I is for Ikie's Tomb; Or, The Boy Who Was Buried Three Times

My take on ghost stories differs from that of ghost-hunters. I am interested in what people tell me, the stories of things that happened to them or to family members, and not as much in whether the tales are "true" and definitely not in trying to contact the dead or determining if there is any paranormal activity. I prefer the story and the folklore/legend aspect; if someone tells me that it happened, I take their word as a collector of stories. Who am I to say if it happened or not? 

One of the strangest tales, told to me by a lady at one of my storytelling events, is the story of Ikie's Tomb. I had the opportunity last year to visit the tomb with a friend who knew its location and who was able to add to what I had already heard about the place.

Here's the story as I have gathered it from several sources:

A boy named Ikie Mooring died when very young. Ikie's name was probably Isaac, after his grandfather but everyone called him Ikie (pronounced Eye-key, or Icky, depending on who you talk to). Ikie died, people said from eating bad ice milk. I have wondered about that. How could ice milk kill him? One suggestion was that ice cream and ice milk were made in the old metal ice cream makers, that were soldered together with lead--could it have been lead poisoning? Another suggestion was that the milk was tainted with the brucellosis virus, known to be deadly. Either is possible, I think.

Ikie was buried first on the family's farm but his mother wasn't satisfied with that. She wanted something better for her little boy, and apparently wasn't willing to give him up to the earth just yet. So she had a concrete tomb constructed high on a ridge near her home. The tomb had a doot for entry, and also a window so you could stand outside and look within. Inside the tomb was a concrete trough, for lack of a better description. Ikie was disinterred and his body, wearing a little blue sailors suit, was placed in the trough which was then filled with formaldehyde.  I believe the trough was then covered with a sheet of glass, because formaldehyde would surely have evaporated over time. 

The mother put the child's toys into the tomb, and also a rocking chair and a broom. The mother would go to the tomb on a regular basis to sweep and clean it, and she would then take the child's body from the glass case and rock and croon to him in the rocking chair. Then she would put him back into the case until her next visit. Some stories say that when she came back down the hill there would be blue stains on her clothing from the little boy's clothing.

The family moved away to the Huntington area and the tomb was left untended. Vandals broke in the door and window; some people say dogs got in and dragged out Ikie's remains. Still others say that a local rock group stole his skull and placed it on stage during their performances. Groups often visited the site at night, and local people worried that strange rites might be taking place there. The local undertaker got word of the desecration of the tomb and alerted state authorities. With the state's approval, Ikie's remains were collected and he was buried once again in what is his final resting place, beside his beloved grandfather.

And odd twist in this already strange tale says that there were other children in the tomb as well--babies that had died at or soon after birth and were placed into stone crocks and put into the tomb. Some versions say there were two teenage girls in the tomb as well, laid one on each side of Ikie. From what I could see inside the remains of the tomb there did appear to have been three troughs, but I think perhaps those other two were intended for later use by his parents. Disconcertingly, though, there were also shards from old crocks within the tomb. Could the stories of other babies kept there be true?

A search of US Census records revealed that Ikie's mother reported having given birth to five children, but only one was living. I wondered about that, and began looking for that one living child. I found nothing. That made me wonder, was Ikie her only child who survived after birth? Did she have four stillborn children, and only this one little boy who lived? The story, whatever the truth might be, is a sad one that leaves me with many questions--and empathy for this woman who struggled so terribly with the loss of her much-loved child. 

We visited Ikie's Tomb in early November. Leaves were mostly gone from the trees and the site was lonely and remote, accessible only by four-wheel-drive. Far off the Ohio River glinted in the sun; a cold wind blew drifts of leaves across the road and the graveyard. There were only a few graves in the place, and it seemed that maintenance of the site was minimal at best. Ikie's tomb stood off by itself along a path between the trees. I left with as many question as I had had when I arrived, but with an even deeper sense of the tragedy of Ikie's life, and of his death.

I can only hope that now, as he lays in his final resting place, Ikie Gorrell Mooring at least knows peace.

You can find more about Ikie's Tomb at:

Goldenseal Magazine, Fall 2003: Searching for Ikie's Tomb.

Genealogy information about Ikie.

Museum Day!

A beautiful autumn day. Soft waters of the Ohio River flowing by. Two museums on the riverbank. Four storytellers. Can it get any better than that?

