by Matthew Gorman - February 2009
In honor of The Seattle Sinner's expansion into the fair city of St. Louis, I present to you all, readers old and new, a ghostly glimpse into the otherworldly affairs of this city on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. For everywhere that mankind has dwelt, and especially in those particular arenas wherein ghastly tragedy has befallen the denizens of such locales, one is apt to encounter the phantom resonance of yesteryear. In short, where bad shit happened, one is all too likely to find ghosts. The city of St. Louis, with all manner of dark history, is far from the exception. So come one and all upon a haunt-filled tromp through the streets of this "gateway to the west" as I regale you with the strange and unsettling tales of the ghosts of St. Louis.
The Old Pacific House Hotel, now abandoned in downtown St. Louis, was the site of one of the oldest tales of ghostly lore in the city's history. It was here in 1876 that a salesman in town from Boston was awakened in the middle of the night by the apparition of his sister who had passed away nine years prior during a cholera epidemic in Boston at the time. He noted a pronounced scratch running down one side of her face during the brief time that his sister's ghost appeared to him. Upon returning home and relating the tale to his mother, the elder woman confessed to inadvertently scratching her daughter's face while preparing the earthly remains for the funeral service. She had covered up the scratch with makeup and had told no one about the incident, lending an eerie credence to her son's account.
Another well-known tale of the otherworldly from St. Louis' long history occurred in south St. Louis on July 8th, 1913 when Mrs. Pearl Curren claims to have contacted a spirit from the past on her Ouija board. That spirit was the famous Patience Worth.
When introducing herself to Mrs. Curren, Patience Worth first spelled out the phrase: "Many months ago I lived; again I come. Patience Worth is my name." The spirit would go on to tell Mrs. Curren many details of its former life. Patience Worth said that she was born in England during the 1600s and had migrated to America. Patience also told Mrs. Curren she had been killed by Native Americans in Missouri.
Over the following years Mrs. Curren continued to communicate with Patience via the Ouija board with resounding success. The spirit relayed a wide array of literary works to Mrs. Curren, including poems, essays, and even novels! All of the works are considered to have a high degree of literary merit and are generally more advanced than anything that the uneducated Mrs. Curren could have possibly concocted on her own. In fact, Patience Worth's novel about medieval England, Telka, does not contain a single word that entered the English language after 1700, giving the work some historical credibility to say the least. In all, the spirit of Patience Worth produced a weighty 29 volumes of writing comprised of over four million words!
Although now completely demolished, The Old McDowell Medical College was considered a particularly haunted structure in St. Louis for quite some time. Founded in 1840 by Dr. Joseph McDowell, the edifice was built like a fortress, complete with cannons and turrets. While McDowell was considered a world-class doctor, he was also incredibly eccentric and paranoid, feeling that his enemies were always out to get him. He may have had cause for concern too, in fact, especially after he sent his medical students on a campaign of "body snatching" wherein they would steal away the corpses of the recently deceased in the dead of night for use at the college as cadavers. This enraged the people of St. Louis, a mob of whom even stormed the college on one occasion but failed to find McDowell after he hid beneath a sheet and pretended to be a cadaver. He later claimed that a vision of his mother's ghost warned him of the coming siege and provided him time to hide. On another occasion, McDowell actually unleashed his pet bear on an angry mob in front of the college in order to dispel them!
During the Civil War the college was taken over by Union forces and turned into the infamous Gratiot Street Prison to house captured Confederate soldiers. Apparently, so many prisoners were packed into extremely tight quarters and sanitary conditions were so poor at the prison that men died by the hundreds.
I suppose it's no wonder then that the building, once it was abandoned years later, came to be regarded as haunted. Ghosts were said to peer from the windows at folks passing by and anyone entering the building, especially at night, had a good chance of hearing the screams and moans emitting from the empty rooms within.
One of the more haunted homes in St. Louis is the old Henry Gehm house; also know as "The House on Plant Avenue".
