Haunted Harpers Ferry

The following is an excerpt from my book Wild & Wonderful (and Paranormal) West Virginia: 

During the War Between the States, extensive guerilla warfare raged between Confederate sympathizers and Union loyalists. There were many battles as well; some were decisive to the overall war effort. The town of Harpers Ferry, sitting at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, bordering both Maryland and Virginia, was hotly contested during the war. The strategic location, along with its access to rail, made control of the town vital for both armies; the town changed hands eight times during the conflict.

Blood was spilled in Harpers Ferry before the war as well. On October 16, 1859, staunch abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the Federal arsenal housed in Harpers Ferry. Brown believed that the raid would trigger a slave revolt—the revolt would then be armed with the weaponry confiscated during the raid. Brown’s raiding party consisted of 21 men; included in the party were five black men and three of Brown’s sons.15

Brown and his raiders captured the armory; ultimately, though, the raid was a failure. Brown believed that once the raid began, local slaves would rally to help. This was a miscalculation—few showed up to support Brown’s efforts. Townspeople and local militiamen surrounded the armory while another group of militiamen captured the bridge over the Potomac—Brown’s fate was sealed; escape was cut off and he had no reinforcements coming. Brown and his men, accompanied by hostages captured during the raid, relocated to a small engine house—this would become known as “John Brown’s Fort.” On October 18, Robert E. Lee ended the siege when he sent a detachment of marines to storm the engine house.

The first casualty of the raid was Heyward Shepherd, a freed black man working for the railroad as a baggage handler. Shepherd was shot after he intervened when Brown’s men seized a passing Baltimore & Ohio train. Other casualties included Fontaine Beckham, the town’s mayor, and several other townsfolk. The marines who stormed the fort suffered two casualties, while ten raiders were killed—including two of Brown’s sons.

John Brown was captured and tried for treason. He was hanged on December 2, 1859 in nearby Charles Town. The man who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, was in attendance and watched Brown hang. Two weeks later, four other men who participated in the raid were executed. On March 16, 1860, two more of Brown’s men suffered the same fate. Several members of the raiding party escaped and were never found including Brown’s son Owen.

Today, Harpers Ferry is regarded by many as one of the most haunted places in West Virginia. This is saying a lot; West Virginia has a lot of haunted places! Ghosts roam the streets and haunt houses and various buildings. The hillsides of the Eastern Panhandle, along with neighboring Maryland and Virginia, are stalked by the Snarly Yow—a “hell hound” or phantom dog. The Snarly Yow will be discussed later.

Today, Hog Alley, a small alley connecting Potomac Street and High Street is haunted by one of Brown’s raiders. Some people who have walked past hog Alley at night have reported seeing a tall black man with blue eyes dressing in 19th century clothing peering through the darkness.16

The ghost who haunts the alley is Dangerfield Newby. The character Django, in the movie Django Unchained, is very loosely based on Dangerfield Newby. Newby was born a slave in Virginia around 1815, but was later freed by his father—a white man named Henry Newby.

A letter found on Newby’s body probably explains his rationale for joining John Brown’s raid. The letter is from his wife Harriet who was still enslaved waiting for Newby to acquire enough money to purchase her freedom:

Dear Husband,

 your kind letter came duly to hand and it gave me much pleasure to here from you and especely to hear you are better of your rhumatism and hope when I here from you again you may be entirely well. I want you to buy me as soon as possible for if you do not get me somebody else will the servents are very disagreeable thay do all thay can to set my mistress againt me Dear Husband you not the trouble I see the last two years has ben like a trouble dream to me it is said Master is in want of monney if so I know not what time he may sell me an then all my bright hops of the futer are blasted for there has ben one bright hope to cheer me in all my troubles that is to be with you for if I thought I shoul never see you this

earth would have no charms for me do all you Can for me witch I have no doubt you will I want to see you so much the Chrildren are all well the baby cannot walk yet all it can step around enny thing by holding on it is very much like Agnes I mus bring my letter to Close as I have no newes to write you mus write soon and say when you think you Can Come.

 Your affectionate Wife,

 Harriet Newby.17

Dangerfield Newby was the first of Brown’s men to be killed. He suffered inhumane treatment; he was shot in the neck, stabbed repeatedly, his limbs were cut off, and his corpse was left in an alley where pigs feasted on his flesh.18 It said that his ears were even cut off and taken as souvenirs.

Hog Alley is only one of Harpers Ferry’s haunted locations. St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, sitting prominently on a hill with the Appalachian Trail running along its side, is the first stop on a local ghost tour. An eerie reverend has been spotted praying in the church late at night.19

The old Ironhorse Inn is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a Confederate soldier who was shot and tumbled down the stairs; the Wager house is credited by many of being the most haunted spot in all of Harpers Ferry.20 These are but a few examples…

End Notes

  1. “John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry.” History.com, accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/john-browns-raid-on-harpers-ferry.
  2. Ellen Perlman, “Escapes: The Ghoulish and the Ghostly in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.,” Washington Post, October 13, 2011, accessed November 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/weekend/escapes-the-ghoulish-and-the-ghostly-in-harpers-ferry-w-va/2011/10/07/gIQAQNcEiL_story.html.
  3. “Dangerfield Newby’s Letters from His Wife, Harriet.” Library of Virginia. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/trailblazers/res/Harriet_Newby_Letters.pdf.
  4. Perlman, “Escapes: The Ghoulish and the Ghostly in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”
  5. “Haunted Places in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.” Haunted Places. Accessed November 13, 2016. http://www.hauntedplaces.org/harpers-ferry-wv/.
  6. Perlman, “Escapes: The Ghoulish and the Ghostly in Harpers Ferry, W. Va.”

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