An urban legend starts like a campfire game of “telephone”. One person whispers something to another, that person passes it on and so the story grows, until finally, it’s become larger than life with only shreds of truth. But for some reason, we are drawn to these legends and too often, we don’t even care if they’re true, because let’s be honest, fiction is usually more fun than fact.
In Virginia, there are many urban legends that have circulated through the years. Vampires in Richmond, gorillas on the loose outside of Lynchburg and buried treasure in Bedford. And whether these stories are backed by solid evidence or they have simply grown from a seed of truth over the years, they are still fascinating to tell.
Here are a just a few of the more interesting stories we found circulating around Virginia….
The Beale Treasure – millions in gold buried on a farm in Bedford
Ok all of your treasure hunters out there. Tell me what you know. Word on the street is that Thomas Jefferson Beale and a team of 30 men unexpectedly discovered a mother lode of gold and silver in Colorado. Sometime around 1819 – 1821, Beale buried the treasure, estimated to be worth millions, in Bedford County at what is now the site of Johnson’s Orchard. After burying the treasure, Beale and his party set out on another expedition. Knowing their trip would be dangerous, Beale left three coded messages in a locked box with Robert Morriss of Lynchburg. Beale made Morriss promise that he would use the key that Beale would mail to him at a later date to decipher the codes if 10 years passed with no word from Beale or his men. The first code contained the treasure’s exact location, a second code described the contents and the third named the members of Beale’s 30-man party along with their next of kin. 10 years came and went and the key never arrived. To date, only the second cipher has been broken and the treasure’s whereabouts remain a mystery.
The Vampire of Hollywood Cemetery
This fantastically creepy story has been floating around since the collapse of Richmond’s Church Hill Tunnel in 1925. When the tunnel collapsed, several workers were buried alive in the wreckage. The legend describes a bloody figure with pointed teeth and skin hanging from its bones emerging from the cave-in and running towards the James River. The figure was pursued until it disappeared into the mausoleum of W.W. Pool in the Hollywood Cemetery. Research into the Vampire legend revealed that one survivor did manage to escape the deadly cave-in, but far from a vampire, he was Benjamin Mosby, a 28-year old firefighter who had been shoveling coal in the tunnel when it collapsed. He was badly burned with broken teeth when he escaped the ruins and later died from his injuries in a local hospital. “Facts” haven’t stopped the legend and Hollywood Cemetery is still a favorite haunt for ghost hunters – by which I mean teenagers looking to have the bejesus scared out of them.
Bunny Man Bridge
Remember that episode of “Friends” when Joey gets so scared reading “The Shining” that he has to keep the book in the freezer? Suffice it to say, if my laptop would fit in the freezer, that’s where it would be right now. I’ve seen several versions of this story over the years, but the one that gets me every time goes a little something like this... In 1904, a recently closed asylum prison in Clifton was transporting inmates to a new facility when one of the transport buses overturned in Fairfax. Most of the passengers were killed, but 10 escaped. All but two were found, Douglas J. Grifon and Marcus Wallster. Soon after, locals began finding the remains of hundreds of skinned, half-eaten rabbits hanging from the trees. When Wallster’s body was eventually discovered, with a crude homemade hatchet in hand, hanging at the Fairfax Station Bridge, officials believed they had found their culprit and the dead bunny rampage would stop. No such luck. In the years that followed, dead rabbits appeared periodically, and as legend tells, an unspecified number of bodies have been found hanging at the bridge every Halloween, the approximate time of the crash. Most often, the victims were teenagers looking for a haunt at what is now known as “Bunny Man Bridge.” The last reported incident was in 1987, but if you know more, please let me know – especially if you have proof that this is just an elaborate legend meant to scare weak-kneed wimps like me.
Zebulon Miller Tomb – who says you can’t take it with you?
