Note: I used the spelling Rachael because in the oldest version I found it was spelled that way. Most sources spell her name as Rachel.
If there is an easy way to get to the Otterbein Church and Cemetery, the GPS unit did not know it. Getting off Interstate 70, we followed a maze of roads southward through the farmlands of south-central Ohio.
“Are you sure you put in the correct address?” Zech asked as we journeyed on some very narrow country roads. I was beginning to think I may have messed up the address when suddenly the church and surrounding cemetery appeared.
“So who are we looking for?” Zech asked as we got out of the vehicle and took in our surroundings. A beautiful brick church stood guard next to the grounds of the cemetery. The church was built in the 1820s and was used by the congregation until 1882 when a second church was built a little further south.
“Mary Henry,” I replied. “She’s buried in the back corner of the cemetery…or at least that’s what I’ve read.”
“What is she known for?” Zech responded as he surveyed the small cemetery.
“You’ll have to look at her stone to see why I wanted to visit her grave,” I answered as we carefully made our way among the old stones towards the spot where she was buried.
As soon as we stepped onto the hallowed grounds of Otterbein Cemetery, I was able to see her headstone in the far corner of the cemetery. The iron fencing around it made it stand out among the older stones. Sadly Mary’s stone has been badly damaged over the years. People had broken off pieces of the stone for one reason or another, something that saddens and disgusts me. What remains of her headstone is held together by a metal frame and the iron fence around her stone keeps people from damaging it even more.
We paused at the front of her stone as we read the inscription. Reading the headstone, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Once we stepped around to look at the back of the stone the reasoning behind my visit suddenly became clear to Zech.
“Oh. Now that’s interesting. So what’s the story?” On the back of Mary’s tombstone is a rust-colored shape of a horseshoe that had become a part of regional lore. While most do not recognize the name of Mary Henry, the mere mention of Ohio’s Horseshoe Grave does cause many to recall the story of the strange mark.
Mary’s story begins in the early 1840s. Born Mary Angle, she was one of two women who had caught the attention of James Henry. James was not only courting Mary, but also was courting Rachael Hodge. Unsure which girl he wanted to marry, the legend goes that his horse finally made the decision for him.
On his way home one evening, James fell asleep while riding his horse. When he awoke he discovered that his horse had stopped in front of Mary’s house. He took this as a sign that Mary was the one to be his wife and on January 1, 1844 they married. As a wedding present, James gave Mary the horse that had brought them together.
However, their marriage was a short one: Mary died during childbirth in February 1845. Their child was stillborn and – while I do not know for sure – I imagine that the baby was buried with its mother in the same coffin, something that I’ve read being done in similar cases.
The first three years after Mary’s death her simple stone stood in the Otterbein Cemetery. From all accounts, the horseshoe marking was not on her grave at this point.
Three years of living alone James remarried – his bride was none other than Rachael Hodge. According to legend, the two of them were married at Mary’s grave site. Note: I do not believe that they were actually married at her grave as word of mouth states, but instead they were married in the Otterbein church next to the cemetery. The couple most likely visited the grave after the ceremony and laid flowers at Mary’s grave. I do find it interesting that even the earliest versions of this legend that I was able to find state they were married at Mary’s grave.
As a wedding present, James supposedly gave Rachael the same horse that had originally brought him and Mary together.
Soon after their marriage neighbors began to whisper about a strange marking that had appeared on Mary’s grave. After hearing the rumors, James made a trip to visit the grave of his first wife to see if the whisperings were true. Imagine his shock when he discovered the blood red stain of a horseshoe on the back of Mary’s headstone.
James took the horseshoe as a sign that Mary was upset that he had married Rachael. He left the cemetery in sorrow, feeling that his actions had offended Mary’s spirit. According to legend it was shortly after James’ visit that the paranormal activity started in the cemetery. People reported hearing a phantom horse running on the road in front of the cemetery. Strange lights were spotted roaming among the headstones and mysterious noises were heard coming from the cemetery.
James and Rachael’s marriage would last for eleven years and would produce four children. James died in 1859, when one evening while he was out in the barn, he was kicked in the head by a horse. According to legend, it was the same horse he had given to Mary years before.
While this is the most common version of the legend of the horseshoe grave, I found a version that differs slightly in regards to the horse that caused his death. According to this version the horse in question was a gift given to Mary and James by Mary’s parents as a wedding present. According to traditions of the time, the horse should have been given back to Mary’s parents after her death. James instead kept the horse for himself to use on his farm. This supposedly caused tension between the two families. This version states that the horse that kicked James was the horse he refused to give back to Mary’s parents.
No matter which version of the story is true, one thing is – the horseshoe marking still exists on Mary’s grave.
Zech and I stood there debating the origins of the marking. Neither of us could come up with a logical solution for the strange print on Mary’s stone, but both were amazed that whatever the source of the stain, it had lasted over one hundred and fifty years. Was it the result of paranormal activity or is there a natural solution for the marking? Truth is we may never know the answer.
We finally gave up on finding an answer and paid our respects to Mary before leaving her to rest in the corner of Otterbein Cemetery.
I do ask if you choose to visit her grave, please do so with respect and during daylight hours.