Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The True Story Of Octavia Hatcher - History vs. Myth

Photo by: IndigoJoy
Over the years, the urban legend swirling around Pikeville, Kentucky, in regards to the death of a woman known as Octavia Hatcher, seems to have taken on a life of its own. You can basically Google search her name and find all sorts of sites- paranormal and historical, claiming to know her story. There has even been television shows such as "Mysteries at the Museum", as well as local news channels that have done segments on this story.  The question here is...are these stories really true?

When I heard the story of Octavia Hatcher, the woman who was mistakenly buried alive while in a mysterious coma, I was taken by it. It was a tragic event that no one in their right mind would ever wish to experience or learn of a loved one experiencing. Watching these television programs or reading these blogs, it may sound like serious research must have been done on the subject in order for people to be so adamant that it actually took place, right? Well, I have got news for you, in most cases stories with over the top myth and lore usually start somewhere in reality but over time get blown out of proportion due to "fiction" being added in as fact.

Nowadays, no one questions stories such as these and so urban legends continue to be told incorrectly.  People assume that if it has been told the same way for all those years, it must be true, but in my line of work I have found more often than not that most stories
can actually be proven false.

When I decided to research the story of Octavia Hatcher, I didn't go into it with the mindset of disproving the story. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I actually wanted to tell her horrific story to the world,  but I wanted to make sure it was told accurately. I wanted to find all the recorded information on her life and death that way I could tell her story correctly.  It was then that I started to notice something...too many people are regurgitating the same story verbatim. This is a red flag. It shows that people out there are not willing to do the research and look up the sources to tell the story, but instead just taking the last person who wrote about it and using their material.

How do you know where they found their information, especially if they do not cite their sources? You don't, therefore you cannot trust information unless it can be backed up by sources. Here is the information I have been able to dig up as well as my opinions based on my findings. My sources will be listed below.

To read more about Octavia Hatcher, as well as many more mysterious and bizarre events of the past, purchase your copy of: "STORIES OF THE FORGOTTEN: INFAMOUS, FAMOUS & UNREMEMBERED" 


Mrs, Hatcher was born Octavia Smith, to parents Jacob and Pricey Smith of Kentucky on May 21, 1870.  Her father appeared to be a successful dry goods merchant, having listed $7,000 in real estate value on the 1870 census records, which was a significantly larger amount than the majority of their neighbors at the time,

Octavia Hatcher (Findagrave)
In 1889, at the age of 19, Octavia married James Hatcher.  Jim, as people called him, was a store clerk in the 1880's. By the age of 18, he went into business himself, eventually becoming one of the most successful businessmen in all of Kentucky, dabbling in mining, timber as well as many more business ventures throughout his lifetime.  By Spring of 1890, Octavia became pregnant with their son, Jacob. On January 4, 1891, Octavia gave birth to their child, however the child passed away within hours of being born as his death date is the same as his birthdate. Devastated by her loss, Octavia fell into a dark depression.

By April, Octavia had grown ill to the point she was bed ridden, eventually slipping into a comatose state, and on May 2, 1891 she was pronounced dead. Soon after her death, she was buried at the Pikeville Cemetery alongside the grave of her newborn baby. In 1892, a beautiful monument was erected in honor of Octavia, commissioned by her husband James.

The Daily Review out of Decatur, Illinois, September 28, 1892, stated:

"Unique Tombstone. Cincinnati, Sept. 27.--

The most unique tombstone known in this section was shipped from this city. It is a statue of the late Mrs. James Hatcher, the deceased wife of a Pikeville, Ky., banker. It is in marble and is the exact hight [sic] of the deceased and is a perfect likeness of her, a cabinet photograph having been used as a model. In the right hand is a parasol, the handle having an immense ring. Even the fashion of the dress is copied."


Many websites that speak of Octavia Hatcher's death, do so by copying and pasting the information from a previous site. I noticed many sites refer to the "research" done by Troy Taylor and Herma Shelton which is found on a site called "Prairie Ghosts."  A lot of the history about James Hatcher, which is reiterated (almost verbatim) was from copyrighted material in Pikeville history, such as the book "The History of Kentucky" yet they do not list anywhere  on their site what their sources were or quote the information they used. In fact the only "sources" they list at the bottom of their article are :"Pike County News (1939 edition), Tour Pike County website (www.tourpikecounty.com), Personal Interviews and Correspondence"

As a historian who is publishing historical material you should always cite your sources. At least mention where you get your information within the material if you aren't going to list it at the bottom of the page. When you do not provide proof that these documents or records exist, how can we believe that this information is true, or accurate? We cannot.

