Appalachian Folklife: The Mysterious Vampire of Big Stone Gap
From Jack Tales to spooky stories, Wise County, Virginia is riddled with history and folklore from the early days of the pioneers through the coal boom after the Civil War. The culmination of traditional folktales in Appalachia is the very thread that connects family roots.
In the heart of Appalachia, lies a small community of Big Stone Gap. Over the years, Big Stone Gap has gone through several name changes. Close to the Tennessee and Kentucky border, the community used to be known as Three Forks, then Mineral City and finally was officially named Big Stone Gap in 1888. In the 1890’s, the area was the center of iron and coal development and was touted as the new “Pittsburgh of the South” with its railroads, economic boom of businesses and the wilderness landscape. During the coal boom, dignitaries, northern businessmen, and Europeans flocked to the area with hopes of getting wealthy from the rich minerals in the area.
Before the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, vampires permeated eastern European folklore. With tales of vampires terrorizing small villages in the dark of night, they were blamed for anything locals did not understand or could not explain. Vampiric beings have been recorded in literature all over the world but pop culture vampires of today, are recognized through eastern European folkloric traditions. People could become vampires after death because of their misdeeds while they were alive. Drunks, thieves, accused witches, murderers or anyone excommunicated from the church could become a vampire after death.
Without the modern understanding of medicine, most diseases and plagues would be blamed on vampires. Vampires in folklore represented pale-faced walking corpses that would leave their grave at night in order to drink blood from livestock or people. This rational feasted on the fears of villagers. Ancient lore of driving a stake through the heart was the accepted method of killing a vampire. There are certain parts of Virginia, however, where this method also pertains to those early settlers who committed suicide.
Dating back to the 1600’s, suicide victims and their bodies were buried at a nearby crossroads and a stake was driven through their heart.
It wasn’t until a medical doctor, John Polidori, wrote a short horror story “The Vampyre” published in 1819 that presented the vampire as a gentleman camouflaged within society as a regular man.
In the Big Stone Gap region, the late nineteenth century provided us with mysterious deaths of the town drunk and farm animals being drained of their blood. The bizarre tale begins with a local farmer who found two of his prize cattle dead in his backfield. Not an unusual occurrence considering the wildlife that roamed the area. But there is a twist to this gruesome story. The farmer not only found his cattle dead but the worst part was he found them dismembered and drained of their blood! The attacker only left the heads and hindquarters of the slaughtered cows.
The mystery continued when three more farmers tragically lost their cows under the same circumstances. A few days later, a number of well known distinguished men had a meeting at the local tavern to discuss the strange occurrence. They concluded that the culprit behind the cattle killings must be one of the new Europeans that arrived to work at the coal mine. One particular suspect that was under suspicion was a very strange man who lived on the other side of the ridge in a remote cabin. Mr. Rupp had moved to the area recently and it was only after he arrived in the area that the strange cattle killings began.
Soon after the cattle incident, two local boys came forward who went to Mr. Rupp’s cabin. Peaking through the window, they saw the recluse hermit eating a large piece of raw meat by the fireplace. The citizens of the town demanded that the Sherriff arrest Mr. Rupp. But without evidence, the Sherriff’s hands were tied and refused to arrest him.