November 15th, 2019
Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Assistant Director, WVRHC
By the time this is published, Halloween will be a diminishing memory for most but I think ghost stories are enjoyed year round! So I wanted to share my family’s ghost story. When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers read to the class from the West Virginia classic, The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Stories by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick. The book was published in 1965. Dr. Musick was folklorist and faculty member at Fairmont State College (now University.)
I have always been interested in local history, so I checked out the Telltale Lilac Bush from my school library. Much to my surprise as I flipped through the pages, I caught a glimpse of my last name. Hostuttler. Even the exact same spelling which was rare. It was exciting. Could they be my relatives? I read the story, “Christmas Tree.”
After reading, I learned from my parents that Dennis Hostuttler was my great-grandfather who had lived in Wetzel County, with his wife, Elzena Morris Hostuttler. I was excited that this was a story from my family, but this is a very curious story. Right away, my great-grandmother, although unnamed, is cast as a bossy wife who covets and has no problem resorting to thievery. Yikes!
In the story, a spirit appears after the theft a tree from a cemetery and predicts the suffering death of Mr. Hostuttler’s wife because she ordered the tree cut from the apparition’s grave. According to the spirit, she would be dead before the pine tree. Then the tale dramatically ends, stating that she died one month from the day of the prediction. Justice was indeed swift and a little disconcerting!
My dad’s response to my questions about the truth of the matter was an annoyed, “yeah, they used to tell that story,” coupled with an eye roll. That was enough for me to know that he didn’t think it was true. So I just left it at that. Even if Grandma doesn’t come off very well, it is still a sort of claim to fame for my family to be in this book (well, at least for me.)
As I was writing this blog, I realized that I now have the ability to learn more about the details of my great-grandmother’s death. My dad and his immediate family are all gone. None of my cousins on that side are old enough to remember her. But fortunately, the West Virginia State Archives in Charleston manages the online West Virginia Vital Research Records Project that includes birth, death, and marriage certificates from across the state. The types and dates of records available from each county varies, but it is an excellent resource that we use daily at the WVRHC.
Elzena Hostuttler died on August 29, 1939 as a result of a cerebral hemorrhage. That’s eight months after Christmas. Surely a pine tree cut down for Christmas would not have lasted that long. That information essentially negates the idea that she died before the tree did. Perhaps she was not the nagging and covetous woman portrayed in the story since the most important detail doesn’t add up.
I’ve also reached out to the West Virginia Folklife Center at Fairmont State University. They hold the Ruth Ann Musick Literary Collection. I am hopeful that field notes or more information about the collection of my family’s tale exist in the archives. I’ll write a follow up if I find out more!