Haunted Columbia, Missouri

Haunted Columbia, Missouri

by Mary Collins Barile


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According to Columbia ghost lore, the city's dead only dabble with departure. The specter of Broadway legend Maude Adams checks in on classes at Stephens College, while ragtime pioneer John William Boone returns to trail invisible fingers along his grand piano. Some linger from love, like the spirit of the Osage woman who waited for a final walk with the brave she was to marry. Others remain for a reckoning, like the guerrilla stalking Brannock Hall for the Union sniper who shot him down or the murdered child discovered in the plaster of a frontier tavern. From the columns of Mizzou's quad to the region's winding country roads, author Mary Collins Barile explores the restless graves of Columbia's eerie heritage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781467136181
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 09/05/2016
Series: Haunted America
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,174,221
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Author of three other books with The History Press, Mary Collins Barile has a PhD in theater from the University of Missouri, and teaches theater and public speaking at State Fair Community College. She lives in Boonville, Missouri, above the Missouri River, where hauntings have been recorded for nearly two centuries.

Read an Excerpt



Ghosts have haunted Missouri's history for centuries, beginning with the Mississippian culture, slipping into lodges of the Osage, sitting atop the wagon trains of nineteenth-century emigrants, pushing Ouija boards to and fro and poking their ectoplasm into modern tales. Ghost stories were told on the trail and in schoolhouses, general stores and lonely cabins. It should be no surprise that the best description of a ghost story appeared in the Autobiography of Mark Twain:

I can feel again the creepy joy which quivered through me when the time for the ghost story was reached — I can remember the howling of the wind and the quaking of the house on stormy nights. ... I can remember how very dark that room was, in the dark of the moon, and how packed it was with ghostly stillness when one woke up by accident away in the night ... and how dismal was the hoo-hooing of the owl and the wailing of the wolf, sent mourning by on the night wind.

A ghost story does more than entertain storyteller and listener: it is the only way to experience death and return to the living world. The Missouri ghost canon includes murder, revenge, loss, retribution, suicide and tomfoolery in stories about white ladies, vanishing hitchhikers, unburied bodies, untethered souls and mysterious lights and sounds. Settlers brought along their tales from the Celtic and Germanic cultures, rife with appalling apparitions and traditions for summoning or dealing with the dead. Their ghosts still flicker among graveyards and along roadsides, frightening the weary traveler while answering no questions about the next life.

Ghosts appear to extract revenge, as with the black carriage of Overton, which haunts the back roads and holds the living to promises made to the dead. Or they seek companionship, as did the hermit spook of Clark's Fork, which appeared annually at local farms. Sometimes, they warn, as did a grave robber's mother who saved her son from being lynched. Some ghosts appear to protect, others to relive their past and some to just terrify. At a Missouri picnic, two men got into a knife fight, with one cutting off the other's head. But instead of falling over, the dead man was guided by his talking head to replace it atop his neck and then ran off into the night. Ghost stories served as entertainment, community bonding and more practical uses, as noted by Douglass Stewart in an essay, "Memories of Old Spring Hill," from Livingston County:

I remember that when a child, one [story] telling of seeing apparitions and balls of fire flying up and down the hollows on each side of the town. It was told of Dr. George Williams, a physician, and resident, that on many occasions while returning from nightly visits, a ghost would jump up and ride home with him on his horse. Some of the town women told of seeing "things" while attending the sick bed. I recall my father telling of meeting Bob Bray one evening just after dusk. He had just met a man with no head, wheeling off John Simpson's wheelbarrow. Another story was that Willis Griffin, who was clerking for John Dolfs [a shop owner] and sleeping in the store room, was awakened by a noise and on getting up, found a spook behind the counter measuring off the goods and when he spoke to it, it disappeared through the wall. Many, many such other stories were told. Of course, they all had a tendency to keep the children frightened so they stayed in at night.

(Ghosts and haunting traditions were part of African traditional beliefs, but these were usually transcribed by white viewers and treated as evidence of witchcraft and sorcery. The definitive study of ghost stories told by black slaves in the United States remains to be undertaken.)

The grab bag of Missouri ghost stories expanded when spiritualism was founded in 1848, and sisters Kate, Margaret and Leah Fox sparked interest in "the other side." Missourians flocked to séances to interact with mediums and talk with the dead through rapping and automatic writing. In a world where death could arrive early and swiftly, when cholera traveled with the steamboats and a woman could be fine at breakfast and dead by evening, the solace found in talking with those who passed was enormous. Enemies of spiritualism, including the Reverend A.T. Osborn, gave lectures on hypnotism throughout the state, debunking table rapping and revealing the tricks of mediums. But loss and grief drove people to reach beyond the veil. The talking board, also called the Ouija board, received its patent in 1890 and gained prominence because of the ease with which a user could communicate with spirits. By 1897, the Kansas City Journal was advertising the boards as marvelous Christmas gifts, since it was much faster to point to a letter than rap it out. Mark Twain understood that and wrote about spirit rappings in the Territorial Enterprise of January 1866:

I had a very dear friend, who, I had heard, had gone to the spirit land, or perdition, or some of those places, and I desired to know something concerning him. There was something so awful, though, about talking with living, sinful lips to the ghostly dead, that I could hardly bring myself to rise and speak. But at last I got tremblingly up and said with low and reverent voice: "Is the spirit of John Smith present?"

