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Chloe Effron

25 Grand Facts About West Virginia

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Chloe Effron

John Denver knew a thing or two about the Mountain State when he crooned about its country roads. But there’s a lot more to West Virginia than rural highways and byways—like the first Mother’s Day celebration, a clever town called Mountain, and a resort that’s positively presidential. Read on for a few more fun facts about the state that, for some, is almost heaven.

1. It was originally called “Kanawha.” That name, which honored a Native American tribe, was the one put before voters in 1861 when deciding whether or not to secede from Virginia. By the time legislators finalized the state’s constitution, however, they had opted for a shortened version of “Western Virginia,” a common designation for the territory up to that point.

2. West Virginia’s split from Virginia was, in many ways, a microcosm of the Civil War divide between North and South. Many residents in the state’s rugged western region opposed slavery, and for decades felt ignored by a government they saw as dominated by wealthy plantation owners. After Virginia voted to secede in 1861, delegates called a meeting in the city of Wheeling, and voted to side with the Union and form a separate state. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the order admitting West Virginia into statehood.

3. Anyone looking at a map of West Virginia might wonder about the sliver of land rising north like a radio antenna. How’d that get there, anyway? Chalk it up to Virginia’s overly eager settlers, who in the late 1700s claimed land north along the Ohio River, ignoring Pennsylvania’s borders. In 1779, the two states agreed to a border five degrees west of where the Mason Dixon line ended, and north to the Ohio River. After Virginia ceded its territory west of the river to the U.S. government in 1784, that left just a thin northern panhandle.

4. In 1796, soldiers in Greenbrier County came across animal bones believed to belong to a very large lion. They sent the fossils to Thomas Jefferson, an amateur paleontologist and soon-to-be vice president, who concluded the remains were that of a giant sloth, which he called “Great claw, or Megalonyx.” He presented a paper to the American Philosophical Society and, believing the animal could still be in existence, told Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out along their journey westward. Scientists would eventually credit Jefferson with discovering the giant sloth, and even named the species after him: Megalonyx jeffersonii. In 2008, the skeleton became the official fossil of West Virginia.

5. Following the Civil War, battle-torn Virginia claimed that its new neighbor was responsible for a third of its pre-war debt. West Virginia refused to pay, and the two states squabbled all the way up until 1915, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that West Virginia, in line with its state constitution, owed $12 million, plus additional interest. Begrudgingly, West Virginia complied, paying off the last of its debt to Virginia in 1939. 

6. In 1928, the Jones family of Peterstown discovered a 34-carat diamond on their property while playing horseshoes. Initially thinking it a large quartz rock, William “Punch” Jones kept the diamond in a cigar box for fourteen years before taking it to a geologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The Jones Diamond, which was on display at the Smithsonian Institute before the family sold it in 1984, is the largest alluvial diamond ever discovered in North America.

7. Built in 1778, the historic Greenbrier Hotel has hosted more than half of all U.S. Presidents. For more than thirty years, it was also the location of a secret bunker where Congress could operate in the event of a nuclear strike. In 1992, The Washington Post exposed the facility, and today it’s used as a meeting room. 

8. One of the largest family reunions in the world takes place every summer in the town of Flat Top. That’s when around 2500 members of the Lilly clan get together, along with a few hundred non-family members.

9. In the early 20th century, a civil engineer named William Nelson Page took on the big railroad companies to build one of the most successful commercial railways in America. The Virginian line began in the mountains of West Virginia, and eventually extended all the way to the shipping port at Norfolk, Virginia. Railway companies tried to torpedo the project, and officials at the time criticized Page for his time-consuming construction process that insisted on a direct eastward path rather than one that wound through the mountains. But Page had a trump card up his sleeve: the multimillionaire Henry Huttleston Rogers, a former manager at Standard Oil, who secretly funded the project. In 1907, Rogers’s Deepwater line connected with the Tidewater line, creating 443 miles of track that ran from West Virginia coal country straight to the Atlantic Ocean. It became known as “the richest little railway in the world.”

