The Curious Tale of the Saluda River Petrified Man

Saluda River Petrified Man
1896 advertising broadside for the Saluda River Petrified Man

The tale of the Saluda River Petrified Man is steeped in the superstitions and faux-science of the late 19th century. This extraordinary story emerges from South Carolina, where an alleged petrified body was discovered and displayed.

The Saluda River forms in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It flows southward into southwestern South Carolina (“Upstate”), passing through Saluda, NC, and Saluda, SC.

In November 1895, an astounding discovery was made in the proximity of the Saluda River, five miles north of Columbia, South Carolina. A local man, W. M. Buff, claimed to have found a petrified human body. The body, intriguingly, was not a mere skeleton but an entire, well-preserved statue, described as being nearly six feet tall and weighing approximately 400 pounds.

Subsequent inspection by the coroner confirmed his find. It was indeed the remains of a man. Traces of body hair and musculature were deemed too accurate to be fake. The public was enthralled by the discovery. Curiosity and skepticism reigned in equal measure. Newspapers wrote about it. The public paid to see the remains at county fairs in several states. The Saluda River Petrified Man sparked numerous theories and debates about his origin and the forces that turned him into stone. Was he a victim of a natural phenomenon? Or was there a more otherworldly explanation?

Let’s trace the footsteps of the Saluda River Petrified Man.

The Discovery

In 1895, drought conditions were causing rivers to dry up, and the Saluda was no exception. W.M. Buff, of Lexington County, SC, kept a boat on the Saluda. The receding river had left his boat on a wide, muddy bank, and he went to drag the boat back into the river. As he moved this boat, it struck something sticking out of the mud. A closer look revealed a man’s foot—but it was fully formed and hard as a rock.

Petrified man
1896 photo of the Petrified Man

Buff’s discovery immediately attracted attention. According to him, the petrified man was no ordinary Joe; instead, it was a British soldier who had breathed his last during the American Revolutionary War. This assertion added an extra layer of mystery and historical intrigue to the already captivating discovery.

The Curious Display

After its unearthing, the petrified man was showcased at the first South Carolina State Fair in 1896. The exhibition was a spectacle that drew droves of curious onlookers eager to pay a dime to lay their eyes on the petrified remains. The statue was also taken on a tour across the Carolinas, presenting a peculiar sight that was hard to miss.

The Revolutionary Connection

The claim that the petrified man was a British soldier from the Revolutionary War era was a masterstroke that fueled public interest. This added an element of historical significance to the exhibition, making it more than just a display of an oddity. The idea that the petrified statue was a relic from a crucial period in American history was a captivating narrative that drew crowds.

On the Road

The exhibit wasn’t confined to South Carolina. It went on a touring circuit from 1896 to 1898, making stops in multiple towns across North and South Carolina and Virginia. The tour was met with great intrigue and interest, with locals flocking to see the revolutionary petrified man.

Public Reactions

Reactions to the petrified man were mixed. While many were fascinated by the spectacle, others were skeptical. Despite the list of doctors who allegedly verified the authenticity of the body, some questioned the veracity of Buff’s claims. The petrified man was a topic of heated debates, with discussions centered around its authenticity and the potential of it being an elaborate hoax.

Debunking the Myth

In 1899, the mystery of the petrified man was seemingly unraveled. William C. Dreher published a pamphlet claiming to have studied samples of the statue. He asserted that the so-called petrified man was, in fact, a creation of lime and clay silicate poured into a mold. This revelation was a significant blow to the captivating narrative that had been built around the petrified man.

Saluda NC
The historic district of Saluda, NC

Surprise Resurfacing

Despite the debunking, the statue made an unexpected reappearance in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1902. It was found at the local railway depot, having been shipped from Newborn, South Carolina. Then, in 1903, it was reported to have been discovered again in Henderson County, North Carolina. This resurfacing kept the story of the petrified man alive, reigniting discussions and debates.

The Enduring Legacy of the Saluda River Petrified Man

The saga of the Saluda River Petrified Man is an enduring part of South Carolina’s history. It is a tale that captures the imagination, a blend of mystery, history, and spectacle. Even today, the story is retold, a testament to its lasting impression.

Leave a Reply