Jeff and I, on the river in Pomeroy, OH
Tomorrow is Museum Day, a day to get out an enjoy what the museums in your neck of the woods have to offer. Two of Marietta's museums teamed up to celebrate with a day of stories and music. Campus Martius and the Ohio River Museum will be hosting events all day and I am happy to be part of the celebration. I'll be joined by storytellers Judi Tarowsky and Stephen Hollen and my sometimes-partner-in-crime, musician Jeff Seager.

Stephen Hollen as Mark Twain, 2011

If you're in the area, come in and say hello and have a listen to some memorable, funny, touching and spellbinding tales and songs. And if you can't make it to Marietta, be sure to stop by a museum wherever you are, and thank the people who work so hard to create a place of learning and beauty in your neighborhood.

Campus Martius Museum is located at 601 2nd Street, Marietta, Ohio, on State Route 7, minutes from I-77. The museum is just one block away from the Ohio River Museum

The Ohio River Museum is located at 601 Front Street, Marietta, Ohio, one block from Ohio State Route 7, and minutes from I-77. Free parking is available in the museum parking lot. Ohio River Museum is also wheelchair accessible, except for W.P. Snyder. 

If you need more details or directions, call the museums at 1-740-373-3750.  

What I've Been Up To

Variety is the basis of a storyteller's life. I find myself involved in projects of all kinds, both expected and unexpected, familiar and strange new territory.

Here's a sample of what I've been doing lately:

The combination of stories and ballads proved its power again this week when Fred Powers presented stories and I sang ballads about coal mining. We hope to present this program more often in the future so stay tuned.

An ongoing project with its culmination looming is the Ripley, WV Do You Believe? Ghost Walk. I have been researching and writing stories, have the route planned and have been working with the local theater group, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Main Street Ripley and others to get this first-time event off to a good start. The stories are almost ready, the publicity is beginning, and I'm excited!

This weekend I'll be telling tales for Museum Day at the Ohio River Museum in Marietta, OH. I have performed there before, telling river tales for the Inland Waterways Festival, but this is a new event and should be a lot of fun. Ohio friends, come on out and have a listen!

Jeff Seager and I are planning our annual Here We Come A-Caroling! program for house concerts in the DC area. We still have dates available, so contact me if you're interested.

More ghost stories--for a small town festival, a college, an art center and a few libraries. Tis certainly the season! October is looking pretty busy for this storyteller, as it is also the month for the West Virginia Storytelling Festival at Jackson's Mill. Check my performance schedule in the tabs above to see if I'll be anywhere near you.

Jo Ann Dadisman and I have been putting the final touches on organizing and now promoting a workshop on telling tales from the Grimm Brothers to be presented by Susan Gordon on November 15. We will also have a concert on November 14 at 7pm, featuring Susan, Jo Ann, me and performance poet Kirk Judd. Details coming soon!

That's just a taste of what's on my plate in the upcoming months. There's much more--so much spice for the storyteller's life.

House Concerts: A New Way to Entertain

Planning a holiday party? Or just want to have some friends over for a nice evening of entertainment and talk? Then consider a house concert.

Most of us plan parties or get-togethers of some kind during the year, and these events usually follow a similar path: munchies, liquid refreshments, perhaps dinner and music. But imagine adding a new twist: a storyteller to entertain your guests with tales wild and wonderful, true and maybe-true, outrageous and touching, humorous and uplifting.

House concerts have taken off across the nation as a different and enriching touch to the usual party. Storytellers, musicians and poets are finding the venue perfect for intimate, informal presentations of their work to audiences who may be new to their artform. For the host, a house concert bumps up their event a notch, making it not only an evening of fun but one that supports the arts. Concerts can be planned for family audiences or adult-only groups.

I have been lucky enough to be invited to present at several house concerts over the past two years. It is always a pleasure--good people, good refreshments, inviting surroundings and the opportunity to interact personally with small audiences of appreciative and attentive listeners. Many performers today are often able to book enough house concerts to enable them to travel across the country to distant events. The house concert is becoming a viable income source for many a struggling artist.

How does it work? It's simple enough. The host plans a party and invites his/her friends. How many depends on the space available but 15-40 seems to be the usual number. Food and beverages are provided by the host, and sometimes the event is a potluck with attendees also providing some of the refreshment. Each guest is asked for a "donation" of a specific amount, generally in the $10-$20 range. The money collected goes to the invited performer.

