Investigating Artifacts at the Archive of the Afterlife

Kenneth Biddle

On September 28, 2019, many of my paranormal enthusiast friends celebrated the unofficial “National Ghost Hunting Day,” taking part in nighttime ghost hunts at various historical locations throughout the country. On this night, hundreds of ghost hunting teams streamed live videos of their investigations, sharing their adventures with the entire world via social media. Investigating claims of ghosts isn’t just for those that whole-heartedly believe in an afterlife; it’s a fun hobby for many skeptics too … like me! 

In the weeks leading up to this night, I had been in contact with Tim Vickers, a friend, colleague, and also cocreator (with me) of the EVP Challenge still in progress at the White Hill Mansion in Fieldsboro, New Jersey (Biddle 2018). We had been toying with the idea of visiting a museum called the Archive of the Afterlife, located in Moundsville, West Virginia. The museum is owned by Steve Hummel, an avid ghost hunter and collector of all things strange and macabre—from an electrocution cap and various coffins to allegedly cursed bibles and dolls. It’s a museum of “oddities” one usually finds in tourist towns. 

We had spoken with Hummel previously about investigating and testing some claims related to a few of the more prominent artifacts on display. Hummel was not only open to the idea but very enthusiastic to be a part of it, which is an uncommon reaction in these situations. In my experience, those that showcase/promote “haunted” or “cursed” objects usually tend to avoid detailed investigations, especially from skeptics. Even after mentioning that we might be able to solve and/or debunk some claims, Hummel still gamely encouraged us to visit. 

So, both Vickers and I got up early on a Saturday morning and drove (for many hours) until we arrived in Moundsville. After a delicious barbeque lunch, we headed over to the Archive of the Afterlife museum. Hummel greeted us with a friendly smile and a handshake. After the museum closed for the day, Hummel gave us a private tour. There are hundreds of interesting items on display, but with only one night available for a hands-on investigation, we focused on three specific items to take a closer look at: the West Virginia Penitentiary execution cap, the Annie portrait, and a blood-stained Dr. Seuss book. These items were selected due to their popularity and their claims include details that can be properly investigated. Let’s jump in!

The Execution Cap

Inside an old glass-sided end-table-turned-display case rests a cap made from two welded metal bars, several strips of leather, a few rivets, and a buckle. A sign placed on top of the table states “West Virginia State Penitentiary Execution Cap.” This cap is believed to be the long-lost execution cap from the prison. The West Virginia Penitentiary, located just a few minutes from the museum, first opened in 1876 and continued to operate until 1995. The penitentiary reopened as a tourist attraction in 1998 and has operated tours ever since. From 1899 to 1949, eighty-five men were executed at the prison by hanging. 

In 1951, the death penalty was carried out by electrocution. The electric chair, morbidly nicknamed “Old Sparky,” was constructed by an inmate named Paul Glenn. As you can imagine, once word got around, Glenn had to be transferred to another prison to avoid violent retribution from his fellow inmates. From 1951 to 1959, a total of nine men died in this chair. When the prison reopened in 1998 for tours, the original electric chair was put on display—minus the head cap. In an interview for The Intelligencer, then-penitentiary general manager Tom Stiles revealed that “the cap went missing sometime after the facility’s closure in 1995 and before its reopening for tours in 1998, possibly taken by a former employee or volunteer” (Parker 2016).
So, how did the missing execution cap end up in Hummel’s museum? Well, I’m not convinced that it did. According to Hummel, he acquired the cap from an eBay auction some time ago and could only pass along the information included in the auction’s description, which to be honest wasn’t much. I was able to locate a duplicate listing on WorthPoint.com, a website for “researching, valuing, and buying/selling antiques, art and vintage collectibles” (WorthPoint 2020). The description states the cap was “pulled from a storage unit in rural West Virginia, originally from a Moundsville estate that consisted of many rare items …” and goes on to say “the story is that this was the headpiece to the original Old Sparky, the electric chair located in now-defunct Moundsville Penitentiary. It was a prize taken when the chair was updated and rebuilt in the 1950’s” (WorthPoint 2020). 

