Monday, September 06, 2010

Digging Like A Dog

About nine years ago, some of my folks moved to the small town of Fairfax, Virginia, USA. It is a mere twenty-minute drive from Dulles Airport, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, so paying them a visit was a simple proposition. This part of the country is famous for having been the main battleground of the American Civil War (1861-5) (Figure 10.1). During my stay, therefore, we decided to take in some of its history, exploring the state and neighbouring West Virginia and Maryland.

Figure 10.1: Manassas National Battlefield Park, Prince William County, Virginia

Copyright 2001 Paul Spradbery

Twenty-five miles southwest of Washington lies the small Virginian town of Clifton (Figure 10.2). By ‘small’, I refer to its current population of fewer than two hundred people. The place is delightfully unspoiled. In a store called Judy’s Junque, at 7144 Main Street, on August 16th, 2001, a lady asked me whether I was ‘a real limey’. Having never previously met one, she was utterly charming when I confirmed her suspicions.

Figure 10.2: Clifton, Fairfax County, Virginia

Copyright 2001 Paul Spradbery

While peaceful and picturesque, however, Clifton’s principal claim to fame is one of America’s most enduring urban myths. I was unaware of its existence while I was there (Figure 10.3).

Figure 10.3: Exploring the town's Main Street

Copyright 2001 Paul Spradbery

The legend goes something like this. At the turn of the 20th century, there was an ‘asylum for the insane’ just outside the settlement. As the population grew, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the inmates were transferred to nearby Lorton Prison. During the transfer, the bus was involved in a road accident and most of the prisoners were killed. Those that fled were soon rounded up – except for one. Douglas J. Grifen attempted to escape across the nearby Southern Railway overpass and was hit by a train. Afterwards, the police heard laughter from the other side of the tracks. In subsequent years, on Hallowe’en, his ghost, dressed in a rabbit suit – the so-called ‘Bunny Man’ – appears at the railway bridge (Figure 10.4) and mutilates revellers with an axe. The locals have also seen carcasses of skinned rabbits hanging from nearby trees on November 1st. What gripping stuff!

Figure 10.4: The 'Bunny Man Bridge' on Colchester Road

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

Nowadays, thanks to the Internet, looking into such tales is made easy. I decided, therefore, just for fun, to conduct my own research. I had to dig quite hard. When investigating any incident of a criminal nature, the best place to begin is the local police department. Any murders or mutilations carried out by a killer lunatic returning from the dead in a rabbit costume would surely have been classified as recordable incidents.

Surprise surprise, it turned out that nothing of the sort has ever occurred. Moreover, Fairfax County has never had an asylum, and Lorton Prison had not been built at the time of the purported bus crash. (Even if it had, it would have belonged to the District of Columbia, not to the state of Virginia.) Lastly, there is no official court record of either Grifon or his first ‘murder victim’, a man called Marcus Wallaster.

Facts certainly get under people’s feet, don’t they? Well, not under everyone’s. Each year on October 31st, locals congregate around the railway bridge, drinking, smoking and trying to frighten each other witless. Some leave minutes before midnight; others take their chances.

Perhaps I shall return at the end of next month. If no articles appear on this website in November, you will know the reason.

An urban myth? That is perhaps a little unfair – Clifton is in the country.

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

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