Cannibal Innkeeper Wants You for Dinner

Come get pickled at the tavern.

Image courtesy of the author

I’m going to share with you a tale of murder and cannibalism from the mountains of Southwest Virginia and North Carolina. The story first ran as an article in the Wytheville Enterprise in the early 1900s.  It was also recorded in a Virginia Conservation Project from 1937. The story passed into obscurity, and then interest was resurrected in the 1990s and early 2000s. I heard the same tale from my grandmother and a friend of the family in the mid-1980s. They would have been in their teens when the 1914 article ran.

In the 1700s, Western Virginia and North Carolina were wilderness. The potential for danger lurked on lonely trails awaiting the weary traveler. There were no highways as we know them now. Rural roads were little more than rutted routes that followed wildlife trails. Wild animals and robbers could be anywhere along the routes.  Police did not patrol the routes to keep travelers safe, and places where travelers would stop and rest for the night could be perfectly safe…or not. Each town did have a constable or sheriff, but the only way to summon them was to travel to the town and ask for their assistance. In those days, news traveled very slowly because people traveled slowly, as well. A trip that would take an hour and a half today by car was a multi-day journey then.

Mountain wilderness in western North Carolina.
“North Carolina mountains in fall, U.S.” by juanalbertogarciarivera is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Armbristers Experienced an Unexpected and Unspeakable Terror on Their Journey

Phillip Armbrister and his wife were newly married and were traveling from North Carolina to Virginia to purchase the land that would be their future home. They anticipated some adventures and hardships along the way but could not have foreseen everything that would unfold for them. They traveled tough roads and eventually came to a house close to the road in the early evening. In those days, there were inns and taverns for travelers, much like today.  Most of these establishments were safe and welcoming of visitors. A few of the homes harbored secrets soon to be uncovered by an unlucky traveler, and people did disappear sometimes.

Phillip and Mrs. Armbrister stopped their horses in front of the tidy and inviting inn. They thought they could smell delicious food cooking. A beautiful woman sat outside on the porch, dressed very fashionably. She spoke to them and invited them to stay the night. The couple noticed she wore a lot of jewelry.  The couple felt safe spending the night at this inn, assuming the owners had enough wealth of their own that they would not need to rob weary travelers. They dismounted from their horses, and a servant helped them to carry their bags to their room and then tended to the horses.

Dinner Was Simple, but Filling

The hosts served kraut and dumplings with stewed pork and ale. The supper tray was overflowing with crisp kraut, firm dumplings, and tender pork that fell from its bones. Mrs. Armbrister’s body suddenly stiffened, and she looked up and across the table at her hosts. She had stopped eating quickly and stood abruptly, excusing herself to the bedroom because she did not feel well. She bid Phillip to assist her. He politely excused himself to go with her.

After the door was shut, she whispered to him in a serious tone.

“We must leave. Now!” She said. “Look!!” She unfolded her napkin that she had secreted away in her skirts. She showed him a piece of meat with some bones still attached. He held the candle closer and to his horror, the meat looked like a human wrist.

Just then, they heard a key in the lock of their door. Phillip held his finger to his lips for them to stop talking. He walked to the door and listened, hearing footsteps walking away from the door. He reached down and gently and quietly pressed the door latch and pulled at the door. His heart sank as he realized the door was locked from the outside. They were locked in.

Mrs. Armbrister snuck to the window and tried to open it. It was nailed shut. She could see the nails protruding from the sash. Phillip stood by the door. He heard footsteps approaching. He began talking loudly to Mrs. Armbrister.

He heard the footsteps retreat. Each time they heard footsteps in the hallway, they began talking loudly to one another, announcing to the approaching person that they were not asleep and not defenseless. The footsteps retreated each time.

Eventually, the house was quiet long enough for the Armbristers to be satisfied, and they were able to open a window and escape. Eventually, they came to another home, miles away. They banged on the doors and windows, and the man of the house came to the front door in his nightclothes.

“Help! Murder!” Phillip yelled. Phillip was ready to shoot if this person also wanted to possibly harm him instead of helping him. Phillip explained what had happened.

“I wondered what was going on over there…”

A burger and fries with red, raw ground beef and an eyeball spilling out from the buns.
“Cannibal Burger” by DarlingJack is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The neighbor had some suspicions about the innkeepers that were now confirmed. He agreed to ride with the Armbristers to the next town and rouse the sheriff. They located the sheriff and explained what had happened, and several men set out toward the inn to investigate.

When the sheriff and his party arrived at the inn, the servant answered the door and tried to slam it and run when he saw Phillip. Several of the men forced their way into the dwelling as others kept watch at the barn and the other door. They caught the innkeeper in the smokehouse and the young woman trying to leave from the back door. The three were detained outside as the sheriff and several others went inside to search the house and the outbuildings.

The smokehouse and the kitchen held the most gruesome surprises in store for the party. Hams that did not quite look like they originated as swine hung in the smokehouse from hooks. In the kitchen, several pickle barrels and kraut crocks lined the stone walls. The search party lifted the lids one by one and were horrified to find pieces of human limbs floating in the brine. The outbuildings revealed countless saddlebags, saddles and bridles, travel bags, and piles of assorted clothing. It was impossible to know how many people had died there.

The innkeeper and his accomplices were arrested.  A guilty verdict was issued, and death by hanging was the sentence.  Phillip and Mrs. Armbrister carried on to Virginia and bought their land and built their lives there. They went on to have many descendants who still live in the area to this day.

Phillip and Mrs. Armbrister Did Not Talk About Their Ordeal

Phillip and Mrs. Armbrister did not talk about their ordeal in the wilderness. Phillip shared his story once to a relative in his old age. Mrs. Armbrister never talked about it. The relative recalled the story and told it again when he was elderly. An inn was built on the Armbrister property, and the tale was included in an inventory of the building a century later when the building was a historic property. The tale nearly died with its storytellers. It was recorded in a letter again and then forgotten.

Image of an old hotel with vines covering the outside.
“The Haunted Hotel” by dzbng is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The local newspaper ran a story about Phillip and Mrs. Armbrister’s journey in the early 1900s. The tale found a new audience. This story was told by local residents to their children and grandchildren and by students at campfires. The details became muddled. The story changed over time, as they sometimes do. The newer tales miscast the Armbristers as the cannibal innkeepers and cast the local inn on the old Armbrister property as the murder house. Additional details from other true crime stories were added, such as a trapdoor in the wall where the murderous innkeepers could knock the weary travelers upon their heads as they rested in a chair or in their bed. This addition originated with a story from Kansas that ran in a 1914 newspaper story about the Armbristers’ ordeal. The motive for those murders was profit, and there was no evidence that those bodies were eaten. Those killer innkeepers were caught because they killed a doctor who was either a senator (or a relative of one), and it was noticed when he went missing. His body was found in the inn’s garden. But, that story is for another day.

This Story Changed Over Time….

As the original story changed, the land has also changed over the years. It transformed from a wilderness to a homestead, to the site of a tavern, then an abandoned building, and it now is under an interstate highway. As you travel on this highway and others like it, be thankful for the good roads and for highway patrol officers who are just a phone call away. Also, be thankful for hotels at nearly every interchange. You are unlikely to end up in a pickle barrel. Of course, it is still possible, but it’s unlikely. Remember this the next time you travel and feel slighted about the hotel lacking your favorite amenities. Remember this before you write a scathing Air B&B review…it could always be worse.


George L. Nye Home Survey Report. 1937, April 4. Coughlin, R.M, Nye, Fitzgerald Informant.; Virginia Historical Inventory Project; Virginia Conservation Project; Virginia Conservation Commission, Division of History.; United States. Works Progress Administration. 1937 – 0404. Retrieved 3/7/2021

Enterprise Articles

  • Author unknown, 1914, Some Early History, Wytheville Enterprise, page unknown. Courtesy of Wytheville Community College Library, Dr. W. R. Chitwood collection, Via F.B. Kegley Library.
  • Author Unknown, June 16, 1990, Gruesome details of murder and deception unfolded in the early days of Wythe County, Southwest Virginia Enterprise, A-11
  • Spiker, L, 10/28/00, Kraut, Dumplings, and Human Wrists, Southwest Virginia Enterprise. Page Unknown. Courtesy of the Wythe County Historical Society

Special thanks to local oral history!

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Written by Sarah Sigfried

Sarah Sigfried hails from the rural mountains of Virginia. She has enjoyed horror movies and ghost stories since childhood. A mental health clinician by day, she spends her leisure time creating nightmares. She dabbles in makeup special effects and horrifies her friends and neighbors each Halloween. Sigfried is an emerging author and is an affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association. She dominates pub trivia on horror-related topics and especially enjoys classic horror movies and 1980’s horror comedies. She lives with her spouse and their cat, Sam in a home originally built by a family of morticians.

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