Whack! whack! whack!

God bless me. I believe all the dead and damned John Smiths between hell and San Francisco tackled that poor little table at once! I was considerably set backstunned, I may say. The audience urged me to go on, however, and I said: What did you die of?

The Smiths answered to every disease and casualty that man can die of.

Where did you die!

They answered yes to every locality I could name while my geography held out.

Are you happy where you are?

There was a vigorous and unanimous "No!" from the late Smiths.

Is it warm there?

An educated Smith seized the medium's hand and wrote:

It's no name for it.

True to the rough pioneer "spirits," some ghost stories developed from practical jokes played on nervous farmers. At least one story is told of a ghost that consisted of lathing and sheets and was pulled out of a well by ropes and pulley to terrify passersby. Another, from 1842, comes from Kirksville's Salt River Journal, whose editor noted that this was already an old story in Missouri. A man stops at a tavern and is told that the only room left is haunted and that inhabitants hear a voice asking, "Do ... you ... want ... to ... be ... shaved?" The man takes the room, searches it and goes to bed, only to wake and hear a faint whisper that sounds like the ghost. He bravely gets out of bed and searches the room to discover that the wind causes tree limbs to rub together and that an imaginative man would hear, "Do you want to be shaved?" He tries to sleep but is kept awake by the loud and drunken gamblers in the next room. So he gets up, puts on a sheet and bursts into the next room, calling, "Do you want to be shaved?" The terrified gamblers run out, the man takes a large amount of money left on the table and goes back to his room. The next morning, the now sober gamblers are telling about the ghost's visit and their stolen money. The guest smiles to himself, has breakfast and leaves, "many hundred dollars richer by the adventure."

Newspaper articles of the nineteenth century point to a robust Missouri belief in ghosts and spiritualism. Stories of haunted houses across the United States were reprinted in Missouri newspapers, including one of a sheriff who let out that his jail was haunted, resulting in a reduction in crime, as potential scofflaws did not want to spend the night alone in the cells. From the headless dog and white woman who appeared around Cape Girardeau on the Bend Road to the Chariton County ghost rider who galloped alongside wagons at night before disappearing into thin air, ghosts abounded. In Chariton County, the Goben Hotel was known for an apparition that would appear and sit by the inhabitants, then disappear when spoken to. Two families eventually abandoned the building after the ghostly appearances continued. But no matter how much fun could be had at the expense of an unsuspecting victim, no matter how brave or pragmatic a settler, no matter how squeaky a board or noisy a squirrel, the reason folks jumped at ghost stories is because they believed in them.

What exactly is it about Missouri that attracts hauntings? Some scholars insist that ghosts appear because of the landscape: with its deep ravines and rolling prairies, Missouri offers a stage easily set to entertain both ghost and visitor for a night. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers throw off fogs and mists that baffled even Mark Twain, who wrote about a haunted steamboat caught in the throes of a cursed current. Another of his tales had a ghost pilot as a guardian angel. Investigators swear that water and limestone act as catalysts and magnifying lenses for ghosts, and Missouri is built on both. Then again, who has not felt the power of a prairie crossroads at midnight, when lost in the country and seeking a safe haven of light and companionship? If the landscape is not enough to invite ghosts, perhaps no figures are more strongly associated with Missouri in the public's mind than the James brothers, Frank and Jesse, who were born and raised in the state to raise hell in the world. Even they are associated with a ghost story, reprinted here for perhaps the first time from the Butler Weekly Times (August 29, 1888):

Jesse James and the Phantom Horseman

The story of the phantom horseman was always firmly believed by the companions of Frank and Jesse James. Frank was always the least superstitious of the men who rode with the celebrated raiders. Jesse, however, had a strong vein of superstition in his composition and firmly believed that the phantom horseman was his own peculiar banshee. He frequently asserted that the appearance of the apparition was intended as a warning or foreboded evil. The first time Frank James saw the apparition was one night when he, Jesse, and several other members of the outlawed nightriders were riding. ... As they emerged from the heavy shadows of the trees, where the two roads met, they came upon an open space where the moon shone brightly on the converging cross roads.

There, distinctly outlined in the bright moonlight, sat a man on a coal black horse. The moon shone brightly on the polished trappings of the steed. Horse and rider remained motionless as if silently challenging the right of the party to the way. Jesse drew his revolver to fire, but was stopped by the exclamation of one of the party, who exclaimed: "My God, it is a ghost!" The figure remained motionless and seemed to gradually fade away before their eyes as Jesse turned his horse and took the other road. "I've seen him before," said Jesse, but refused to offer any further explanation. It is said that several other members of the so-called James gang have seen the phantom, among them Bill Ryan and Dick Little, and can vouch for the authenticity of this account. The phantom was generally alluded to as "Jesse's ghost," and is said to have appeared to him shortly before his death [1882]. Jesse seemed to recognize the phantom as the ghost of somebody he had known in life, but was strangely silent on the question and never vouchsafed any explanation.

