There are no records of Sophia Catherine Nance ever existing. She is in no census, there are no mentions of her name in newspapers. We know she once lived though because her metal coffin, with a glass oval revealing her face, lies underneath the floorboards of Washington Street United Methodist Church in downtown Columbia, South Carolina.
“The casket resembles an Egyptian mummy’s sarcophagus and is shaped like a woman’s body, with feet raised, stomach slightly concave and chest curved outward. At one end of the coffin, a small oval metal plate covers a similar glass piece. Through the glass, observers can see the face which once belonged to Sophia Nance.” (A Grave with a View by Angshuman Nas, Currents, Spring 1992)
When the church needed to expand in 1928, they sent a call out to family members who had loved ones buried there to move the graves to Elmwood Cemetery. No one answered the call for Sophia so they built over her.
To get to her casket one must first remove the cleaning cart from a broom closet and lift up a rug. This reveals a trap door which if opened leads to a crawlspace 20 inches high.
On hands and knees you must traverse past tombstones, tree stumps and electrical wiring for about 20 yards. Turning a corner at a floor joist and a steel pipe brings you to her casket half-buried in the ground with the top half sticking out. Peering into the glass window one would see that:
“Her dried-out skin has darkened and become like leather, but the pores are clearly visible. Withering eyelids partly cover empty sockets, and brown eyebrows remain on her forehead. Her nose is perfectly shaped, though the skin is taut over the bone. In her mouth are five or six decaying teeth. There are beads of moisture around the neck, and a bit of her clothing is visible under her chin.” (A Grave with a View by Angshuman Nas, Currents, Spring 1992)
A tombstone raised 10 inches above the grave has the following inscription:
24th January 1853