Episode 12: Buried Alive

The Mountain Mysteries

Episode 12

Buried Alive

The Mountain Mystery of Octavia Hatcher

It’s a fear that is primordial, something many can’t shake. Imagine, if you can, you fall asleep, and when you wake up, you’re restricted in movement, to your shock and horror, you enclosed, and laying flat on your back. Why? What is this, how is this happening? A thousand questions race through your mind as your pulse accelerates and your breathing becomes more and more labored, you’re running out of air, quickly. Then it hits you, you’re in the one place that no living person would ever want to be, you’re in you’re coffin, the top is closed, and you’ve been buried. How could this be? Who did this and why? How do you escape? These questions and who know what others had to have been asked by one of Pike county Kentucky’s most famous young women, she’s know as the girl who turned her back on Pikeville. It’s said that every year, on the anniversary of what people thought was her death, that her statue monument turns one hundred and eight degrees to turn her back on the town that buried her, alive. These are the Mountain Mysteries, and this is Episode twelve, Buried Alive, the mountain mystery of Octavia Hatcher.

Pikeville Kentucky, it’s famous as being a part of the bloody feud between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, among many other things. It’s rich timber and coal stores were more than enough to make the person leave behind an incredible legacy, and one such person did. As always, this episode is a haunting tale about people. Two people who met, fell in love, and regardless of any urban legends or tall tales, fell in tragedy. James and Octivia Hatcher. Uncle Jim, some called him, had a way about him that got things done and was well respected, as was his wife, Octavia. She’s the primary focus of our story.

Tales of people who were buried alive are always unsettling, especially as this is a universal human fear. Allegedly in 1889 in Pikeville, KY, a woman named Octavia Hatcher was buried alive after succumbing to a sleeping sickness. While the story is not verified, it's the stuff of local legend in Pikeville and many residents believe the tale to be true. But let’s begin where it all began.

Jacob and Pricey Smith were proud parents when their daughter Octavia was Born May 25th, 1870. Apparently, her father was a successful dry goods merchant who had real estate equity in excess of seven thousand dollars according to the census records of the day, which in today’s money, would be close to 142 thousand dollars. The Smith’s were a prominent and well to do family that had garnered a great deal of respect from the citizens of Pikeville at the time and Octavia was highly thought of and well-regarded.

She came from a caring family and by the accounts we discovered was well loved and cared for. She had met James Hatcher, whom many called “Uncle Jim.” He was born in Ivy Creek in Floyd county Kentucky in 1859 and had moved to Pikeville early in his life, attended school there and began in business at the age of 18, at one point, he handled nearly all of the merchandise which was shipped by steamer into Pikeville, Harlan, and Letcher counties in Kentucky. This also included 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 contributed to the building of the courthouse in Pikeville. Saying he was successful is an understatement, even by today’s standards. Hatcher was also successful in the coal and timber industries that the area offered in abundant amounts then. He owned quite a bit of land that extended from Pikeville to present day Coal Run.

It was in 1889, that Hatcher was married in Pikeville to a young and beautiful Octavia Smith, who was ten years younger than he, she was 19. Sadly, the marriage, would be brief. In January of 1891, the had one son, Jacob. The child died within hours of birth. The infant mortality rate in the 1890’s was much higher than today’s numbers. During the 1800’s, children frequently died of one illness or another before they were 10. There were not many vaccines and medications for treatment, and illnesses that are minor annoyances today were then deadly. One of such sicknesses took the life of young Jacob Hatcher.

Octavia went into a deep depression and after having done so, went to her bed and almost never left the confines of her sheets again. She grew ill over the next few months, slipping into a coma and didn’t come out of it. She was pronounced dead of unknown causes on May 2nd, 1891.

That spring was unusually hot, and as embalming was not yet common practice, and air conditioning was yet to be invented, and there was no time wasted in burying Octavia. Funeral services were conducted, and her body was laid to rest almost immediately.

Then…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. This particular species of flies is indigenous to Africa however, so how did it make its way to Pikeville Kentucky? Some speculate that since Uncle Jim was in business as a merchant and supplied a great deal of goods from all over the world to the region, that some of these pests made their way to the region through the shipment of goods. When you consider this though, it has to be deemed very unlikely that from transporting this from Africa, over seas and through all the channels these goods would have to go through before ever even arriving to Pikeville, that it’s not very likely they would have made Octavia their last stop in the chain.

