Buried Alive: The Story of Octavia Hatcher
Slap! Her hand smacked down uselessly on the tanned skin of her forearm, the fly taking to the air and buzzing about her head as if mocking her for her failure to extinguish even its small life. She sighed irritably and glowered at it, massaging the bite on her arm. Just then the wail of an infant pierced the muggy air inside the small cabin, weak and pitiful. She struggled to her feet, body screaming in protest, still weary from the labors of childbirth. The cold winter did nothing to aid her recovery, but on the contrary did everything to hinder it, the four walls of their small house holding her prisoner in the frigid mountain air and refusing to retain the scanty heat of the fire.
Octavia crossed the floor and scooped up the frail little boy, planting a kiss on his red and wrinkled forehead with tender affection. He whimpered and his small hand flailed in the air, curled weakly into a tiny fist, before it fell back to rest uselessly at his side.
"Jacob," Octavia cooed, taking her son's small hand in hers, treasuring the smooth skin and warmth his palm emitted. She cradled him against her breast, abandoning the half kneaded bread dough on the scrubbed wooden table that now bore a dusting of flour. The small boy turned his head from his mother's breast with a pitiful whimper, refusing to suck. Octavia sighed miserably before laying him back down with a gentle kiss and setting the cradle to rock.
When next she looked up from placing the bread on the hearth to rise, the cradle had ceased rocking. It stood ominously still in the corner, the pile of blankets shielding Jacob from her view. Dusting off her hands, Octavia rose to her feet and slowly tip-toed over to the cradle to avoid waking the sleeping child. Peering down into the cradle she saw that his eyes were closed, face relaxed in sleep. Bending down she threaded her finger into his small hand. It was cold.
A scream split the air, tearing unbidden from her lips as she seized the small child in the throes of her panic. The thud of booted feet and roar of her husband's voice never fell upon her ears, blocked out by her rushing blood and pounding heart.
"Octavia, let him go!" James cried as he reached his stricken wife. "Put him down!"
"Wake up!" Octavia screamed, eyes wild.
"Don't shake him," James ordered, succeeding in wrestling their child from her iron-like grip, only to stare in horror at his infant son, now stiff and cold in death.
"He's dead," Octavia wailed, collapsing to her knees beside the empty cradle. "He's dead..."
She walked to the house in a trance, haunting the small cemetery when evening fell like a ghost, wailing occasionally so that her cries echoed through the mountains. Her hands were constantly stained with dirt, earth encrusting her formerly polished nails, as she clawed desperately at the clumps of soil and black dirt that covered her son's tiny grave.
Months passed and Octavia withered. Her silky brown hair grew greasy and matted; the color faded from her cheeks and the light from her eyes. Even the red color of her lips drained away as the flesh vanished from her thin frame.
The cradle remained in the corner, a constant reminder of their loss. Spring came on. Even in the early days of May, the heat was almost intolerable as she lay abed, growing too weak to even walk across the floor to the empty cradle that her eyes constantly sought as if hoping to find it filled by some miracle.
James watched as she burned with fever, occasionally taking her bone-thin hand in his calloused palm.
"Depression," was the doctor’s diagnosis as he departed her bedside with a sad expression. "She's wasting away."
The flies buzzed above her, landing on her bare arms and taunting her for the futility of her burning glares, for her arms had grown too weak to lift even their own weight and she could not lift a finger to shoo them away.
"Go to sleep," James whispered as he kissed her good night.
"Good night," she called after him as he began to climb up to the attic, her voice faint.
He froze, on foot on the stairs, convinced that she had said "good-bye." Shaking his head to dispel the thought, he climbed the stairs to bed.
She slumbered for hours. The whole night through she did not wake. Her eyelids fluttered once as if to open but remained shut, hiding her blue eyes from view. Even when James bent down to kiss her peaceful face she remained locked in a deep sleep. Evening came and still she lay still, never moving or giving a sign of life much like the child she had buried.
"Octavia," James murmured, giving his wife a gentle shake of the shoulder. A strand of hair fell across the pillow but Octavia never moved.
Heat pressed in on them like a thick woolen blanket in the heat of summer, threatening to suffocate them in its folds. The simple pine coffin was built hurriedly and Octavia's still body placed inside with one last parting kiss. The fresh earth scented the mountain air with its smell of dirt and decaying leaves. The service lasted bare minutes before they shoveled the dirt back into the hole where it hit the coffin lid with a hollow thud, accompanied by a cry of grief from James, who stood with bowed head before the graves of his wife and child, dug within months of each other. Then it was over, just as others began to fall prey to the same sleeping sickness that appeared to have taken Octavia's life when she should have been in the flower of her youth, blooming with the glow of new motherhood. Instead she was buried in the cool earth beside the small box that held the body of her newborn son.
