Listen! Listen closely. Hear it?
It's not the snap of a twig or the whistle of a witch's broomstick in the wind or even a grade-B movie monster come to carry off your first-born child. No, this monster was real, and it was right in the backyards of school children who lived ominously, perilously close to Georgetown Cemetery. If they failed to behave, to do their homework or to brush their teeth at night, chances were they might be called upon by … the Tent Girl!
For three decades, parents who liked to take the fast route to teaching Dick and Jane the "how-to's" of life used the Tent Girl instead of the Boogeyman as their object of motivation. This was how I was actually introduced to the Tent Girl: I was looking for a Halloween story, and the old-timers told me the younger Georgetown College frat boys sometimes took their dates into the cemetery Halloween nights on dares from upperclassmen and forced the girls to touch her tombstone.
Well, you see how good these stories were for All Hallow's Eve and I ran with them for four or five years until I sat down with my friend, former deputy county coroner Kenneth Grant, and began discussing the case of the Tent Girl. Kenneth had worked the case at the scene and he knocked into a young reporter's head something that had not been there before. (Or perhaps it just died of loneliness.)
The Tent Girl was a monster, yes, but she was also someone's daughter, and maybe even someone's wife and mother. And she had been missing for a long, long time and there had been an empty chair at someone's table for as long as or longer than the Tent Girl had been under the earth.
After that conversation, I began to investigate the case of the Tent Girl, not her legend. I talked with Marvin Yocum, with my ever-helpful buddy Earlene Arnett at the Scott County Public Library who aided me in finding microfiche with newspaper information on the case. I talked to Sheriff's Deputy John Farris, my good friend who was a state policeman at the time of the case and who had worked it since its inception; ditto Bobby Vance, who was sheriff when the event occurred. I also discussed the matter with both Archie Frye and Ralph Maurer, who actively reported on the story. My mission became to see to it that a family, somewhere, knew where its lost loved one was and that it would happen in my lifetime as a journalist.
When Todd Matthews of Livingston, Tenn., called me that day in 1998 and said he had made a connection between the Tent Girl and a family missing a member from that time period through his Internet sleuthing, I nearly fell to the floor. He was at the News-Graphic the very next weekend. I was the first newspaperman he talked with. He had appreciated how I had kept the story alive. Her family came to town next, we got a positive DNA match, and the identity of the Tent Girl - and her past as Barbara Hackmann Taylor - was revealed.
I think the tale is summed up best in the eulogy I wrote for Taylor and read during her funeral on April 25, 1998:
For almost 30 years, she has been the reason our children have gone to bed on time, the reason many pledges make it into college fraternities. She has been a Halloween fairy tale, a dare between youngsters. And she has been called the Tent Girl.
Today, she is someone's sister, someone's mother. Today, we honor the legend of the Tent Girl but more the woman named Barbara Hackmann Taylor. From the moment the news of Wilbur Riddle finding the remains of a young girl wrapped in tent-like material hit the streets of Georgetown, and especially after her story was published in an issue of Master Detective magazine in an effort to find her killer, did she become a legend in Scott County.
She was often used to prompt our children into an undesired task, much like a favored ghost story. She was often the first real challenge of youthful friendship. "Let's go see the stone of the Tent Girl," or the first obstacle faced by an incoming Georgetown College freshman under a midnight moon.
Yet for the fear her tale inspired, she has always been beloved by the people of Georgetown and Scott County. The same children who may fear her in the dead of night continually bring flowers to her grave and pray for the woman behind the legend. The same college students who sweat through their first meeting with the Tent Girl later honor her by helping to keep the grave and the community in which it dwells free of litter and rubbish through cleanups. In a cemetery of many notable and honored dead, she has over the last three decades become its most prominent resident.
Today, 30 years after Wilbur Riddle found that young girl's body and only months after his son-in-law, Todd Mat_thews, made a connection on the Internet worthy itself of a "Master Detective" sto_ry, we come to honor the legend of the Tent Girl and the young girl whose life and death inspired it.
The legend of the Tent Girl does not end today. It will live in our community for as long as the community itself survives. But for Barbara Hackmann Taylor and for her family - for Shelly and Bonnie, for Rosemary and Jan and Marie and Nancy - one long journey is over. The Tent Girl legend will live on. But Barbara and her family this day, after 30 years, are finally at peace.
Byron Brewer, the former managing editor of the News-Graphic, is a Frankfort resident. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.