 

 

As with any historic artifact, establishing the provenance of the object is extremely important to verify exactly where an item came from and hence its authenticity. I was looking for records, receipt of ownership, or even a photograph from the prison that included the cap. After reading the full description for the item, it was clear no such documentation existed. I noticed key phrases such as “the story is …” and “it can be implied that,” which are often used when the extraordinary claims are based on rumors rather than facts. When asked about any documentation that was sent with the cap, Hummel said there wasn’t anything but the description on eBay. I really didn’t expect any records to be available, because the original cap went missing long ago and was presumed stolen.

A detail I noticed in the auction description states the cap “… was a prize taken when the chair was updated and rebuilt in the 1950’s.” This raises a red flag, because the chair was used just nine times from 1951 to 1959. The cap was still ready for use until 1965 when the death penalty was abolished. This means that it could not have been “a prize taken … in the 1950’s,” so that statement in the auction description is absolutely false. I also found no records indicating the chair was updated or rebuilt during its time in use. This further calls into question the legitimacy of the background story. 

Another point in the item’s description is where the cap allegedly came from. This is no information about the owner of the storage locker (or the auction), so although the auction states the storage locker was located in West Virginia, it could have just as easily said the locker was in Florida or New Mexico. We can’t verify its origin either way because important information is missing, namely the owner of the auction and/or the storage locker. The lack of this information presents the opportunity for some not-so-honest person to make some easy cash, simply by fabricating the backstory and selling it to an interested amateur collector. 

The idea of not being able to verify the cap brought up yet another point. In the Intelligencer interview, Stiles mentioned “… although the authenticity of the cap cannot be completely confirmed due to the nature of its disappearance, it appears identical to the original cap” (Parker 2016). After an extensive search, I failed to uncover any photographs or written descriptions of the cap. I was curious whether Stiles had access to records not available to the public. I contacted the West Virginia State Penitentiary via email, in search of Mr. Stiles, and inquired about two specific questions: 1) how exactly was the cap from the museum compared to the original; and 2) was there any accountability of the original cap between 1965 (when the chair was retired) and the ensuing thirty-year period up until 1995 when the prison closed. 

I received a reply from Amanda Wolverton, General manager of the penitentiary, who stated, “From what I understand, the owner of the cap had found it on eBay. We, at West Virginia Penitentiary, could not prove or disprove the validity of the cap either. From what I imagine an electric chair cap to be, I can see where both sides believe it to be true or ‘identical.’ I have never seen actual pictures of any inmate being strapped into our Old Sparky, so I cannot compare. If you happen to find out more information regarding your inquiry, we would also love to know” (Wolverton 2019). It seems that Stiles statement, “it appears identical to the original cap” was not based on any physical evidence and was likely an assumption presented to promote interest and thus visitors to both the penitentiary and museum. I did locate Stiles on social media and sent him a message inquiring as to what he had compared the cap to. It’s been over a month at the time I’m writing this, and I haven’t received a response.

As we examined the cap, a peculiar detail stood out to both me and Vickers: there wasn’t any connection point on the cap to attach an electrical cable. According to Dr. Stephen Juan, the process of execution by electrocution involves “the prisoner must first be prepared for execution by shaving the head and the calf of one leg. This permits better contact between the skin and the electrodes which must be attached to the body. The prisoner is strapped into the electric chair at the wrists, waist, and ankles. An electrode is attached to the head and another to the leg” (Juan 2006). Electricity flows through the prisoner’s body from the head to their leg, which indicates there must be a socket, hole, or post in which to securely attach the electrical cable. 

