Was Harrodsburg’s Dancing Lady Murdered?
The unknown grave at Young’s Park has been a story of interest not only to the residents of Mercer County but to historians, ghost hunters and those dedicated to Doe Network, an organization created to help the missing and unidentified.
Todd Matthews, former Director of Case Management for NamUs and current program director for Doe Network has remained vigilant in his search for the identity of the Dancing Lady of Harrodsburg.
Matthews has recently been joined by Lynne Smelser,Ph.D., a researcher, writer and scholar with a doctorate from Michigan State University who has dedicated herself to researching the incident surrounding the death.
Together the two hope to establish enough interest, historical reference and funds to exhume the Dancing Lady and run her DNA through the ancestry databases.
The Doe Network and NamUs work to solve cold cases throughout the United States. Several success stories can be found on their websites.
Matthews has been working cold cases in Kentucky since 1998 when he helped solve a 30-year-old mystery around a Jane Doe in Scott County.
Matthews first became known for his interest in the Dancing Lady in 2002 when several articles were published noting Harrodsburg’s Dancing Lady as the oldest unsolved case listed on the Doe Network’s missing and unidentified list.
“I have been visiting her grave since I was in my 20s,” said Matthews. “The lady who danced herself to death is by far the oldest Jane Doe case I have ever encountered. It is fitting she should be in Kentucky’s oldest town of Harrodsburg.”
The story is set in historical Graham Springs. Located in the heart of Mercer County, the mineral springs resort was called the Mecca of Southern Society by Sallie E. Marshall Hardy as part of the American Historical Register published in 1895. The springs, known for their healing properties, were owned by Dr. Christopher Columbus Graham who established the resort in 1819 and it flourished until 1853.
There are many articles describing the lavish parties within the springs. It was at one of these parties that the Dancing Lady met her fate.
The legend goes: A beautiful young woman in her early 20s checked into the Graham Springs Hotel, in the 1840s.
She stated her name was Virginia Stafford, daughter of a prominent judge in Louisville. That night, as music played in the ballroom, she came downstairs and began dancing with various partners. She danced passionately and at the end of the evening, her final partner realized that, to his horror, she had literally died in his arms.
It has been said that a Judge Stafford did exist, but he did not have a daughter named Virginia. The shocked staff and guests held a funeral for the young woman and she was buried on the hotel’s property which later burned and is now Young’s Community Park.
According to Smelser’s research this story was first told by Dr. Graham in an interview in the 1850s.
The Dancing Lady’s most accepted identity was that of Molly Black Sewell. In June of 1938, the Lexington Leader published an article claiming the mystery of the Dancing Lady had been solved and the identity of the unknown was in fact Molly Black Sewell.
Sewell was said to have fled her floundering husband in Tennessee. Smelser and her research has found this widely accepted version of events to be untrue.
“I located a stamp collecting club that has a confederate stamp on an envelop addressed to Mollie Sewell of Tazewell, Tenn.,” said Smelser. “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 has a different theory of events.
“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,” said Smelser. “In addition, there are rumors saying Dr. Graham sent his nephew out of state on an all expenses paid trip to New Orleans the same week the unknown dancer died.”
Rumors of the Graham’s nephew being sent away the same week cannot be substantiated but Dr. Robert Graham, nephew of Dr. Christopher Graham, was convicted of killing a man in New Orleans on Nov. 1, 1854.
Smelser believes the reason Dr. Graham sent his nephew away was because he was known to be violent. She also found accounts noting the nephew had been living at the hotel where his uncle had been trying to help him kick alcoholism and violent tendencies.
“I do believe she was murdered,” said Smelser. “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.”
Matthews said due to circumstances such as a stone coffin, exhuming wouldn’t be very expensive.
“The cost of this can be very low. The grave can be opened as easily as the Scott County case in 1998. The most recent fence and marker would be carefully held aside to preserve as the stone is lifted away,” said Matthews. “I’d suggest this would be a gentle hand dig. With the coroner’s nod the remains could be held in a small container at the local funeral home.”
Matthews said ideally, there would be the potential to select a sample to submit for genealogy testing.
“I’ve worked with the folks at genealogy DNA programs this past year and they would be available to advise along the process,”said Matthews.
Both Matthews and Smelser plan to be in Harrodsburg on Tuesday, Feb. 10, to seek guidance from local authorities. They hope to garner community and leadership support to exhume the body of the Dancing Lady.
“If the remains are in reasonable condition, I’ve spoken with Dr. David Mittelman at Othram Inc. about performing advanced DNA testing so we can produce a genealogical profile,” said Matthews. “Othram uses a process called Forensic-Grade Genome Sequencing, which can be used to build profiles from evidence that is challenging and has previously failed other test methods.”
Matthews said it is also possible that local people might be related to the Dancing Lady of Harrodsburg.
“As a proactive act, anyone that is interested can upload their raw data from consumer DNA testing services,” said Matthews. “There is no cost to do it and I’ve uploaded mine already.”
Matthews is optimistic that through advanced technology this almost 180 year old mystery could be solved.
“It’s not a police issue, it is a historical issue at this point,” said Matthews. “We want to be working closely with the coroner. The next steps could be determined at that point.”
For more information on uploading DNA visit https://dnasolves.com/user/register.
I would love to be notified of the outcome of the DNA testing. This is an interesting story
This has been a mystery since we all were kids. Sounds interesting. Sad story. Nice to get her home with her family instead of here, alone and unknown.
I would also love to be informed about the DNA results if they come in within the next couple of months. I am writing a research paper for WKU about The Dancing Lady, so if you guys have any information that you can share with me via email, I will greatly appreciate it!
I would like to know the updates on this story please. Atleast the status of progress on this long mystery is very intriguing.
I’ve done quite a bit if research on this lady and would love the mystery to be answered, however I think you will find no remnants of the body, clothes, etc. More than likely she was buried in a wooden coffin and the limestone in Kentucky soil would have dissolved everything at this point and time. Possibly the dirt could be tested for DNA?
We were there mot long ago and interacted with an entity who wanted to dance!
I live in Harrodsburg close to Young’s Park. This has been a mystery for so many years. Leave this lady alone. Do not disturb her grave. Let her and her mystery Rest In Peace as they have for all these years.
They wouldn’t be able to dig at the park where the gave it the only thing there is 6 round blocks holding the long concrete slat laid over the six little round concrete things if her if her bones are reserved at a funeral home they would only have to open the jar to distract the DNA out of her bones
I have deep and ambivalent feelings about this turn of events. As something of an amateur folklorist and amateur antiquary I have a deep respect and interest in the spirit and disposition of a place. I first heard of the Dancing Lady In White of Harrodsburg in my childhood when for one of my birthdays my aunt gifted me an audio book read by the great Vincent Price. On this record Vincent Price read a version of the famous legend of the Dancing Lady In White: How during a weekend ball held in the 1840’s she had died dancing and how no one knew of her real identity. And how her spirit still haunts the grounds of the public park where her grave lies with its famous epitaph : “Hallowed and Hushed be the Place of the Dead / STEP SOFTLY BOW HEAD.”. Do we have the right to disturb cultural tradition and folk culture and to uproot the folklore of a place so that we can potentially find some form of truth? I know that this may throw light on the mysterious events of this lady’s death but do we have the right to do that unbidden by the community? And what impact this will have on future generations rediscovering the folklore associated with it? Will the legend continue to live on after the exhumation and the forensic examination? I have no answers to any of these questions. But maybe we should heed the wise advice of the Dancing Lady’s epitaph to step lightly.