"More have fallen ill," the doctor informed James, settling uneasily into the stiff-backed chair and casting a sorrowful glance at the cradle, which still remained in the corner, occasionally rocking back and forth--as if Jacob still lay within--when stirred by the mountain breezes that swept through the open door.
"With what?" James asked grimly, his face emaciated, dark circles residing beneath his green eyes, brown hair matted and unkempt, bearing signs of repeated tearing by roughened hands.
"Sleeping sickness." The doctor himself appeared ill as he spoke the words.
James sighed wearily and laid his head in his hands."We'll all die!" he lamented.
"James, that is not my worry," the doctor replied in a low voice, leaning in to whisper his next words in James' ear, his breath warm and uncomfortable against James' face. "They're waking," he hissed. "They're not dead!"
Horror seized them and they sat frozen at the table, which had grown dirty without Octavia to wipe it clean. A breeze swept through the room, carrying with it the scent of pine, rocking the cradle and causing it to creak loudly in the silence that held the room in its icy cold grip.
She woke from her slumber, hungry and cold, to find herself not on the down mattress that had been her wedding gift, but on a wooden board, surrounded by utter darkness. The fear that struck her instantly called an ear splitting scream to her lips, but it never left the close confines of the box. The coffin was dark and rough to touch, the walls and lid pressing in closely like prison walls, not even affording her bars at which to clutch. The earth was cold and heavy, threatening to collapse the thin pine boards and crush her beneath the weight of the dirt above her.
Octavia screamed, but no one heard her, buried alive in the mountains beside the body of her son and those of friends and family who had died.
She could feel the splinters as they buried themselves in the soft flesh of her fingertips, and feel the stabs of pain as her fingernails were torn from her fingers, embedded in the wooden lid of the coffin as she clawed at it with all her might, screaming all the while, desperate for escape. She was still screaming when the oxygen ran out.
The two men grunted, lifting the heavy box out of the deep hole and laying it on the grass. Wiping sweat from his brow James began to pry the lid off his wife's coffin. With a final heave and the loud splintering of wood it came free and the two men anxiously peered inside.
They recoiled in shock and horror, cries of terror springing from their lips as they laid eyes on Octavia. She lay contorted in the box, hands bloodied and dress stained with the blood that was just beginning to turn the brown color of rust. Her eyes were open wide in terror and mouth stretched wide in a scream. Her fingernails decorated the splintered underside of the coffin lid, bearing witness to her desperate struggle for escape.
The doctor bent low over the body. "She's dead," he announced, face ashen in the twilight of the mountain night.
James fell to his knees, unable to stifle his cry of grief. "What do we do?" he demanded.
The doctor shrugged. "We got here too late," he said sadly. "Cover her up and put her back in her grave...and never tell a soul."
They shoveled the earth back over the coffin and hastily departed the graveyard. The next morning James was gone, unable to remain in the house so close to the place where his wife and child were buried and where Octavia had met her terrifying end.
"She must have been so afraid," he lamented, "to have woken all alone in the dark."
"She's gone," the doctor counseled, "let her be."
"I buried her alive!"
"She's dead now," returned the doctor. "May she rest in peace."
Octavia Hatcher lived in Pikeville, Kentucky, during the late 1800s. She was born Octavia Smith and married James Hatcher in 1889. She bore him a son, Jacob Hatcher, in January of 1891, but he was sickly and died only a few days after birth. Not long after the death of her son Octavia fell ill and was confined to her bed. She slipped into a coma and was thought to have died on May 2nd, 1891; due to the unusually warm spring her family chose to forego embalming and she was buried quickly before the heat began to rot her body.
Others in Pikeville began to fall ill, showing the same symptoms that Octavia had displayed, and falling prey to the coma that had taken Octavia. Research by Herma Shelton has shown that the sleeping sickness that caused Octavia to be buried alive was caused by the bite of a fly.
When others who had fallen ill began to reawaken from their comas, Octavia’s family panicked, realizing their mistake. They hurriedly exhumed the grave, only to find the coffin splintered and torn, and Octavia’s face stretched in a scream that must have lasted until she perished in the dark.
The people of Pikeville claim that Octavia’s ghost still haunts the graveyard where she and her infant son are buried, some saying that when night falls they can hear a woman crying in the graveyard.