Tis the season for campfires, apple cider, and ghost stories. For folks living in southeast Ohio, one story in particular has captivated generations. The unassuming Otterbein Cemetery is found nestled in the rolling hills of Reading Township, Perry County, Ohio. In many ways it is much like any other small cemetery, but one gravestone in particular stands out from the rest. At the furthest reaches of the cemetery is the crumbling gravestone of Mary Henry, known for its mysterious rust-colored horseshoe shaped mark on the back of the stone.
As an archaeologist, gravestones - even ones without the hubub of lore - pique interest as they provide the name of the deceased, birth date and death date, an inscribed design, sometimes an epitaph, and in special cases the name of the gravestone maker. In short, they are a documentary artifact which can be studied individually or within the context of the cemetery as a whole. Here is a great article published by Archaeology Magazine detailing how archaeologists study gravestones.
In this multi-part blog, we will dive into a similar study of Perry County's infamous horseshoe grave and see if we can shake the truth from the legend.
Bucyrus newspaper, The Telegraph-Forum, published the earliest known written account of the legend all the way back in 1928, reproduced here in part:
"...Miss Mary Angle and Miss Rachael [sic] Hodge, reigning belles of the countryside, and Jame [sic] K. Henry, a young farmer, were the three principals of the narrative which begins with the marriage of young Henry to Miss Angle on January 11, 1844.
A devoted couple - this was the approving verdict of the townsfolk. But their earthly attachment was short lived for on February 28, 1845 the winsome young wife died while giving birth to a lusty son.
The husband was grief-stricken and as a sign of his sorrow, erected the grave marker, already mentioned.
On December 7, 1848, Henry took unto himself another wife - this time he chose Miss Rachael Hodge. Soon after this second marriage, some say within a week or two, there appeared on the grave marker of his first wife, the queer formation of a horse shoe. Where it came from or how it came to be in the lonely cemetery no one knew but thereafterward, farmers having occasion to pass the grave yard after sunset, whipped up their mounts and, with averted heads, dashed past the spot at breakneck speed.
Shortly after the horseshoe print was first descried [sic], Henry was kicked to death by one of his horses - a high spirited mare, which had been the driving pet of his first wife. Henry was buried in a nearby grave yard and his second wife, who died soon after, was interred beside him. Since their deaths and burial, many persons claim to have seen the ghostly hue and glow when darkness has settled over the lonely graveyard. At such time, they say, two female figures, separated by the horseshoe, rise up in the horseshoe’s silvery brightness and gesticulate as though in dispute.
... the salient episodes in the story happened over eighty years ago all efforts to obliterate the horseshoe print by human hands have failed. ..."
This article would be reprinted numerous times over the next century, right on time for Halloween. And with each reprint the tale grew more exaggerated. My favorite version, courtesy of Robert Wunderlin writing for the Columbus Dispatch Magazine in 1966, depicts James in the throes of despair while having to choose between Rachel or Mary. One night he falls asleep while horseback and awakes to find himself transported to Mary's home. James takes this as an almost paranormal sign to dump Rachel in favor of Mary. And so he does.
If you're like me, you might have some questions after reading this tale.
As with most spooky tales, there's a bit of truth and a bit of fiction. Join me for Part II of this story where investigate just that!
Interested in Perry County history? Dive into our online collection browser to discover all things Perry County curated within our Archaeology, History, and Natural History collections!