DAYTON MYSTERY: Young woman called ‘The Stranger’ on her tombstone died 170 years ago

Her grave in local cemetery has been nearly forgotten, but it was once a center of attention and curiosity

Buried in a Dayton cemetery is a mystery that goes back almost exactly 170 years.

The chiseled words THE STRANGER mark the gravestone of a woman buried in Old Greencastle Cemetery. She is said to have traveled to Dayton and died suddenly soon after her arrival, leaving her identity unknown — or perhaps undisclosed by her male travel partner.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The 170-year-old grave marker, lying horizontally after toppling over ages ago, bears an epitaph weathered nearly into obscurity. It reads:



Jan. 4, 1851

Aged 24 yrs.”

At the bottom of the stone is the faint inscription “Her kind and gentle spirit’s gone, To a world of light above.”

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The cemetery, at the intersection of South Broadway and Miami Chapel Road, is one of the oldest in Dayton. The earliest dated tombstone was inscribed in 1817.

Who is the unknown woman? The folklore is nearly as old as the graveyard.

A half dozen stories about the The Stranger can be found in Dayton newspapers between 1911 and 1965. After that, all mention of the mystery grave vanishes.

Dayton historian Curt Dalton speculates the story may have been lost as the cemetery fell into neglect.

“No one would stumble across it and see this thing that says, ‘The Stranger,” Dalton said.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

An early story in a 1911 edition of The Dayton Herald shared one origin theory about “the strange and sad secrets of unlawful love.”

A man accompanied a beautiful girl to the Gem City and took a room in a hotel. “Death claimed both mother and babe, leaving the guilty man but one alternative, that of burying the wrecks of his unholy alliance.”

A local sexton was paid to bury the woman and baby by moonlight and the man was never seen again.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Another story, retold in a 1926 edition of the Dayton Daily News, reports three passengers, a man, woman and child, arrived by stagecoach at the Phillips Hotel.

Intending to rest a night before continuing their journey, the trio’s plans were upended when the woman was “stricken with a violent malady” and died.

After the burial service at Greencastle, the man paid the undertaker but declined to give his name before he and the child left town.

A 1932 newspaper story claimed the beautiful young woman attended a ball at Dayton’s Beckel Hotel where she “fell in a swoon and died,” perhaps from poison or heart attack.

Almost all the newspaper stories mention an invisible benefactor who would leave flowers on the gravesite each Memorial Day.

The particulars of the nameless woman morphed through the years.

“If she’s a stranger, how do we know her age?” Dalton said. “And as the years went by, there got to be more details in the stories, not less.”

Dalton, who has written about The Stranger in two of his books on Dayton history, said it was not uncommon for a person to die and go unidentified during the early part of the 20th century.

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

The average person did not carry identification, Dalton said, and many immigrants, who tended to live in their own communities, did not speak English.

“You get them outside of their town, and who’s going to know who they are?”

Despite the unknowns, Dalton understands the curiosity about the gravesite.

“I think there’s a romance to it in a way, and I know that sounds strange for a gravestone,” he said. “Like others, I felt sorry for the person who passed away and nobody knew who they were.

“She’s somebody, and something happened to her. They didn’t know who she was, supposedly, but she touched them enough that they buried her and put a stone up. That’s touching to me.”

It’s unlikely the Dayton mystery will be solved. As one story noted in 1932, no one will ever “tell us who the beautiful stranger is that sleeps in Greencastle.”

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