By the 1890s, James Hatcher had become one of the richest men in Pikeville, Kentucky. His career as a businessman began at the age of eighteen when he opened a warehouse on the river. After building a steamer called the “Mountain Girl,” he branched out into the contracting and the timber businesses. He also dabbled in politics, becoming the Clerk of the Pike County Court and Railroad Commission for the district. In 1891, Hatcher married Ocatavia Smith, the daughter of one of the founders of Pikeville. The couple’s marital bliss was cut short by the death of their son, Jacob, only a few days after he was born. Grief-stricken, Octavia slipped into a coma and died shortly thereafter on May 2, probably from a broken heart. Most stories of family tragedy end at this point. In Octavia Hatcher’s case, however, her legend began shortly after burial.

Octavia Hatcher was buried soon after death without being embalmed. A few days after her body was interred, several residents of Pikeville succumbed to a strange, coma-inducing illness, similar to the ailment that had afflicted Octavia shortly before her demise. Apparently, the disease was spread by the bite of a fly. As soon as Hatcher and his family heard the news of the “sleeping sickness” that was spreading throughout the community, the terrible realization that they had buried Octavia alive took hold. When her coffin was exhumed, bystanders were shocked by what they found inside. Octavia’s lifeless eyes were bulging open, her face contorted in an expression of terror. The spectators could almost hear the desperate scream that issued forth from her open mouth in her final hour. The corpse’s broken, bloody fingernails and the scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lid made it painfully clear what had happened to Octavia: she had awakened from her coma inside her coffin.

James Hatcher never totally recovered from the horrible fate that befell Octavia. He was moved by his undying love for his wife to replace the comparatively modest grave marker with a stone statue of Octavia cradling an infant in her arms. Legend has it that his fear of being buried alive was so intense that just before James died in 1939, he had a special coffin made for himself that would enable him to escape if her were unfortunate enough to wake up underground.

According to authors Troy Taylor and Herma Shelton, the grisly tale of Octavia Hatcher has generated a number of ghost stories. For years, Teenagers who have visited the cemetery to party have reported hearing screams coming from the vicinity of her grave. It was said that Octavia’s spirit turned her completely around, essentially “turning her back” on the town that had allowed her to be buried prematurely. Eventually, residents of Pikeville learned that the strange behavior of Octavia’s statue was actually the work of mischievous college students. Some witnesses have spied her wispy form floating among the graves. Indeed, photographs taken by Herma Shelton in the daylight hours have captured what appears to be a misty shape hovering over Octavia’s grave.

In an effort to dispel the mystery surrounding the grave of Octavia Hatcher, members of her family have placed a pedestal on her grave containing factual information regarding her life and death. The sad fact is that Octavia Hatcher would probably be completely forgotten today had she not suffered such a horrible death.