In the summer of 2021, I made a stop in Woodbury to photograph the graves of three U.S. Civil War soldiers buried in the sacred grounds of the Hickory Bottom Cemetery. The cemetery, which was once a part of the Zion Reformed Church grounds, rests along Hickory Bottom Road, amid fields of grain and corn in the northern portion of Bedford County, not too far from the border with Blair County. At the time of my visit, I was not aware of any ghost stories associated with this cemetery, but after a conversation at the cemetery, discovered the cemetery did have a ghost story connected with it.
Since the article about Hickory Bottom Cemetery, I have received a number of emails from area residents who have stated they had never heard of this story before. Looking a little deeper into the story, I could not find anything beyond “And now, just a few spots to avoid as dark descends” from the October 31, 1987 edition of The Altoona Mirror. Note: More about the ghost story can be found here: A Haunting at Hickory Bottom Cemetery.
With locals questioning the story, I went in search of an origin for the ghost story. In the process of browsing the newspaper archives, I found a possible explanation of the start of the ghost story. However, it did not happen in Hickory Bottom near Woodbury; instead, the sad event – which I believe was the basis for the ghostly child’s coffin – happened almost twenty miles north at a spot on the Old Plank Road between Altoona and Hollidaysburg known as Hickory Nut Bottom. Note: Putting together everything I can find about the location of Hickory Nut Bottom puts it in the area south of the intersection where East Plank and Logan Valley Roads intersect.
The May 2, 1887 edition of the Altoona Times ran the article “A Babe Found in the Woods,” which reported the horrific discovery made by Howard Hook, George Evans, and Frank Feeny. On April 30, the trio set out to hunt the woods to the southwest of Altoona, known as Hickory Nut Bottom. After a few hours roaming the fields and forests in the area, their dog showed interest in a pile of wood.
Believing their dog had found small game which had hid in the wood pile, they began to move the pieces of wood to see what their dog discovered. Note: The two Altoona newspapers state it was a pile of wood the dog was digging in. The May 3 edition of the Tyrone Herald (Tyrone, Pa) states the dog was interested in a pile of rails.
What they discovered was a shoebox that was twelve inches long and five inches deep. When they lifted the lid, they were shocked to discover the small body of an infant female inside it. They left the box with the badly decomposed body where they discovered it and went to find authorities.
After the gruesome discovery was reported, one of the boys returned to the location with authorities and the county coroner. A coroner’s inquest determined the infant girl had been carried to full-term and had been born alive. Unfortunately, the inquest failed to determine a cause of death. With the body was a portion of the February 24, 1887 edition of the New York Daily Star (New York, NY), which made authorities believe the child died almost two months before being discovered.
With nothing to go on, the body was sent to the Blair County Poor House Farm to be buried. As far as can be determined, nothing else was ever recorded about the unidentified female infant.
In reading the sad discovery, I could not help but wonder if this death of an unidentified infant might have been the basis for the fiery coffin legend of Hickory Bottom Cemetery. Could Hickory Nut Bottom and Hickory Bottom have been mixed up and the death of the unidentified infant female become the basis of a ghost story that happened almost twenty miles away? I don’t have a definite answer, but I can see how the two places with similar names could have been inadvertently confused, especially if the unsolved case of the infant girl was only remembered by word of mouth.
I cannot help but feel sorrow for the infant and wonder what had happened to the young child. Had she died due to an accident, murder, or natural causes? Why had the family not reported the death and had abandoned the small body in the woods outside of town? We will probably never have the answers to any of these questions, but she will never be forgotten.