So with all these websites copying and pasting the same old story, over and over, how on earth will Octavia's accurate story be found? You have to go back to the primary sources.  I have found many newspaper articles from the 1930's and 1950's, including a book that mentions Octavia's death. However, nothing strange was mentioned besides the fact that she passed away.

If Octavia had truly been buried alive, in a small town such as Pikeville, wouldn't it have been mentioned in a newspaper? Being found buried alive is big news and it would have been a tragic story that would be remembered for many years and even circulated in the newspapers all over the country.  I found no newspaper articles mentioning that she was found buried alive.

When James Hatcher died in 1939, there was no mention of the horrible ordeal of Octavia's death in the papers either. I found many times in the past that if your life had some sort of tragedy or scandal, when you died, your obituary would mention it. That was just how it went in those days. Yet, there was no mention of the "buried alive" story at all.

In the 1959 article that spoke about remembering "Uncle Jim" and his Hatcher Hotel, I found that it spoke of James Hatchers life, his interests and his character, but not one time does it go into detail about Octavia's death.  She is mentioned as dying young and that is basically it. Had there been a story to tell, surely it would have been told even then, but it wasn't.

More than likely it was a customized coffin with the escape hatch in it, which was an item on display at the Hatcher Hotel that may have sparked the myth or speculation behind why Mr. Hatcher purchased it. Some say he was terrified of being buried alive because of the tragedy that happened to Octavia. But do we actually have anything in writing that claims this?  Did James Hatcher's fear of being buried alive have anything to do with Octavia's death? Who knows.

Maybe deep down he always had a fear of being buried while still alive. With stories in the mid 1800s, such as Edgar Allan Poe's works 'The Premature Burial', 'The Black Cat' and 'The Cask of Amontillado' mentioning scenarios of being buried alive, this caused a lot of dread and fear among many and actually influenced "safety coffins" to be created in those days. Perhaps that is why Hatcher purchased the customized coffin that sat on display in his hotel, not having anything to do with his young wife's death.

Yes, we know that Octavia Hatcher grew ill, went into a comatose state and passed away.  Perhaps other people became ill and recovered as the urban legend states, however I have not found any newspapers speaking of this either. Octavia Hatcher died and was buried, this is a fact.

If she was exhumed and found to have been buried alive, where is the proof of this? Where are the records? Where are the newspaper clippings and headlines of that time period? Why hasn't anyone over all these years posted any proof that this actually occurred? Where are the notes from the doctors who performed the exhumation and examination of her body? Where is the order to exhume her body? Most importantly, why has no one posted this information to the public if it is in fact true?


According to the "urban legend", Octavia as well as "other residents" in Pikeville grew ill with a mysterious "sleeping sickness." Allegedly, the other residents who fell ill and went into comas eventually recovered, leading the question as to whether Octavia was buried prematurely.  According to "research" done by someone named Herma Shelton, she came up with the theory that the tsetse fly caused this illness.

So we are to believe that an insect, indigenous to Africa, somehow traveled to Kentucky in 1891, without infecting anyone else in the process and first infected Octavia and only a handful of other residents in Pikeville?  Does that sound possible?

Her husband was a merchant and he did own a warehouse that provided most of the items for residents shipped in on steamboats to the area, but it seems highly unlikely that out of all the people the fly could have come in contact with on its way there, it waited to the end of the line to infect Octavia.

Other possibilities...

According to the book "A Fever In Salem," there was a mention of a strange sleeping sickness that struck residents in Italy during 1891. Those who recovered suffered symptoms of similar to that of  Parkinson's Disease. It was later diagnosed as encephalitis lethargica. Interestingly, this disease mentioned above is not the same as the "sleeping sickness" caused by the tsetse fly.

Although many records state that an pandemic of encephalitis lethargica swept across the the world during 1916-1927, the facts show that an earlier epidemic, they called "Noma", actually started in Italy and Austria in 1890.  Could Octavia had been in contact with something imported from Italy that made her ill? I think that if it is possible to believe a fly from Africa came all the way across the Atlantic only to first infect Octavia, that the idea that she may have been in contact with an imported item from Italy (possibly through her husband's shipping business) isn't too far fetched to ponder.

