Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Another Journey to Nowhere...Frist House

Nothing frustrates me more than having a great ghost story, complete with alleged names and the likelihood of verifiable details...but then not finding anything in the historic archives to actually back that story up.

This is the case with one popular tale from the Moorefield, Hardy County, area.  The tale I refer to is that of the John Frist House and its run-in with a guerrilla warfare group by the name of McNeill's Rangers.  This story originally appeared on page 62 of the iconic Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales, written by Ruth Ann Musick, and published in 1977.  According to the notes in the back, this story was submitted in 1966 by Robert Fertig of Hardy County.  Here is that tale in its entirety--as it appears in Coffin Hollow:

During the Civil War, Hardy County was one of the few counties in West Virginia to go Confederate.  The reason Hardy turned rebel was that several well-to-do farmers in the county used slave labor.  The only important person opposed to the Confederacy was John Frist, an influential man who lived in a large house outside of Moorefield.  Because of John's resistance, a group of hotheaded rebels went to his house one night and murdered him, his wife, and their three children.

After this, John Frist's home was used as a prison for runaway slaves who were caught.  The slaves would be taken into the basement of the house, chained to the wall, and left for dead.  Those who performed these acts of insanity were called the McNeil Rangers, and they operated out of Moorefield.

After the South's surrender the slaves in Hardy County were released--all except the ones who had died in the cellar of their prison.  A group of townspeople went to the Frist house and cleared out the bones and decaying bodies.

This house is still standing and is in very good condition.  Several families have owned or rented it since the end of the Civil War but none of them has remained in it for more than a year.  I know of five families--all from other places--that have owned it in my lifetime.  The families that have lived there claim that once a year, on the anniversary of the Frist family's murder, blood appears on the floor and walls of the room in which they were killed.  It slowly wears off during the year, but it can't be painted over or sanded out.  Also strange screams and the sounds of chains rattling come from the cellar.

All my life I have heard that this house is haunted; I hope it does not carry a curse, because my parents rented it for a few months, about a year after they were married, and I was born there.

In 2004, popular chronicler of ghost tales, Troy Taylor, submitted an updated piece on this story, including some additional background (and correct spelling) of the McNeill's Rangers, the group allegedly responsible for this horrendous acts, to the WVGhosts website.  However, no additional details on John Frist and his family were explored...and perhaps, for very good reason.  While this tale is a favorite among West Virginia Civil War ghost-lore, and the hauntings are well documented...it seems that the actual history is NOT.

After many hours of searching the WV State Archives, Ancestry.com, and other genealogy/history sites around the web, I have found no evidence of a John Frist family near Moorehead at the time of the Civil War.  I have found no historic homes listed on the National Register that mention a Frist family (or any similar name) or even list a history comparable to that discussed in this tale.  More importantly, I found no evidence that McNeill's Rangers ever took part in such a horrific event.  I do realize there are plenty of untold, undocumented horrors of a war that placed brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, but for being such an important man, no easily obtainable record of Mr. Frist exists.  At least, I haven't found it, and neither has several other independent researchers, historians, and Hardy County newspaper contributors. I've explored the possibility that there was a mistake in the name, but aside from a John French family who doesn't fit the scenario, I couldn't find any other possible matches, and the time period in which this would have occurred is conveniently missing from the State Archives online database.

Another aspect of the story to think about is the fact that when you start to really examine the logistics of this tale, it doesn't make good fiscal sense---captured slaves wouldn't have been left to rot.  Even if the McNeill Rangers DID capture runaway slaves during their down time from raiding railroads, it would have been much more likely that such slaves would have been returned to their owners for a bounty or re-sold for profit.

The WV State Archives has a nice history of McNeill's Rangers, led by John Hanson "Hanse" McNeill, who did live in Missouri during the outbreak of the war.  When he was killed in 1864, his son Jesse took over leadership of the group.  It is debatable as to the extent of the elder McNeill's temper, but most agree he wasn't the monster described in this tale.  However, his son was said to be more hot-tempered and since records of the group's activities aren't as strong during this time (and some members left), I would wager that if any part of this story is true, then it was under Jesse's leadership or perhaps carried out by rogue members calling themselves McNeill's Rangers.

If you have ANY information at all on the Frist Family, or the Frist House, or any other detail that would give credibility to the history of this haunting, please contact me at:  theresarhps@yahoo.com. 


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