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My West Virginia Family Ghost Story

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
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.)

Purple book cover of The Telltale Lilac Bush, with small bush design
The well-worn cover of the 1965 first edition of the Telltale Lilac Bush. Copy from the stacks of the WVRHC.  The 1976 version of the book is available as an ebook for readers affiliated with WVU.

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.”

Scanned first page of story "Christmas Tree" from a book
Text of the beginning of the story, “Christmas Tree”, page 55, in the Telltale Lilac Bush.
Scanned second page of story "Christmas Tree" from book
Text of the end of the story, “Christmas Tree”, page 56, in the Telltale Lilac Bush.

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!

Woman and man standing in 1930s era casual clothing next to a house.
Photograph of Elzena and Dennis Hostuttler, Wetzel County, West Virginia, date unknown, likely in the 1930s.

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.

The death certificate of Elzena Hostuttler, with her first name incorrectly identified as “Elgena,” downloaded from the West Virginia Vital Research Records Deaths database.

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!

One Response to 'My West Virginia Family Ghost Story'

  1. Linda Jean Blake Says:

    I enjoyed this story and love The Tell Tale Lilac Bush. I used to give it to teens as a gift. I thought the stories were collected from Musick’s Fairmont State students, so tracing the origin of one will be tough.

    I am glad your grandma has been vindicated and is not, after all, so insensitive to the needs of the dearly departed.

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