UnCommonwealth: Kentucky is a hotbed of mystery, fictional and real

Kentucky Thriller, a new children's mystery by British author Lauren St. John, takes place around the centerpiece of the Kentucky Derby, when apparently all Kentuckians dress up in fancy outfits.

That everyone in the state gets dolled up for Derby is the kind of lovely hyperbole seen in mysteries in which Kentucky makes an appearance.

St. John writes in the book's afterword that the highlight for her in researching the book — aside from going to the Derby — "was visiting the Kentucky Horse Park, where I saw the statues of Man o' War and Secretariat, two of the greatest racehorses of all time."

She adds, "I also visited some of the Lexington farms. It was there that I met two stallions worth $80 million and $65 million. They lived in palatial comfort in a sort of house. When we drove up, one was looking out of the window."

Is Kentucky a hotbed for mystery? Between the horses, bourbon, basketball, hollows and notable feuds such as Hatfield-McCoy, surely there's enough material.

Indeed there is.

Author Rita Mae Brown set several of her animal-themed mysteries in Kentucky, including Hounded to Death, which opens at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, and Puss 'n Cahoots, which takes place at a Saddlebred show in Shelbyville.

You will also find volumes devoted to Shaker ghost stories, ghosthunting in Kentucky, haunted Kentucky, and ghosts of Kentucky, Louisville and Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

Louisville is home to mystery writer Sue Grafton, creator of the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series (the 22nd and latest, V Is for Vengeance, was published in November). Grafton was in the news last week when she apparently had her own personal mystery, as the victim of a burglary in which some of her silver was lifted. Coincidentally, the title of the second book in Grafton's series is B Is for Burglar.

Here are some of the most colorful real-life Kentucky mysteries.

The Hopkinsville UFOs: In 1955, a Christian County family allegedly saw a group of otherworldly visitors, which several members of the group promptly tried to shoot. A visit to the police station yielded the observation of many bullet holes around the family house but no little green men. A skeptic's Web site has noted the resemblance of the alleged aliens to the great horned owl.

Octavia Hatcher, the Pikeville "ghost": The wife of a Pikeville businessman who built the town's Hotel Hatcher took ill after the death of her infant son and soon died. But the long, tall legend contends that she may have been buried alive. After several neighbors allegedly also contracted a coma-like disease similar to the one that felled Mrs. Hatcher, her husband undertook to raise her coffin, which she had, according to legend, tried to scratch open. An alternate version contends that she in fact had the baby while in the coffin. The "buried alive" motif is popular in urban legends, according to legend-debunking site

Constantine Rafinesque, disgruntled Transylvania teacher: Rafinesque, a disaffected former teacher at Transylvania University in the 19th century, allegedly cursed the Lexington school when he was fired and was later buried in an unmarked grave in Pennsylvania. What were thought to be his remains were later brought to Transylvania and re-interred in a tomb in the Old Morrison building, where generations of students have spent Halloween night on a dare waiting for some word from the cranky skeleton.

The main building at Transylvania burned in 1829.

Old Morrison, Transylvania's architectural centerpiece, was damaged by fire in 1969, prompting speculation that Rafinesque, apparently one slow-moving spirit, was again taking his revenge — 129 years after his death.

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