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 1890s, 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.  The 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 1600s, 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.

A few weeks later, the town drunk went missing.  Soon his dead body was found in the woods a quarter-mile from Mr. Rupp’s cabin.  The town drunk was found with his arm and leg missing and his body also had been completely been drained of blood.  A local salesman who traveled around the hills of southwestern Virginia and Kentucky selling odds and ends became the next victim.

He relied on the kindness of local folks in the area for room and board when traveling through the area.  The salesman did not check in with the home office of his employer to turn in the previous weeks’ sales.  Soon after his disappearance, his body was discovered completely drained of his blood and dismembered.

The town folks were certain the mysterious deaths had to be the work of the strange recluse newcomer, Mr. Rupp.

A group of people decided to gather as a mob and went to Mr. Rupp’s cabin to confront him about the local cattle killings and murders.  When the angry vigilantes arrived, Mr. Rupp was nowhere to be found.  The group of men broke into Mr. Rupp’s cabin only to find a grotesque and terrifying crime scene of complete horror.  Scattered all over the inside of the grungy cabin were body parts of arms, legs, and torsos of animals and human remains. The smell of the cabin was so overwhelming, several of the men ran outside heaving and vomiting.

Engraving 19th-century Private collection photo courtesy of © Leemage/Corbis

The top of Mr. Rupp’s table and countertops in the cabin were covered in blood.  The scene was so horrifying to the men, it was reported what they saw and found in that cabin that day haunted the men for the rest of their lives. After their discovery, the men set fire to the old cabin, formed a posse and set out on a manhunt for Mr. Rupp.  Search parties never found Mr. Rupp and it’s presumed that Mr. Rupp may have died while hiding out in the woods.  But Mr. Rupp nor his body was never found and the true identity of Mr. Rupp still remains a mystery.

The area of the forest where the cabin used to be located is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mr. Rupp.  Animals and people are known to vanish without a trace in the area.  Memories of the suspected vampire surface whenever mysterious killings of livestock or humans occur in the Big Stone Gap region.  Although folklore changes and evolves over time, further research into these stories uncovers the roots of real events that occurred.

Unfortunately, heavy research in old newspaper archives did not result in any news about the events in the area.  However, if this legend is based on true events that were not published, it is my conclusion that Mr. Rupp fits the category of a cannibalistic serial killer instead of a blood-sucking vampire.

By Hope Thompson

Do you love all things Appalachia? Frankie Silver: Unjustly Hanged or Guilty of Murder, Sitting Up With the Dead: Appalachia’s Lost Burial Customs, Appalachian Folk Magic: The Witch Bottle

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