Harlan's Headless Annie
Bloody Harlan. In the 1930s, this coal-mining county in Kentucky that stretches along the West Virginia border saw some of the most intense, and most violent, labor disputes in US History. The years of violence directed against the workers who were fighting to unionize, fighting for the basic rights of a living wage and safe working conditions, earned the county the nickname of Bloody Harlan. On Black Mountain, the spirit of a murdered child haunts the hills as a reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of those violent days.
In the 1930s, mining companies held the power in the Appalachian coal fields. Often providing the only steady employment in regions that were still in many ways cut off from the outside world, the large mining concerns used their power to ruthlessly exploit the workers who pulled their wealth out of the ground. Working conditions in the mines were horribly unsafe. Cave-ins and explosions were common occurrences. Miners were forced to work long hours in the oppressively hot and dark chambers miles underground. Those that survived the mines could expect to be thrown aside with broken bodies and blackened lungs at a relatively young age, with no pension to keep him and his family going. Workers were often paid not in real money, but in company scrip, false currency that was only redeemable at company stores that sold goods at grossly inflated prices. The mining companies often held the title or the mortgages on miner's homes, and so miners saw every penny they earned and more going back to the company. Under these conditions, workers had no choice but to unionize and fight for their rights.
But the mining companies also owned the governments at the city, county, and even state level. Sheriffs, councilmen, mayors, and congressmen were all routinely on the mining companies' payroll. Attempts to unionize were met with intimidation and outright violence by local authorities. When the miners still fought back, hired thugs were brought in to terrorize the miners and their families.
The story of Headless Annie is the story of one of those miners, and of his family. The legend says that this miner was leading the unionization efforts at a mine near Black Mountain. More and more miners were coming over to his side. The miners were ready to declare a strike, and the company was furious at his success and terrified of losing their absolute power. And so they brought in "deputies" to put an end to the growing organization.
The company men waited until night, dragged the sleeping union organizer, his wife, and their young daughter out of bed. They were bound, gagged, thrown into the back of a truck and driven to the top of Black Mountain.
The company men immediately began setting about doing the work they had been paid to do. They threw the family to the ground and dragged the father over to the base of a tall tree standing by a deep ravine. One of the men produced a meat hook and a rope. He threw the hook over a high branch in the tree, letting it carry the rope with it. The father's bound hands were forced onto the hook, and he was hauled up to the top of the tree. The company men wanted him to have a good view of what they were about to do.
The horrified organizer, his body wracked with pain, watched as the men dragged his struggling wife out onto the ground. They tortured and brutalized her in front of him. taunting the man hanging from the tree, saying "This is what happens when you start a union." When they had finished, one of the company men took an axe from the truck and cut off the poor woman's head.They tossed her head off the side of the ravine. Laughing, they pushed her body down after it.
And then, while he watched helplessly, the company men did the same things to his child.
His family was dead. Murdered before his eyes. Who knows what the man was feeling as he felt himself being lowered back to the ground? We know that the company men took a last opportunity to drive home their point, saying "This is what happens when you start a union" as they used the same axe they had murdered his family with to chop off the poor man's legs. They hauled him back up into the tree and left him there, to bleed to death and as warning of the power the company held and the lengths that it would go to in order to hold on to that power.
The memory of that horrible night is seen when the spirit of the murdered child walks Black Mountain. The spirit of the young girl, dressed in a white nightgown, is often seen on the road that runs over the mountain, by the spot where the killings happened.
Some people say she will run out in front of cars, as if trying to stop the. Sometimes she is said to appear in the back seat of cars as they drive past. Sometimes she appears trying to flag down cars by the side of the road. But wherever she is seen, there is one unmistakable feature about the ghost child.
The figure of the young girl has no head.
This bloody tale from the darkest days of the battle for workers rights should remind us that the struggle for a decent living and fair treatment from the powerful has been an important part of Kentucky's history, part of a struggle that still carries on today. So if you ever pass over Black Mountain and poor Headless Annie appears to you, take it as a warning to never let it get so bad that a story like hers can happen again in the Bluegrass State, or anywhere in America.