10. Built in the late 19th century, the Weston State Hospital building is the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in America, and second only to the Kremlin on a global scale. It operated as a mental institution until 1994, when it closed down. It’s now run by a company offering haunted tours and known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum—a name that mental health advocates are none too thrilled with.

11. Marshall University, located in Huntington, is named for Chief Justice John Marshall, a Western Virginia native who presided over the Aaron Burr treason trial in 1807. 

12. The New River, which runs through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, is actually one of the world’s oldest rivers (second only to the Nile, according to some experts). And unlike most rivers like it, the New River flows south to north, on account of it predating the mountains that surround it.

13. At more than 3000 feet long, the New River Gorge Bridge, located in Fayette County, is the longest steel-span bridge in the Western hemisphere. It’s also one of the highest bridges in the country, making it a magnet for BASE jumpers, who flock to it every third Saturday in October —the one day of the year when they’re allowed to jump.

14. West Virginia’s politicians had a hard time settling on a capital city early on. Wheeling, the original capital, was deemed too remote, so in 1870 the government moved to centrally located Charleston. But Charleston, many legislators complained, didn’t have suitable restaurants, hotels, or transportation. So in 1875 everything shifted back to Wheeling. The debate continued, and in 1877 the government decided to put the matter before voters—who chose Charleston. In 1885, West Virginia’s government moved to Charleston for a second and final time.

15. In 1949, residents of Mole Hill, West Virginia, changed the name of their town to “Mountain.” Get it?

16. In 1985, West Virginia University center Georgeann Wells became the first woman to dunk in a college basketball game. Because the feat wasn’t caught on tape, many were suspicious of the claim. So three games later, Wells did it again—this time with the cameras rolling.

17. At 485 feet high and with a dish that spans 2.3 acres, the Green Bank Telescope, located in southeastern West Virginia, is the largest fully steerable telescope in the world.

18. Located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, the city of Weirton borders Ohio on its western edge, and Pennsylvania on its eastern edge, making it the only city in America that sits in one state, but touches two other state borders.

19. The last surviving U.S. World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, lived on a farm near Charleston until his death in 2011, at 110 years old. Buckles had lied about his age when he enlisted as a 16-year-old, and spent the duration of the war as an ambulance driver on the Western front. When asked how it felt to be last of the nearly 5 million American soldiers who fought in the conflict, Buckles said, “I knew there’d be only one someday. I didn’t think it would be me.”

20. West Virginia’s oldest and youngest governor are the same person. In 1956, 34-year-old Cecil Underwood, a former high school teacher, was elected to the position. Because of term limits in the state constitution, he was unable to run for reelection. So he bided his time, and 40 years later was elected for a second term, at age 74.

21. Harper’s Ferry, located at the eastern edge of the state, played a critical role in starting the Civil War thanks to John Brown’s raid. Things were no less contentious within the town's borders during the war. In four years, it changed hands eight times.

22. West Virginians often refer to their state as “Almost Heaven,” in reference to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which name-checks the Mountain State. The phrase even used to appear on state license plates. So beloved is Denver’s ode to rural life that in 2014 it became the official song of West Virginia.

23. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is home to a storefront museum dedicated to a humanoid creature known as the Mothman. Like the Jersey Devil, the Mothman—who supposedly has glowing red eyes and wings—was sighted several times during the '60s, cementing its status as a local legend. The town also boasts a Mothman statue, and throws a yearly festival dedicated to the beast.

24. West Virginia’s caves are home to some odd and interesting rock formations—and some odd and interesting humans, too. In 1971, spelunker Bob Addis climbed atop a stalagmite in Lost World Caverns near Lewisburg, and didn’t come down for 16 days. With the help of his “bucket man” (for food, water, and you-know-what), Addis set the world record for stalagmite sitting. 

25. The first Mother’s Day celebration took place in 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia. The founder, Anna Jarvis, started it in honor of her own recently deceased mother, and meant it to be a humble day of remembrance. After the holiday became a commercial juggernaut, Jarvis spent the rest of her life protesting, filing lawsuits, and altogether trying to bring Mother’s Day back to its roots. 

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
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David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

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