A RITCHIE COUNTY GHOST TALE - Burnt House's "Deloris the Slave Girl"

(07/17/2017)

The Harris Tavern, originally built about 1840, later converted
to a hotel, is the site of a famous Ritchie County ghost tale,
and is now the home of John and Carol Rymarz

Bob Weaver - Published 2006

BURNT HOUSE WV - A traveler on the highways and byways of Appalachia will occasionally come upon a hamlet whose name may stimulate his imagination much beyond what he actually sees.

Few will, however, permit themselves to speculate to the extent of the bizarre events which occurred at Burnt House (a village located east of Smithville on State Rt. 47, the Stanton-Parkersburg Turnpike).

When the Parkersburg to Stanton Turnpike (Rt. 47) was being built through Western Virginia, many people were attracted to it as a passageway to the west and, for some, as a location of new business establishments.

Among these was Jack Harris of New York, who while on the way West with his son, William, and three slaves, decided to build a tavern at the present site of Burnt House.

The tavern was a two-story log structure with a glass-windowed lookout, a practical addition often found on frontier structures. In time, the Harris Tavern became a regular stagecoach stop for passenger and mail service as well as headquarters for pack peddlers.

When Deloris, a beautiful Negro slave at the tavern, appeared in new dresses and adornments commonly sold by peddlers, local gossips took notice and began to speculate over the source of her good fortune. It was commonly known that Deloris and William Harris were quite fond of each other.

Soon it was noticed that some peddlers who arrived here laden with heavy packs of goods disappeared overnight. A more damaging rumor was related by a Harris Tavern stable boy who told of seeing William Harris, with one swipe of a razor-sharp corn-cutting knife, cut off the head of a pack peddler.

The body of the peddler was then dragged by William, with the help of a slave, across the turnpike and up a ravine now known as Dead Man's Hollow. Meanwhile, Deloris disposed of the head and cleaned up the gory mess.

These rumors spread far along the course of the turnpike and westward travelers were warned not to stop over night at the Harris Tavern. The business of the stagecoach company was so affected that it secured the services of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate.

Immediately Jack and William Harris sold the tavern, along with Deloris and another slave, to the widow Susan Groves and went west under aliases of Jeff and Tex Howard.

One Sunday morning when Parson Woodford was going into the third hour of his "fire and brimstone" sermon, some members of the congregation became restless when the oder of something burning came to them.

An inquisitive young man opened the church door and promptly announced that the tavern was afire. As the people approached the burning building, they saw a person swaying and dancing in the glass-enclosed lookout.

It was Deloris, the slave girl, in her finest raiment, dancing and singing while the building burned.

The fire was out of control, making it impossible to rescue her. While the people watched, the lookout, with Deloris inside, fell through the second story ceiling and disappeared from view. Deloris had been extremely unhappy in her new situation and this act of self-immolation was her chosen way of escape.

After the tavern burned, stagecoaches continued to stop at the hitching post in front of the "burnt house" to deliver mail. Thus it was that the village of Burnt House got its name.

As local legend has it, Deloris, in spirit, returned to the community a number of times after her tragic demise. Usually on damp, foggy nights she came, at first a wavering flame, then taking the form of a young girl, she would dance over the ruins of the old tavern and finally drift over Dead Man's Hollow with a plaintive moan.

On a certain day in 1882, about thirty years after the tavern burned, this phenomenon of Deloris' reappearance occurred for the last time. It is of interest to note here that on the same day, fate caught up with William Harris, alias Tex Howard, when he was hanged in Texas for robbery and murder.

In the community of Burnt House a terrifying electrical storm swept across the valley. Daylight turned to darkness. Torrential rain and gusty winds bent huge trees to the ground while thunder shook the earth and balls of fire rolled down the turnpike.

In the midst of the tempest Deloris came and, after dancing for a brief time over the old tavern site, she drifted off toward Dead Man's Hollow where her last agonizing wail mingled with the storm.

Today the traveler will find that the tranquil environment of the community of Burnt House belies its historic and legendary past.

- "Appalachian Ghost Stories and Other Tales" by James Gay Jones

Peddlers were reportedly murdered in the house,
and taken up Dead Man's Hollow across Route 47
from the historic house, but the ghost tale is optional


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