by Matthew Gorman - September 2008
When one thinks of the Midwest, or as it is often called, the Heartland of these United States of America, a barrage of associations and images almost certainly come to mind. One might envision the picturesque countryside of states like Iowa and Illinois with their rolling plains and golden cornfields, or perhaps one imagines the bustling metropolitan sprawl of such major cities as Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. One may think of the Great Lakes in states like Michigan and Minnesota, or the bountiful farms of Wisconsin and Nebraska. One may also be reminded of the stubbornness and simple down home "values" that the people in this part of the country are often branded with, and indeed, there are quite a lot of idiots who live in these states that voted for George W. Bush - twice. But whatever one may think of the Midwest and its people, one thing not normally associated with these "salt of the earth" states are stories of spirits and hauntings, and yet six of what are frequently touted as the ten most haunted places in America exist in Midwestern states. So let's don now our overalls, our straw hats, and our EMF detectors and set out to explore this, our great haunted Heartland.
Our first stop on our Midwest ghost tour takes us to The Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri. 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, which spent a long period as a flophouse in abject disrepair, 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 kicked 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 would eventually commit 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 and 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's 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 appear and disappear throughout the house (likely other departed members of the unhappy Lemp family), 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.
For the next stop on our tour we need not even leave the state of Missouri. Down in the Southwestern portion of the Show-Me state near the Oklahoma border sits the town of Hornet, Missouri. And just west of this small town on a dirt road known as The Devil's Promenade one might just catch a glimpse of the infamous Hornet Spook Light.
The spook light has been observed for nearly a century and appears as a glowing orange ball of light anywhere from the size of a baseball to as large as a basketball. It is said to weave and dart and spin around along the Devil's Promenade in the dark of night, and is most often visible between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. The glowing orb is actually traveling through the dark across the border in Oklahoma but as it is usually observed from the east, it has long been associated with the town of Hornet.
There are many tales as to the origins of this luminescent sphere; one tells of a Native American maiden of the Quapaw tribe who fell in love with a young brave. When her father refused to let her marry this young man, the couple fled from the tribe to live together on their own. Pursued by a party of warriors, the pair of young lovers leapt to their deaths hand-in-hand into the Spring River before they could be captured. It is said that the spook light is their spirits, intertwined now for all time.
Another legend tells of a miner whose family disappeared after a band of Native Americans attacked his cabin while he was away. The spook light is said to be his ghostly lantern still searching for his family along the Devil's promenade long after his death.
The spook light exists in rain and in heavy wind, dispelling the notion that it might be escaping marsh gas or a will-o'-the-wisp, a luminescence caused by decaying organic matter. It is also far too bright to be either of these things.
Another lame debunker's explanation for the spook light (and truly, debunker's explanations always seem to belittle the intelligence of any witnesses to supernatural phenomenon) is that people are simply seeing car headlights being reflected off of billboards or other objects somewhere up the road. Considering that the spook light has been observed long before there were ever automobiles in the area ought to let you know that this particular debunking is obviously quite bunk itself.
Also, the spook light appears to have a mind of its own. It seems to have no restrictions as to where it can manifest and can also quickly change its direction of travel. In fact, the spook light has even appeared inside of cars on several occasions and at other times people have said that it has dodged them as they were walking along the Devil's Promenade. They claimed that they could feel a strange heat emitting from the spook light as it passed them by.
The Army Corp of Engineers studied the phenomenon in 1946 and pronounced it "a mysterious light of unknown origin", and The Ghost Research Society, who investigated the spook light in 1983, concluded that it had a diamond shape with a hollow center.
For our next destination, we'll truck on up to Illinois where two more of the ten most haunted U.S. places make their home. The first, Bachelor's Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois, is a spot that I've already covered in some depth in the February installment of this column called "Cemetery Spooks" (Vol.6, Issue 62) so I'll focus here instead upon the other Illinois locale on our top ten most haunted list, The Hickory Hill Mansion, also called the Old Slave House, located in the small town of Junction, Illinois.
A wealthy salt mogul named John Hart Crenshaw built Hickory Hill Mansion in 1842, and while it was illegal to own slaves in Illinois at this point in history they could still be leased from other states without this restriction. This Crenshaw did aplenty, and he would have slaves kidnapped from slave owners in other states as well. Crenshaw used many of these slaves to work his salt mines, but for others he had a far more sadistic plan.
Crenshaw imprisoned many slaves in the attic of Hickory Hill where he beat and tortured them mercilessly while they were shackled inside of tiny cells. He would also rape the female slaves and many of them bore his children whom he just callously added to his slave population. This brutality and injustice persisted for many years until Crenshaw's practices were discovered and he was forced to retire to a farm amidst cries of public outrage.
In the 1920s the house was opened to the public as a tourist attraction but not long afterwards those visiting the mansion reported hearing screams and moans emanating from the attic, and of cold chills and ghostly whispers. A ghost hunter by the name of Hickman Whittington ventured into the attic and died just a few hours later even though he was allegedly in perfect health at the time.
Over the years, literally hundreds of people have attempted to stay the night in the Hickory Hill Mansion, and one after another they have fled the house long before daybreak. One gentleman finally did spend an entire night inside the haunted home in 1978. He reported hearing strange and unsettling noises throughout the night but had no other experiences to speak of. Why this man could last the night when no one else was ever able to do so is anyone's guess.
Although the house is currently listed as a historical site, the state of Illinois has yet to reopen it to the public. A little bit strange, don't you think?
Well, it appears that when this writer gets to writing about ghosts I certainly get into the spirit (really, really bad pun, I know) and it appears that I've exhausted most of the space that this column will allow for. So, it appears that much like my "Hometown Hauntings" and "Hometown Hauntings II" in the last two issues of The Sinner, this particular theme will also have to be continued in next month's Campfire Tales. So for all of you freaky, deaky ghost enthusiasts out there, stay-tuned until next week, same ghost time, same ghost column.