There are stories all around about travelers in trouble who stop for the night at houses where they’re fed and cared for and given a place to sleep until morning–only to find out later that the house wasn’t there at all, and they were welcomed in by ghosts. This is one such, from Grafton, West Virginia, and is told in the great Ruth Ann Musick’s 1977 book Coffin Hollow and Other Ghost Tales.
A young man traveling on horseback through the countryside around Grafton found himself caught in a thunderstorm after dark. Desperate for someplace to stay, out of the cold rain and striking lightning, he came up on a big old manor house. Leaving his horse on the porch, he knocked on the door and then found that it was unlocked. He pushed it open with a mighty shriek of hinges and called into the spacious entrance hall, “Hello! Anybody home?”
No one answered. He went into an inner room–a well-furnished one, again to his surprise–and was just about to fall into an exhausted sleep on a big comfortable chair when, dead on midnight, a young girl carrying a lantern came down the staircase out in the hall. She looked in at him, and, embarassed, he explained his plight. The girl didn’t say a word; she only smiled, and walked away toward the back of the house. Shortly, she returned with a plate of hot food and a pot of steaming coffee.
He ate and drank, and the girl stood and watched him. She never spoke, but she smiled. The smile was a bit unnerving, but the food was good, and he ate every bite. When he was done, she carried plate and coffeepot away, and the young man fell asleep in his chair.
When he woke, late the next morning, he found the smiling girl standing there with a hot breakfast. By now he had decided that she must be a deaf-mute, as the hearing and speech-impaired where known–politely–in those days, so he didn’t try to make conversation with her. He ate breakfast, thanked her, and left, finding his horse rested and–surprisingly–fed and groomed.
He rode on toward Grafton. At the city limits, he ran into trouble.
A mob met him at the edge of town. Over his protests they dragged him off to the local jail. There he was informed, by the sheriff, that an old man, a local resident, had been badly beaten the night before and was near death. The whereabouts of all strangers in town were being checked, and he was one such.
He told the sheriff, unhesitatingly, about the big house where he’d spent the night, and about the girl who had never said a word but simply smiled.
“Cain’t be so,” the sheriff said. “You’re a-talkin’ about the Cathcart place, and it burnt to the ground five years ago. The girl would be Ol’ Man Cathcart’s daughter Melissa. She died in the fire, and he got burnt awful bad tryin’ t’ save her. Died later in the hospital.”
“No,” the young man protested. “That house was real as you or me! And so was that girl.”
The sheriff shook his head. “Let’s take a ride.”
They rode back out to the place where the young traveler had spent the night, and sure enough, the big house was no more than a burnt-out shell.
Things looked bad for the young man. The sheriff told him the story of the fire as they rode back: how there was suspicion that it had been set by a man called Charlie Pickens–the very man, incidentally, who had nearly been beaten to death the night before. He had been angry because his son had fallen in love with and planned to marry Melissa Cathcart, who was regarded locally as a “mite tetched in the head” because of that unnerving and constant smile she wore. Without supporting evidence, though, there was no way to convict Pickens, and he went free.
The young man had an idea. “Let’s go see if Pickens is conscious,” he said. “Maybe he can tell us who beat him, and that’ll clear me.”
Pickens was indeed conscious, but he was dying. With his breath coming hard and his eyes already beginning to set in death, he told the sheriff that there was no mistake: he had been beaten by Old Man Cathcart, five years in his grave. He added that he had, indeed, been the one who had set the fire that killed Melissa outright and led to her father’s death, and reminded the sheriff of Cathcart’s last words: “The man that done this t’me and Melissa is gonna pay–if I have to come back from the grave to do it.”
Pickens fell back on the pillows, and suddenly, a great cloud of black smoke came from his mouth, then flames erupted around his body. Before the horrified sheriff and traveler could yell for help, flames and smoke vanished–but Pickens’s body was burnt to an absolute crisp.
As they stood aghast, they heard a man’s laughter, and then a voice. All it said was “Ha! I GOT ‘IM!”
The young traveler was released from custody, and rode away.
And after Pickens’s gruesome death, no one ever reported entering the Cathcart house, or seeing the smiling girl, again. Its ruins eventually collapsed into the dirt, and the site was lost.