Henry Gehm was a rather eccentric man who worked in the railroad car industry. He was given to hiding gold coins throughout his home where he resided from 1904 to 1944, giving way to tales of buried treasure in the home after his death. Gehm eventually passed away after a painful bout with spinal cancer in a St. Louis hospital but it appears that his ghost may have returned to his former abode, perhaps in an attempt to recover his lost gold. Phantom footsteps have been heard pacing the home by the families who have resided in the house in the years following Gehm's death, particularly on the attic stairway where a hiding place was discovered beneath one of the stairs.
In addition to the apparition of a man in period clothing who many believe to be that of Gehm, the apparition of an old woman in black with a young child in tow have also been observed in the home. One young girl who lived in the home with her parents claimed that the woman's spirit would come into her room at night and beat her with a ghostly broom, which, while undoubtedly terrifying, she said she was unable to feel. Who this apparition is or that of the little boy may be (some speculate that this is a six-year-old grandson of Gehm's who passed away while Gehm was alive) remains unclear.
Families living in the house have also reported being awakened in the night by being shaken or by loud cracking noises against their headboards, and of lights turning off and on by themselves. Also, more than one family dog has been reduced to a nervous wreck after being forced to live in the house for some length of time.
Without a doubt, however, the most haunted and arguably the most famous home in all of St. Louis is the old Lemp Family Mansion. The Lemp family was one of St. Louis' most wealthy and affluent families, owing their great family fortune to a booming beer business. The family history, however, is steeped in tragedy and it is said that several members of the Lemp family still haunt their former home.
The original mansion spent a long period as a flophouse in abject disrepair but has been lovingly restored as a bed and breakfast today. Staff members report several distinct areas of haunting throughout the mansion.
Upstairs in the Lemp Mansion is the former bedroom of William Lemp (son and heir of the Lemp Western Brewery Co.'s founder, German-born Johann Adam Lemp). William committed suicide in February of 1904 by shooting himself in the head with a Smith & Wesson .38 caliber handgun. He had been distraught over the untimely death of his first son and heir apparent, Fredrick Lemp, who passed away at the tender age of 28 from a heart condition. When William killed himself, another of his sons, William Jr. was said to have run up the stairs and kick in the door of William Sr.'s bedroom to find out what had happened to his father. People in the room today will sometimes hear the sounds of someone running up the stairs and kicking against the door when there is no one present.
In addition to William Sr., three other Lemp Family members eventually committed suicide with a pistol, including his daughter Elsa Lemp and two of his sons, Charles Lemp and the aforementioned William Lemp Jr.
During his life, William Jr. was a bit of a lascivious womanizer. It is believed to be his apparition who peers at women using the shower in the downstairs women's bathroom.
William Jr. also sired an illegitimate son with one of the many prostitutes with whom he cavorted behind his wife's back. The child was born with Down Syndrome and was kept locked in the Lemp Mansion's attic during most of his life to hide the family's shame. The child, known derisively as the "Monkey Face Boy" still haunts the attic to this day. His ghost can be seen peering from the attic windows and toys placed in the room are found moved from their original positions upon future inspection.
In addition to these localized hauntings, the entire mansion itself seems abuzz with ghostly activity. Many different phantoms (likely other departed members of the unhappy Lemp family) appear and disappear throughout the house. Strange rappings and footsteps are heard, and doors lock and unlock by themselves. In the restaurant that exists in the erstwhile family mansion today, the staff members claim that glasses move around unaided and that a piano by the bar sometimes plays by itself.
Now as usual, when trying to cover a city with so much history, I have only began to scratch the surface when it comes to the ghost stories of St. Louis. Places like The St. Louis Public Library, the old Fourth District Police station and the Jefferson Barracks all have histories of extreme hauntings. There is even a connection to the true exorcism case that inspired William Peter Blatty's 1971 fictional bestseller, "The Exorcist", later made into the hit movie by William Friedkin. The allegedly possessed boy in the real-life exorcism case was taken to St. Louis from the Washington D.C. area where the case began and subsequent exorcisms were performed in St. Louis as well, a journal of which is said to have found its way in Blatty's possession.
In closing this month, I extend my fondest welcome to the ghost buffs of St. Louis as well as my warm regards to my original readership in Seattle. It is certainly nice to have new folks on board especially those from such a spooky city as old St. Loo.