Monday, November 10, 2014

Pikeville's Octavia Hatcher Urban Legend

First of all let me apologize to our readers for not posting in so long. I have had so many irons in the fire, working on different projects, that I just haven’t had the time to sit down and write anything up.  I’ve been doing a lot of work outisde, and since it would seem that winter is now upon us I am hoping that the bitter cold will allow me more time inside to give the Medicine Show some attention.  My favorite side project was when I was invited to the local middle school to tell local ghost stories to the youngins on Halloween.  The students and faculty seemed to really enjoy it, but I’m quite sure I had more fun than any of them.  Speaking to them DID motivate me to pay more attention to a project I had put on the back burner for a while, putting together a book of local haint tales.  I have been super busy this month collecting more spooky stories for the book and am very excited to be working on it again.  So without further adieu, let’s get to one of those local legends...

I went to an alumni event at Pikeville College back in the spring.  I arrived on campus early, parked behind Allara Library, and walked to the old cemetery adjacent to the parking area to the familiar plot surrounded by a fence.  Inside a life size effigy of Octavia Hatcher stands over her grave.  Near the foot of the statue is another smaller one of a baby.  I took a few pictures through the fence and paid my respects to Octavia. 

Walking back toward campus I saw two college girls, looking at different headstones.  One cement ground-level vault, I guess you would call it, had cracked years ago, and the girls stopped in front of it.  I could see them talking excitedly as I walked in their direction. 

When I got to where they were, they sheepishly looked at me and said hi.  I said hello, and asked if they were waiting on something to come up through the cracks, jokingly.  One of the girls said, “Is it true that this place is haunted?” 

“Don’t mind her,” the other girl said.  “She’s a little crazy.”

I smiled.  “Over there at that statue is Octavia Hatcher’s grave.  That’s where you want to go,” I told them. 

“Does the statue really turn around on Halloween?” The same girl asked.

“Well, that’s up for debate,” I said, and told them some of the story behind the legend.
I heard the legend of Octavia Hatcher in the first month that I lived on campus, what seems like many moons ago.  There are different versions of the tale, but a little history fact checking leads to at least some known truths.  I worked on the college newspaper, and for the edition that came out the week of Halloween a friend and I wrote up Octavia’s sad tale. 

James Hatcher was one of Pikeville’s most successful businessmen. He had ventures in several different areas including logging, coal mining, construction, and politics.  In 1931 he opened the Hatcher Hotel, which stood where the East Kentucky Expo Center stands today.  It was hailed as fireproof, and known for having Hatcher’s favorite quotes painted on the walls.  The hotel featured a small museum which included a functioning iron lung, medicine’s newest marvel at the time.  Also on display was a custom-built coffin Hatcher commissioned for himself long before his death.  It featured a mechanism that allowed the coffin to be opened from the inside.  While having your coffin made years before death, much less with such features, may seem odd, James Hatcher had good reason to be wary. 

Hotel Hatcher

In 1889, at the age of 30, Hatcher married Octavia Smith, who’s family was among Pikeville’s first settlers.  Two years later they had a son, Jacob, named after Octavia’s father.  Sadly, as was so common before modern medical practices were available, little Jacob only lived a few days, and died.  Following the infant’s death, Octavia fell into a deep depression and became very sickly, taking to bed. Her tragic life came to an end just a few months later, when she fell into a coma and was then pronounced dead on May 2, 1891.  Pikeville was experiencing an unusually warm spring, so James Hatcher arranged for a quick burial, skipping the embalming process.  Octavia was buried in a family plot at the Pikeville Cemetery.

Shortly after Octavia’s burial, others in the Pikeville area began falling into similar coma-like states, to awaken after a few days and recover fully.  Research led doctors to find that the sleeping sickness was caused by the bite of a certain fly.  When word reached James Hatcher that people were waking up from their death-like states, he went into a panic and arranged for an emergency exhumation order.  

Standing on the hill that looks out over the city of Pikeville, James watched in horror as the coffin was opened.  Inside, Octavia was now certainly dead, but it was obvious that she hadn’t been that way when she was buried.  The coffin had not been airtight, and allowed Octavia what has been estimated to have been days more of life, buried alive.  The lining of the coffin was shredded.  Her fingertips were bloody and her face was scratched and frozen in an expression of terror.  Unable to escape Octavia eventually died, already having been laid to rest.  

Octavia was reburied, but James was so heartbroken he was never the same.  He commissioned a life-size statue of Octavia, holding baby Jacob in her arms, which was placed on top of her grave.  The statue was placed so that it looked down upon the city of Pikeville, and James could look up at it from the hotel.  James Hatcher lived until 1939 when he passed away at the Hotel Hatcher.

Over the years Octavia’s tragic story has evolved into an urban legend.  The tale has been told with several variations.  One version tells of Octavia dying while she was still pregnant and mourners at her burial hearing a baby crying from inside the coffin.  They were astonished when it was opened and they discovered the baby had been born from a dead woman, only to die itself days later.  

As the legend spread teenagers and college students would visit the cemetary, often drinking and daring one another to go near the grave.  Vandals eventually broke the arm holding the baby off the statue.  The small stone infant now lies at the feet of the larger effigy, which has now been placed atop a marble base.  A fence with a locked gate now stands around the site to further deter would-be vandals.  A small plaque was also placed there, describing the details of Octavia’s death. 

Interviews with people who live near or have visited the cemetery have revealed stories of hearing sounds like a kitten or a baby crying.  When people went closer to investigate, the sound stopped when they neared Octavia’s grave.  Others claim to have heard a woman crying.  Pictures have been taken with a strange mist appearing near the statue, although the weather was clear.  Some people claim that Octavia’s apparition walks around the cemetery from time to time.
Pic taken that alleges to show a light mist across the statue
Perhaps the most often told, yet untrue, aspect of the legend is that on Halloween and/or the anniversary of Octavia’s passing, her statue rotates 180 degrees, symbolically turning her back on the city that allowed her to be buried alive.  For decades people gathered around the grave on those dates to see what would happen.  On Halloween the year that we had written the article about the legend for the college newspaper, it seemed like half the student body showed up hoping to witness the event.  The version of the story we had heard stated the statue turned at midnight.  As midnight passed and nothing out of the ordinary had happened, the crowd began to dwindle away.  When it got 1:00 am and nothing had happened, the remaining few of us also returned to our dorms.  

I later learned that a group of college students in the 1980s finally admitted to sneaking to the cemetery and turning the statue around themselves.

After I had told the legend to the two college girls, the one who had been interested was only encouraged more.
“Let’s go over there!” The girl who had asked about the haunting said.  “Thank you!”
I walked back to campus smiling, knowing that another generation of students were passing around the legend of Octavia Hatcher, and at least some of them wondered if parts of it might be true.