The television show "Mysteries at the Museum" claimed that it was a toxic gas or fume from the coal mines nearby that may have affected Octavia and the other residents who took ill, though they do not specify what type of toxin or gas in their statement.

No matter what was the cause of the mysteries illness that first struck Mrs. Octavia Hatcher, unfortunately without scientific proof of what afflicted her, we cannot say for sure what made her sick.


During my research into Octavia's life and death, I researched her husband, James Hatcher as well. What I found was an immense collection of information about his life and his interests. Something that stood out to me was that he was a history buff. In fact, he couldn't get enough of it. He was known for telling stories about the forgotten history of the areas in which he lived. One such story stuck out, as it sounded eerily familiar with the "ghost" stories that people have attached to his wife.

According to the fine article by Henry P. Scalf that ran in the Floyd County Times on  June 21, 1956 he mentions Jim Hatcher and his love for history, as well as the history of his land.

"Hatcher grew old, but his love for Ivy Creek never flagged. He went back there often from Pikeville and pondered upon the history and legends of the place. He could point out with exactitude the military dispositions of the Union general, William 'Bull' Nelson and the Confederate captain, Andrew Jackson May. 'Here sat May upon his horse just before the battle opened,' he would say, pointing to where his residence stood.

If you had traveled up the valley with him, he would have pointed out the Drappin' Lick, where early settlers lay in wait for deer to come down and lick the mineral waters. Farther up the road, he would stop beside a huge stone that decades ago had rolled down the mountain side and plopped itself in the middle of a bottom. You would listen to the legend he told.

Years ago, so long ago no one now living remembers when, a woman with a babe in arms was walking along this road. It was late in the evening, when the shadows were falling across the leafy trail. She was seen by someone, nobody remembers whom. When she was midway across the bottom, there was a roar from the mountain side, and the giant rock came crashing down hill. Suddenly there was long, piercing scream, and after that silence filled the twilight. People say today that the woman and her baby are buried under the giant stone. Some say that even today, on certain evenings, a woman draped in black can be seen walking around the eternal rock, looking for her child. Others say that each year, on the anniversary of her death, screams can be heard.

The Battle of Ivy Narrows is history, and the story of the rock is legend. Jim Hatcher loved both."--- (Floyd County Times, June 21, 1956)

This article right here is what I believe may have triggered a ghost story, but in the wrong way. You see, this story that Jim Hatcher spoke about was about a woman and her child from long ago...long before Octavia, he or anyone in the area had been born. He was talking about the history of the residents in that area of generations long before him. He was enamored with history and lore.

If you look into the stories surrounding Octavia's grave at the Pikeville cemetery you will find postings saying that on the anniversary of her death, people see a woman in black crying for her child. I think this story has been wrongfully attached to Octavia based on this story James Hatcher told locals about which had nothing to do with his wife's story.

If you search online, you will see posts about her stone turning its back on the town for burying her alive. It was proven that college students had been messing with the stone for years playing pranks as well as people vandalizing her monument over the years.

You will read that her monument once held a baby in her right arm, another added tidbit I believe is derived from the earlier story James Hatcher told of that rock at Ivy Creek. This idea that Octavia's statue had her holding a baby is also fabrication, as the newspaper I quoted earlier in this article states her right hand held a parasol with an immense ring on it. It just sounds to me like over the years, people have spread their own ghost stories mixing fact with fiction, creating this larger-than-life story about Octavia that is more than likely not true.

James Hatcher 

One thing that is very sad about this story is the fact that James Hatcher's life has been forgotten. There is so much amazing history behind this man, his life, his successes, his beliefs and his legacy, yet no one seems to want to remember him.

"The History of Kentucky" speaks of James Hatcher's life and early beginnings. He was born at the mouth of Beaver Creek in Floyd County. His parents were A.J. Hatcher and Mary C Layne. At the age of 18, Jim (James) decided to go into business himself and proved successful. He owned a warehouse that held all the goods being shipped in to the area by way of steamboat in all the area and surrounding counties at the time. He invested in the building of a steamboat the "Mountain Girl," which turned out to be a huge failure financially, despite being known as the finest boat on the river.

He went on to own vast areas of land which proved to be rich in oil and gas, making him a fortune. He went on to go into the timber business, making him richer and richer until he turned around and invested his wealth into the coal mining business. In 1886, he helped have the Court House constructed as well as serve as County Clerk. In 1916, he had the Hatcher Hotel constructed, claiming the 200 room hotel was fire-proof with it's steel construction.

