The Mystery Of The Dancing Lady
In the 1840s, the Graham Springs Hotel in Harrodsburg was regarded as one of the most fashionable summer resorts in Kentucky, with two large ballrooms and an elegant 150-person dining room.
Here, well-heeled guests would congregate for cotillion parties and masquerade balls, dressed in their finery as they mingled, laughed and danced long into the night.
Nowadays, however, the Graham Springs Hotel has a far more unsettling legacy; the long vanished grandeur overshadowed by one lonely, unmarked grave. The grave of the Dancing Lady.
You can see it here:
The original buildings of the hotel burned down many decades ago, with the sweeping grounds now home to Youngs Community Park, a green, cheerful and quite ordinary-looking public space with a pavilion, parking lot and children’s play area.
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine the ante-bellum balls and pageants held in this spot back in the 19th century, with the resort’s famed mineral waters attracting various stylish individuals from Southern high society.
However, echoes remain, and there is one visitor who never left the grounds of the Graham Springs Hotel. A lady who never changed out of her ballgown into her nightdress or eased her tired feet from her dancing shoes.
She lies in her grave, a short walk from where she died. Over the years, she has become something of a local legend, with many an eerie ghost story whispered among Harrodsburg residents. And yet precious little is known about her aside from the events that unfolded on her final night on Earth.
Details about the death of Harrodsburg’s Dancing Lady – as recounted by the then-hotel owner Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham – are a little muddled and highly romanticised, a narrative straight out of a Sherlock Holmes story.
The lady, said to have been in her early twenties, checked into the Graham Springs Hotel in Harrodsburg one balmy summer day in 1840. She claimed her name was Virginia Stafford, and that her father was an influential Louisville judge who would be arriving later on.
That evening, ‘Virginia’ attended a ball at the hotel, and dazzled all those present with her extraordinary beauty and charm. She danced with several partners throughout the night, catching the eye of every man in the room.
Dance after dance, this captivating lady didn’t seem to tire. But then, as the evening drew to a close, her final dance partner looked down and saw that she had died in his arms.
After her death, it became apparent the lady had not been honest about who she was. Although there was indeed a Judge Stafford, he didn’t have a daughter called Virginia. Nobody knew who this enchanting lady had been, or why she had chosen to conceal her true identity.
The hotel owners reportedly waited an entire week for someone to come and identify the body, but nobody came. After searching her room, all they could find was the dress she arrived in and an empty trunk.
The horrified guests and staff held a funeral for her in the grounds, burying her in an anonymous grave bearing the words, ‘UNKNOWN – Hallowed and Hushed be the place of the dead. Step Softly. Bow Head’.
Years later, the hotel burned to the ground, the widely hailed springs ran dry and the site was turned into a military asylum. All those present that night went to their own graves in their turn, and nowadays this oddly-placed burial site is the only reminder of the events that unfolded that night.
Over the years, mystery has continued to surround the identity of the unknown woman and the strange circumstances surrounding her untimely death.
The legend goes that she ‘danced herself to death’, and that she can still be seen dancing by her grave in the moonlight.
According to one report by FOX 56 Lexington, a local woman once allegedly encountered a ghostly figure near the gravesite who told her she was lost and was trying to find her way back to the Harrodsburg Hotel ball.
When the woman explained that the ballroom had long since burned to ashes, the mournful figure began to weep.
However, this poetic story doesn’t sit well with everyone, with some amateur sleuths believing the flowery tale masks a dark and despicable crime.
I spoke with Todd Matthews, a true crime researcher who, alongside writer, researcher and scholar Dr. Lynn Smelser, has been working to shed light on this very old case.
Matthews is currently program director for the Doe Network, an organisation which focuses on cold cases and unidentified persons, with a team of volunteers working to connect records with missing persons.
Matthews, who has previously managed to identify various Jane and John Does years after their discovery, told UNILAD he believes it’s possible the dancing story could have been ‘a cover up’ or a way to deliberately ‘downplay a tragic event’.
