“There’s a lot that makes West Virginia and the surrounding areas mysterious,” Sean McCracken tells me in between puffs on his pipe. “The mountains themselves are mysterious, because, half the time, you never know what’s around the next corner.”
McCracken, a West Virginia native, knows the region’s mysteries better than most. Riveted by shows like In Search Of…, Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted as a child, McCracken dreamed of following in the footsteps of iconic hosts like Robert Stack.
“I wanted to be the person who got these cases in front of as many eyes as possible, told the story in a cohesive way and then hoped to draw the people out of the woodwork who could fill in the missing pieces,” he said.
Since 2017, McCracken has done exactly that with his YouTube channel Mysterious WV. Combining archival research, collaborations with family and local police, the old-school gravitas of McCracken’s voice and his grandfather’s orange coat, Mysterious WV profiles lesser-known missing and unidentified persons, unsolved murders and even buried treasure and the paranormal in and around West Virginia.
Thirty-three cases and nearly 54,000 subscribers later, this one-man operation is one of the most well-researched and fascinating true crime shows out there. The videos stand out for their attention to detail: evocative narrations, blueprints of city blocks and suburban maps where X marks the crime scene, and on-location dispatches from winding county roads and downtown rooftops. As one commenter put it, “This is the most underrated channel on the planet.”
McCracken’s goal with Mysterious WV is to bring answers to grieving friends and family. “The channel overall – no pun intended – is deadly serious.” In the quest for justice and resolution, however, Mysterious WV also shines a light on overlooked aspects of the real Appalachia, from its ethnic diversity and labor history to the way the mountains have shaped life – and death – over the years.
Born in South Charleston, McCracken has lived in West Virginia his entire life. It’s that local knowledge that ultimately convinced him to start the channel.
“Picture a person in Maine profiling a case that occurred in California,” he said. “How accurate can they actually be?” Anyone can film on location with today’s technology, but McCracken brings his deep-rooted knowledge of the area along with his Sony Handycam.
It’s McCracken’s use of archival material, however, that truly elevates its output. He agrees: “There would be no channel without the [West Virginia] State Archives.”
Mysterious WV’s lighter-hearted episode on the buried treasure of Moishe Edelman perfectly illustrates how this combination sheds light on Appalachian history and culture. As the legend goes, Edelman was a Jewish peddler from Russia who, from 1916 until his sudden death in 1933, catered to isolated residents south and west of the Kanawha Valley. Black-and-white footage from the archives of Model-A era cars awkwardly fording creeks, ferried slowly across rivers and bumping along country roads convey just how impassable the mountain roads were.
When McCracken films his own drive using Edelman’s purported treasure map, you see just how much – and how little – the area has changed. Driving down “the hard road” (now WV Route 10), McCracken comes to an unpaved bend in Laurel Creek Road and finds a stone face that could actually be the “large rock” mentioned in the legend as being the hiding spot of the long sought after treasure. “Sadly, time, a thick overgrowth of weeds and the ever present danger of snakes and other animals prevented closer inspection,” the narration wryly notes. Whether or not the treasure itself is real, the story of Moishe Edelman is a rich tale of the difficulties but also the underappreciated diversity of early 20th century Appalachia.
Such throwback images have a more practical reason in the true crime episodes. “If you can show material from the area at the time, you’re halfway to sending a person’s mind back to the time period where you want them,” McCracken explained. “I don’t know how you can help to pull information out of people’s memories until they’re on memory lane.” For viewers, these often literal snapshots also bring the missing, murdered and unidentified to life.
McCracken has a strict set of rules in determining which cases to take. No homicides before 1950, since the perpetrators are likely dead – though he will take on John and Jane Does. There must be enough material for at least 15 minutes of footage. And, most importantly, it must be a solvable case.
With the recent introduction of genetic genealogy as a crime-solving tool, the oldest and coldest of cases have been heating up again. It’s believed that genetic genealogy played a role in the resolution two weeks ago in one of Mysterious WV’s earliest episodes: The August 26, 1981, death of school teacher Cynthia Jane Miller, shot dead the night before her wedding. The officer in charge of the case was the first member of law enforcement officer McCracken worked with closely on Mysterious WV. “They had an idea even then where they were going.” McCracken said, “[and] he steered the feature in an appropriate direction.’”
McCracken can’t say much more until the police release more information about Earl James Robbins, the man indicted for Cynthia’s death. He did tell me, however, that Robbins’s name appeared in some of the earliest police reports. He then drops a small mystery of his own: “The other clue involved her sign–the [Crimestoppers] sign that they had up down in Beckley.” He pauses. “Did you ever wonder why that was not posted along the interstate? There’s a reason.”
Of all the cases he’s covered, it’s the unsolved murder of 18-year-old John “Jay” Farley and disappearance of 25-year-old Mazie Mae Sigmon-Palmer that sticks most with McCracken. The relatively new couple disappeared before midnight on Saturday, July 14, 1979, while out in Charleston. Farley’s remains were discovered 30 miles away, on private land in rural Fayette County, on May 10, 1984; he had died of a gunshot, his hands taped behind his back. Sigmon-Palmer remains missing.
When McCracken interviewed Farley’s mother for the episode, he was stunned to hear that the last place they were seen was at the King’s Inn in West Charleston –not the downtown location the papers at the time had reported. “My jaw must have dropped to here,” he recalled with a gesture. “Oh my god, for 40 years they’ve been starting in the wrong place!”
Setting the record straight on that crucial detail isn’t the only reason this case sticks with him. “I’ve never told anyone this before,” he confided as our interview drew to a close.
Whenever possible, he visits the gravesites of the people he profiles. Jay Farley’s resting place brought him to Cunningham Memorial Park in St. Albans, just yards from the home he lived in from 1984 to 1993. As McCracken knelt by Farley’s grave, he looked up and into the past. “[Farley] was buried less than 200 feet from my bedroom window in direct line of sight.” The same years that a young McCracken became entranced with mystery shows and their hosts, Jay Farley lay nearby – one could almost say in waiting.
“I still don’t know what to make of that.”
Sara Murphy is a freelance writer living in the mountains outside of Asheville, NC. Her work has appeared in Folks and Supermajority News.