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The Witch of Hooker Hollow

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Today, I wanted to share with you a story I found in Fall 1985 edition of Goldenseal Magazine. It was told by Vernon O. Giffin and relates the tale of Mineral County’s Witch of Hooker Hollow. Giffin was born in Brown, WV in 1915, but moved to Maryland in 1933 to marry. He served in the Navy during WW2. He is the author of several books about West Virginia folklore, including The Witch of Hooker Hollow, which was published in 1981. He passed away six years later, on December 30, 1987.

I’ve transcribed the story as it appears in Goldenseal. And, of course, you know I had to see what background research I could find. Unfortunately, nothing connected to any of the names given panned out. Still, it’s an interesting tale of mountain witchcraft…or, alleged mountain witchcraft, at least. 

There is a road in the Allegheny Mountains in Mineral County that has two names.  At one end of the road the sign says “Limestone Road,” while at the other end the sign reads “Hooker Hollow.” Just where one ends and the other begins, no one this day and age seems to know. The local people say as long as they can remember it has always been that way.

Near the Hooker Hollow end of the road, some 40 years ago, lived a Mrs. Russel who proclaimed to the world she was a witch possessing great powers.  Most of the population thereabouts doubted her boasts. There were others that were not so sure. A man refused her a ride home from town one day, and for a week his cow gave bloody milk. She warned another family not to allow any of their children to run their lawnmower for at least a week. The family ignored her warning and the very next day their son Seth lost two fingers on his right hand when he caught them in the mower.

A family by the name of Robinson owned a small apple orchard there on the mountain. They had placed “No Trespass” signs everywhere, with no exceptions allowed. One day they found Mrs. Russel eating an apple as if she owned the place. She tried to tell them she was hungry and only wanted one apple. Mrs. Robinson informed her that she could care less about her being hungry and that those signs meant everyone, including her. Mrs. Russel climbed over the fence and turned and smiled out of the corner of her mouth at Mrs. Robinson.

“I see you’re pregnant,” she said. “Soon you will see someone a lot more hungry than I am now. I don’t think you’ll like the price you’ll pay for your apples.” She waved and grinned as she walked slowly down the road.

About a month later the Robinson’s first child was born. It cried almost constantly. The doctor tried one bottle formula after the other. None seemed to work. One day the doctor told Mrs. Robinson the baby was starving to death and he had done absolutely all he could. As he left that afternoon, he picked up an apple from a nearby table and began eating it as he walked out the door. That caused Mrs. Robinson to remember the words Mrs. Russel had spoken in the orchard only a few weeks before.

The next morning she bundled up the baby and went to see Mrs. Russel. “My baby is ill, very ill,” she said. “If you did cast a spell over him, won’t you please take it away? I’m sorry the way I spoke to you that day in the apple orchard. You can have all the apples you want as long as you live. Won’t you please help me if you can? He’s our fist child.”

“I’m afraid you have waited too long with your apology,” said Mrs. Russel. “Maybe, just maybe, I can help him. I’ll try. Lay him out there on the porch so I can measure him. Measuring a baby can do a lot of good, you known. That’s about the only thing I can do for him now.”

She went into the house and came out with a cloth tape measure and measured the baby. She then made an “X” on the baby’s chest with her right forefinger and told Mrs. Robinson to take the baby home, for she had done all she could do.

The next day the baby died. Whether Mrs. Russel was the cause of the baby’s death or not, the Robinsons would think so as long as they lived.

In her later years Mrs. Russel’s grandson, Jason Lambert, came to live with her. Jason was a quiet, likeable fellow in his early teens and slim as a rail. A new family moved into the hollow that summer who had a son, David, about Jason’s age. The boys soon became good friends and spent many happy hours that fall roaming the hollow during evenings after school. David, of course, had heard that Jason’s grandmother was a witch and one day asked him if it was so.

“Naw,” said Jason. “I don’t think so. But I’ll admit she does do and say some funny things at times. You don’t believe in witches, do you, Dave?”

“No, I guess not,” said David

About the time school started that fall, Jason developed a dry hacking cough. David suggested he see a doctor, but Jason said his grandmother was taking care of him and he’d be all right. As the cooler weather of winter approached, Jason’s cough became worse. One day David and his father insisted so strongly that he see a doctor that he finally agreed if David would go with him. The doctor diagnosed tuberculosis and suggested Jason go to a sanatorium immediately. When Mrs. Russel was informed of the situation, she simply shook her head, placed an arm around Jason’s shoulders, and, in no uncertain words, informed anyone who cared to listen that she could take care of her own.

The day before school was to close for Christmas vacation, Jason was absent. That evening David went to see why. He found his friend in bed, face red and flushed with a high fever. He asked Mrs. Russel to please get Jason to a doctor, but she reminded him she had great powers and Jason would be up and ready to go rabbit hunting with him in a couple of days.