 His obituary in the Pike County News, October 5, 1939 edition reads:
"James (Uncle Jim) Hatcher, wealthy land owner and a prominent business figure in the Big Sandy Valley for more than half a century, died at his home next to the Hatcher Hotel at 12:40 o'clock Friday noon, following an illness of several weeks. He observed his eightieth birthday September 22nd.

Funeral services were conducted at the Hatcher Hotel here at 2 o'clock Sunday afternoon and were attended by Governor A. B. Chandler, who, in a brief address, paid tribute to Mr. Hatcher; Lieutenant Governor Keen Johnson and other state officials, including E. E. Shannon, Dan Talbot, and Major Joe Burnham. Rev. I. S. Pineur officiated, and burial was in the family plot in the Pikeville Cemetery, in a casket he had especially constructed.

Pall bearers were Mack Bowles, John M. Yost, Hi Pauley, George W. Coleman, K. J. Day, Zach Justice, K. L. Arnold, Louis Polack, George Johnson, George Venters, John Bentley, Dr. M. D. Flanary, W. H. Caudill, and J. H. Cingett.

A pioneer in the timber industry long before the coming of the railroad and the development of the vast coal fields of this region, Mr. Hatcher floated hundreds of rafts carrying millions of feet of lumber down the Big Sandy to the Ohio, then on to the market points at Cincinnati, Louisville, and Evansville. His early timber operations were successful, and he invested practically all of his profits in land in Pike and Floyd counties until he became recognized as one of the biggest individual land-holders in the entire valley.

At Big Shoal, where he formerly operated the James Hatcher Coal Company, his holdings included 3,700 acres and in addition to this vast tract, his other holdings were estimated at 6,000 acres, much of which lies over rich coal deposits.

Entering business here at the age of 18, Mr. Hatcher soon opened a warehouse for merchandise, and at one time handled practically all of the merchandise which was shipped via steamer to Pikeville, which was the head of navigation for an extensive district including Pike, Letcher, and Harlan counties in Kentucky and Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties in Virginia. He was associated with R. M. Ferrell, W. O. B. Ratliff, and John C. Hopkins in building the steamer Mountain Girl, which he considered the finest boat on the river and also the biggest financial failure of the waters. Among other ventures Mr. Hatcher engaged in the contracting business, and in 1886 had the contract to erect the courthouse here.

A few years ago he erected the new Hotel Hatcher on Main Street, and this has become one of the show places of the Big Sandy. In the spacious lobby is a museum in miniature including ox-yokes, ancient hand-made furniture, weapons of bygone days, a huge old-fashioned fireplace, and utensils used in the days of the early settlers. The white walls of the lobby are literally covered with historical data of Pike and Floyd counties, mottoes, and philosophical sayings.

Mr. Hatcher had long been a prominent figure in Democratic political circles and several years ago served one term as Clerk of the Pike County Court, and in 1932 he was elected state railroad commissioner for this district.

Born at the mouth of Beaver Creek in Floyd County on September 22nd, 1859, he was the son of A. J. and Mary C. Layne Hatcher, being one of nine children born to this couple. He moved to Pikeville early in life and attended the school here. In 1889, at the age of 30, he was married here to Miss Octavia Smith, daughter of Jacob [s/b Jesse] Smith, an early settler. Mrs. Hatcher died on May 2, 1891 and a son, Jacob, born just before the death of Mrs. Hatcher, died also in infancy."--

Hatcher Hotel (Historic Photo)
As one of the articles I read stated, Hatcher had a fascination with the area at the mouth of Ivy Creek, as it was where he said that Colonel Andrew Jackson May, Prestonburg's Rebel leader "sat upon his horse and directed his green troops in the Battle of Ivy Narrows." James Hatcher was a history lover and he soaked it up.

His hotel was a virtual museum with all sorts of items from the past on display along with his favorite quotes painted on the walls. The hotel itself was part of him, and it showed. You could walk along the halls of the hotel and read many of the quotes he enjoyed, some might even make you laugh, others might make you think. Honestly, the guy sounded alright by me, and the more I learn about him the more I understood him.

When questioned about "Uncle Jim" as they called him, many people remembered him as a great man with a good heart that never refused a lodger even if they didn't have money to pay. He might sit you down and chew you out about it, but he wouldn't refuse you.

