This is a story that has no beginning and no real end: only a middle and a mystery.
Some thirty miles down the road from my little hometown lies Charleston, Tennessee, home of a Bowater plant and not much else. In spite of its small size it’s quite a haunted place, the most famous of its ghost stories being one about a monk who vanished after an 1867 train wreck.
Fifty years later, Charleston had another mystery on its hands, this one involving a strange burial.
The bare bones of the story go like this:
In 1917, a road crew was working just outside Charleston, widening the Upper River Road that runs alongside the Hiwassee River. They did not have heavy mechanized equipment in those days; they were using picks and shovels, breaking up the dirt and gravel with one and moving it aside with the other.
As far as the work crew knew, this had always been a road–first a walking path for Native Americans in the area, then a wagon trail.
Which was why they were so surprised when one man’s pick uncovered an impromptu grave, smack in the middle of the road.
The body was that of an adult woman. It had obviously been there for some years, and through some strange component of the soil in which it was buried, it had become petrified–hard as stone. But even that was not the strangest thing about this body. There was a wooden stake–also petrified–still tangled in the ribcage, right where the living heart would have been.
The land through which the road ran and where the unknown woman was buried had belonged to the same family since before the Civil War. None of them had any knowledge of the woman’s identity or how she came to be buried in such a godforsaken place.
And so the story ends.
I can’t help but wonder if, far from having been a vampire in life, she was killed for some other reason and the stake put through her heart to keep her in her grave. In some parts of England, the bodies of suicides in particular and occasionally those hanged for practicing witchcraft were impaled to keep their spirits from walking. However, such bodies are usually found buried at crossroads–traditionally, to confuse the spirit should it rise–and there is no mention of a crossroads in the area of this interment.
One version of the story, told in Randy Russell and Janet Barnett’s 1999 book of Appalachian ghost stories THE GRANNY CURSE, says that the petrified stake was not a plain one; it was a a fancy hand-turned leg from a chair, and they say that an elderly woman who vanished from the area sometime after the 1840s had owned a pair of chairs with precisely that type of legs.
But that doesn’t explain exactly who she was or why she was buried with a stake through her heart.
It’s still a mystery, ninety years after the fact.