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A Gruesome Grave Robbing in West Virginia

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Uploaded by Tammy Parks Markwood

Ghoul: n. An evil spirit or phantom, especially one supposed to rob graves and feed on dead bodies.

When I hear the word ‘ghoul’, that’s the definition I usually associate with it, but throughout history, the term has also come to be a description of those flesh and blood living humans who engage in the heinous act of disturbing buried bodies. It was these types of ghouls that had a small community in Preston County, WV outraged.

Mary Ellen Shaffer Calhoun was a well-known and well-respected elderly widow living in the community of Newburg. When she passed away on January 27, 1916 at the age of 78, she was buried in the Calhoun Family Cemetery near Manheim, beside her husband, John G. Calhoun. There she laid in rest…for about two weeks. 

February 11th, 1916 was a Friday. That morning, two boys, Kramer Brandau and Harold Painter, were on their way to school in Rowlesburg. On route from their homes in Manheim, they passed the Calhoun Family Cemetery and noticed a big pile of fresh dirt and wooden boards strewn about. Being a small community, they knew that there wasn’t a recent burial, so they walked over to check it out. To their horror, they found the body of Mrs. Calhoun, partially nude, lying above ground. The wooden case enclosing her casket had been smashed and scattered. The coffin lid and nameplate had been removed. The body, although outside of the coffin and lying on the ground, was left intact. However, the clothes had been partially torn off and ripped to shreds. 

The boys ran all the way to Rowlesburg to report the incident to authorities. It wouldn’t be long before Sheriff Laco Wolfe, accompanied by a pack of bloodhounds belonging to Sheriff Ross F. Stout were on the scene. Dim footprints were found in the mud, but unfortunately, the dogs were unable to sniff out the trail of the alleged grave robbers. Mrs. Calhoun’s body was placed in the care of the local undertaker, who hastily reburied her with as much dignity as the situation could merit. 

Local rumor believed that Mrs. Calhoun was the victim of grave robbers because she was buried along with expensive jewelry, valuable papers, and even perhaps a large sum of cash. Local newspapers covering the story even first reported that rings were violently cut from her fingers and stolen by the grave robbers. However, all this would prove false. The family claimed that she wasn’t buried with her jewelry, and she certainly wasn’t buried with CASH. These rumors may have been started when Mrs. Calhoun’s oldest son, Albert Dodson (AD) Calhoun, who was named administrator of her estate went over all the assets on February 5th. In doing so, he discovered that his mother had never cashed or deposited a check for $400 that he had written her 18 months prior for debts he owed her. Upon discovering this and checking with the First National Bank of Grafton, he reissued a check in the same amount to be paid to the estate. However, he claims that no one, not even other family members, were aware of this transaction.

So what was the motive for this horrific crime?

Perhaps the motive was robbery. Mrs. Calhoun seemed to be a very well-known figure in the community, and she probably had some wealth to go along with her reputation. Maybe the grave robber(s) thought she WOULD be buried with jewelry and/or other items worth stealing. That would account for the disarray of the clothing/shroud as the robbers hastily tried to find what they were looking for. However, a strange article came out in the February 12, 1916 edition of the Daily Telegram. This paper claimed that Mrs. Calhoun was disinterred in such a disrespectful manner because of SPITE. It was noted that the body was found in a field near the railroad tracks…the same railroad tracks traveled daily by her son, H. Calhoun who was a conductor on the Morgantown and Kingwood Railroad. 

That’s an interesting take on the whole situation, but I never found out what in the actual hell Mrs. Calhoun or her family had done to make someone want to hurt them and disrespect them in such a gruesome manner. Digging up a corpse and leaving it out where it can easily be found by two young boys on their way to school is absolutely horrific. For one to do so out of spite is the sign of a pretty twisted mind.

Whatever the reason behind the gruesome event, it doesn’t appear that the case was ever solved. On February 19th, the Martinsburg Herald basically stated that the case had gone cold and all leads exhausted. However, on the following day, the Sunday Telegram ran a small article saying that all clues had been exhausted, BUT an unnamed hypnotist/mind reader was being called in as a last resort to uncover clues. After that, it seems that local papers dropped the matter, and I couldn’t find any additional mentions in the sources I regularly use. 

This story may seem a little more…gruesome…than what you’re used to seeing on Theresa’s Haunted History of the Tri-State. And although it’s not paranormal, it is WEIRD—weird and spooky. I love branching out into ALL aspects of West Virginia’s strange and fascinating history and thought a tale of grave-robbing might be something YOU’D be interested in as well! Lemme know down in the comments what YOU think of these types of stories, and as always, let me know what kind of content you’d enjoy reading about. 


The West Virginia Argus. 17 February 1916

The (Clarksburg, WV) Daily Telegram. 12 February 1916

Martinsburg Herald. 19 February 1916

The Sunday Telegram. 20 February 1916. Accessed through 


As a paranormal researcher/investigator, I was REALLY hoping I could find some ghost stories associated with the Calhoun Family Cemetery, or tales of it’s reputed haunting. How cool would that be to find documentation that this lil’ location has a history of being haunted…and making the connection that this tragic tale could be behind it.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. But, I did find a very, VERY brief mention of another cemetery being haunted! Mrs. Calhoun was apparently living in Newburg, WV at the time of her death. Newburg is a good 30 minutes away by today’s standards from her burial place between Manheim and Rowlesburg. Newburg is also home to an allegedly haunted cemetery of its own! The Damon Cemetery (sometimes referred to as the Knights of Pythias Cemetery) is haunted by the ghostly apparition of a lady in white. A visitor to the cemetery, checking on her father’s grave, also had her own personal experience in the cemetery, which was shared on the Facebook page, West Virginia’s Most Haunted Places. 


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