Newspapers offered a glimpse into the ghost world of nineteenthcentury Missouri. One humorous "story" in the 1887 Butler Weekly Times told of a benighted man who was haunted day and night by a picture of a pointing finger, until he realized it was guiding him to an excellent sale at the local store. The Richmond Democrat carried a story advising people that ghosts wanted to share information or get something off their minds. (The article also noted that it was notoriously difficult to sell a haunted house.) Other articles, like one from the Marble Hill Press in 1896, reported on "real" hauntings, such as the one in South Dakota, "where witnesses over several nights heard music, saw full body apparitions wander through the rooms." There was the phantom horseman along the Missouri River near the Dakotas who was reported in a letter to a St. Louis newspaper and reprinted in the Mexico Weekly Ledger in 1887. In the story, a military officer noted that one night, as he was heading back to the fort in a wagon, he saw a horseman following after him. Calling to the shadowy figure, the officer received no answer; when he stopped and turned, he could see the horseman galloping after him but coming no closer. The officer spurred his horse to a gallop and headed for a bridge, which he crossed safely, but not before hearing what sounded like "a thousand horses galloping down a wooden pavement." On another occasion, Alexander McKinzie met the same phantom, but this time the ghost was galloping in the opposite direction and passed McKinzie in a rush of sound; as the region's sheriff, McKinzie was considered a sober and trustworthy man. So, whether or not the stories were set in Missouri, Missourians heard about hauntings and knew they were not alone when it came to ghosts.

Columbia's own ghost stories began centuries ago, with indigenous groups who believed that spirits could return and haunt them, even as shamans traveled to the spirit world seeking wisdom and help. Ghost stories were recorded early in the settlement period in newspapers and gazetteers, but the golden age of terror really blossomed in the midnineteenth century. Unlike formal literature, ghost stories are born in the telling, and keeping them alive requires active communication, sharing and repetition. Fortunately, Columbia provided all of that in the form of college campuses, where stories were cultivated and perfected over generations. It is a measure of the strength of legends and tales that old and new coexist comfortably, adapting to the community's need for continuity and companionship. Ghost stories can also reassure even as they scare: there is no need to be frightened of something that you can ultimately control if you know the rules and techniques for dealing with ghosts. This book contains Columbia stories that have been polished over generations, reflecting back to us our fears and memories. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, you will find in these stories an unknown Columbia. But be careful: it's a place best explored in the light of day.



Members of the Mississippian culture settled in the Columbia region as early as AD 1400, but little is known of their life in the region, and less is known of their lore and traditions. It is possible that French and Spanish explorers and trappers made their way into mid-Missouri as early as the seventeenth century, but it wasn't until the Louisiana Purchase that a U.S. government survey was undertaken. In 1803, Lewis and Clark traversed this region on their way west, impressed by the prairies, bluffs and wildlife along the Missouri River. Migration to the Boonslick region, named after a natural salt lick worked by sons of the Boone family, increased during the War of 1812, when settlers moved into the area encompassed by modern Boone County. Although settlers arrived from New York, Vermont and Connecticut, migration from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee was so great that the area around present-day Columbia was eventually nicknamed Little Dixie. The region developed into a center of agriculture, with hemp, tobacco, wheat and corn shipped downriver to St. Louis. Columbia had its bureaucratic beginnings in 1818, when the Smithton Land Company purchased acreage and established Smithton, named in honor of General T.A. Smith, the receiver in the Franklin Land Office and an original investor in the town site. By 1819, the Smithton investors were advertising in the Missouri Intelligencer for someone to build a "double hewed log house, shingled roof and stone chimneys, one story and a half high. ... They will also contract for digging and a well," an activity that proved prescient in the light of later problems. Boone County was eventually trimmed from Howard County and established in 1820; by 1821, Missouri was a state. But in a reversal of fortune, Smithton realized that its wells were not enough for a growing town. The lack of a dependable water source forced the Smithtonians to pack up the entire settlement and move it a mile away, near Hinkson Creek and the Flat Branch. The new village was named Columbia, in honor of the young country, and the city began its history.


Excerpted from "Haunted Columbia, Missouri"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Mary Collins Barile.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Note on the Text,
Columbia's History,
Dead and Dying and Gone and Back,
Native American Hauntings,
Children's Ghosts,
Peter Pan and Captain Spook,
Time Slips,
The Ghost Music of John William Boone,
Conjuring Evil,
The Women in Black and White and Gray,
Pledging Terror,
Home Again,
Civil War Hauntings,
House Haunted,
Rah, Boo, Rah, Mizzou!,
Oui? Ja!,
Haunted Hill,
Who Ya Gonna Call?,
Suggested Readings,
About the Author,

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