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The Bloody Horseshoe Grave

This is one of three tales shared in the video on the left, titled "3 Tales of Lives Cut Short". The video was inspired originally by the tale of Hugh Alexander that I discovered in an old newspaper while doing research for another video. This story was not one that I could find any references to anywhere outside of a few papers from the time and reminded me of the reason I started Legends and Tales in the first place - to share lesser-known stories in addition to the well-known legends. Each tale will have its own page here, but the video and intro paragraph will be the same for each.

In the back of a cemetery near Rushville, Ohio there sits a grave with iron bars around it. It appears the stone has been repaired over the years and is now held up by a frame. Upon closer inspection, you will see the name Mary Henry on the front, and you may even catch a glimpse of what looks to be the faded image of a horseshoe on the back. It turns out, there is a story to go along with the odd headstone.

In 1843 there was a small village near the Otterbein United Methodist Church known as Tattletale. In that village there lived a small number of people, including two beautiful belles by the names of Mary Angle and Rachel Hodge. Every man for miles around would be proud to have the affection of either lady, but they both had their eyes on James Henry.

Front side of bloody horseshoe grave in the Otterbein United Methodist Church cemetery

The front side of Mary Henry's grave, also known as the Bloody Horseshoe grave.

James was an honorable man, but he was yet to decide on who he would marry as he approached 30 years old. He had been courting both Mary and Rachel for the past few months and as he reached the age where he knew tradition stated he should have a family he was no more certain of who the right woman for him was than he had been when this whole affair started.

One night, late in the year, James was making his way home from a meeting with some business partners when he fell asleep at the reins of his wagon. This wasn’t a huge deal, as the horse knew the way home, but it would be a nap that would change his life forever. When the horse came to a stop, James opened his sleepy eyes expecting to see home, but he would instead be greeted by the sight of Mary Angle’s house. Taking this as a sign, James hopped down from his wagon and marched up to Mary’s door.

Mary wasn’t expecting any visitors that evening, so the knock came as a big surprise. As she slowly opened the door to see who could be calling at such a late hour, she was surprised to see the face of the man she had been thinking of all day, James Henry! James would tell her he had been on his way home and that his horse had brought him to her house when he had dozed off, and that he believed it was a sign they should be married. She could not hide the excitement in her face as she said yes and jumped into his arms.

Not long after, on January 11, 1844, the couple would be married in a beautiful ceremony in front of their family and friends. Though she was disappointed, Rachel Hodge would attend the wedding to support her friends, knowing that eventually she too would meet the right man and be married. She was, of course, much younger than James or Mary and so had plenty of time.

The first year of marriage seemed to fly by so fast, especially when Mary announced she was pregnant. The couple spent many days, and nights, walking and riding horses together through the countryside. James had given Mary the very horse that had pulled him to her house the night he proposed as a wedding present because he knew she loved horses and this one had a special connection to both of them now. But the happiness was not meant to last.

On February 8, 1845, Mary would give birth to a stillborn son. They would name him after his father and lay him to rest. Complications during the birth would lead to Mary’s death just 20 days later, on February 28.

Marriage record for James and Mary Henry from 1944

The marriage record for James and Mary Henry

James was devastated. In just a matter of 3 weeks, everything he had loved was suddenly gone. He would spend hours every day just sitting at Mary’s graveside, not wanting to eat or sleep. As time went on, he would begin to heal, but the pain was still there. 

One day, while approaching the grave site, James noticed someone walking away from it. As he drew closer, he could see that it was Rachel Hodge. She seemed lost in thought and was startled when he greeted her. The two would strike up a conversation, reminiscing about Mary and catching up on what they had each been up to. Before they knew it, hours had gone by, and the sun was going down. 

Drawing of Rachel Van Sickle Hodge Henry circa 1875

Drawing of Rachel Van Sickle Hodge Henry circa 1875

James offered to walk Rachel home, and she took his hand as they left the cemetery. Upon arriving at her house, he would tell her goodnight and then pause before asking if she would be willing to meet up with him again the next day. She said yes, and before long they would begin courting.

James could never forget Mary, but he also wanted to be happy again. Knowing that Mary would most likely want him to be happy as well, he would ask Rachel to marry him. On December 8, 1848, James and Rachel would be married in the Otterbein United Methodist Church in a beautiful, yet somber, ceremony. After saying their vowels, the couple would walk out of the church and over to Mary’s grave where they would share a moment of silence and remembrance before leaving for home.

This is where things get a little supernatural.

 

Reportedly, following the wedding, strange sounds and lights would emanate from the cemetery at night. Those brave enough to walk near would report the sound of moaning and a light that seemed to be hovering over the grave of Mary Angle. The townsfolk began to whisper that Mary was unhappy with the fact that James had remarried, but James and Rachel would brush this off as people having an overactive imagination. 