Where else can one attend a concert where they can interact with the performer and get quality, often homemade refreshments for that price? It's a great deal for everyone involved: the hosts have a great event for their friends with minimal effort and cost, the guests have a fine evening out, again at minimal cost, and the performers make enough, hopefully, to make it worth their while.

If you are interested in a house concert, get in touch and I'd be happy to discuss it with you. Call 866-643-1353 tollfree, or email me at susannaholstein@yahoo.com and let's get started talking about your event.

H is for Holidays!

Here we come a-caroling!

What better time for stories and songs than the holidays? In particular, the Christmas holidays in December and early January.

For the past three years I have been presenting a program based on the songs of the season, accompanied by the guitar and singing of musician Jeff Seager. We explore both ancient ballads and modern carols--everything from the pagan roots of The Holly Bears a Berry to the frankly commercial tales behind Rudolph and Frosty. Some we sing a cappella, some with Jeff's guitar accompaniment, many with the audience singing along, and all with the joy and spirit of the season.

Each year we seek out new material so that our presentation is fresh for return listeners at venues that have us back each year. I am constantly amazed at the wide variety of songs written for this season, and intrigued by the stories behind their creation.

We are already booking dates in November and December, so if you are looking for something different for your holiday open house or other events, give us a call at 866-643-1353 (toll-free) or drop me an email at susannaholstein@yahoo.com 

G is for Ghost Stories

"I know you might not believe this, but..." And so begins another tale of some strange, haunting experience, often told by someone who isn't sure they believe their own story. Frequently these are stories passed down in a family, laced with local superstition and folklore, and almost always well worth hearing. 

Download my story about how Burnt House, WV got its name by clicking here. It's a strange tale to be sure. This story is  on my CD of ghost stories, Beyond the Grave.

Ghost stories and storytelling have been a part of the Appalachian culture since the earliest pioneers arrived on the shores of America. People told stories to while away the time during long winter evenings or on the porch on hot summer days. Stories were a way to pass on family history, traditions, stories from the “old country,” and to teach children the accepted rules of behavior.

But why are there so many ghost stories? What gives this particular type of tale its longevity and popularity? In West Virginia, we have many such tales, from vanishing hitchhikers to malevolent peddlers to crying ghost babies. The degree of "hauntedness" varies. We are a state of storytellers, as you would know if you stood in line at any grocery store. We talk to strangers and we talk in stories, and that applies to telling someone about something odd and inexplicable that has occurred.Sometimes the stories are fragments, really, a mere whisper of a tale or piece of memory passed down as a "they say" story. Others are well-known, documented in books and occasionally on film or in photos. 

The possible reasons for the abundance of ghost stories are several. The simplest explanation might be that the mist rising from the hills at night can create a ghostly aspect that might make a person think of otherworldly beings. Some folklorists speculate that the settlers brought with them the stories and lore of their native countries. Some of these stories were transplanted with the people who told them with new twists introduced in their new land. The heritage in this part of the Appalachians is Scottish, English, Irish and German predominantly, but with a good helping of Italian and a seasoning of Polish, Russian, African-American, and many other nationalities. British folklore, particularly that of Ireland, includes revenants of all kinds, along with both little people and giants. Some of those tales were simply transplanted and adapted to a new environment. The German tales also moved to the mountains, with their often darker themes.

Religion might have played a role as well. Many settlers believed firmly in the flight of the soul after death, and it was not much of a stretch to believe that some souls lost their way on this final journey and were trapped here on earth. Usually these lost souls had a specific reason for staying: revenge, relaying a warning to loved ones, or some other unfinished business. Some ghost stories were cautionary tales, meant to discourage children from dangerous activities. In my county, there is a story of a headless dog that supposedly haunts Tug Fork after dark and chases people. Children in that area might think twice about going out after dark if there is a chance of encountering that dog.  West Virginians are religious people, and ghost stories often carry lessons of forgiveness, retribution, unrest because of a grave sin, or warnings to listen to elders. 

Then there is the environment: towering dark mountains, deep shadowy hollows, evening and early morning fogs, the intense quiet broken only the falling leaves, an owl's call, the cry of some unnamed night creature. All lend themselves to a sense of the supernatural, of someone or something watching, lurking, in the dark and hidden places along our roads.

