Ghosts of the Prairie


" The Girl Who Turned Her Back on Pikeville"

There is said to be a spirit who looms over Pikeville, Kentucky and she has become such a part of the lore of the city, and surrounding Pike County, that students at nearby Pikeville College can tell you a dozen different versions of how this ghost died, how she lived and how she makes her spectral presence known in the local graveyard. Unfortunately, few of these stories are actually true - the truth may be much more frightening - but there are those who maintain that the ghost of a young woman named Octavia Hatcher still haunts this place. And since her death in 1891, has never rested in peace.

Pike County, Kentucky is nestled in the hills that rise to meet the Appalachian Mountains. It is a secluded region in the extreme southeastern corner of Kentucky and it is rich in coal, hardwood timber and the medicinal herbs of the mountain region. It is also rich in the lore, history and legend of the area as well. It was in Pike County that the famous Hatfield-McCoy Feud took place, which has appeared in books, magazines and on film throughout the years. No investigation into the legend of Pike County would be complete without a glimpse into this feud.

It is undoubtedly the most famous of the feuds that rocked the mountain regions of the middle south. The Hatfield and McCoy families were honest, hard-working proud people who lived in the counties of southeast Kentucky and over the border in West Virginia. The leader of the McCoy’s in Kentucky was Randolph (or Randall) McCoy and he was married to his cousin Sarah (Sally) and together they had 15 children. The leader of the West Virginia clan was William Anderson Hatfield (Devil Anse). He and his wife, Levicy, had 13 children of their own.

During the Civil War, Hatfield, who was devoted to the Confederacy, formed the Logan Wildcats to patrol the Tug Valley against thieves and raiders who stole horses and livestock. It would be the formation of this patrol, and its first victim, that would begin the feud between the two families. This first victim was a Union veteran, Asa Harmon McCoy, the younger brother of Randolph McCoy. Harmon broke his leg and was mustered out of the service on Christmas Eve 1864. He returned home was told by James Vance, an uncle of Anse Hatfield, that the Logan Wildcats planned to pay him a visit. He hid out in a cave on Blue Spring Creek but Hatfield and his men were able to tack him down by following the footprints of a McCoy slave, who brought food and supplies to his master. Harmon was shot to death but no suspects were ever arrested or brought to trial for his murder.

In spite of this, the region was peaceful until 1873. One day, Randolph McCoy stopped to visit Floyd Hatfield, a cousin of Anse and happened to see a hog on his lot that had the McCoy mark on its ear. He immediately accused Hatfield of stealing the animal, a charge the other man denied. McCoy immediately went to see preacher Anderson Hatfield, who was both a minister and justice of the peace and he filed suite against Floyd for the recovery of his hog. On the day of the trial, both Hatfield’s and McCoy’s heard the case. Bill Staton, a nephew of Randolph and brother-in-law of Ellison Hatfield, swore to Floyd Hatfield's ownership of the hog and Hatfield won the case. This was a fatal error in judgment for Staton, for within months he was dead.

The hatred that grew between these two prominent families caused problems throughout the region and wreaked havoc on the lives of the younger members of both clans. During the celebration that surrounded the election of 1880, Johnse Hatfield, son of Anse, fell in love with Randolph McCoy’s daughter, Roseanna. The two lived in the Hatfield cabin in West Virginia until Roseanna’s sisters came and begged her to come home. But resistance to her romance with Johnse sent Roseanna to her aunt’s home in Stringtown, Kentucky, where she was once again able to see Johnse. One night though, his McCoy kinsmen attacked the house and took Johnse prisoner. He was taken away, allegedly to the Pikeville jail, but Roseanna knew that he would be killed at the first opportunity. She borrowed a horse and in an act of devotion to Johnse and disloyalty to her family, she went to see Anse Hatfield and alerted him to what had happened. He gathered his sons and friends and reclaimed his son without incident. From that time on however, Johnse never risked being with Roseanna. Heartbroken and now pregnant, she returned to her father, who never forgave her. She contracted measles and miscarried a daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, who is buried in Stringtown. Roseanna eventually moved to Pikeville and died at the age of 30, some say from a broken heart.

