As autumn wends its way thru October, chill winds from the west and north turn the leaves to gold and flame. The old year, approaching the eleventh of its twelve calendrical months, is dying; going out in a last blaze of color that is beautiful to behold.
Children turn their imaginations to what they would most like to be on the magical night of Hallowe’en, when they can be anything they wish. Pumpkins are lit and parties held October 31st as we confront our deepest fears of death and the other world with abandon. Halloween as we know it in the United States originates in Ireland and derives from the ancient Celtic Festival of the Dead, Feile na Marbh, during which great bonfires were lit, places were set at the table for the dead and stories were told of one’s ancestors, recalling them through memory.
Samhain(ˈsɑːwɪn)* marked Summer’s End and the beginning of the dark half of the year, when the ancient Celts and their descendants believed that the veil between the world of spirits and the world of mortals was so thin the two could intermingle. It’s little wonder then that I love to recount St. Louis’ most haunting stories as November’s Eve draws close.
The lower staircase at Fort Bellefontaine (http://www.stlouisco.com/parks/FtBellefontaine.html), just beyond the northern boundary of the city, is saturated with a red mist that’s invisible to the human eye except in photographs. Many have recorded it with cameras and cell phones. If you’re standing across from it and looking at the staircase (which was constructed during the 1930’s where the original fort was built in 1805, before the Missouri River swept it away) the stones are gray; no stain of red can be seen. Yet it appears in photographs – digital images as well as on film. After a recent family outing there, my husband tried erasing the red tint that appeared in our digital images in Photoshop. He could not do it. There are no specific stories documenting violent episodes at this site. Some speculate duels were fought here but the origin and presence of the mist is a mystery.
As are the footsteps clearly heard in parts of The Campbell House Museum at 15th and Locust Streets downtown. At dusk they can be heard crossing the third story and descending the stairs. On occasion, when the museum’s current director has been working after dark in the basement, he’s heard heavy footsteps crossing the kitchen floor above him. When he was new to the house he would rush upstairs to find out who could have gotten in when all the doors were locked only to find no one there. Since then Andy Hahn has become accustomed to it. A little more unnerving are occurrences in the Campbell’s elegant library. Twice since Mr. Hahn has been with the museum, after making certain all the shutters were closed and the doors locked before setting the security system alarm and leaving for home – he has returned the next morning to find the shutters in the third story library open and the fainting couch turned around to face the windows.
There is no more paranormally active house in St. Louis than The Lemp Mansion, atop Arsenal Hill on DeMenil Place, above Cherokee Cave. Strange occurrences take place throughout The Lemp Mansion where three family members in two generations took their own lives. But the eeriest room in the Lemp Mansion (http://www.lempmansion.com/) (which Life Magazine listed in 1980 as one of the ten most haunted places in America) is the tower room on the building’s north side. There, where the only windows are located near the room’s ceiling, the Lemp’s Down Syndrome child was kept, isolated from other family members and visitors, until he died at about age sixteen. His birth was never officially documented and he’s entombed in the Lemp Mausoleum, the largest mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery, without a name. Four family suicides aside (one occurred at #13 Hortense Place in the Central West End) it’s no wonder this house is haunted.
Although Jimmy Massucci, owner of Cafe Louie, called experts in at various times to identify and fix the source of the frigid spot in the cave cellar of his business on Third Street in what he named Laclede’s Landing, the problem could never be solved. The former Cafe Louie is today the western section of the Morgan Street Brewery (http://www.morganstreetbrewery.com/).
The cave beneath it has been reputed since the 19th century to have been a saferoom on a St. Louis segment of the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves suffered terrible consequences if they were caught and anyone who hid them could be arrested and fined, which may be why there is no record of the secret purpose of this area of the cave.
A week before his younger brother Henry died following the explosion of the steamboat on which he was working on the Mississippi River south of Memphis, Sam Clemens saw him in a vivid and terrible dream lying in a coffin with a bouquet of flowers in his hands. Sam was asleep in their sister’s row house on Locust Street (where the Old Post Office stands today) when he had this dream. He wondered for the rest of his life if he might have prevented Henry’s death had he recognized the dream as a premonition and acted upon it, rather than dismissing it as a nightmare.
Geologists tells us there are more natural, limestone caves beneath the city of St. Louis than any other city on earth. The oldest ghost story in St. Louis originates in a segment of one of these caves that stretches below Benton Park, inundated when water drained from the pond above it. Unlike other area caves that were successfully used for brewing and for underground beer gardens, bad luck was said to fall on anyone who disturbed “Indian Cave” (also known as English Cave for one owner). Long dismissed as a tall tale told by the Indians to the French in Colonial times, the later discovery by explorers of two skeletons in the channel called Indian Cave before it flooded the last time, appears to have confirmed a tragic love story.**
After the most famous exorcism in American history was completed in the spring of 1949, the hallway between Verhagen Hall and DuBourg Hall at St. Louis University was never the same. Some say that for a brief time the boy in the story had been kept in a room off that corridor for his safety, until St. Alexius Hospital accepted him as a patient. The hallway was finally sealed some years ago after students were discovered trying to enact a ritual there involving lit candles and a pentagram.
On Saturday, October 30th I will be conducting a five hour Haunting St. Louis Coach Tour, detailing these stories and telling many more as I bring participants to most of the places where they occurred. Among the grave sites that we will visit in Bellefontaine Cemetery (http://www.bellefontainecemetery.org/) are those of Isaiah Sellers, the original Mark Twain and Herman Luyties – presided over by a statuesque Girl in a Glass Case. She was the model for an angel figure famed throughout Europe but when Luyties commissioned a copy from Italian sculptor, Giulio Monteverde, he ordered her rendered without wings.
Please contact me if you would like to join my Haunting St. Louis expedition! firstname.lastname@example.org
It is a great pleasure and honor for me to explore the history and architecture of Downtown St. Louis with art students and their teachers. Last Thursday, Laurie Kohler of De Smet High School captured this image as I was showing her splendid group of juniors and seniors Leo Lentelli’s elegant Beaux Arts figures on the Roberts’ Orpheum Theater at 9th and St. Charles Streets.
*Pronunciation key: wikipedia
**This story is adapted from Hubert and Charlotte Rother’s wonderful, The Lost Caves of St. Louis. Out of print for many years this little treasure is now again available thanks to Virginia Publishing of St. Louis: http://www.stl-books.com/products-page/all-books/lost-caves-of-st-louis-a-history-of-the-citys-forgotten-caves
Photo Credits: Angel of Light in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, The Staircase at Fort Bellefontaine, The Campbell House Museum from the East, The Girl in the Glass Case/Angel Without Wings and Pumpkin Carving by Tom Kavanaugh – Thomas Kavanaugh, Photo of Maureen Kavanaugh & De Smet High School Students in Front of The Roberts’ Orpheum Theater, St. Louis – Laurie Kohler, all other photos – Maureen O’Connor Kavanaugh, the author of this blog
Public Domain Celtic knotwork design online from Karen’s Whimsy.