My interest in ghost stories began when I was a child; my parents told us the story of the haunted house in Royston, England, where they had an apartment as newlyweds. Add to that the big old house in Manassas where we lived when I was young, with its chipping plaster walls, spooky basement and Civil War relics in the yard, and my fertile imagination was well supplied. When I moved to West Virginia, however, I found that I had moved to the mother lode of ghost stories. It seemed like every place in the state had a story connected with it. In my own county, I heard almost a dozen stories of haunted places or events.

As I learned more about my new home, I found the books by Dr. Ruth Ann Musick, who collected ghost stories from around the state. Many tales were brief and vague, others were more developed with names and specific locations. The stories grabbed me because they were told by ordinary people living their ordinary lives--except there were these weird things that had happened that they knew about and were willing to share.

Ghost stories are not horror stories. Ghost stories are typically stories about supernatural occurrences, rarely include violent acts committed by the spirit, and are usually fairly short.  They are generally more haunting than scary, leaving the listener wondering what might have really happened, if the person really saw what they claimed, or why the ghost chose that place or time to appear. The haunting, unexplained nature of ghost stories probably explains their continued popularity. There is mystery in ghost stories that engages the imagination. Many ghost stories have been collected and published in books; still others are still being passed down from parent to child.

There are, of course, different kinds of ghost stories. My focus is on the stories told to me as true events or that I have found documented in some way (books, newspaper clippings, etc). I do tell some of the fictional, folk stories and not-too-spooky stories for young audiences, but my primary interest lies in the "true" ghost stories. 

Some storytellers prefer the ""jump" tales of campfire popularity, others the horror stories and literary ghost tales. All have their audiences. 

For those interested in the type of stories I tell, I offer the following excerpt from my ghost stories workshop for those interested in telling ghost stories reported as actually happening or with a historical basis :

The brevity of ghost stories and the general lack of detail means work has to be done to create a performance piece. This can be accomplished by placing the story in a frame--developing the who, what, when and where of the story. 

Build the Story’s Frame:

1    1.  Time: when did the story take place? If no date can be established, when did your informant hear of the story—how old were they? What were the times like then—i.e. Depression, wartime, post-war, Vietnam era. Set the story in a time period. Historic events? Local history? Local industry or occupations?
2.       Place: where did the story take place? Rural, city, West Virginia or another state? In a house/store/other building, or in a field/graveyard/street, etc? What did the place look like during the time period of the story?
3.       People: who told you the story? Who told it to them (if it wasn’t a personal experience)?Who were their people? Who were the main characters in the story and how did they happen to be in the place where the events occurred? 
4.       What happened? Are there other accounts of the story/events from other/perspectives/others involved? Are there similar stories in folklore? Is the event recurring, or was it a one-time happening? Is there a specific date/time/circumstance that lead to the event, i.e. a holiday, or a storm, the presence of a particular person, an anniversary date?
5.       Why does your informant think the events happened? Are there superstitions/beliefs involved? Did something occur to stop the recurrence of the event?
Place the Story in the Frame:

6.       What perspective will you use to tell the story—what narrative voice? 
7.       Now that you have gathered all this information, how much of it is relevant to the story? How much does your audience need to hear, and how much of it is really to inform your telling (and to be able to answer questions later)?
Dig Deeper—the story in 3D

8.       Is there something to be learned from the story, some moral, lesson, warning, etc? You may not want to state this specifically in the telling, but being aware of them can influence your interpretation of the tale. Is there an underlying universal theme—love, hate, loss, longing, regret, revenge? 

      9.   Build in the senses: evocative scents, sounds, surroundings. Show with the gestures, voice and expression as much as possible rather than using extensive descriptions for such things as the roughness of fabrics or the softness of a touch, etc.

Hang the Story in Place

10.   Circling back: Summarizing/ending the story. Conclusions drawn? Impact of the story on the place/people/time? What is left today—Buildings? Descendants? Place names?

I've posted many ghost stories on my other blog over the seven years I've been writing online. Here are a few you may want to read:

This ghost story was written from a brief account in a newspaper article.

The story my parents told about their haunted house in England.

A couple of ghostly poems; and here is another. And a classic from Thomas Hardy.

