Octavia Hatcher, the legend that never dies

Published: Oct. 31, 2018 at 5:05 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Within the mountains of Pikeville lies a story of love and horror.

Octavia Smith married wealthy businessman James Hatcher.

"It was a short-lived marriage. In 1891 in January she gave birth to a son. He only lived a very short time," explained University of Pikeville's Archivist Edna Fugate.

Fugate says soon after, things took a turn for the worse.

"She went into a deep depression. By April, she was comatose and by May she died," said Fugate.

Because of the hot humid May weather, the townspeople waited no time to bury her without embalming.

"But then they noticed, according to the story, that a lot of people were passing out and going comatose," Fugate pointed out.

Fugate adds that studies show many believed the comatose state may be related to a mosquito bite.

Worried that Octavia may still be alive, her family rushed to the grave site and dug up her coffin.

"When they opened it, the coffin was scratched," said the archivist.

Her nails, bloodied and torn back.

"There was supposed to have been an awful look upon her face because she had passed away. There wasn't enough air in the coffin to keep her alive," she added.

Her heartbroken husband James installed a statue of his late wife and their son Jacob.

"So after that, he installed this beautiful statue that is up there now that was made in Italy," said Fugate.

Every Halloween, many in Pikeville visit the statue.

"According to the legend, the statue will turn as if it is turning away from the city that buried her alive," explained Fugate.

Supposedly turning her back to Pikeville after Pikeville turning its back on her.

The Real Story

The real story is a little less gory. However, no less tragic for James as he lost his wife and son.

Fugate told WYMT, to this day, she has not been able to locate the obituary for Octavia or her son.

However, in letters and notes written by James, he never mentions her tragic death.

James died in 1939. Fugate said any record of anything that was said about James or he says about himself includes Octavia.

Fugate recalls his obituary stating Octavia, not as a woman he was married to, but as the love of his life.

Only months before he died, in a letter to then Pikeville College President James Record, he mentions Octavia.

"He always mentions her warmingly and lovingly without any thought that something horrible might have happened in her death," explained Fugate.

Fugate says she believes the Octavia story may come from those who knew James and his quirky characteristics.

For those people who are convinced the legend may be real Fugate says she has searched for Octavia's obituary, however, that period of the newspaper is not available.

"It's like those hand-full of months where her obituary should have been, is gone. So there isn't proof whether she actually was buried alive or if the obituary just said she passed away," explained Fugate.

Fugate told WYMT, she believes this story is still wildly talked about to this day because typically, we do not have that kind of story around here.

"It's something that just took root in us and we just don't want to let that go," Fugate added.

A little more about James Hatcher

Fugate says James Hatcher has his own interesting story.

He owned the Hatcher Hotel in downtown Pikeville. The building still stands today but is no longer a hotel.

Inside his hotel was a museum. Fugate says there were many interesting items in the museum, including his coffin.

She says according to records, there was something odd about the coffin. Some say that the coffin had a self-opening mechanism inside. Others say there was a bell attached to it. Both seem to play a role in survival if buried alive.

James, the wealthy businessman started with storage warehouses for lumber, ran steamboats, owned hotels, and more.

Fugate describes him as being into "a little bit of everything."

"He was the type of fella who when he went into something, he went into something big. When it failed, it failed spectacularly. But when it succeeded, he made all kinds of money," said Fugate.

Debunked Myth

Through the years, stories can be misinterpreted and parts have been added for effect.

Many who know the story believe Octavia's statue was at one time holding her son Jacob before her arm was broken by vandals.

However, that is not the truth.

"She actually never held the baby. She was holding an umbrella. In the portrait, she was holding an umbrella. So her arm with the top of the umbrella is gone. But the baby has always been at her feet," Fugate pointed out.

If you believe the legend or not, that is up to you.