Mary Hott on the Devil in the Hills of West Virginia

In 2013, West Virginia Public Radio ran a report, part of a series on spooky places around the state, about the Whipple Company Store in Scarbro, West Virginia.

“The spooky stories go beyond typical ghost tales and towards a horror that bleeds into reality,” reporter Catherine Moore told her listeners. “The stories that point to forced sexual servitude on the part of women who lived in the coal camps around Whipple. Esau scrip was allegedly issued to women whose husbands were out of work – a kind of loan in which the women’s very bodies were the collateral. We also heard about a room in the store where women were supposedly forced to trade sexual favors for new pairs of shoes. Some historians are skeptical, citing, among other concerns, a lack of written documentation. Others say these stories have been buried, but are far from dead.”

Singer and songwriter Mary Hott of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia was listening to the report.

“I heard the radio report on the Whipple Company Store,” Hott told This Week in Morgan County. “People were telling stories – rape, torture by mine guards, to keep control, to keep the miners and their families under control, to keep out unions.”

Until hearing that report, Hott had never heard of the Whipple Company Store. She decided to look into it more. She read books and articles, watched movies about the coal fields – including the award winning Matewan. And then she decided she wanted to write songs and put out an album about it. 

The working title of the album – Devil in the Hills. It will be out later this spring. (MaryHott.com)

“State historians were saying – we can’t prove this was true,” Hott said. “But we know how victims respond – they don’t talk out of fear. That is what inspired me to write songs about it. People had been writing books. I thought – if we set it to music, maybe more people would hear the stories.”

Who is the devil in the hills?

“Our unwillingness to acknowledge what has been done” to the miners and their families, Hott said.

There are eleven tracks on the album – including seven original songs, one spoken word, and a couple of gospel oriented songs.

How did you get the album made?

“I was reading and reading. The more I read the more I found other stories to read. The movie Matewan. A documentary on the mine wars. I finally got to the point where I had the songs – words and a melody. Then it came to the point – now I have to record this. I hadn’t thought much about putting a band together, but in the previous year I had started working with the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and got to know The Carpenter Ants. I approached Michael Lipton about recording the album. He said – absolutely and – let’s get our producer in – Don Dixon.”

“I went down to Charleston a couple of times to record it. Michael Lipton has music credit on the album. Once they started playing on the album it became a richer sound.”

“One song is called Annabelle Lee – a song about human trafficking in the coal fields. It’s a story out of northern West Virginia, about how company agents would come up to some of these towns and rent young girls between the age of 12 and 18. Their parents would send them because it was a way for the family to survive. They would say – we did it to survive.”

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