 

Hummel removed the cap from its display case and allowed us to examine it more closely. We confirmed the two crisscrossing bars did not have any such connection point. When compared to other caps/helmets from other “Old Sparky” chairs, the connection point is clearly seen at the top of the head. In addition, Vickers and I had taken a tour of the West Virginia Penitentiary the next day, touring the facility and seeing the original electric chair in person, which is on display in the main lobby. We discovered the original electrical cables, still attached to the chair, had quarter-inch jacks on the ends. That gives the impression there should have been a quarter-inch socket integrated into the cap (and leg piece). Even if there had been an adapter used between the cap and wire, there would still need to be a mounting point on the cap. There simply isn’t any connection point, nor is there any indication there ever was.

In the end, I don’t know what the cap was originally used for, but I don’t think it is the long-lost electrocution cap from the West Virginia Penitentiary. The original cap was made in-house by an inmate, so the design could likely deviate from what would be considered a “typical” cap or helmet. That said, the claims still fall apart from the beginning with the auction description, with further scrutiny stripping away any likelihood this is an artifact from the penitentiary.

Annie Portrait (1902)

The portrait of Annie is one of the museum’s main artifacts, placed in a cabinet just inside the entrance so it’s one of the first items you see upon entering. The portrait depicts a young woman, from her head to midway down her torso, staring straight ahead (at the camera). Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun that’s barely visible, and she is dressed in a white blouse and light jacket over top. She is adorned with teardrop earrings and a necklace with an oval brooch. The portrait measures 16”x20” and rests in a simple frame. 

According to Hummel, he acquired her picture from an antique shop in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he had been admiring it for quite a while. In a frame above the portrait, an information sheet states that “She demanded my attention as if she knew I sensed her and that she had something to say.” Once Hummel opened his museum, he decided to purchase the portrait. Unfortunately, the vendor had closed and all the items, including the portrait, were gone. A few months later upon returning to the antique store, the portrait had reappeared, and Hummel snatched it up. 

On the museum’s website, the picture is described as “one of our most active and powerful entities within the Archive.” According to the information on display at the museum, it is believed this picture has a spirit attached to it, claiming “mysterious activity and compelling paranormal evidence has been sensed and documented from this picture.” The primary evidence presented comes in the form of an EVP (or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, ghost voices on audio recordings), which is reported to be the voice of a grown woman coming through a radio clearly saying the name of “Annie.” The video is featured on the museum’s website. 

After listening to the recording (Paranormal Quest 2015), I remain unconvinced the portrait is haunted. My primary issue with the evidence is that this EVP session was done with a Radio Shack hacked radio, modified to allow it to continually scan through the available AM or FM frequencies without muting the sound. This has been a common method used by ghost hunters for years, despite being fundamentally flawed. This technique of listening to snippets of radio broadcasts provides ghost hunters with many short clips of all the radio broadcasts within range, including news, music, commercials, talk radio, etc. You can hear almost anything by this method; no ghosts are required. When asking general questions such as “What is your name?,” I can guarantee sooner or later you’ll hear something that sounds like a name, and there is a good chance of being a name, because you’re listening to radio broadcasts, news reports, commercials, and so on—which often include names. 

This means that the name Annie, which the ghost hunters believe they heard, could have been spoken as a name. It could also be from any number of spoken words or snippets that might broadcast from a radio station. Some common examples include company, anything, anyone, mahogany, many, or even any. Furthermore, let’s say a radio program announced something like, “The Mayor arrived, and he shook hands with many in the crowd.” If our hacked radio ghost gadget passed by the station for half a second, we may only hear “… and he …,” which when spoken quickly can sound like Annie.

Another issue concerns confirmation bias, the tendency to search for and/or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. In the case of the Annie portrait, the ghost hunters already knew the name of the woman in the portrait. On the back of the picture there is hand-written information, including the name of the woman: Annie Eva (DeGarmo) Ledger. The ghost hunters had been exposed to the name associated with the portrait and believed that might be haunted, so they were primed to seek out and hear the name Annie. And so they did.

