Please welcome guest writer Jessica Forsyth. Forsyth is a local historian who serves as the Director of Activities and Events for the Big Sandy Heritage Center, a historical museum in Pikeville, Kentucky. One of Forsyth’s many roles includes assisting Pike County Tourism in raising awareness of the area’s cultural and historical locales and events. Forsyth is currently in the process of completing her Bachelors in government and politics.
James Hatcher was one of the wealthiest, most renowned citizens to ever grace the small town of Pikeville, Kentucky. He engaged in several successful business ventures in the coal mining and timber industries. He owned property reaching from Pikeville to present day Coal Run.
Later in life, Hatcher built the Hotel James Hatcher in Pikeville, where the East Kentucky Exposition Center is now. The hotel was known for Hatcher’s favorite sayings and quotes, which he had printed on the walls of the hotel lobby. A small museum was in one room of the famous reception area, displaying, among other things, an iron lung, the newest piece of medical technology of its day. The hotel was advertised as being fireproof, and offered guests the security of being able to “sleep in safety.”
Also on display in the lobby was James Hatcher’s own casket, which he had specially crafted years prior to his death. This coffin was special. It latched on the inside and had to be sealed with a special tool that would then be pulled out when the body was buried. James Hatcher had a severe phobia of being buried alive, and not without reason.
In 1889, Hatcher was married in Pikeville to young Octavia Smith. Their marriage would be tragically brief and produce only one son, Jacob, who died shortly after he was born. The infant mortality rate in the 1890’s was much higher than today’s numbers. During the 1800’s, children often died of one illness or another before the age of 10. There were few vaccines and medications for treatment, and illnesses that are minor nuisances today were then fatal. One of such sicknesses took the life of young Jacob Hatcher.
The baby’s death lead to a depression and illness that would soon end Octavia’s own life. Jacob died in January 1891. Octavia took to her bed, likely suffering from depression. She grew ill over the next few months, slipping into a coma from which she could not be awakened. She was pronounced dead of unknown causes on May 2nd, 1891.
That spring was unusually hot, and as embalming was not yet common practice, no time was wasted in burying Octavia. Funeral services were conducted and her body was laid to rest.
Several days later, others began exhibiting similar symptoms to Octavia’s. The bite of a certain fly, now known as the tsetse fly, brought a sleeping sickness from which others began to awaken after a time. Hatcher and his family began to worry if Octavia might have succumbed to this illness. Her breathing had been shallow enough in her comatose state for doctors to believe she had passed, but in actuality, she had been buried alive.
Hatcher secured an emergency exhumation and uncovered a horrific sight with the raising of the coffin. The casket Octavia had been buried in had not been airtight. She had awoken from her sleep to find herself trapped beneath the ground. In a panic, she had torn the lining on the lid of her coffin. Her nails were bloody and her face was contorted in terror, scratched in her frenzy to escape from her grave. But by this time, she really was dead.
Her body was reburied, but James was never the same. He had a life-size, lifelike monument to Octavia erected over her grave. In one arm, the statue held a baby, representative of Jacob. He built the Hatcher Hotel at such an angle that he could look up to the cemetery at his young wife and she could symbolically look down on him.
The legend was born with the statue’s completion. Vandals invaded the Hatcher cemetery plot and broke the arm holding the baby from the monument. Now the infant lies on the ground at Jacob’s grave, near the foot of his mother. But the stories do not stop there. In the 1990’s, the Hatcher family erected a fence around the plot, an attempt to keep future vandalism from occurring. The statue was placed on a new marble base so it would be less accessible.
Pikeville residents who live near the Hatcher plot reported hearing the sounds of a kitten crying coming from the area. The sound stopped when they approached the plot to investigate. Others said they could hear a woman crying coming from the same area.
A photographer taking pictures on a clear day captured a mysterious haze around the statue of Octavia. The mist only appeared when the photos were developed.
The most common story concerning Octavia says that on the anniversary of her death, the statue will turn away and face the opposite direction.
Whether such activities are the doings of vengeful spirits or harmless pranksters is for the reader to decide. Haunted or not, the Pikeville Cemetery, especially the Hatcher plot, is a place where a tragic young woman deserves a moment or two of silence for a life cut dreadfully short and a death that came far too early.