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Michael Bell
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Posted By Michael Bell

The other vampire tale that Ruth Ann Musick included in The Telltale Lilac Bush was collected in 1957 from a Yugoslav American. Like “Footprints in the Snow,” “Draga’s Return” is a tale that was brought to West Virginia from Eastern Europe, probably no earlier than 1900. As Musick wrote in “European Folktales in West Virginia,” Midwest Folklore 6(1956):27: “Many of the stories told in West Virginia—and there are hundreds—were brought over from Europe by prospective miners in the early 1900’s” who kept alive “most of the folktales heard in their childhood, by re-telling them to their children and relatives.” Realistically, there doesn’t seem to be any possible connection between the vampire attack reported in the late 1860s and the vampire tales collected by Musick.

But one tale with vampiric overtones, which Musick collected from Carol Felosa, of Shinnston, in 1963, goes further back into West Virginia history. It was told to Felosa by a woman who learned it from her father-in-law about 1890. Here is the story of  “Old Gopher”:

“About 1890, John Sweeney, a prosperous cattle buyer and owner of one of the biggest farms in the northwestern Shinnston area, lived in a large two-story brick house in Shinnston.

“One day he heard of some fine cattle in the lower part of West Virginia for sale at a very reasonable price, and taking some money from the bank, he set out to buy them. He had told all his friends where he was going, so the whole town of Shinnston and the outlying communities knew of the proposed trip. What they did not know was the amount of money he would have with him.

“Mr. Sweeney started on his trip about the first week in March. Ordinarily, he should have been back in about two weeks or a month at the most. When he had not returned in about six weeks, his friends began to worry about him. They wrote letters to the stockyard where he was to buy the cattle. About a week later, a letter arrived at the mayor’s office in Shinnston saying that no one at the stockyard had ever seen Mr. Sweeney.

“This news shocked the whole area. What could have happened?

“On the thirtieth of April a strange occurrence was reported. Ben Ashcraft said he was driving his team of horses across a stream that went through the Sweeney place. When he got in the middle of the bridge, a black figure tried to stop his wagon. The figure jumped on the wagon as the horses fled. It told Mr. Ashcraft that it would not rest until the day that Mr. Sweeney’s murderer was drowned in the stream. It then disappeared.

“From then on, the same thing happened to every man that went over the bridge. Whenever young boys would cross this bridge, they would not be able to eat for two or three says, if they had seen “Old Gopher,” as the ghost was called.

“These were not the only mysterious things to happen. Strange things were seen at the Sweeney house. Cows would sail around the house. Old Gopher and a witch would fly about in the trees. Men would  walk in line, carrying their heads in their hands. Books would move from one table to another in the library. A man with a knife in his heart and a chain around his neck would lie in a chair screaming.No fire or even a pipe could be lighted on this property.

“Everytime anyone would attempt to set foot on the bridge, he would see Old Gopher crying in the middle of it.

“One day a man who had never been seen by anyone in the area was found drowned in the stream. Around his neck were wounds like those that might be left by a vampire. That same day the Sweeney place mysteriously burned down. The fire destroyed the entire farm, although it never so much as burned a blade of grass on neighboring farms. Old Gopher had avenged his murder as he said he would.”

Was Old Gopher an avenging vampire? A vampire-like ghost? Perhaps the ghost of Sweeney, himself?

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