Some people just like to be right. In 1885, Zebulon Miller of Lynchburg made his point, even after death. 5 years before he passed on to the other side, Miller built a concrete mausoleum with 3-foot-thick walls. He then hired a Swiss agent to make sure that $2.3 million in gold and silver coins were safely installed along with his body. A $1 million trust was also left to ensure upkeep – of the armed guard kind – for the tomb. The guards were dismissed when a high-tech security system was installed – and so, the treasure remains intact to this day. What do you think, folks? Fact or fiction?
Evington's Lost Locomotive - the Gorilla Train
This is hands down, absolutely, 100% my favorite story. And I can only hope that someone, anyone, out there will tell me that it’s true. The story goes that in 1952, a Ringling Brothers’ and Barnum and Bailey’s circus train derailed in Evington, just outside of Lynchburg. 35 gorillas escaped and although they were hunted, none were ever recovered. Supposedly, they lived in the woods in and around Campbell County for the next 30 years or so, where they monkeyed around with the locals, harassing family pets, stealing from gardens and peeking in windows. The last report of gorilla-related antics was in 1981. Only one picture exists from 1967 when Horace Dalrymple caught one of the gorillas posing like “The Thinker” on his roof. Unfortunately, the photo wasn't available for publication here.
Lovers Leap – A Native American Romeo and Juliet Story
There’s no way to prove it, of course, but Lover’s Leap, the highest peak above Natural Tunnel in Scott County is said to have gotten it’s name when a young Shawnee brave and a Cherokee girl were forbidden to marry. Their tribal differences kept them apart in life, so they took a “Last of the Mohicans” style leap to their deaths from the peak into the gorge below. Whether it’s true or not, it certainly makes for a tragically romantic story.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was discovered while working as a bellhop at The Jefferson…or was he?
Another urban legend debunked. It has been said the legendary tap-dancer (and highest paid African American entertainer in the first half of the 20th century) got his start when a talent scout saw him tapping away as a bellhop at The Jefferson. Although he was born and raised in Richmond, the more likely story is that he began street performances as early as the age of 5 and joined a traveling group in his early teens. He went on to become a well-known star of the stage, screen and vaudeville. What IS true, however, is that he didn’t care for his given name, “Luther”, so he traded names with his brother “Bill.” My siblings were never that accommodating – or maybe I was never as persuasive.
The “Gone With The Wind” Staircase at The Jefferson Hotel
I am not ashamed to admit that I am a die-hard “GWTW” fan. I’ve read the book at least 8 times and the movie, well, let’s just say I have lost years of my life to Scarlet and her dramas. So of course, growing up knowing that the very staircase that she swept up and down with such elegance – and tumbled down so tragically – was the same one at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond was more than magical to me. Until I found out that it’s not true. Sadly, no part of the movie was filmed in Richmond. However, Margaret Mitchell did stay at The Jefferson during the 10-year span in which she was writing the novel. So maybe, just maybe, she took inspiration from the staircase that still stuns visitors in all of its polished marble glory. I can live with that.
The Beast of Gum Hill – Bigfoot on the loose?
A February 2012 episode of the Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” set out to answer that very question. “The Beast of Gum Hill” is a local legend in the Saltville area. Supposedly, this enormously tall, hairy figure has been sighted roaming the woods in and around Saltville and Abingdon over the years. The eyewitnesses, many of whom came forward for filming, describe a large, dark creature that wandered up to them or was seen running through the trees. The show ended without any conclusive evidence of Bigfoot in the Virginia hills, but there is no shortage of teams around the country devoted to proving the existence of Bigfoot, or the Sasquatch. And while most reported sightings come from the more rugged mountains of the Western part of the country – but who’s to say we don’t have our own Bigfoot roaming the hills of Southwest Virginia? Of course, it could just be a gorilla from Evington…hmmmmm.
I always want to know what my readers have to say – this time, more than ever. It’s always interesting to find out what people know about legends, how they started or what aspects are based on truth. Be sure to let me know if you have been any experience with any of these stories, or share some of your own.