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Old Time Kentucky: On Oct. 31, travelers to Boaz feared close encounter of worst kind with ghosts


By Berry Craig
KyForward columnist

Bud and Jake Johnson’s old coffin shop near Boaz, Ky., looked like the ruins of a little Greek temple.

But at night, especially around Oct. 31…

The wind rattled Virginia Creeper that clung to the front gable. Shadows danced spookily on its four columns. Dead leaves scratchily skipped across the front porch.

Johnson Cemetery

Not a trace remains of the crumbling concrete structure on Wice Church Road where the byway merges with Ky. Highway 994 in north Graves County.

For many years, the coffin shop was one of the most famous haunted houses in deep western Kentucky. A big soybean field blankets the site. Here, kids imaginations shifted into high gear on Halloween. Spines shivered at tall tales of the Johnsons fiendishly embalming or burying people alive.

It’s pure fiction, of course. By every account, Bud and Jake were honest coffin merchants and undertakers who also operated a local ambulance service.

“Kids have made up all kinds of things about that old place,” said the late Roy Lowe in a 1988 interview.

Lowe ran a funeral home nine miles west of Boaz in Lowes, a community named for his family. He probably knew more about the coffin shop than anybody else.

The Johnsons founded their enterprise in 1911. “I said that thing was going to burn up one of these days,” Lowe recalled. It did one night.

He laughed off the story that the building caught fire during a funeral service on, you guessed it, a dark and stormy night.

Supposedly, a particularly bright bolt of lightning caused the mourners to jump to their feet–and the deceased to sit upright in his coffin. The terrified crowd rushed out the door, knocking over an oil lamp, setting the building ablaze.

The bereaved left the allegedly un-dead octogenarian to his grisly fate. The flames consumed him and his coffin, which was left in the blackened shell of the building.

“They never did have funerals there,” Lowe said with a chuckle. “It was too small.”

Fire did destroy the coffin shop long ago. Lowe said that after the business closed, teenagers started having Halloween parties on the premises.

The shop became a storehouse for hay, which fueled the fire, supposedly caused, accidentally or on purpose, by Halloween revelers.

The blaze gutted the building and burned away the roof. Through the years, bushes, weeds and vines took over the coffin shop, and spindly trees sprouted in the basement.

Walls were spray painted with graffiti, and the grounds were littered with soft drink and beer cans, suggesting the Halloween festivities continued after the shop’s demise.

Ultimately, the crumbling concrete shell was razed and removed and the ground cleared, plowed and planted.

Lowe, who embalmed corpses for the brothers, said none of the tales about the Johnsons were true. Even so, the nature of their line of work spawned the scary stories.

“They had coffins piled up inside the place,” Lowe said. “There were coffins in the basement.”

The most far-fetched calumny against the Johnsons had them in cahoots with gangsters up North. Mob bosses allegedly sent captives to Boaz to be dispatched by the Johnsons.

Purportedly murderers most foul, they delighted in dispatching the prisoners by draining their blood and pumping them full of embalming fluid. Or the supposedly sadistic siblings would nail their still-living victims into coffins and inter them in nearby Johnson Cemetery.

Such whoppers are all but unknown among local kids. But on Oct. 31, memories of the coffin shop flare anew among more than a few senior western Kentuckians.

They recall traveling with trepidation to Boaz for what they hoped wouldn’t be a close encounter of the worst kind with the ghosts of Bud and Jake, their alleged victims or the old guy who purportedly perished at his own funeral.

Berry_Craig_Mug

Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history from West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and the author of six books on Kentucky history, including True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Kentucky Confederates: Secession, Civil War, and the Jackson Purchase, and, with Dieter Ullrich, Unconditional Unionist: The Hazardous Life of Lucian Anderson, Kentucky Congressman. Reach him at bcraig8960@gmail.com


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