By Ron Soodalter
There is apparently something in our chemical composition that derives a perverse pleasure from being frightened by the supernatural. Belief in ghosts and the undead goes as far back as man himself, and Missourians are no exceptions. The colorful history of the Show-Me State—from the time of the first Native Americans and the days when the fur trade was king to the bitter conflict of the Civil War and the advent of the automobile—is rich with tales of otherworldly visitors, prominent and obscure, benign ... and otherwise.
The Hornet Spook Light
Some spirits reveal themselves as formless manifestations: a sudden chill in a closed room, an invisible pressure on one’s hand, or an eerie moan. Near the tiny community of Hornet, about six miles south of Joplin, a ghostly presence takes the form of an amorphous light that is capable of hurtling down a narrow stretch of road called the Devil’s Promenade. Witnesses testify that it can change color, size, and shape and divide itself into several smaller lights. Over the decades, it has gone by many names. To Missourians, it has come to be called the Hornet Spook Light.
Folklore accounts for most of the light’s origin stories: the spirit of an old miner ranging the area with a lantern, seeking his lost children; a decapitated Confederate soldier, searching for his head; the spirits of a couple, whose forbidden love drove them to leap to their deaths. According to one local legend, Native Americans first saw the light as they traveled the Trail of Tears from Florida to exile in Missouri and Oklahoma. The first written record dates to a publication, Ozark Spook Light, printed in 1881.
No one, however, has yet been able to provide a scientific explanation for the light. Reportedly, the Army Corps of Engineers, unable to determine the source, logged it as a “mysterious light of unknown origin.” Some have attempted to attribute it to swamp gas or the glow given off by decaying wood. The erratic behavior of the light has ruled out both explanations.
Others have claimed that it is merely the refracted light from cars on nearby Route 66—an impossibility because neither the road nor the cars existed when the light was first reported. For the present, at least, the Hornet Spook Light, which has been analyzed, photographed, and in at least one instance, shot at by a local farmer, must be categorized as an unexplained phenomenon that—thus far—has done no harm.
The Ozark Madonna
By nature, ghost stories are generally tragic, and so is the tale of the Ozark Madonna.
According to some accounts, in the 1930s, a teenage girl named Laurie May Comshaw married an older ne’er-do-well named John Maumsey. John proved to be a violent alcoholic, who took to beating his hapless wife. Laurie May suffered several miscarriages because of the beatings, but she finally managed to bring forth a healthy child—a son, whom she named Luke. During that time, John was serving a brief jail term.
When home once again, and uncontrollably drunk, John threatened to hurt or, in some versions, kill the child if Laurie didn’t give him money for liquor. In the ensuing struggle, the baby was knocked from her arms. Falling to the stone floor, he suffered a fatal head injury. A shattered Laurie May buried her son behind their cabin, and the next day, she hanged herself.
Another version of the story has Laurie May marrying Albert Maumsey, ten years her senior and the owner of a sawmill. All was bliss between them until the mill failed, and Albert took to drinking. He lost their house and moved Laurie to a ramshackle log cabin in the foothills, where she delivered a baby girl. One day, a drunken Albert threatened the child if Laurie didn’t quell her crying, and in trying to yank her from her mother’s arms, dropped the baby to the floor.
Brokenhearted, Laurie took to wandering the hills, sobbing for her lost child. Albert disappeared from the region, seeking to escape the shame of his unpardonable actions.
Since then, many have reported seeing the ghost of Laurie May Maumsey or hearing her inconsolable weeping, as she walks along the ridges of Ozark and Taney Counties, carrying her child in her arms. As the years passed, locals took to calling her the Ozark Madonna, and so she has been known to this day. As Bud Steed, author of Ozark Ghosts and Hauntings, advises: “If you are hiking the old ridge top trails through the Ozarks, you might possibly come upon the grieving ghost of Laurie May Maumsey and if you do, simply walk on by and leave her to her grieving in peace.”
Jesse James and Friends
Perhaps no outlaw is as notorious as Jesse Woodson James of Clay County. After the Civil War, Jesse and his brother, Frank, cut a bloody swath from Missouri to Minnesota. And when Jesse’s career was abruptly curtailed, stories arose of his presence after death.
