mine is never reopened, but a marble stand is placed in front of it with the words, "At the bottom of this mine lies one helluva man—Big John." Some versions of the song change the last line to "lies a big, big man" to replace what was considered profane language.
In any case, Dean's song struck a chord with miners and listeners everywhere, though people from Grant Town can't help but feel the song is about their own Big John.
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.
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