In the late 1800’s in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, the coal industry was beginning to boom in Pike County. Around the same time, a young woman by the name of Octavia Smith was married to wealthy businessman, James Hatcher.
“They had a young child,” says Everett Johnson, the curator at the Big Sandy Heritage Center. “Sadly, Jacob only lived a short period of time.”
The baby was buried on a hill top, according to Johnson, leaving his young mother to grieve. Johnson says her depression worsened and eventually she slipped into a coma. Days passed, then weeks.
“The doctor just came in on May 2nd and said, ‘I’m sorry, she’s gone,” says Johnson.
Octavia was laid to rest next to her baby boy, but there would be no resting in peace.
“About the same time other people in the community began getting ill. They too, went into a coma. But after two or three days, they became well,” says Johnson.
People started to talk. “Could we have buried her alive?”
The legend says, a doctor ordered Octavia’s grave to be dug up, what they found, was a gruesome discovery.
“The lining of her coffin was shredded with her fingernails, her face was all bloody and contorted it showed she had died a terrible death,” Johnson tells the story.
Johnson says, Octavia had been buried alive.
“It must have been an horrific feeling, knowing that she was trapped,” says Johnson. “Not knowing where she was, in total darkness, gasping for breath.”
But how could this have happened? Could a doctor have determined that she was dead when her heart was still beating? Was it a mystery virus that caused her to slip into a coma? One theory is a Tsetse fly, an insect from Africa. The bite of a Tsetse fly leads to a deep sleep.
But the most common theory comes from the mountains. “Some people thought either methane coal dust or the air coming from the coal mines may have been a factor in people,” says Johnson.
Devastated, Octavia’s husband, James Hatcher, ordered a life-size statue of Octavia to stand on her grave.
“Of course word spread,” Johnson tells the tale. “Did you hear? They buried her alive.”
Curiosity piqued and visitors flocked to her grave. A grave supposedly haunted by the tragic figure.
“They saw a vision, a person in white would appear then scream, ‘Oh God my baby is dead!” says Johnson. One believer even claims a haze over this photograph is proof of her existence.
Octavia still looks over Pike County, watching, haunting. The eerie stone seems to peer through your soul, remind you of her last, torturous moments that happened right here in Pikeville. Octavia is buried in a cemetery behind Pike University in downtown Pikeville.
For more information, contact the Big Sandy Heritage Center at http://www.bigsandyheritage.org/.
Distant relatives of Octavia dispute this story, saying she actually died during child birth.
And while I was in Pike County, I got to explore the Big Sandy Heritage Museum – which has a few cool relics relating to the famous Hatfields & McCoys feud.