Considerable violence occurred both in and around the farmhouse of Jesse and Frank’s mother and stepfather. In the early days of the Civil War, Union troops beat and hanged Jesse’s stepfather nearly to death in their search for Frank, who was riding with Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas at the time.
In January 1875, a posse of Pinkerton detectives and local lawmen staged a raid on the house, based on the faulty intelligence that the brothers were home. The attack culminated in an explosion that crippled the boys’ mother and killed their young half-brother, Archie.
Jesse and Frank would take their bloody revenge, but seven years later, Jesse met his fate when gang member Robert Ford shot his leader in the back of the head.
The homestead still stands as the Jesse James Farm and Museum, where tourists can roam the grounds and tour the house. For twenty years, Jesse lay buried in the yard before being reinterred at Kearney’s Mount Olivet Cemetery. According to the Haunted Missouri website, unexplained sights and sounds still emanate from the house and the neighboring woods. Reportedly, hoofbeats ring out in the night, accompanied by pistol shots and the muffled rumblings of men.
The ghost of Jesse James has been reported as far afield as Selma, Alabama, and Bardstown, Kentucky, but he and Frank appear most frequently in the old James farmhouse. Doors slam on their own, and lights sometimes seem to move about when the house is locked. Faces appear in windows, and furniture moves around on its own. A former historical interpreter at the farm once said that there is sometimes such a strong presence in the house that the guides themselves refuse to stay inside. She recalls walking into the house alone, and on entering Frank James’s bedroom, being followed by heavy, booted footsteps. When her tour group later entered the house, they heard the disembodied steps, too.
In the words of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them.” If so, perhaps the James brothers still owe a debt that goes beyond time and the temporal concerns of the living.
The Black Carriage of Overton
Overton Landing was once a small community of farms scattered along the Missouri River, just south of today’s Interstate 70. In his time, folklorist Bob Dyer, who died in 2007, was known to tell the tale of a curmudgeonly old couple who kept tavern there in an old house overlooking the river. When a wealthy traveler registered for the night, they determined to kill him for the gold and silver he carried. Urged on by his wife, the old man crushed his sleeping guest’s skull with a fire poker, after which the couple disposed of the body by tossing it unceremoniously into the Big Muddy. They got away with the crime and built an impressive house with the proceeds. A short while later, however, the woman sickened and died, but not before eliciting a promise from her husband to never remarry.
Within the year, the old man broke his vow and wed a young widow. The night he brought his bride home, a number of the settlement’s rowdier set staged a shivaree—a noisy mock serenade, replete with catcalls, bells, horns, and the banging of pots and pans. The groom stormed onto the porch, intending to give his unwelcome guests a dressing-down, when up the road came a jet-black horse, drawing a driverless black carriage, a lantern burning on either side. Neither the horse nor the carriage made a sound. When they came to a halt, the door opened to reveal his late wife, deathly pale, dressed in black crepe, and staring straight ahead with sightless eyes. As the crowd stared dumbfounded, the terrified groom walked woodenly to the carriage, entered, and sat beside his deceased wife, whereupon the horse drew its doomed passengers down the road and out of sight.
For well over a century, people have reported seeing the black horse and carriage, winding its way along the roads near what was once Overton Landing. Two lights illuminate its passengers, each dressed in clothing long since out of fashion. But whether the specter haunts the roads for good or evil, no one can tell.
The Lemp Mansion
Haunted places dot the map of Missouri, but none is as infamous as Lemp Mansion. Both Life magazine and the National Registry of Haunted Places list it as one of the nation’s ten most haunted houses.
“The Lemp Mansion is a really rewarding place to ghost hunt,” says Betsy Belanger, the St. Louis mansion’s tour director. “Manifestations happen all the time.”
One characteristic that raises the Lemp Mansion above others is the house’s well-defined history. In many cases, stories of those long-deceased residents who haunt a house tend to be apocryphal, born of legend, and “improved upon” by the creative and the gullible. The Lemp Mansion, on the other hand, has a well-documented history, with just the right combination of fabulous wealth, dissolution, disaster, mysterious death, and suicide.
