Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Family Death Omen

Like many people throughout the United States and elsewhere in the world, current events have left me with more than the usual free time lately!  I've gotten back into genealogy as a way to fill the time and escape the anxiety.  But, being the paranormal enthusiast that I am, of course I have to throw some family ghost stories into my work as well!

If you've read similar blog posts of mine, you may remember that I credit my grandparents as being a huge influence on my love of the paranormal growing up.  They would often tell me family ghost stories and personal experiences to entertain me during the many overnight visits to their home in Beckley, West Virginia.  Some of my favorite stories came from grandmother's younger days.  One such story is the tale of a bloody pillow and a calendar that refused to stay on the wall from East Beckley, which I've previously written about.  Another favorite is the story of the Woman in White.

Before moving into Raleigh County around the Beckley area, my grandmother and her family originally lived in Summers County, around the Hinton and Talcott areas.  Being your average Appalachian, the family could trace its ancestry back to Ireland and England, with a strong mix of Native American blood thrown in. In fact, most of the extended family lived in an area of Summers County known as Irish Mountain.  I believe that it was partly due to this lineage that led to such a strong belief system in the supernatural.  Anyway, I was fairly young when this tale was told to me, and when I recently asked other family members what they could remember, they didn't know a ton about it.  Apparently, I was the spooky kid in the family who begged for these ghost stories! 

So, piecing together what I can remember and what others could confirm, I believe these sightings did happen mostly around the Irish Mountain area prior to 1940, with at least one case happening during World War II in Beckley.  My grandmother would tell me that members of her family were known to witness the apparition of a woman in white along the road, while coming home after dark.  This woman would sometimes be seen standing by the side of the road.  Other times, she would be directly in front of their vehicle.  In at least one case, a witness believed he had hit the woman with his car and jumped out to find no one.

The witnesses all reported that it was a woman in a flowing white gown who was seen after dark out on the road, but other details seemed to change from person to person. Those who got a good look said she had no face.  Others said she emitted a strange wail or cry. To some, she seemed vaporous and ghostly, while to others she seemed as flesh and blood as you or I.  But no matter how she manifested, one thing was for sure:  seeing this woman was a bad omen, often heralding the early death of whomever came across her on that lonely, dark road.

My grandmother came from a family of ten children, raised alone by my great-grandma after my great-grandfather died when my grandmother was just a toddler.  She was the second to youngest child, and the family relied heavily on help from the older girls to support the family.  One of the older girls was Thelma.

My grandmother was not quite five years old when Thelma died, but she must have made an impression on her.  She always told me that not only did I look like her, but I reminded her so much of the strong-willed, vivacious Thelma.  As a side bar, a few years ago I started researching Thelma and found the greatest newspaper article of all time.  Thelma and her sister, Goldie, were apparently party girls who said to hell with Prohibition.  After being picked up several times for drinking, both girls were thrown in jail!  Anyway, my grandmother's recollection was that Thelma passed away from tuberculosis shortly after giving birth to a baby girl out of wedlock, who was raised as my grandmother's sister.  The father was said to have been a traveling salesman who left shortly after he found out she was pregnant.

Again, during my research, I tracked down Thelma's death certificate.  We were surprised to see that even though we couldn't find her marriage certificate, she was listed as being married.  And, she didn't pass away from tuberculosis---her cause of death was listed as diabetes! The facts remain, however, that she died at the young age of 21 years, and did leave behind a baby girl to be raised by my great-grandmother. It was also common knowledge within the family that shortly before her death, Thelma had seen the Woman in White and KNEW that her time on this earth would be cut short.

One other sibling was also said to have been the victim of the apparition.  My grandmother's brother, Paul, mysteriously vanished and was presumed dead after the Normandy Invasion.  Prior to getting the news no mother ever wants to get, my great-grandmother reportedly witnessed the faceless Woman in White.  However, unlike all the other stories, she saw the apparition not on the road, but in her own home this time!  The family had since moved from Irish Mountain and was living in Beckley at the time. Did the ghostly woman follow the family to its new home in order to resume her role as bad omen?

I've often wondered if there was a chance that my family's Irish ancestry was key here.  There are some similarities to the Banshee and this Woman in White, especially in the versions of the story where she was heard wailing before someone died.  As far as I know, Paul was the last victim of woman, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that other branches of the family who still live in Summers County still tell tales about a ghostly apparition heralding bad news.

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