Early in the 19th century, the railroad was the only way to travel throughout the United States and where goods were shipped to different destination points. Many times the depots were on the outskirts of town, which became the seedier area known as the tenderloin. Saloons and brothels were close by and the poor often lived in the area since it was the only place they could afford. Such was the story of a poor woman who lived in a shanty in Harper's Ferry in West Virginia. Her name was Jenny.
Harper's Ferry is tucked between rugged mountain ridges where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet.
In 1794, President Washington asked Congress to establish a federal armory which consisted of 20 buildings along the south bank of the Potomac.
In 1859, John Brown took over the Armory in his ill-fated attempt to start a slave rebellion in the South. In 1861, the fleeing Union army burnt down the buildings. However many years before the Civil War it was a busy little town with a population of about 3,000 people.
In 1833 the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad reached Harper's Ferry and part of the track passed through the Armory Yard. Shortly afterward these storage sheds were abandoned and the poor people made a shanty town from the buildings.
The following story might be urban myth but like all of these types of stories there is usually more than a kernel of truth at the heart of them.
One of those who lived there was a woman named Jenny. She is sometimes described as an older woman, other times she is younger, a civil war widow who had no way to sustain herself economically. She had no family and barely scraped by, however she was known for her kindness to others who were in dire straits like her. She shared what little food she had and also helped tend those who had fallen sick.
It was an autumn evening, with an early chill in the air and as the story goes, Jenny was trying to a stay warm over a small fire she had burning in her small room. As she was eating some broth she failed to see sparks that flew from the fire unto her woolen skirt. She realized what had happened when she felt the searing heat against her legs and in desperation she ran outside screaming for help.
Crazed with pain she ran toward the depot hoping to find someone to help her. As she ran flames engulfed her body, and she screamed horribly unable to keep running. She staggered into the tracks just west of the station, unaware that a train was rolling towards her. The engineer no doubt could not understand what was the ball of fire on the tracks, but by the time he screeched on the brakes of the train, it was too late and the locomotive mowed Jenny down, ending her agony in a horrific way.
By then the workers at the train station heard the commotion including the whistling of the train and ran toward the smouldering pile on the tracks that was Jenny's mutilated body which was still burning.
Like others who did not have money or family to inter them, Jenny was buried in a pauper's grave in a corner of the cemetery. Jenny who had suffered such a terrible fate was soon forgotten and within a few days her little shanty was already occupied by a poor family.
The autumn ended and winter was setting in a month later when a train rounded the bend west of the station. The engineer suddenly saw a screaming ball of flame in the middle of the tracks, and even though he tried to stop he was too late. Once the train came to a stop he ran back expecting to find a gruesome sight, but there was nothing. Once at the station he told everyone there his queer story, and it was the stationmaster that realized that he was describing a reenactment of Jenny's horrible death.
Throughout the years after Jenny's fiery demise, her ghost is seen enveloped in flames and screaming as she did that chilly autumn day, always on the anniversary of her death. More than one train engineer has been witness to her wailing phantom and the piercing screams which sound just as loud as the day she ran towards the Harper's Ferry train station seeking help.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer