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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Buried alive- Octavia Hatcher: Pikeville, KY, 1889


This Photo of Octavia's grave was taken on a clear day with no fog and with warm temperatures. A mist was seen in several of the photos taken that day but it did not appear in all of them.


In 1889, at the age of 30, James Hatcher was married in Pikeville to a young woman named Octavia Smith, the daughter of Jacob Smith, an early settler. Their life together would be tragically brief and their union would produce one son, Jacob, who was born shortly before his mother died. The baby died soon after he was born, possibly leading to the depression and illness that preceded Octavia’s own death.

And it is the death of Octavia Hatcher that has created a legend that is still very much a part of Pikeville. The Hatcher baby, Jacob, was born in January 1891 and only lived for a few days before he died. A short time later, Octavia took to her bed, likely suffering from depression, and was quite ill. The illness took a turn for the worse in April of that same year and she slipped into a coma. The doctors were unable to determine a cause for it and when she died on May 2, it was thought that she had perished from an unknown illness.

The funeral services were held and almost immediately carried out. It was an unseasonably hot spring and as Octavia was not embalmed , no was time was wasted in placing her in her grave at the Hatcher family plot. James had just suffered a terrible double tragedy - but his grief was not yet over.

Several days after Octavia’s death, several other people began suffering from the same coma-like symptoms that Octavia exhibited at the time of her death. Research conducted by Herma Shelton shows that this illness was a sort of sleeping sickness that was brought on by the bite of a certain fly. When news of this began to spread, Hatcher and members of his family (some of them doctors) began to worry that this may have been the same illness that Octavia had contracted. Their fears turned to panic as they realized that she may have been buried alive!

An emergency exhumation was conducted and Octavia’s casket was opened. They found the poor young woman in a horrific state. Apparently, the coffin had not been airtight and she had managed to survive for a few days, trapped beneath the ground. The lining on the lid of the coffin had been torn and shredded by Octavia’s bloody nails and her face had been scratched and contorted into an expression of terror. She must have awakened from her sleep to find herself trapped in the casket. Then, unable to escape, she had undoubtedly succumbed to a terrifying death!

Octavia was reburied but James’ heart was broken. He had a expensive monument erected on the site, a tall stone that bears a likeness of Octavia standing atop it. At one time, a carving of her baby had been placed in the statue’s arm, but in more recent times, vandals have managed to break the arm off and the infant lies on the ground next to the marker.

As the years passed, the strange and unsettling story of Octavia Hatcher’s final moments began to be told and re-told in Pikeville. Eventually, as is the case with many legends, the story was twisted and changed until much of the truth was lost. During the years that Herma Shelton was attending Pikeville College, she heard a number of versions of the story, all of them different. The most commonly told revision of the story had it that Octavia had died while she was still pregnant. The story went that, during the funeral, the mourners heard an odd sound coming from inside of the coffin. When they opened the lid, they found that the baby, Jacob, had been born to the dead woman. He only lived a short time and then died himself. Obviously, this story is untrue and a glance at the Hatcher family gravesite would reveal that Jacob’s death preceded Octavia’s by several months.

As the story of Octavia Hatcher continued to spread, the tale took on a more “urban legend” quality. Students from the college and teenagers from around the area often went to the cemetery on Halloween night to drink and scare one another. They claimed that the statue would come to life on certain nights and frighten trespassers out of the graveyard. It was during this period that someone broke off the arm that held the stone infant.


Pranksters also went to the trouble of climbing onto the monument to bother the statue themselves. This gave birth to yet another, and perhaps most popular, version of the story. According to this version, Octavia’s spirit was angry at the people of Pikeville for allowing her to be buried alive. Because of this, she would literally turn her back on the city on the anniversary of her death. On these nights, the statue mounted on her grave marker would turn on its pedestal and would face the opposite direction from where it had been previously. This story was accepted as truth for many years until it was finally revealed that the nocturnal movements were the work of clever college students.

Even after story after story about Octavia was debunked, this never seemed to quell the rumors that spread about the cemetery being haunted. People who visited the site, and most especially, those who lived on the hill where the graveyard was located, often spoke of hearing strange cries in the darkness and about spotting a misty apparition in the vicinity of Octavia’s grave. Finally, in the middle 1990’s, the Hatcher family placed a stone in the cemetery that contained accurate information about Octavia’s death and placed her statue on a new marble base. They also enclosed the area with a fence, hoping to keep out the trespassers and vandals.

And while the additions to the gravesite have managed to keep out the unwanted, they have done nothing to curb the continued stories of ghosts and supernatural manifestations around the plot. Herma interviewed a number of people who live on the hill near the cemetery and heard about several incidents that took place in the cemetery. Many of them expressed a fear to come into the graveyard, especially at night, and there is a solid belief that the ghost of Octavia Hatcher still walks here.

One couple that she spoke with, who had lived nearby for more than 30 years, stated that they had noticed something very odd in recent months. According to their account, they heard the sound of woman weeping, coming from the direction of the burial plot on several nights. A check of the area revealed absolutely no one in the cemetery.

Another couple, who had moved to the neighborhood a short time before, said that they were told by others in the community to expect parties and trespassers in the cemetery at night but that they had yet to see anyone around. However, one evening they walked out into the graveyard themselves because they thought they heard a kitten crying in the darkness. As they approached the Hatcher plot, where the sounds were coming from, the crying stopped.

So, does the ghost of Octavia Hatcher walk in the Pikeville Cemetery? Or are the stories nothing more than local myths? According to a number of reliable witnesses, unexplained things still take place around the place where her life ended in terror. Could witnesses who claim to feel depressed and anxious around the grave be experiencing the young woman’s final moments? Or is the apparitions reported around the grave the spirit of Octavia as she still searches for peace?

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