Matthews and Dr. Smelser have recently pushed to have the Dancing Lady exhumed, with her DNA put through ancestry databases in a way that could potentially point towards her true identity.
This is the oldest Jane Doe Matthews has ever encountered in the course of his work, and all those who knew her will have long passed on. However, it’s still important for him to put a name and a life to the ghost story.
Matthews told UNILAD:
If we can identify her, we will know more of her life circumstances and how she came to be out of pocket.
[…] She’s a missing leaf on a family tree for sure. It would be a huge boost for the shorter term unidentified if we could change something so old.
Matthews first heard of the story of the Dancing Lady as a teenager traveling from Tennessee to Indiana to visit family, and found ‘the sheer age of the unsolved case’ to be ‘unbelievable’.
Unfortunately, Matthews and Dr. Smelser have encountered setbacks in their plans for exhumation. In March, Harrodsburg City Commission voted against exhuming the grave without hearing from cold case investigators, a decision that has left many advocates disappointed.
Matthews said: ‘I feel like they worry about altering the gravesite. One solution might be to dig a parallel hole and go into the side of the grave, leaving the surface of the original grave intact.’
It has been reiterated that the city council does not wish to pursue it further. Even with throwing out the idea of a parallel shaft – I just think they have made up their mind and nothing will deviate.
Maybe I can appeal after some time and new officials are in place. Pandemic made it difficult for any early face to face meetings etc. Some letters have gone unanswered. Maybe after some time the idea will settle in and they will see things differently.
Despite this frustrating hitch, Matthews and Dr. Smelser are still pressing on with a documentary about the Dancing Lady, having recently put forward a call for local residents to share their lore.
As well as the clutch of hometown ghost stories you’d expect, Matthews found people were interested in the science behind it all.
Going forward, the sleuths haven’t given up hope of finding out what happened to the Dancing Lady, and indeed whether anybody had a hand in her death.
The most widely believed theory is that the woman in the grave is a Molly Black Sewell, the second wife of a Tennessee man named Joe Sewell. The couple had been estranged at the time, and many believe Sewell had fled in a spirit of wanderlust, looking for adventure and glamour.
However, Dr. Smelser’s research has cast considerable doubt on this version of events, as told to The Harrodsburg Herald:
I located a stamp collecting club that has a confederate stamp on an envelop addressed to Mollie Sewell of Tazewell, Tenn.
This is the same town where Joe Sewell and his wife, Molly Black Sewell lived. One story goes that his wife left him and that he said she was the lady who danced herself to death, but this stamp club has evidence that she was alive and well in Tennessee in the 1860s.
Smelser continued: ‘I have uncovered more stories stating she did not come there alone, but the man who was with her abandoned her when she collapsed. One story reads he asked to be alone with her and then fled through a window.
‘In addition, there are rumours saying Dr. Graham [the aforementioned hotel proprietor] sent his nephew out of state on an all expenses paid trip to New Orleans the same week the unknown dancer died.’
Although rumours of Graham’s nephew being sent away that same week cannot be backed up, as per The Harrodsburg Herald, Dr. Robert Graham, the elder Dr. Graham’s nephew, was later convicted of the murder of a man in New Orleans in November 1854.
Dr. Smelser, who believes the mysterious woman was murdered, thinks Dr. Graham could have sent his nephew away due to his violent temperament, and her research appears to back up this theory.
She was also able to track down accounts showing the nephew had in fact been living at the Graham Springs Hotel, where his uncle had been attempting to help him tackle alcoholism and violent tendencies.
Dr. Smelser said: ‘I have made progress and now I have a new theory that is supported by evidence, but we need to exhume in order to confirm.’
At the time of writing, the Dancing Lady still lies, unknown and unnamed, in her solitary grave, her descendants potentially walking and playing in the grounds where she took her final breath.
As old as the remains are, it’s by no means out of the question that a potential exhumation could one day link her to a family tree, unravelling the mystery of who she was and why she was able to disappear into legend.
Featured Image Credit: Fox56 Lexington/YouTube
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