 

Aside from the paranormal claims, something about the picture was bugging me. First, the size of the portrait (16”x20”) seemed too large for what was normal available around 1900. According to the information written on the back, the image was taken on Annie’s wedding day, June 15, 1902 (at the age of 15!). After consulting several photography sources, I found that most prints from that time measured less than six inches. 

A much closer look at the image revealed that the portrait wasn’t a photograph. Many of the details, such as the earrings, necklace, brooch, and even the hair decoration appears to be drawn in with charcoal. These details had hard outlined edges, much like you would see in drawings. Using my camera lens as a make-shift enlarger, I noticed the finer details of the eyes, nose, and lips were also drawn in with exceptional skill. 

When I arrived home a few days later, I called my friend Joe Nickell, author of one of my favorite books, Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. I described the details of the portrait, and Nickell explained that it was likely something called a Crayon Portrait. According to the Aurora Missouri Historical Society, the process for creating a crayon portrait “started by enlarging a photograph onto drawing paper with a weak photographic emulsion producing a faint image. The artist then drew over the picture with charcoal or pastels, trying to duplicate the photograph while making it look hand drawn. The quality of the picture was entirely dependent on the artist’s skill. Tinting or gilding was sometimes added to enhance the effect. From a few feet away, it is often taken for a photograph but viewed up close, it can be seen to be a drawing” (Aurora 2009). 

Such an enlargement would have been accomplished by a solar camera, first invented by D. A. Woodward. These devices would use sunlight and “a copying lens that projected a small negative onto a large sheet of sensitized photographic paper or canvas” (Wilgus 1996). These descriptions perfectly match the Annie portrait at the museum, telling us the portrait is basically a photograph of a photograph that has been traced over with charcoals. 

The portrait does have a haunting look to it, with the eyes that follow you and an intense look of the subject (something an artist is more likely to dramatize than a camera). However, there is just no evidence to support the idea that Annie’s spirit haunts or is somehow attached to the portrait, which turns out to be a copy of a copy (like using a copy machine to duplicate a photograph). Anna Ledger was a real woman who passed away in February 12, 1966. She rests peacefully in Brooke Cemetery in Wellsburg, West Virginia.

The Foot Book

The last item we wanted to take a closer look at was the haunted Dr. Seuss Foot Book, a child’s book first published in 1968. The book was donated to the museum by a ghost hunter who acquired it from a case he worked on. Based on the ghost hunter’s work, the museum’s website claims the book was purchased several years ago from a house where a quadruple murder took place, in which one of the victims was a two-year old girl. When the new owner of the book took it home, she soon reported hearing children’s voices and having the feeling of being watched (Hummel 2020). 

The front cover of the book has several dark red/orange stains that appear in various spots. Shane Burgy, a local ghost hunter, was contacted to investigate the strange activity. Over the course of several ghost investigations, he made the determination that the book was the cause the spooky events. During Burgy’s investigation, he had a local fireman “analyze the dark stain on the bottom right hand cover and it was confirmed that it was indeed a bloodstain” (Hummel 2020). The same ghost hunter also determined the book came from the house of the quadruple murder. 

The first claim my colleague and I focused on were the alleged blood stains. After removing the book from its case, we found these red/orange stains appeared not just in the lower, right corner of the front cover but over the entire front and back covers. When I asked Hummel what the fireman did to analyze the stain and confirm it was blood, Hummel admitted that the fireman only looked at it—there was actually no testing done at all. After some discussion, Hummel granted us permission to perform a simple (yet invasive) test with hydrogen peroxide. 

According to an article from LiveScience, “Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), a compound made up of two hydrogen atoms and two oxygen atoms, begins to break apart as soon as it contacts blood, creating that stinging sizzle. This is because blood and most living cells contain the enzyme catalase, which attacks hydrogen peroxide and converts it into water (H2O) and oxygen (O2)” (Melina 2011). The interaction causes the white foaming/bubbling that we commonly see whenever we’ve used hydrogen peroxide on cuts and scrapes. The test isn’t perfect, because old blood samples may not cause a reaction, but we gave it a shot anyway. Vickers applied hydrogen peroxide to several stains on the back cover, and we waited. We did not get any bubbles.  

