Guest post by Jack Boone
“Set ye down, set ye down. Play a round with Barclay Down,” is a chant that will get an appreciative shiver from anyone in the West Virginia town of Clear Holler, and utter bafflement elsewhere.
The legend goes that Barclay Down was the bastard son of a witch. A drunkard and a gambler, he ruled over the town with violence and black magic, killing and cursing anyone that dared to cross him. He would play all comers at any game, but his favourite was Russian Roulette, and at least two men died taking up his challenge. His reign over Clear Holler finally ended when a young man (or woman, depending on who’s telling the story) told him if he wanted a real challenge, he should gamble with the devil himself. Barclay was delighted by the idea, and that very night he sat up in his dingy shack and called for Lucifer to come play him, if he wasn’t a coward. Nothing happened that night, or the night that followed, but if you call into the darkness long enough, someone will answer.
A stranger came to the hut. His clothes were dark, his eyes were pale, and the stink of sulphur clung to him like cologne. Barclay offered him moonshine and a seat at his table and then laid a revolver down between them. Some stories say Barclay wagered his soul, others say it was the devil’s already and Barclay played only for the sake of playing. They all agree that the devil went first. He picked the gun up, spun the barrel and put it to his head.
The gun went off and black blood splattered the cabin’s walls. If you go there now, you can see the stain. The devil smiled around the hole in his face and handed the gun to Barclay. “Your turn,” he said.
Barclay laughed and reloaded the gun, and pressed it to his temple. “That’s a loss,” he said. “You ain’t got no claim to my soul no more.” He pulled the trigger.
They say the second gunshot was heard all the way over the border in Virginia.
“It’s true, I ain’t,” said the devil to Barclay as it slumped forward over the card table. “But nor do you.” And he got up, leaving the corpse and the smoking gun and the shade of Barclay Down with nowhere in this life or the next to go to.
Clear Holler legend says his ghost haunts the shack to this day, and if you spend the night there on the anniversary of his final wager, he’ll challenging you to play him at his favourite game.
It’s a fun story, but the truth is that Clear Holler is haunted by far more than the ghost of Barclay Down.
Barclay was the fourth and final child of Tom and Eliza Down, in the company town of Clear Holler in 1892. In a time when miners faced a higher death rate than soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces, it was a tragedy but not a surprise that by the time Barclay was five, he was fatherless. Finding further detail on his childhood is difficult, but accounts suggest Eliza took in washing, brewed moonshine and, with the support of her oldest daughter Susie, who married not long after Tom’s death, they scraped by. Barclay would have grown up hungry but not starving but was, according to his great-grandaughter Krystal Down, mean as a striped snake nonetheless. Town legend says he blinded his older brother in one eye for looking at him the wrong way, but this is likely spurious; Barclay and his older brother Walt fought frequently, but Krystal says her great-granduncle lost his vision to scarlet fever without his brother’s intervention. Still, the distortion of fact goes some way to showing how large Barclay looms in Clear Holler’s memory.
When the coal wars began in 1912, Barclay was at the front of every picket line, the loudest voice in every chant, culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain. For his part in the skirmish with Logan County deputies, Down was charged with insurrection and was imprisoned for two years before being paroled. While Down’s future depended on the war’s outcome as much as any miner’s, friends and comrades said he brought a desperate fervour to the fight, seeing it, perhaps, as an opportunity to avenge his father and his own unhappy childhood.
With the war over, Barclay was a man without a cause. Drinking and gambling were common enough that they scarcely counted as vices, but Barclay was a mean drunk and would brag, loudly, about the two deputies he had killed at Blair Mountain – while it’s certainly possible this happened, the charge he was convicted on was insurrection. He married a local girl named Susie Kelligan, left her, went back to her, and then left her again. Despite the instability, Susie remembered him fondly. In what Krystal tells me were her great-grandmother’s own words, ‘jumping the broom with him was the worst decision I ever made and I never regretted it for a minute’.
With few other options, he continued to work in the mine that had killed his father, but when the bottom fell out of the coal industry during the Great Depression, Clear Holler’s mines shut down and the town began its slow, inexorable slide into poverty and obscurity, dragging Barclay with it. Like most of the Clear Holler men that didn’t pack up in search of a better life, he was left scraping by doing odd jobs, hunting fishing and farming.
Even before the mine’s closure, Barclay had been a man on the edge, but it was now that he began drinking in earnest. The fights became more frequent, and he was finally banned from the only bar in Clear Holler after threatening the barman for refusing to put another drink on his growing tab. This was when he began challenging people to play Russian Roulette* with him. Tough more games may have occurred, there is definite record of three, two with friend Gerard Minier and one with Frank Grevvy. All participants survived.
One winter night, Barclay came home drunk and Susie shut him out of the house as she frequently did. On such nights, he usually went and slept in an old shack on the property, or kept drinking into the early hours. That night, Susie and her daughters were woken by a single gunshot. There was no precipitating incident unless you count a lifetime of hardship.
Barclay was born in 1887. In 1931 the mines closed. And in 1934, Barclay made what would become known as his fatal wager. He was forty-five.
Barclay’s death was ruled a suicide. His wasn’t the only one that year which, in a town with a population of fewer than a hundred is significant. Even now, the suicide rate in Appalachia is 17% higher than the national average.
Ghost stories give us satisfying ironies. It would be nice to believe that Barclay quite literally called his fate down on himself, but the records tell the sadder story of a man faced with trauma and untenable economic circumstances. If Barclay’s story has a moral, it’s that we should invest in economic development and mental health services in West Virginia, which admittedly isn’t very pithy.
*The term ‘Russian roulette’ wouldn’t become common parlance until 1937. According to Krystal, Barclay called the game ‘Oh Hell’, presumably after the card game of the same name. This may also be why the Devil was brought into the story.