The feud escalated at the time of the 1882 elections. The Hatfield’s arrived early when the polls opened and began drinking. Early on August 7, Tolbert McCoy, accused Lias Hatfield of owing him some money for a fiddle. Hatfield protested the debt and stated that he had paid it earlier. As the day went on, Ellison Hatfield began making disparaging comments about Tolbert and McCoy turned on the other man with a knife. Ellison was bleeding badly when Pharmer McCoy shot Ellison in the back. Ellison’s brother, Elias, entered the fray and attempted to wrestle the gun from Hatfield’s hand and tried to shoot him with it. Eventually, the McCoy’s ran and sought cover in the woods. They were later captured and taken into the custody for a trip to the Pikeville jail. Ellison Hatfield was taken by stretcher to his home in West Virginia.

The following morning, before the McCoy’s could be taken to Pikeville, Anse Hatfield and several men took the McCoy’s away from their guards. Crossing the Tug River at the moth of Blackberry Creek, the Hatfield’s took them to an unused schoolhouse. Sarah McCoy, hearing of the capture of her sons, immediately rode to the schoolhouse and demanded to see Anse. She asked why he was holding her sons and he replied that he was waiting to see if Ellison died or not for his wounds. If he survived, he promised to return the McCoy’s to Kentucky.

On August 9, word reached the schoolhouse that Ellison was dead. The McCoy’s were then bound and marched across the Tug River to Kentucky. Here, they were tied up to some pawpaw trees and shot to death. In the matter of a few seconds, over 50 shots were fired into their bodies. Even though Ellison had died, Anse had kept his promise to return the McCoy’s to Kentucky…

In 1886, years after the actual murders, the Kentucky governor appointed a special officer, Frank Phillips, to arrest the killers of the McCoy brothers. He also offered a large reward that unleashed an army of bounty hunters in the state of West Virginia. Determined that there would be no witnesses to identify them, members of the Hatfield clan raided the McCoy family home on New Year’s Day 1888, killing Alifair McCoy and son Calvin, burning the cabin to the ground. Randolph and Sally managed to escape with their lives.

After this, public opinion shifted against the Hatfield’s and Frank Phillips began his investigations, though he lacked proper extradition papers for his prisoners. In response, the governor of West Virginia put up his own reward offers, sued Kentucky for unlawful arrest of nine prisoners, and eventually took the case to the United States Supreme Court. The men were eventually returned to Kentucky and received death and prison sentences for the various crimes.

Randolph and Sarah McCoy moved to Pikeville to get away from the Hatfield’s. They lived in the last house on Main Street at the corner of Scott Avenue for many years. Randolph ran a ferry across the river. Sarah preceded her husband in death and Randolph passed on in 1914. He was living with his nephew at the time and died of burns received when his clothing caught fire. Devil Anse Hatfield died in January 1921 and is buried in West Virginia.

Today, this bitter feud is only a memory and years after, descendants of the fighting patched up their differences. They still gather today, not to settle old scores, but to eat, drink and relish the legacy of their kinfolk. The families have gone on to leave a major impact on the region and descendants have included leaders in many professions, including education, politics, law, medicine and more.

But the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s were only two of the prominent families in the Pike County region and were far from the only clan to leave a lasting impact on Pikesville and the surrounding area. Perhaps Pikeville’s most important family was that of the Hatcher family, which was founded in the area by James Hatcher.

James Hatcher (or Uncle Jim) as he was known later in life, was a wealthy land owner and prominent business figure in the Pikeville region. He was one of nine children born in September 1859 to A.J. and Mary C. Layne Hatcher at the mouth of Beaver Creek in Floyd County. He moved to Pikeville early in life and attended school there.

Hatcher entered into business in Pikeville at the age of 18 and opened a warehouse for good brought in on the river. At one time, he handled nearly all of the merchandise that was hipped via steamer to the city. He became associated with several other businessmen in building a steamer called the “Mountain Girl”, which was considered the finest boat on the river - but also one of the biggest financial failures as well. Hatcher never let this deter him however and he also went into the contracting business, which led to his erecting the courthouse in Pikeville in 1886.