Ghost story and comedy, all in one! The Gatehouse Ghost story is a true story that happened to me.

Links to other ghostly information.

Strange photos we took at the old Moundsville State Penitentiary, which now does ghost tours.

Raw Head, Bloody Bones was a look into the background of this chilling tale used to scare little children.

A recipe for Bony Fingers? Why not?

Jump Tales for Halloween--just the bare bones, but easy to develop for telling.

West Virginia's most famous ghost story, The Greenbrier Ghost. This is on my new CD Beyond the Grave both as a ballad and a story. 

A ghostly tale from Rowlesburg, West Virginia.

The Wizard Clipp, another famous story in our state. Another one that's on my new CD.

A short tale, easy to tell.

I've written about the "why" of ghost stories before; this older post contains a good booklist.

A true story of something that happened to me. It still gives me shivers to remember it.

One of the stories from Jackson County, Sidna is a tale I often tell. It's on the CD!

A story told to me by a young girl, this story is on my new CD too.

Want a copy of my new CD, Beyond the Grave; Ghost Stories and Ballads from the Mountains? Email me at susannaholstein@yahoo.com and I can tell you purchase details.

F is for Family

There are so many ways to interpret the title of this post.

I could talk about the importance of family stories and how these stories deepen our appreciation and understanding of our heritage. I could bemoan the loss of family time and communication as today's families speed along on widely different paths and seldom spend real time together.

I could talk about telling stories to family audiences, those performances when the audience ranges in age from newborn to ninety, when babies cry and toddlers wiggle and everyone has a great time listening. I could delve into the bag of stories that work for these audiences and why those tales work and how to modify a story so it too can be put into the family story bag.

I could talk about the family of storytellers and the ways we connect and support each other's work. I could extol the valuable assistance we offer each other through our listservs, Facebook pages, guilds and associations.

But I want to talk about the world family and how storytelling connects us all through universal themes, reminding us that we all share the same hopes, dreams, grief and joy. I see storytelling as an essential tool in the search for peace and understanding.

One of the stories I am telling this summer is based on Aesop's fable called The Bundle of Sticks, and it is a good example of how stories can connect us:

A father has five sons. Those boys do nothing but argue and fight all day, every day. The father is getting old and the continuous fighting is making him feel even older. He feels beaten down by harsh words and meanness. And he worries.

"I want to leave my farm to my sons to work together when I am gone," he thought. "But their arguing and fighting will surely cause them to lose their crops because they will never agree on when to harvest. The stock will be lost because they will argue over who should fix the fence. The buildings will fall into ruin because they will fight over which one should climb up to repair the roofs. Ah me, what am I to do?"

Finally one day the old father had an idea. He called his five sons to him and handed each of them a stick.

"Now," he said to the oldest son, "break your stick."

The son did so easily. The father moved to the second son, the third and so on. Each son easily broke the stick the father had given him.

"What's the point of this, Father? You're wasting our time with your foolish game!" the oldest son snarled.

"Maybe so, Son, maybe so. But before you leave, please take this bundle of five sticks and break it for me."

The oldest son grabbed the bundle and tried to break it. Sweat popped out on his forehead as he strained to break the bundle.

"Let me try!" said the second son. But he too was unsuccessful. All five sons tried to break the bundle but none of them could do it though they tried until their muscles were sore and their hands were blistered.

"My sons," said the old father, "you are like these sticks. Individually, you all will break but together you are strong. Work together and you and your families will prosper; continue fighting the way you have been, and you will surely be broken, and lose everything you own."
What parent does not worry about their children's future and feel exasperated when their children fight? What children have never argued with their siblings? Touching on such universal experience brings us together, and we can all feel the father's stress and love in this tale. At the same time, we can see how standing together can unite us in the face of adversity and make us stronger and better able to face the future.

Whenever a storyteller begins a tale, the audience before them slowly merges into a family of listeners. Sharing a story brings people closer together, shared experience and emotion creating a bridge that crosses over the divides of gender, age, race, economic levels, religious beliefs and politics. I cannot think of anything other than art that can have this impact on a diverse group, and of all the arts storytelling is the most personal, the most direct, and probably the simplest. I tell a story, using only my words, gestures and body language, and together the audience sees a world spread before them--a world with characters, scenery, history, adventure, and wisdom.