Snow began falling the day school closed and it kept falling for the next two days and nights. As the storm raged, David could not help but worry about Jason and hope he was better than the last time he had seen him. When the storm finally ended, the snow measured three feet on the level and six feet and more in some of the drifts. The road in the hollow was almost impassable. The next day it rained and turned bitterly cold. One could walk anywhere on the frozen crust and not break through.

Christmas day dawned clear and cold. As soon as David finished breakfast, he told his parents he was going to see Jason and take him a box of shotgun shells for a Christmas present. As he approached the house, he sensed something wrong. To this very day he cannot explain why he felt that way as he knocked on the door. Mrs. Russel opened the door and calmly invited him in.

“My, Davie, it sure is nice of you to come out in this cold to see Jason,” she said. “I’ve got something I want you to help me with.”

“How is he?” asked David as he removed his coat and threw it across the back of a chair.

“Oh, he died last night,” she said. “But don’t you worry none, Davie. You see, I’m going to take care of my grandson. You can bet on that. Come on, let’s go see him. I’m gonna need a little help and you’re just the one to help me.

“There he is stretched out on the bed just like he was asleep,” she said as they entered the room. “Davie, I’m an old woman, witch if you will, and Jason is so young. He’s just too young to die. So, what I aim to do is this. I’m gonna breathe my life into him, but you gotta help. I can do it, too. Just you wait and see. I guess I’m gonna die; and, if I do, don’t worry none about me. It’s Jason we gotta worry about now. Will you help me?”

By this time David was petrified. He had always thought she was at least half witch and now he was certain she was all witch. He was so scared he could not utter a word. He was afraid to refuse because of what she might do to him, so he slowly nodded his head in the affirmative.

“Good,” said Mrs. Russel. “Now I’ll tell you what to do. You hold Jason’s nose closed, so when I breathe my breath into him by his mouth, it can’t get out his nose. You’ll have to hold it till he starts to breathe on his own.”

“Oh! My God! Please, Mrs. Russel,” wailed David. “I never touched a dead person before. Please, I’m scared. Do I have to?”

“Oh, for goodness sake,” said Mrs. Russel, taking David’s hand and placing it on Jason’s forehead. “See, it’s just like any cold piece of meat. Nothing to it. Now do like I told you so we can get Jason breathing again.”

By this time, of course, rigor mortis had set in, but David shut his eyes and slowly began to squeeze on Jason’s cold, stiff nose. He was shaking like a tree caught in a storm.

David opened his eyes for a second and the room began to spin. But he was afraid if he fainted she might take his life and give it to Jason. This brought him back to the world of reality in a hurry. He liked Jason, but not that much.

“Just can’t understand it,” said Mrs. Russel after awhile. “You can let go now. I know I can do it. They are not going to embalm him, Davie. They’re just not. I just know I can give him my breath of life. I know I can. I guess I’ll have to get word to a doctor and buy a casket. Will you do that for me and Jason? If I do get life into him, you can bury me in the coffin instead of him. And, Davie, just in case Jason’s still dead this evening, will you come back and set up with him tonight?”

“Dad and I will take care of things,” said David. “Someone will be here tonight to set up with Jason, I promise.”

On the way home David’s knees almost buckled under him a couple of times. He could still feel that cold, dead flesh under his hands and hear the voice of the witch. Yes, he was sure now she was one. No doubt about it.

For the next two nights David and a couple of his friends sat up with the body. Each evening as he approached the house, he half expected to see Jason wave from the door or a window. But Jason lay still and white in his coffin.

The day of the funeral arrived. David and his friends were pallbearers. They carried the casket out on top of the snow to the main road where a horse and sled waited. Some hour and a half later, the casket rested in the front of the Zion Church. There the casket was to remain open for viewing for the next 30 minutes. Then the funeral services would begin.

As David looked around the church, cold chills played cat and mouse up and down his spine. There, on a seat in the back row, wearing a long black cape, was Mrs. Russel. She was shaking her fist in the air but making no sound. The minister rose from his chair and took a step forward. As he did so, Mrs. Russel let out a bloodcurdling scream and ran forward. She threw her black cape over the casket and tried once more to breathe her life into Jason’s corpse. It took two strong men to restrain the frail woman. Finally Jason was laid to rest in the church cemetery to be followed by his grandmother, Mrs. Russel, within a week.

As David walked away from Mrs. Russel’s funeral, he was heard to remark, “Maybe she did breathe at least part of her life into Jason, after all.”


Source: http://theresashauntedhistoryofthetri-state.blogspot.com/2022/04/the-witch-of-hooker-hollow.html


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