A roughly 180-year-old case involving the mysterious death of a young woman in Kentucky is getting a fresh look, as a couple of sleuths hope to positively identify her and determine whether the legend that's been passed on for generations about her untimely demise actually holds up.
The story goes like this: The young woman, believed to have been in her early 20s, checked into the Graham Springs Hotel in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, in the 1840s. She claimed she was Virginia Stafford, the daughter of a prominent Louisville judge, the Harrodsburg Herald reports.
The night she checked in, she danced in the hotel’s ballroom with several partners and then literally died in one of their arms, according to the hotel's owner Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham.
Officials soon determined she wasn't who she claimed to be. The Louisville judge she said was her father was a real person, but he didn’t have a daughter named Virginia. The mystery woman became known as the "Dancing Lady of Harrodsburg" and was buried in an unmarked grave on the hotel grounds, which is now home to a hospital.
The mystery has become a local urban legend, one tinged with rumors of paranormal activity as at least one person has claimed to see a weeping ghost near the gravesite, local outlet WDKY reported in 2016.
Renowned internet sleuth Todd Matthews, who serves as program director for The Doe Network, has been obsessed with the case for decades but it wasn’t until last year that he, along with Dr. Lynne Smelser, a Michigan researcher and writer, became dedicated to finding answers.
Smelser told Oxygen.com that she stumbled upon the grave while visiting a relative in 2019. She found it curious, took some pictures of it, but then soon forgot about it. Nearly a year later, though, one of the pictures of the grave kept mysteriously showing up every time she opened her phone. She said that after calling tech support, she deleted the image, but said it kept coming back. Then, she began dreaming of a woman dressed in 1980s clothing, standing in a field, asking her “Are we going home now?”
The strange occurrences led Smelser to research the case, and then she reached out to Matthews. They decided that they just had to find out what happened to the dancer and teamed up.
Both will be going to Harrodsburg next week to meet with people and figure out the logistics, Matthews told Oxygen.com over Facebook on Thursday.
“So, hopefully, we will have a plan from that point forward," he said. "I always thought the story sounded off, no proper autopsy was available at that time.”
He said they plan to reach out to the local authorities and ask for their assistance so that they can exhume the body for further research. If the remains are in decent condition, David Mittelman at Othram Inc. confirmed to Oxygen.com that the private DNA lab will perform testing to produce a genealogical profile. They have previously worked on a case from 1880.
“I think this might be the last chance to name the 'Dancing Lady of Harrodsburg,'” Matthews told Oxygen.com.
They hope identifying the remains will reveal the truth of the legend. Smelser makes it clear that she doesn’t buy the original folklore.
“Right now I am taking zero stock in the old story,” she told Oxygen.com “I don’t believe she was dancing and having a beautiful night and then just collapsed in someone’s arms. I think that’s the story Dr. Graham wanted to give.”
Smelser said that through her research, she noticed that most accounts of the evening come from Graham only. She also claimed that she experienced an incident of possible paranormal activity, one of several during her research while visiting Graham’s grave. Smelser said she heard a voice stating, “It was a mistake. It wasn’t supposed to happen” before leaving the graveyard, only to be struck with a sharp pain in her neck. She said the neck discomfort only dissipated after she called Matthews and they theorized together that the dancing woman’s neck could have been broken.
A broken neck as the cause of death is one of the theories she’s been mulling over. Another theory is a cholera coverup: she said that due to cholera outbreaks in the area at the time, the hotel owner could have covered up the death with a beautiful tale to prove that the hotel was safe. Furthermore, she said she discovered Graham had a nephew with a history of violence and that Graham paid for him to leave town for treatment around the time of the incident. She pondered if he could have had anything to do with the death.
“I do suspect foul play for sure," Matthews told Oxygen.com. "First step first - a name.”
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