During the Great Depression, if a painter came through town, he would hire him to paint a few quotes on the wall in exchange for a night's lodging. As lodgers would come and go, many would add quotes to his list and he would go on to add them to his walls of the hotel. As you can see in the photo below.
Inside the Hotel, note Octavia's portrait hanging above

Although he never remarried or had any more children of his own, he raised 7 children of his nephew and put them all through school. In 1928, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet asked Hatcher if he would donate some of his land near Ivy Creek to "right-of-way" for the highway, and he agreed under one condition. The condition was that they construct a memorial arch to commemorate the Battle of Ivy Mountain, the history that Hatcher loved so much.  The Cabinet agreed to the terms Hatcher had given and it was included in the deed transfer to the Commonwealth of  Kentucky.

Sadly, they didn't keep their word. Even after Hatcher passed away the project continued to be delayed. In 1946, veterans from WWII reminded the Transportation Cabinet of their promise to Hatcher and that they had to make good on their word. Still, nothing was done.

Many years later, a writer by the name of Robert Perry took an interest in this subject and published an article that would reignite this story, allowing a campaign supported by descendants of Mr. Hatcher as well as many others, including the American Legion, American Veterans Post and the Floyd County Historical and Genealogical Society to pave the way to making this promise come true. On November 10th, 2001, just two days past the 140th Anniversary of the Battle of Ivy Mountain the formal dedication to a monument took place.  Thanks to the hard work and research of Mr. Perry, James Hatcher's dream of a monument commemorating one of his favorite historical sites came to fruition.

As Henry P. Scalf mentioned in his article in 1956, for the Floyd County Times,

"Men live and dream, like Hatcher did..... He was a bit of history himself, and, being the man that he was, he will be a legend, too, some day."---- Floyd County News, June 21, 1956


I have contacted several people in Pikeville that are involved in the history there, including their tourism website and the Big Sandy Heritage Center, yet no one has ever responded. I have asked if they can cite the sources of where the documents are, to prove Octavia's "buried alive story" as fact,  yet no one has responded.

(UPDATE: Thank you to Polly Hopkins at the Big Sandy Heritage Center who has confirmed what I had suspected all along, that "there are no documents to support the fact that she had this "sleeping" disease, that she was buried alive, or even that her body was exhumed.")

If by chance, someone out there has documents to prove my theory is wrong, then please by all means show me the proof and I would be more than happy to correct my information. I would like nothing more than to make sure my story is told accurately. However, if there are no records showing that Octavia Hatcher's body was actually exhumed, and it was observed that she was in fact buried alive, then the story of this poor woman that has been going around all these years has been a farce, and out of respect it should be corrected.

In the end, James Hatcher was buried next to his beloved wife, Octavia and their precious baby, Jacob. They were reunited in death, resting in peace, together. The story of Octavia and her husband James has its share of  tragedy, as well as triumphs. Let's remember the both of them and the story their lives have to tell.

One of James Hatcher's favorite quotes that hung on one of the walls of his Hatcher Hotel, was "always tell the truth and you will never have to remember what you said." I think he would have appreciated the lengths I went to tell his wife's story truthfully and accurately, as well as his own. I also believe he would appreciate that I want to make sure the world remembered both of them, as I believe everyone has a story to tell, and no one deserves to be forgotten. In the end, it is James' and Octavia's opinion that only would have mattered to me anyways.---

Rest In Peace, James, Octavia and Jacob Hatcher!

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio)

Thank you IndigoJoy from Findagrave for the photo of Octavia's grave!

Family Search.Com
1870 Census, Pike, Kentucky
Daily Review. Decatur, Ill. (9/28/1892)
Prairie Ghosts Website
Milwaukee Sentinel, (8/3/1959)
The History Of Kentucky, by William Elsey Connelly, 1922.
A Fever In Salem- by Laurie Winn Carlson
Framing Tropical Disease in London- Patrick Manson (1891-1902)
A Wake-up Call About Sleeping Sickness, by Peter G.E. Kennedy, M.D,(dana.org)
Mysteries At The Museum, Travel Channel, Air date: 20 December 2012 (Season 3, Episode 6)
Pike County News, (10/5/1939)
Add To The Legends Of Ivy Creek, by Henry P. Scalf (Floyd County Times, 6/21/1956)
The Man Behind The Monument, by Robert Perry
The Case of The Missing Memorial Arch, by Robert Perry

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