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Octavia Hatcher grave.
Octavia Hatcher has a good view of Pikevile from the tallest grave in Pikeville Cemetery.

Octavia Hatcher: Buried Alive?

Field review by the editors.

Pikeville, Kentucky

There are people who believe that Octavia Hatcher was not buried alive, although you may have trouble finding them in the city that surrounds her grave.

Octavia Hatcher grave.
In life, Octavia had two hands.

"I think there's enough anecdotal evidence to say that this really did happen," said Everett Johnson, curator of Pikeville's Big Sandy Heritage Center (Now reorganized as the Big Sandy Heritage Museum).

"Most local historians do agree that she did fall ill and was buried alive; that's generally accepted," said Jessica Forsyth, a member of the Center's board of directors. "Of course, they didn't know she was alive when they buried her."

Octavia Hatcher was 20 years old when she gave birth to her only child, Jacob, in early 1891. Jacob almost immediately died. Octavia sank into a long depression, then a coma. She "died" on May 2, 1891. This was during a spell of hot weather, so she was quickly buried.

And then was it noticed that other people in Pikeville were also falling into swoons, but not dying (The mass swooning may have been caused by mosquito-borne encephalitis, or perhaps by gas escaping from a coal mine).

Could Octavia have been buried alive?

"They went to dig her up and found this horrible sight," said Everett. "Her fingernails were all bloody; the lining of the coffin was shredded and her face was all contorted. She had indeed been alive."

An absence of news accounts of this newsworthy event is often cited by its critics as proof that it didn't happen. But Octavia Hatcher wasn't just anybody; she was the daughter of one of Pike County's elite families. Her husband, James Hatcher, owned thousands of acres of Pike County land and made his fortune in timber and coal. Octavia Hatcher's gruesome fate made for juicy gossip, but actually reporting it could have been seen as a bad business decision for a local newspaper (or undertaker, or doctor) in what was essentially a company town.

Our Baby Jacob.
Our Baby Jacob is missing half of his head.

Relatives of the Hatchers still disavow the story. "They say it was just a bunch of foolishness and nothing like that happened," said Everett.

A year after Octavia's death, James Hatcher had a life-size marble statue of his wife set atop her hilltop grave -- an expensive gesture for the time. Later, he built the downtown Pike Hotel, choosing a spot where Octavia's marble gaze would always watch over it and him. Still later he built the James Hatcher Hotel, with a small museum of local artifacts in its lobby. These included the photograph used to model Octavia's statue, as well as James's own custom-built coffin, designed to prevent him from being buried alive. He never remarried, outlived Octavia by nearly 50 years, and was buried at her feet. "There is a story that when he died a string was tied around his finger and run up above the ground," said Everett. "A bell was at the end of it, so that if he had been buried alive, someone would hear the bell."

The stories didn't end with James Hatcher's death. Octavia's grave was said to be haunted, and in Appalachia ghosts were taken seriously as evidence of misdeeds. "Every year on the anniversary of her death the statue would spin around," said Jessica. "It would face away from the city of Pikeville, like she was turning her back on the city for allowing her to be buried alive." Fed up, the Hatchers erected a tall fence around the grave. The statue stopped spinning. Polly Hopkins, director of the Big Sandy Heritage Museum, told us that her father knew someone in his college class who had broken off Octavia's right hand during one of these nocturnal spinning shenanigans.

Ghosts don't seem that special nowadays; people see them everywhere. But you'd be hard-pressed to find a grave of someone buried alive, and Octavia Hatcher's is particularly dramatic, with its mournful, towering statue, mossy with age. "Very little of this is documented," admitted Everett, but he remains convinced that Octavia's premature burial is not just a tall tale or spook story. "We don't know; we weren't there," said Jessica. "But most people do accept that she was buried alive."

Octavia Hatcher: Buried Alive?

Cemetery Rd, Pikeville, KY
Small vehicle highly recommended. US Hwy 23 exit 24. Drive west into Pikeville for a little over a mile, past the Sunrise Plaza strip mall on the left, and after a stretch of nothing but trees on right, turn right onto Kentucky Ave. Drive up a hill, past some houses, and enter the Pikeville University campus. At the pedestrian overpass, make a sharp left onto High St. Follow this tiny road along the hillside, then make first right onto Sycamore St., then immediate right onto Cemetery Rd (a very tiny street that looks like someone's driveway). As this road loops to the left, you'll see Octavia's statue on the right.
Gated after hours. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Feudists On Trial (Hanging Site)Feudists On Trial (Hanging Site), Pikeville, KY - < 1 mi.
Big Sandy Heritage Museum: Hatfield-McCoyBig Sandy Heritage Museum: Hatfield-McCoy, Pikeville, KY - < 1 mi.
Hatfield-McCoy Feud CemeteryHatfield-McCoy Feud Cemetery, Pikeville, KY - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Fish Feeding Frenzy, Lavalette, WV - 57 mi.

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