The truth behind Trenton’s “Hatchet Man”

Old tombstones from Hickory Flat Cemetery. Photo credit E. Todd Fowler

TRENTON, Ohio – For years, residents of Trenton have heard the legend of the so-called “Hatchet Man,” who haunts Hickory Flat cemetery on Wehr Road. 

According to the decades-old legend, the caretaker of the cemetery was chopped to death by a man wielding a hatchet. Ever since that fateful night, the ghost of the caretaker has haunted the overgrown and creepy graveyard, clanging his hatchet on a mausoleum each evening to scare anyone who dares to enter the grounds.

A classic small-town tale, the “Hatchet Man” legend seems perfectly believable until one digs a bit deeper into the story. 

As it turns out, there aren’t any mausoleums at the Hickory Flat cemetery. Not a single one. So why would this legend be told with such a key mistake? The ghost hunters of Butler County may never know.

In addition to the mausoleum error, the story gets the overall environment of the graveyard wrong. One would expect such a haunted cemetery to be unkept, full of weeds, and just plain spooky. When visiting the site, you’ll find it to be quite the opposite. The cemetery is well-maintained, and quite a pleasant tribute to those who are no longer living.

An explanation for these errors has been floated around on online messaging boards. Some say that the use of “mausoleums” was extrapolated after years of oral tradition and that the original version described large tombstones. 

Others say that the creepy, sometimes overgrown and unkept atmosphere of the surrounding Wehr Road area inspired the story. Rumors of secret societies, cults, witchcraft, KKK, and other mysterious organizations have led some locals to believe that the cemetery and surrounding areas are being used for the practice of dark arts and evil abominations. 

The most plausible explanation for this legend is the story of a 19th-century German immigrant who murdered his family in the nearby community of Busenbark. The German immigrant lived in a cabin on a farm with his wife and two children. He was generally known to be a hardworking, sober man, according to historical accounts. He would occasionally drink, however, and would become quite intoxicated and violent. In 1847, after multiple incidents of violence, he was finally arrested by Butler County Sheriff Ferdinand VanDerveer after another drunken rampage in which he beat his wife and children. 

While in jail, he was quickly found to be a trusted inmate by the guards and was given extra privileges due to good behavior. One night, neighbors of the family reported that the family had been killed in the Cabin and that a bloody ax had been found at the scene.

When the sheriff interviewed the German immigrant about the incident, he noticed that there was blood on his clothing. As it turns out, he had escaped the jail that night and hacked his family to death in a fiery fit of rage.

It seems this incident inspired the legend, making the German immigrant  the true “Hatchet Man.” Perhaps some color was added to the story over time. 

Despite all the different takes on this Trenton classic, the only things inhabiting the Hickory Flat cemetery are towering trees and tiny squirrels. It will be interesting to see how the story develops and changes in the decades to come.