Hatcher also became a pioneer in the southeastern Kentucky timber business, long before the coming of the railroads and before coal was discovered in the area. He used hundreds of rafts to float lumber down the Big Sandy River to the Ohio and then on to markets in Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville. Much of his profit was invested in land and he soon became one of the largest individual landowners in the valley. He later opened the James Hatcher Coal Co. and accumulated great wealth in this industry as well. He also became a prominent figure in Democratic political circles, served a term as the Clerk of the Pike County Court and in 1932, was elected railroad commissioner for the district.

In 1931, he opened the Hotel Hatcher on Main Street in Pikeville and it became known as one of the showplaces of the Big Sandy river region. The spacious lobby of the place included a museum that displayed ox-yokes, ancient hand-made furniture, antique weapons and utensils used by the early settlers. The lobby also boasted a huge fireplace and the walls were covered with historical photos, illustrations, maps and information about Pike and Floyd Counties.

A Vintage Photo of the Hotel Hatcher

James Hatcher passed away in his home next to the Hotel Hatcher in October 1939. He had been ill for several weeks, having just celebrated his 80th birthday. The funeral was held at the hotel and scores of his friends and relatives were in attendance, as was Kentucky Governor A.B. Chandler, Lieutenant Governor Keen Johnson and a number of other state officials.

Hatcher was buried in the family plot at Pikeville Cemetery, in a casket that he had especially constructed for him. There is no indication as to what specifications the coffin had been designed with but one has to wonder if it might have had some sort of safety release that would allow the person inside to escape in the event of premature burial. As the reader will soon see, Hatcher had every reason to be plagued by this fear….

In 1889, at the age of 30, James Hatcher was married in Pikeville to a young woman named Octavia Smith, the daughter of Jacob Smith, an early settler. Their life together would be tragically brief and their union would produce one son, Jacob, who was born shortly before his mother died. The baby died soon after he was born, possibly leading to the depression and illness that preceded Octavia’s own death.

And it is the death of Octavia Hatcher that has created a legend that is still very much a part of Pikeville. The Hatcher baby, Jacob, was born in January 1891 and only lived for a few days before he died. A short time later, Octavia took to her bed, likely suffering from depression, and was quite ill. The illness took a turn for the worse in April of that same year and she slipped into a coma. The doctors were unable to determine a cause for it and when she died on May 2, it was thought that she had perished from an unknown illness.

The funeral services were held and almost immediately carried out. It was an unseasonably hot spring and as Octavia was not embalmed , no was time was wasted in placing her in her grave at the Hatcher family plot. James had just suffered a terrible double tragedy - but his grief was not yet over.

Several days after Octavia’s death, several other people began suffering from the same coma-like symptoms that Octavia exhibited at the time of her death. Research conducted by Herma Shelton shows that this illness was a sort of sleeping sickness that was brought on by the bite of a certain fly. When news of this began to spread, Hatcher and members of his family (some of them doctors) began to worry that this may have been the same illness that Octavia had contracted. Their fears turned to panic as they realized that she may have been buried alive!

An emergency exhumation was conducted and Octavia’s casket was opened. They found the poor young woman in a horrific state. Apparently, the coffin had not been airtight and she had managed to survive for a few days, trapped beneath the ground. The lining on the lid of the coffin had been torn and shredded by Octavia’s bloody nails and her face had been scratched and contorted into an expression of terror. She must have awakened from her sleep to find herself trapped in the casket. Then, unable to escape, she had undoubtedly succumbed to a terrifying death!

Octavia was reburied but James’ heart was broken. He had a expensive monument erected on the site, a tall stone that bears a likeness of Octavia standing atop it. At one time, a carving of her baby had been placed in the statue’s arm, but in more recent times, vandals have managed to break the arm off and the infant lies on the ground next to the marker.

