Spooktacular St Louis and Haunted Alton
It's after 11 PM and I'm sitting in bed in the Lavender Suite at the Lemp Mansion B& B. It's reported to be a truly haunted house and I'm feeling appropriately terrified. For three days I'm investigating, exploring, and experiencing the spooky doings and haunted places in St. Louis, Missouri and Alton, Illinois. But this place is by far the spookiest.
St. Louis, Missouri
History is There For the HauntingCertainly there's enough history in the Gateway City to bring out the ghosts. Although founded by French traders in 1764, the area was originally inhabited by a people known mainly for their huge earthen structures (giving St. Louis an early nick name of Mound City). The fate of these builders in unknown but the location of the city, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, made it a crucial port for the French who named the city for Louis IX. After that the city went Spanish, then French again until finally Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The city was also the point of departure for the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Its location made it a popular port and diverse neighborhoods soon sprung up along the rivers.
When the Civil War started, St. Louis in Missouri became the site of several prisons, including the Gratiot Street Military Prison operated by the Union army. Gratiot held Confederate prisoners of war, spies, civilians suspected of disloyalty, and even Federal soldiers. From there, though, most Confederate POWs were moved to Alton, Illinois 25 miles down the Mississippi river. Death came from bad food, contaminated water, and nonexistent sanitary conditions. Plus, small pox exacerbated by overcrowding - 1200 was the maximum number but at times the census reached 2000 people all kept in tiny cells.
On the other side of the story, St. Louis was also a large slave market with the courthouse as one of the major centers. In the pre Civil War years the steps of the courthouse once held hooks where the men and women were chained in their irons as they waited to be sold. This place, too, is said to be haunted in the silence of the night with the cries of the enslaved echoing throughout the building.
Of course, there was also Dred Scott, the St. Louis slave who sued for his freedom (with his wife Harriet) in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Eleven years later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its sad landmark decision declaring that Scott was to remain a slave. He died of tuberculosis in 1858, set free only one year earlier by his then "owners." According to Dred Scott archives at Washington State University Dred Scott's body was moved to an unmarked grave in Section 1, Lot No. 177, Calvary Cemetery, in north St. Louis County. In 1957 a marker was placed on Dred Scott's grave which reads: "Dred Scott born about 1799 died Sept. 17,1858. Dred Scott subject of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857 which denied citizenship to the Negro, voided the Missouri Compromise Act, became one of the events that resulted in the Civil War"
A Haunting TourOne way to experience the spooky history of St. Louis is through one of the organized ghostly tours. Our tour with Holly and Jill of Ghostride Tours started quietly with a dinner in the haunted and lovely Feasting Fox restaurant (you'll love their sausages). Although there was not a non-corporeal sight to be seen on our tour, there were tantalizing stories. The spookiest was the tale we heard outside Alexian Brothers Hospital - the site of the 1949 exorcism that gave rise to the famed book The Exorcist. The story is both murky, and chilling and the room in which the rite took place was locked for many years, until the wing was torn down and ultimately became a parking lot. Father Walter Halloran, a Jesuit Roman Catholic priest who assisted in the exorcism of a 13-year-old boy kept a diary of his experiences. We stared through the cyclone fencing and wondered.
(Note: For another view of possession see CSIcop.org. Moreover, according to Company, a quarterly magazine of the U.S. Jesuits "Fr Halloran would not presume that the boy's actions were caused by demonic possession. I've withheld judgment," he said."
The Haunted MansionNext, primed to be terrified, we headed to Lemp Mansion, a B& B known for its supernatural shenanigans. The Lemp family made their money in beer, working their way from small grocers to brew pub, to beer baron. Wealth did not, however, make for happiness. Early deaths and suicides littered the family history. But it was William Lemp Jr (known as Billy in some circles) who was, by most accounts, just plain mean. He had a taste for fooling around, divorced his wife Lillian with a nasty battle of charges, and was said to have locked his son born with Downs Syndrome in the attic. He finally killed himself in 1922. I stayed in the Lavender Suite named after Lillian and her taste for all things lavender.
