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New Details About the Cursed Chest

When you work in a museum, people often ask if there are any scary or haunted artifacts in your museum. The Kentucky Historical Society has plenty of them: the Graveyard Quilt, the cursed beads, a hangman’s noose, and the suit that Governor Goebel was wearing when he was shot. Perhaps the most unique of our eerie artifacts is a chest-of-drawers known as the Conjured Chest.

Eighteen deaths are associated with the chest. Virginia Cary Hudson Mayne donated the Conjured Chest to the Kentucky Historical Society in 1976. The chest haunted Mayne’s family for generations. The Conjured Chest’s reputation extends outside of Kentucky. So much so that the chest traveled to Las Vegas in 2015 where it was featured in Season 1 of the Travel Channel's “Deadly Possessions.” On the show, paranormal investigator Zak Bagans interviewed Virginia Cary Hudson Mayne’s daughter, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, about her mother’s motivation to donate the chest to the Kentucky Historical Society. “I don’t think she would turn it loose. I mean, imagine putting it out on the curb knowing that someone might put items in it and then die. She felt that it needed to be preserved, but to be kept away from innocent people in a place that would make it very clear that it wasn’t to be used.”

The Conjured Chest’s story is first described in a letter from Virginia Cary Hudson Cleveland (1894-1954) to her daughter, Virginia Cary Hudson Mayne (1916-1989). Cleveland’s grandmother, Eliza, told her the story as a child. This narrative was originally documented in the book "Flapdoodle, Trust & Obey" by Virginia Cary Hudson Cleveland. The names in the book were changed. In 2017, Beverly Mayne Kienzle, daughter of Virginia Cary Hudson Mayne, published “The Conjured Chest: A Cursed Family in Old Kentucky,” in which she identifies the actual names of the victims and their relations to Virginia Cary Hudson Cleveland. The chest was likely made in Kentucky around 1830, possibly in Meade County, where members of the Graham family resided.

The story begins when Jeremiah Graham was making preparations for his firstborn, which included a chest that was hand-carved and made by an enslaved man named Remus. Jeremiah was not satisfied with the chest, and he beat Remus. Remus died from his injuries. In order to avenge the death of Remus, the other enslaved African Americans sprinkled dried owl blood inside the drawers and put a curse on it. The chest was moved to the child’s nursery. Tragedy continued every time someone put their clothing in the chest. Sixteen people are believed to have had misfortune due to a curse placed on this chest of drawers. In addition, both the chest-maker Remus and the curse-breaker Sallie died, making a total of 18 deaths related to the chest.

  1. Jeremiah Graham’s child, for whom the chest was made, died in infancy.
  2. Jeremiah’s twin brother, Jonathan, had a son. This son’s clothes were placed in the chest, and he was stabbed by his body servant on his 21st birthday. Jeremiah and Jonathan’s sister-in-law, Amanda Winchell Graham, wife of Moses Graham, put the chest in the attic.
  3. John Ryan, a recent immigrant from Ireland, eloped with Catherine Winchell (see victim #4). Amanda Winchell Graham arranged for them to live on land belonging to the Grahams and gave them the chest, which they both used. Farm life left them poor and made Catherine ill. John planned to go to New Orleans to find work and was killed in an accident.
  4. Catherine Winchell Ryan died.
  5. Louise Gregory, a child of Eliza Ryan and John David Gregory, died around the age of 10 years old.
  6. Eliza and John David Gregory’s only son, Ernest Gregory, married Stella Stonecipher. Stella put her wedding clothes in the chest. The couple wed in 1895. Stella died within two years of their wedding.
  7. Mabel Louis Whitehead, a relative to the Gregory family, came to live with Eliza and John David Gregory in 1884. Mabel married Wilbur Harlan in 1897. In 1901, Mabel and Wilbur had a baby named Chester, whose clothes went into the chest. Chester died at two weeks old.
  8. Wilbur Harlan’s clothes were placed in the chest. Wilbur died in 1905.
  9. John David Gregory’s nephew, Emmett, was the son of John David’s sister, Lucy B. Gregory. Lucy hid knitted gloves and a scarf in the chest for her son’s Christmas gift. Emmett worked for the railroad. One evening in December 1909, Emmett got off the train and fell 30 feet through a trestle.
  10. Nellie Gregory, daughter of Eliza and John David Gregory, married Fred Fraize in August 1905. Nellie had placed her wedding clothes in the chest. Fred deserted Nellie.
  11. When Eliza Gregory’s husband, John David, died in 1908, Eliza rearranged her house and moved the chest into her room. Eliza soon took her own life and died on April 4, 1915.
  12. The chest then moved to Louisville with Eliza and John David Gregory’s granddaughter, Virginia Cary Hudson Cleveland and her husband, Kirtley Cleveland. Virginia put her first child’s baby clothes in the chest. The baby was born prematurely and died the same day on August 8, 1915.
  13. Virginia and Kirtley Cleveland had two daughters, the second being Ann Cary Cleveland. Ann’s clothing was placed in the chest. Ann was struck with polio around 1929. Although she recovered, Ann endured related symptoms all her life.
  14. Virginia and Kirtley Cleveland’s older daughter was Virginia Hudson Cleveland, whose wedding clothes had been placed in the chest. Wilbur Brister married Virginia Hudson Cleveland in 1943. In December 1944, Wilbur was rushed to a hospital for an appendectomy. He died December 9, 1944 from an overdose of ether.
  15. Virginia’s and Kirtley’s neighbor, Herbert H. “Sonny” Moore Jr., put his hunting clothes in the chest. Moore was killed in a gun accident at the home of neighbors on April 5, 1946.
  16. Richard, Virginia and Kirtley’s son, Richard, put his clothes in the chest. Less than a week later, he was stabbed through the hand at school.

Virginia had had enough of the chest and did not want anyone else to die. She asked Sallie, a maid who had worked for Virginia most of her life, if she knew how to break a conjure. Virginia and Sallie completed the steps necessary to break the curse. Sallie told Virginia she needed a dead owl brought unasked by a friend.  Then, she had to take the leaves of a willow tree planted by a friend and boil them for one day in sight of the owl.  Next, she was to put the liquid in a jug and bury it with the handle facing east under a flowering bush.  If it worked, either Virginia or Sallie would die before all the leaves fell off the bush in the fall. Sallie died the following September. To this day, some of the owl feathers remain in the top drawer to keep the curse at bay. (Submitted by: Beth Caffery Carter)

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