Regardless, 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, it’s said she had been buried alive.

It was said that 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 actually was dead. It was theorized that she had been alive for up to seven days, seven days trapped in a coffin, and desperate to escape.

One can’t begin to imagine the hell this played on Jim’s emotional state of being. Could you imagine the feeling that would go with such a mistake? The agony you would feel would be enough to drive almost anyone insane.

The story then goes that her body was reburied, but James was never the same. Maybe it was the torment and emotional state we just spoke of, what-ever the case was, He had a life-size, lifelike monument made to Octavia in her image, including the exact same height and likeness, erected over her grave. This was around the time that the rumors and stories began to pop-up. 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. Scumbag 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, which can still be seen today. But the stories do not stop there. In the 1990’s, the Hatcher family erected a fence around the plot, in 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 vicinity. 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 in disregard for the town she feels buried her before her death.

Whether such activities are the doings of vindictive spirits or harmless pranksters is for the you 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.

So the question still remains, was Octavia Hatcher buried alive? Your decision on that is yours alone, but I will throw in some things for you to think about before you decide.

For example, there is absolutely no records found anywhere that state an emergency exhumation was ordered or carried out by Jim Hatcher. Furthermore, there was no news of this exhumation, or being buried alive to be found anywhere, I would certainly think that that would have been a newsworthy event, either then or in today’s times. Yet, there is nothing. It would seem as though a great many things we’ve uncovered on different haunting websites were copied and pasted lending to what I feel is more tale than ghost in this particular episode. While Octavia has been our focus point, let’s not forget about Uncle Jim, James Thatcher, her husband. The man was a walking history himself apparently and loved urban legends as well as verifiable history. He certainly deserves remembrance.

When James Hatcher died in 1939, there wasn’t a single mention of the terrible nightmare of Octavia's death in the papers either. Many times in the past if you had suffered some sort of tragedy or scandal, when you died, your obituary would mention it. 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, 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. Being buried alive is certainly one of those fears that’s primordial, and in that day and time, stories from Poe and other authors had a macabre obsession with death and dealing with fears and speaking of things that wasn’t exactly an accepted topic of conversation in the day’s society and wouldn’t be accepted as general discussion.

What is certain is that James Hatcher appeared to be a good and decent man, who loved not only history as we stated, but had love for urban legends also, and yes, he certainly knew and understood the difference between the two. While he left his birthplace at a relatively young age, his love for Ivy creek never did leave him, in fact, he went back there often from Pikeville and thought of the history and legends that were a part of the community. It was said in a Floyd County Time article from June 21st, 1956 that 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, June21st, 1956.

That particular article is what may have triggered the ghost story of Octavia Hatcher.

In today’s world, and the hectic lives we all lead, ghost stories and Urban Legends have become an integral part of our lives. Let’s face it, we all love a good old-fashioned scare from the comforts of our homes, cars or offices from time to time, and people seem to be drawn to the deeds of others, whether alive or otherwise. It seems to me that the reason for that is as simple as an escape. Most all of us long for a simpler time when stresses weren’t so intense, burdens weren’t as heavy, and thoughts were not so cluttered. Maybe it’s because a ghost story, real or not, takes us back to a time when we were kids camping out at the lake with mom or dad, and brings back a certain magic we’ve been missing for far too long. Maybe it’s because the supernatural offers us some comfort in knowing that these things too, the stress, worries, doubts, and fears shall pass. Perhaps, it’s the thoughts that one day soon, we will be without those as these days end and we begin a new journey, one filled with hope and excitement. One day.

In any case, Octavia Hatcher will remain woven into the very fabric of Appalachian culture, that is evident whenever you bring the beautiful woman’s name up virtually any where in what is now a bustling small community in the largest of all of Kentucky’s 120 counties. This is as it should be I think, Octavia was so much more than a ghost story, even in her young and short-lived life. She was a daughter, a woman, a mother and lent to the legends of the mountains as much or more so than many. Her husband James, “Uncle Jim”, was proud to be from the mountains and should never be forgotten. As none should. The Mountain Mystery of Octavia Hatcher walk hand in hand with her tragedy, and as such, will continue to be told and as long as that happens, she will be remembered.

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