THE MYSTERY LADY OF HARRODSBURG
WE HAVE A NEW STORY:
As a soft wind blows brushing the grass around it, a white picket fence stands silently in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. A source of passing intrigue for curious newcomers to town, for those who have heard the stories surrounding the fence and the rectangular plot of ground it stands guard around it has become part of the scenery, a thread woven into the fabric of Harrodsburg that is easy to overlook.
But if you listen. If you dare to sit quietly near that grave marker, somewhere in that soft wind you will hear her essence. The woman who swept into town on a warm summer’s evening in the 1840’s, is still whispering her plea to take her home, to give her a name, to respect the fact that she lived and she was bigger than the broken bits and pieces that make up her story.
The story that has been passed down goes as follows: a beautiful young woman arrived in town on the afternoon of a large social event in town. She was shown to a room in the Harrodsburg Hotel, registering under the name Virginia Stafford. Virginia explained that she was the daughter of a prominent judge in Louisville, and with that swept onto the dance floor. Legend has it that she entered the ballroom a few minutes after the event began, but all eyes were focused on this beauty when she did arrive.
The lady danced all night. She seemed carefree. Her laughter echoed through the ballroom. When the final song of the night concluded she leaned in towards her dance partner. Some accounts say he thought he was about to receive a kiss; however, instead she went limp in his arms. He carried her outside for air and laid her in the grass. Within moments it became apparent she was not breathing. Though they tried to save her, she died there in the arms of strangers.
The judge she claimed was her father was immediately contacted. He stated that he did not know her and that he had not daughters. From there a search began in the surrounding area. However, no one claimed her. After five days, she was buried where she died.
Some say the mystery was solved long ago. A newspaper clipping from the early 1900’s stated that a man by the name of James Rupp told the newspaper that when he was 10-years-old a man named Joe Sewell told him that the woman who had danced herself to death was his wife, Mollie (Black) Sewell. He stated that he was traveling and that his wife had gone out for a night of amusement. There also seemed to be some indication that he and his wife were estranged.
So, a 10-year-old boy takes note of this and the name remembers it many many years later as an adult? And did Mr. Sewell even come to visit the grave? Why didn’t he take her home? Why would Mr. Sewell allow her to continue to be buried as “unknown”? Even if he had no feelings for his wife, wouldn’t her family want to know? Wouldn’t the woman who danced herself to death provide a very convenient response for a man whose wife had either left him for another man or if he had murdered her? Aside from the recollections of a man from when he was a 10-year-old boy, there is nothing concrete that would indicate this story is true. It is simply a convenient story.
We all love a good mystery, a story to tell at night that challenges us to think about the unknown, but does this mystery woman actually matter in the year 2020? She may turn out to be just a normal person like you and me. She may turn out to just be someone who was out for a night of fun and nothing more, and one might be tempted to ask, “Doesn’t this give her mystery more value than her actual name?”
Before you ask either of these questions, take a moment and look into the eyes of your wife, your daughter, your mother, your sister, your niece….there is nothing that can replace them and if they were unable to speak, wouldn’t you want someone to speak for them? So, what if they are just normal people. They are people. They are love and live and a part of this human family.
Virginia Stafford, which is the very final name she ever gave anyone to call her, wants to go home. She’s done being a part of a story. Virginia deserves her peace. Her life ended too soon and ended in the arms of strangers. Technology has advanced, the world has changed, but Virginia has still not gone home.
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Lynne M. Smelser is an executive producer and scriptwriter. For more than 20 years she has been an active writer who has won many national awards. She also holds a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University.