By Mannix Porterfield
George Bragg might have invested his entire career into capturing on film people and places in his native southern West Virginia, but a trip to purchase some furniture from an estate in Mount Hope altered his life forever.
Then in his late 30s, Bragg was examining some articles of furniture in the basement of the house when he accidentally kicked a magazine onto the floor.
The periodical was Master Detective and billboarded the infamous “Mad Butcher” mystery that haunted law enforcement agencies over a three-year span in Fayette County. Selling for a mere 35 cents in that era, the magazine blared on the cover, “Seven men died violently or vanished — were they victims of West Virginia’s Mad Butcher?”
His curiosity piqued, Bragg retrieved the magazine from the floor and asked the man showing him the furniture for an explanation.
“Well,” the man replied, “the lady who lived here, her son was one of the missing people.”
That victim, headless and minus his feet and hands, turned up in a lonely spot in Pineville.
“I questioned him about the case pretty thoroughly,” Bragg said of the man selling the furniture.
From there, Bragg tracked down a sister of one of the victims, Shirley Gene Arthur, a sailor who had been among the crew that recovered the first astronaut to splash down after a venture in space. He had come home AWOL from the Navy to sort out some family difficulties and was hitchhiking home from seeing a girlfriend when he dropped from sight, only to turn up dismembered in Wyoming County.
“What really struck me was the fact she talked about her mom, standing in the doorway of that house all the time, waiting on her son to come home, for months afterward,” Bragg said.
“Of course, he never did.”
Bragg soon expanded his career, using his spare time away from photography duties, to investigate and research other baffling murder cases.
With wife Melody handling the writing, the couple produced about half a dozen books, and their latest one, titled “West Virginia Unsolved Murders,” a compilation of their exhaustive research, is fresh off the presses and available for purchase.
“We got really interested in the Oak Hill area’s ‘mad butcher’ case,” Bragg said in an interview.
“Somebody was picking up hitchhikers and cutting their bodies up into pieces, then disposing of them in the Oak Hill area. That happened when I was a child. I had always been fascinated with it. We decided to research it thoroughly. It took us four years of research to do that story and ended up being the main feature in our first book.”
Attention in this case also was riveted on Army Sgt. James Haynes, who vanished after thumbing a ride from Maryland to Oak Hill en route to a Christmas reunion he never made with his parents in Maben. Follow-ups led to a possible run-in with some rowdies at a tavern on Bolt Mountain, but Bragg says his own inquiries led him to conclude that Haynes “could have easily been a ‘butcher’ victim.”
Haynes’ body was never recovered.
Technically, the “butcher” case went down in regional crime annals as unsolved, but Bragg says all evidence pointed to a man placed into a mental hospital immediately after his arrest.
“He was in and out of mental hospitals for many years,” Bragg said.
“So, the case never really got followed up. One thing you have to really take with a grain of salt is there were seven people missing in that time period from 1962 to 1964. But we can’t prove the ‘butcher’ got all of them. We know that there were three bodies found that possibly could have been the ‘mad butcher.’”
The 208-page book is filled with one sensational crime after another — such as the West Virginia University coed murder, the disappearance of the Sodder children in a Christmas Eve fire in 1945, the slaying of Montgomery city clerk Cathy Carroll, the Rand-Bailey mystery, the fatal shooting of a popular Beckley police officer. There are updates, including the recent Kanawha County sniper.
In all, 34 murder cases are chronicled by the Braggs.
One of the bigger headline grabbers came in the Fayetteville area, after a fire erupted and a family awoke on Christmas morning to find five of the children missing.
“When they scraped all the ashes, looking for bones and body parts and all, they never found anything,” Bragg said.
“The family actually took a bulldozer and covered up the basement of the house. More people got interested. The parents believed the children were kidnapped.”
Eventually, the Smithsonian Institution became intrigued and a subsequent dig ensued in the basement.
“They sifted through every pound of dirt that was pushed into the basement and actually did find a small piece of vertebrae that likely belonged to a child,” Bragg said.
“Of course, at that time, they didn’t have DNA. There was no way to prove that didn’t come from outside the dirt or was one of the children itself. That’s all they found. It wasn’t determined whether it was them or not.”
Until the mid-1980s, a huge billboard on the property bearing pictures of the missing children stood as a landmark in the region, asking for a fresh inquiry into the fire, which the family maintained was deliberately set. The message contained a reminder that no bones were uncovered and there was an absence of the smell of burning flesh during or after the fire.
“What was the motive of the law officers involved?” the board once asked.
“What did they have to gain by making us suffer all these years of injustice? Why did they lie and force us to accept those lies?”
One nagging problem for the family was a stream of mercenaries claiming they could find the missing children for the right price. After all these years, the case remains open.
Not so for the 1970 decapitation murders of coeds Karen Ferrell of Quinwood, Greenbrier County, and Mared Malarik of Kinnelnon, N.J., found in a wooded area about eight miles south of the West Virginia University campus after an inch-by-inch search by National Guard troops, pressed into the search by then-Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr.
Eugene Paul Clawson ultimately confessed to the grisly killings but then recanted, saying he only did so to get transferred from custody in Pennsylvania.
Bragg spoke to the man convicted in the slayings a few years ago when he was up for a parole that was denied.
“Technically, that’s a solved murder,” Bragg said.
“All of the authorities really do believe there was only one person involved in that. But you really don’t know for sure. I really consider it to be unsolved.”
Clawson claimed in the interview that he deposited the heads in a coke oven, a critical point that no one could ever verify, Bragg said.
Readers can buy the book for $20, plus $4 for shipping, by calling Bragg at 304-256-8400, or in person at GEM Publications at 269 Maplewood Lane in Beaver.
Like father, like son, in one respect.
The Braggs’ son, Morgan, now 27, is a detective with the Beckley Police Department, a career choice that his father says likely was influenced by growing up in the shadow of him and the years of playing human bloodhound on cold cases.
“I’m sure that had something to do with it,” Bragg said. “He’s been dealing with it since 1990.”
Did anyone ever volunteer a fresh lead to the police authorities after reading one of the Braggs’ accounts and help clear up an old case?
“I’d like to believe that was the case, and I’d like to believe that somebody did come forth because of the book, but I don’t know for sure,” Bragg said.
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