Over the years, James and Rachel would wind up having 4 daughters. The first being born less than a year after they were married, November 3, 1849, and being named Mary Jane Henry in honor of Mary. Their second child, Sarah, was born on August 23, 1851, with the third, Martha coming November 27, 1854, and the last, Matilda, on October 9, 1857. Life seemed to be going wonderfully for the family, but that would change on April 8, 1859, when James would pass away.

Records of James’ cause of death seem to be lost to time, but the story goes that the image of a horseshoe would appear on Mary’s grave one day without warning. Following this, James would meet his end the very next day, being kicked by the horse he had gifted Mary when they had wed. Some stories report that the horse was actually a gift from Mary’s family that had not been returned upon her death, as was customary to do, but there is nothing to back any of that up. 

The overall story has changed a lot since it was first written down in 1928. In an article on November 9, 1928, in The Circleville Herald (Circleville, Ohio), the story is very short and only says that James was kicked to death by a horse following the mark appearing on the stone as a way to explain the horseshoe mark on the headstone.

From my research, these are some of the major changes to the story I found in various papers over the years:

  • The Zanesville Times Recorder 1944

    • Corrects Mary's date of death to Feb. 28​

    • Adds date of Dec. 7, 1848 for James and Rachel marriage

    • Says the horse that killed James was Mary's riding horse

    • Adds detail to the haunting of the cemetery

    • Mentions the stone was broken in 2 a few years prior to the story running and that it was repaired by the church trustees and a fence was erected around it

    • Mentions story was written with the permission of the nearest living relative of the parties concerned, but no name given.

  • Zanesville Times Recorder May 22, 1960​

    • Insinuates there was a rivalry between the girls and that Mary won​

    • Says Mary died IN childbirth as opposed to after

    • Says the horseshoe mark appeared a week after the wedding of James and Rachel

    • Raises a question about how the mark appeared, whether Mary did it or a horse wandered in and caused it

    • Says James(calling him Henry) was working in the barn one day when he was kicked to death by a horse that happened to be Mary's riding mare

    • Brief mention of the stone being broken to pieces long ago, but was reassembled

First print of Bloody Horseshoe story in The Circleville Herald from 1928.
  • The Newark Advocate, Dec. 29, 1971​

    • Longest story to this point​

    • Starts with "123 years ago, a shocked crowd stood around a simple gravestone in Otterbein Cemetery near Somerset" to build the tension about the horseshoe appearing

    • Says that James and Rachel stood among the crowd, staring at the mark on the stone, and that they would stay up all night with fear/worry and James would be killed in the barn the next morning when he went to feed Mary's favorite horse

    • First mention of a horseshoe imprint being left on James' head and says it had a blood red outline

    • Says the stone had been broken to pieces 5 years prior and then repaired

      • Also that the stone being broken caused bad wind and strange sounds in and around the cemetery​

    • First time the horse makes the decision on who James will marry by pulling him to Mary's house​

    • Says James and Mary had a son in 1845 and Mary died, glossing over the son dying

    • Really lays on the details of James visiting the grave daily, meeting Rachel there and then the two of them leaving together

    • Adds the second time the horse pulls James to the woman he would marry, this time being Rachel

    • Says James and Rachel would stand together at Mary's grave following their wedding

    • Plays up events in the graveyard (terrible screams and lights) following the wedding

    • Says 3 weeks after the wedding was when the horseshoe appeared on the stone (coming full circle and having James die the next day)

  • Some variation shared around Halloween most years, published in a pamphlet for the Fairfield County Public Library in the early 1980's called "Haunting Tales from Fairfield County" (I would love to get my hands on a copy of this book but they seem to be lost to time)​

    • A man named James Heinzman was credited with sharing the story for the pamphlet in an October 30, 1986 article in The Lancaster Eagle Gazette​

Backside of the Bloody Horseshoe Grave, photo taken by Josh Hawk.

If I had to place a bet on the origins of the story, I would say that it has some spark of truth hidden in the way James died. I couldn't find anything at all that officially lists his cause of death, but he could have definitely been kicked to death by a horse. My guess is that Mary's stone fell over at some point and laid on top of a horseshoe (maybe one that had been placed to commemorate her love of horses?) for enough time that the rust from the horseshoe left a stain on the stone. After enough time, the story of James being kicked to death (assuming that is what happened) made its way to legend when someone asked about the horseshoe mark of a local and the local decided to embellish a little to make the story more interesting.

But, of course, that is all speculation as there isn't really much else to go on and there isn't another account I could find prior to 1928.

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