As the years passed, the strange and unsettling story of Octavia Hatcher’s final moments began to be told and re-told in Pikeville. Eventually, as is the case with many legends, the story was twisted and changed until much of the truth was lost. During the years that Herma Shelton was attending Pikeville College, she heard a number of versions of the story, all of them different. The most commonly told revision of the story had it that Octavia had died while she was still pregnant. The story went that, during the funeral, the mourners heard an odd sound coming from inside of the coffin. When they opened the lid, they found that the baby, Jacob, had been born to the dead woman. He only lived a short time and then died himself. Obviously, this story is untrue and a glance at the Hatcher family gravesite would reveal that Jacob’s death preceded Octavia’s by several months.

As the story of Octavia Hatcher continued to spread, the tale took on a more “urban legend” quality. Students from the college and teenagers from around the area often went to the cemetery on Halloween night to drink and scare one another. They claimed that the statue would come to life on certain nights and frighten trespassers out of the graveyard. It was during this period that someone broke off the arm that held the stone infant.

This Photo of Octavia's grave was taken on a clear day with no fog and with warm temperatures. A mist was seen in several of the photos taken that day but it did not appear in all of them. (Photo by Herma Shelton)

Pranksters also went to the trouble of climbing onto the monument to bother the statue themselves. This gave birth to yet another, and perhaps most popular, version of the story. According to this version, Octavia’s spirit was angry at the people of Pikeville for allowing her to be buried alive. Because of this, she would literally turn her back on the city on the anniversary of her death. On these nights, the statue mounted on her grave marker would turn on its pedestal and would face the opposite direction from where it had been previously. This story was accepted as truth for many years until it was finally revealed that the nocturnal movements were the work of clever college students.

Even after story after story about Octavia was debunked, this never seemed to quell the rumors that spread about the cemetery being haunted. People who visited the site, and most especially, those who lived on the hill where the graveyard was located, often spoke of hearing strange cries in the darkness and about spotting a misty apparition in the vicinity of Octavia’s grave. Finally, in the middle 1990’s, the Hatcher family placed a stone in the cemetery that contained accurate information about Octavia’s death and placed her statue on a new marble base. They also enclosed the area with a fence, hoping to keep out the trespassers and vandals.

And while the additions to the gravesite have managed to keep out the unwanted, they have done nothing to curb the continued stories of ghosts and supernatural manifestations around the plot. Herma interviewed a number of people who live on the hill near the cemetery and heard about several incidents that took place in the cemetery. Many of them expressed a fear to come into the graveyard, especially at night, and there is a solid belief that the ghost of Octavia Hatcher still walks here.

One couple that she spoke with, who had lived nearby for more than 30 years, stated that they had noticed something very odd in recent months. According to their account, they heard the sound of woman weeping, coming from the direction of the burial plot on several nights. A check of the area revealed absolutely no one in the cemetery.

Another couple, who had moved to the neighborhood a short time before, said that they were told by others in the community to expect parties and trespassers in the cemetery at night but that they had yet to see anyone around. However, one evening they walked out into the graveyard themselves because they thought they heard a kitten crying in the darkness. As they approached the Hatcher plot, where the sounds were coming from, the crying stopped.

So, does the ghost of Octavia Hatcher walk in the Pikeville Cemetery? Or are the stories nothing more than local myths? According to a number of reliable witnesses, unexplained things still take place around the place where her life ended in terror. Could witnesses who claim to feel depressed and anxious around the grave be experiencing the young woman’s final moments? Or is the apparitions reported around the grave the spirit of Octavia as she still searches for peace?

That is, of course, up to the reader to decide … but if you ever get the chance to visit the Pikeville Cemetery, we’ll invite you to visit this site for yourself. Haunted or not, this is a place where a tragic young woman deserves a moment or two of silent recognition for a life cut too short and a death that came far too early.


Sources & Bibliography:
Pike County News (1939 edition)
Tour Pike County website (
Personal Interviews and Correspondence

© Copyright 2002 by Troy Taylor & Herma Shelton. All Rights Reserved.

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