When I looked at the stains under magnification, I noticed there were textile fibers mixed in with the stains. The stains themselves reminded me of hand-smeared stains of baby food, rather than blood. This makes much more sense considering the backstory; the book was purchased at a yard sale by a woman who intended to give/read it to her child or grandchild. She also had it in her possession for some time, considering she had the same ghost hunter visit several times. If it had been covered in blood (or any substance), why would this woman not have cleaned the book after purchasing it? Seriously, cleaning the dirt and grime off a used item should have been the immediate concern before offering it to a child (or anyone). For this reason alone, I highly doubt the stains are blood.

Let’s take a look back at where the book allegedly came from: a house where a quadruple homicide took place involving a two-year old girl. Hummel had provided information on the homicide case, which involved a man named Nawaz Ahmed. On September 11, 1999, Ahmed entered a home in St. Clairsville, Ohio, and brutally murdered his estranged wife, her father, her sister, and her two-year old niece, before fleeing to New York trying to make his way to Pakistan (Ackerman, Block 1999). The house where this event took place is approximately twenty miles northeast of the museum. 

When I opened the Foot Book to look for additional clues, I found one on the first page. Under the line “This book belongs to …,” was a hand-written note: “Kyle (last name withheld). Love, Grandma. 5-15-99.” Kyle’s last name did not match the names of the homicide victims or the perpetrator of the crime. This simple fact put serious doubt that the book came from the house of the victims. I decided to focus on this point and see what I could find.

I estimated that after twenty years (1999 to 2019), Kyle would be in his mid to late twenties, depending on how old he was when he received the book. There was also a good chance he’d be on social media, which is where we began the search. Within a few minutes later, a young man matching the details was found. I sent him a message explaining who I was and why I was contacting him. A few minutes later, I received a response from a very surprised Kyle. He confirmed that the hand-written note inside the book was from his grandmother, and the book had been a gift from her to him. 

After a brief text conversation, Kyle called me and provided some important information. He had been living at his father’s house at the time (1999), which was next door to the house where the quadruple homicide took place. The Dr. Seuss book had been his favorite as a child; his mother would read it to him just about every night. However, Kyle stated that his family had only just moved into the house a week prior to the homicides. Kyle and his father had not met the victims or the man who committed the crime. There was no interaction whatsoever between the two families. I asked Kyle if his father may have had a yard sale, such as mentioned in the Foot Book’s origin story. After speaking with his father, Kyle confirmed that his father did host a yard sale several years ago while Kyle was away at college. 

So, it turns out there is no tragic backstory for the book. It came from a happy child who enjoyed it immensely. Tragic events are often used as the catalyst to justify why an object is considered haunted or cursed. In this case, multiple mistakes and several assumptions in previous research led to the creation of a “haunted” children’s book. I can’t tell you whether the last owner (who purchased it from the yard sale) was hearing ghost children or actual children, but my money is on the latter. 

Conclusion

Like many small museums that focus on the topic of oddities, the Archive of the Afterlife is an interesting tourist attraction that, if so inclined, satisfies one’s curiosity in all things strange and macabre. From standards such as creepy dolls and funeral items to more rare items such as a “sod collection” from various “haunted” and non-haunted locations and an embalming table (which we used as a workstation). Steve Hummel is extremely friendly and good-natured and was excited by some of our findings, even when they didn’t support previous conclusions. Even though I don’t think any of the items we investigated are haunted or cursed, both Vickers and I still enjoyed our visit to the museum. With so many more items to investigate, I hope to return soon. If you find yourself in the Moundsville area of West Virginia, I encourage you to stop by the museum and check out the creepy artifacts. Just be sure to take a closer look.

 


 

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