All are on their rounds tonight;
In the wan moon’s silver ray,
Thrives their helter-skelter play.
This was one of the most beautiful Halloween weekends in my memory. It began with a great class of junior high students from St. Clare School in St. Clare, Illinois joining me for a Haunting St. Louis History Tour – a concept suggested to me three years ago by their Science teacher, Mr. Schaab. So they are the third class from St. Clare School to make this trip. We started at Pain de Sucre/Sugar Loaf Mound with the Mississippian Mound Builders and ended four hours later at The College Church of St. Louis University with the Exorcism of 1949. It was a fun and dramatic way to explore a thousand years of history and the children were curious and fully engaged.
Saturday morning thirty-six adventurous souls joined me for a five hour Haunting St. Louis coach tour. The week-end continued crisp and bright as we made our way from Benton Park and the oldest ghost story in St. Louis through Soulard, Lafayette Square, Downtown St. Louis, Mid-Town, Bellefontaine Cemetery and the Central West End where Halloween celebrations were already underway. We wound through the grounds of The Lemp Mansion revisiting a family with more than its share of tragedies. Suicides aside, the child born with Down Syndrome who spent his entire life in the tower room on the south side of the house, is as sad a spectre as this city has known.
There is no official record of his birth and he’s buried in the largest mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery without a name. The last of the Lemps to take his own life is one of the few family members not entombed in the Lemp Mausoleum. Per his instructions Charles Lemp’s body was taken upon discovery to the Missouri Crematory and afterward his ashes placed in an unmarked grave on a farm overlooking the Missouri River. He was the only one of the four Lemps to end his life prematurely and leave a note. It read simply, blame no one but me. The Lemp Mausoleum was calm and peaceful as we stepped inside to read the names elegantly engraved on the drawers.
Across the road from the Lemp Mausoleum sits the architectural jewel of not only Bellefontaine but perhaps any St. Louis Cemetery, The Wainwright Tomb. Designed by Louis Sullivan, the father of modern western architecture, the exterior is austerely ancient and modern in style. Like all mausoleums it derives from the Tomb of King Mausolus of Halicarnassus in ancient Persia but the clean, geometric lines are modern in their sensibility. It is a delight to enter the tomb Ellis Wainwright commissioned for his beautiful, young wife Charlotte any time of the year and I am grateful to the administrator of Bellefontaine Cemetery for opening it to us last Saturday.
Once you step inside the marvelously wrought doors you’ve entered another world – a small, quite perfect inner sanctum, with benches along the east and west walls where Ellis Wainwright was able to spend time mourning the wife he lost so early. The lyrical lines of Sullivan’s borders, the exquisite marbles and gleaming mosaics, the utterly winsome designs of the windows, are Louis Sullivan at his most poetic. When you stand at one of the windows depicted above and view the outside world as Sullivan framed it, you get a powerful sense of his love and awe of the natural beauty of the world. Wainwright must have been reminded how much he still had to live for when he gazed through these windows.
Halloween as it’s celebrated in the United States is very much a childrens’ festival.
I remember vividly the Halloweens of my childhood in Glendale, the suburb of St. Louis where I grew up. There were no neon lights or automated spiders and ghouls but jack-o-lanterns cheerily carved and indicating the houses where it was safe to call. Where good-natured adults welcomed you into their homes and listened patiently while you sang a song or stumbled through a joke or recitation. Oh, yes, in those days children actually recited little poems or rhymes. There were full size candy bars of every kind and sometimes homemade popcorn balls and best yet – the most prized of Halloween treats – the freshly dipped caramel apples, gooey and juicy in a single bite! I remember the scary dark places we ran through between the houses, the branches of the towering, old cigar trees that seemed to scratch at the moon and the smell of the creek a block away mingled with the scents of autumn. You waited your turn while other children did their tricks and increased your repertoire with new jokes and rhymes. Then it was home to spill out the contents of your bag and tally your haul and maybe fall asleep watching Disney’s, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” – hoping the headless horseman stayed out of your dreams.
For the past several years now, since our grandchildren began making their appearances, my husband and I have hosted a Wee Goblins Party, for our kids, our kids’ kids, their friends and the children of many of their friends. We play old-fashioned games like tape the nose on the jack-o-lantern (or this year – the belt on the witch) and smash the Pumpkin Star Pinata and encourage the children to make up their own ghost stories and talk about the characters they’ve dressed up as. Today’s children love donning costumes and becoming the character of their dreams just as much as we did once and Halloween provides a wonderful stimulus and platform for such childlike creativity and imagination.
It has been a great pleasure to raise our own children with a tradition that my husband and I loved as children and that our immigrant grandparents brought from Ireland to America. Our son Tom has become a master sculptor of pumpkins and all of us secretly anticipate the turns his imagination will take inside the most perfect of the specimen he selects each year: Harry Potter and Hogwarts Castle, the entire Simpsons Family, Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, an Egyptian Pharaoh, a gnarly gorilla – we never know what to expect.
And once the Wee Goblins have all gone home we open the front porch to the Trick-or-Treaters who make their way to our door – as many from outside the immediate neighborhood as those we see every day. What a wonderful socializing event this ancient Celtic festival of the dead has become!
There are of course many adults who enjoy dressing up and partying well into the night. This year huge celebrations were held on Laclede’s Landing and The Central West End with revelers numbering in the thousands not to mention the throngs that crowded area haunted houses, warehouses and caves. But to my mind the family and small community gatherings(with bonfires in the yards for the roasting of marshmallows and hot dogs) are the most memorable.
As autumn in St. Louis renders its peak colors and this turning of the seasons its climax, I hope that this tradition of confronting death and our deepest fears with imagination and joy will survive long into the future.
Halloween wraps fear in innocence,
As though it were a slightly sour sweet.
Let terror, then, be turned into a treat…
Black & white Fairy Illustration: Arthur Rackham – public domain image from http://karenswhimsy.com
Photo Credits: all photos were taken by Thomas Kavanaugh except for my photo of the Arzt Mansion from the front.