German immigrant Johann Lemp was notable for introducing lager beer to St. Louis in 1838. He was rewarded with phenomenal commercial success, and when he died a millionaire in 1862, his son William inherited Lemp’s Western Brewing Company. For a time, it appeared that he was destined to carve a permanent niche for the family. In 1868, he purchased a splendid mansion, adding several rooms and making it the showplace that would come to bear the family name. By the late nineteenth century, the brewery’s revenues had climbed to $3.5 million annually—a fantastic figure for the time. The brewery occupied several city blocks and was turning out 350,000 barrels of beer per year.
Tragedy, however, struck early and unexpectedly. In 1901, William’s favorite son and chosen heir, Frederick, died of mysterious causes at age twenty-eight. It was a blow from which William never recovered, and three years later, he shot himself. His presence has been known to roam the labyrinthine halls and corridors of the house.
William Jr., generally known as Billy, took the helm, and, along with his beautiful young wife, proceeded to run through the family fortune. Billy was thoroughly dissolute and, at one point, reportedly fathered a child by a mistress. The boy, who reportedly had Down syndrome, proved embarrassing to the Lemps and was kept locked in the attic. Referred to as the “Monkey Face Boy,” the child died young and supposedly haunts the house to this day.
Inevitably, William’s failure to maintain the business resulted in diminishing profits, and by the advent of World War I, the brewery was suffering. The final blow came in 1919 when the federal government introduced Prohibition. Billy closed down the operation and sold the entire brewery for a pittance. The following year, Billy’s sister, suffering from a mar- riage gone wrong, shot herself. Depressed over the sale of the brewery, Billy followed his sister and father in death two years later, when he entered his home office and shot himself in the heart.
Billy’s brother, Charles, moved into the mansion, along with his Doberman pinscher, and lived the life of a recluse. Charles grew increasingly morose with each passing year, and in May, 1949, he loaded a .38 pistol, shot his dog, and then himself. The mansion was sold as a boarding house and began to rapidly deteriorate.
Apparently, this is when the first reported sightings of the ghosts occurred. Phantom footsteps and knocking on the doors were heard throughout its halls. Existing tenants hurriedly left and new boarders became nearly impossible to find. One apparition in particular seems to have made his presence known to the tenants, in the form of a small, dapper man, wearing the clothes of bygone era.
The house was on the brink of demolition when it was bought for restoration in 1979. Construction crews proved as skittish as the boarders, as tools disappeared and unexplained noises occurred.
Today, the Lemp Mansion is a flourishing inn and restaurant, but the hauntings have not ceased. Both staff and guests report sightings of ghosts, the piano playing when no one is near, lights that turn on and off on their own, disembodied footsteps at all times of the day and night, and glasses that mysteriously fly through the air.
The Monkey Face Boy has been seen by passersby, staring out of the attic window. According to the Legends of America site, “Ghost investigators have often left toys in the middle of his room, drawing a circle around them to see if the objects have been moved. Consistently, when they return the next day, the toys are found in another location.”
Footsteps have been reported running up the stairs, followed by loud kicking on what had once been the Lemp office door. This, apparently, is the ghost of Billy, who—upon hearing the pistol shot that killed his father—ran upstairs and attempted to kick in the locked door. The room itself, where two of the Lemps took their own lives, is considerably colder than the rest of the house.
Betsy Belanger, who has worked in the house for twenty years, has seen countless manifestations and is an unshakable believer.
“You must remember that this is a spirit energy-filled house,” she says. “To this day, every so often something in the house startles me, and I am genuinely frightened.”
The mansion’s reputation no doubt acts as a strong magnet to attract business, but the comments of many visitors convince many to accept the possibility that something dwells within the mansion, and for whatever reason, cannot find rest.
A Haunted Heritage
Missouri’s history is rich in tales of the supernatural. Its towns and cities, farms and fields, and rivers and streams may harbor restless spirits from as far back as the earliest residents. While it’s relatively simple to deny the existence of such things as ghosts and ghouls, there are many who insist they see—and feel—the presence of Missouri’s wraiths. So, it might be wise to walk softly on the Overton roads at night, the stairways of Lemp Mansion, and the lonely ridges of Ozark County.