I will confess that the bedroom wasn't too bad but the bathroom creeped me out - partially because it cried out for a good cleaning and some repair work. But, it's the only bathroom I've ever encountered which seemed to generate its own stiff cold breeze with no windows open and no fan. None.
The next morning over breakfast we all discussed their evening experiences. "Did you hear all that noise last night?" asked one member of the family who stayed across the hall. "Around midnight there was lots of walking back and forth and what sounded like silverware being rattled. "Not from me," I replied. Nor did I hear any noises. But then, it would have had to get pretty loud to be heard over the traffic sounds from the freeway which ran under my window.
Later, discussing it with someone more knowledgeable about the ghostly doings I learned two fairly horrifying pieces of information. First is that one of the spirits who haunt the mansion is known to have a predilection for moving silverware. And the second, that the spirit of Billy Lemp shares with his corporeal version an interest in watching women in the bathroom, including the one associated with my bedroom.
Alton, IllinoisFor supernatural Civil War history Alton, just over the Mississippi River is replete with ghostly sightings. One of the most affecting stops of our tour, led by Gary Hawkins of Haunted Alton, was the haunting history of the Civil War and the deplorable conditions of their prison. Built to hold 256 cells, at one time over 1200 prisoners men up to four people in a 4 foot x 7 foot cell. Their cries were said to have been heard in the neighborhood. Today all that remains of the prison is a bit of stone wall. A marker designates the tumbling down portion of a cellblock. The land itself has become a park. You can find it near the intersection of Broadway and William
Our tour continued along Hop Hollow Road, a small rural route overhung with trees. But the bucolic feel hides a gruesome history. It was along this road that the bodies of the POWs who died of small pox was carried along the road to the Confederate Soldiers' Cemetery. Or perhaps simply dumped alongside the road. Although the trench graves were to be marked, the wooden stakes used as markers soon deteriorated and their graves soon became unmarked. In 1905 the United Daughters of the Confederacy lobbied the government for a marker memorial for the long gone soldiers. The 40 foot high granite column completed in 1909. It's located at Rozier St. (2 blocks west of State Street.)
There is, of course, little to mark the graves and the passing of the men, women, and children who died enslaved, but in one of those karmic moments, on the edge of the site of the prison is a building that now houses the Madison County Urban League. It is said that a Confederate general lurks in the basement, most displeased by the outcome of the war.
I asked our guide why Alton might have so much supernatural activity. "It's the limestone" he replied. "It has the ability to hold the psychic energy and emotional history." The area is rich with limestone and many of the structures reused old limestone blocks in their foundation. In fact, the stone blocks of the torn down prison have been used throughout Alton. As a result there are orbs and spirits and even pieces of events replayed like bits of a ghostly video, or spectral hologram.
Despite taking photographs everywhere I went there was only one place where I caught a spectral image - the lovely, historic and haunted McPike Mansion. The ghost said to live in this gorgeous Victorian being restored by Sharyn and George Luedke is that of a previous owner, Paul Laichinger who bought the house in 1925 and lived there until he died in 1945. Laichinger was said to have loved that house and folks suggest that his benign spirit remains there simply because he doesn't wish to leave. Snapping a few images just seconds apart in time one picture shows a small but definite orb. Images taken before and after show no such light, nor does it have the geometric pattern typical of a lens flare.
Whatever the explanation, there are plenty of chilling experiences in Haunted Alton and Spooktacular St. Louis. And frankly, next time I have the opportunity to stay in a truly haunted house, I think I'll opt for the hotel down the road instead.
For more information on St. Louis, Missouri visit ExploreStLouis.com And for Alton, Illinois visit VisitAlton.com If you want to read more about haunted Alton, Tory Taylor, author of the Haunted Illinois series of books has one devoted to Alton called (appropriately enough) Haunted Alton: History and Hauntings of the Riverbend Region