Colin Dickey Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places | Viking | October 2016 | 10 minutes ( 4,181 words)

Below is an excerpt from Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. In this excerpt, Dickey sleeps over in the purportedly haunted Lemp Mansion in St. Louis, Missouri, the historic home of a 19th-century beer brewer whose suicide sent a family into a tailspin of horrific tragedy. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers.

* * *

It is, quite literally, a dark and stormy night. A summer storm has settled over St. Louis: gray­-black clouds turning the air yellowish and electric, the rain pulsing down in waves. The sprint from the parking lot to the front door of the Lemp Mansion—no more than fifty feet—leaves you soaked. The thunder is following on the heels of the lightning; it is right above us. In the bar the stained ­glass portraits of William Lemp, Jr., and his first wife, Lillian Lemp—the Lavender Lady—flicker to life from the lightning outside with disturbing fre­quency, the accompanying thunder coming fast afterward. It is the perfect night for a ghost hunt: the air already electric, everyone already a bit on edge. In his portrait, William Lemp looks prematurely old; the glass art­ist has added shading to his face to give the appearance of three dimen­sions, but the result instead is that he appears haggard, black pits around his eyes, deep creases in his skin.

As if he knows he’s going to die.

The owners of the Lemp Mansion seem quite content to capitalize on the building’s repu­tation. Ghost hunters come here regularly to take tours, use KII meters and ghost boxes, and record for EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) and orbs. I’m here for one such tour, led by a local ghost-­hunting group. I’m also here to spend the night, since the Lemp Mansion operates as a bed-­and-­breakfast—though I won’t be able to get into my room until 11 p.m. My room, the Elsa Lemp Suite, is itself part of the tour: the most haunted room in this most haunted house.

Image via Matt Hunke
The haunted Lemp manison. Image via Matt Hunke

The Lemp family story should be remembered as your classic rags-­t0-­riches success story: Johann Adam Lemp emigrated to America from Germany in 1838 and within a short time had grown a prosperous business selling beer. At the time the only beers available in America were strong English ales, and Lemp, along with John Wagner in Philadelphia, is credited with introducing the lighter, German­-style lager beer that has since become ubiquitous in the United States. Lemp’s beer caught on quickly, particularly in the German immigrant community of St. Louis, and by 1850 he was shipping four thousand barrels of beer annually. Prior to electric refrigeration, Lemp had found that the natural caverns beneath St. Louis provided a stable and year­-round cool environment, which al­lowed him to ramp up production without fear of spoilage. His success was mirrored by constant rivals Eberhard Anheuser and Adolphus Busch, whose Budweiser beer would play second fiddle to Lemp’s Falstaff brand well into the early twentieth century. Johann died in 1862, but the company soldiered on under the direction of his son, William, who con­tinued to grow the brewing juggernaut, which, by the dawn of the twen­tieth century, seem destined to endure forever.

Your feet feel a bit unsteady, but that’s probably because, after more than a hundred years, the staircase and the floors have begun to slope slightly as the foundation of the house has become uneven.

The first suicide in the Lemp Mansion happened in 1904. Three years earlier, William’s twenty-­eight­-year­old son, Frederick, who had been groomed to take over the family business, died suddenly from heart failure, leaving William distraught. When William’s closest friend, Freder­ick Pabst (of the blue-­ribboned Pabst Brewing Company), died a few years later, on January 1, 1904, it sent William over the edge: he shot himself in the head just over a month later in the mansion the family had occupied since 1876. William’s successor, William Jr. (Billy), lacked his father’s head for business; he spent lavishly, and the business floundered. His marriage to Lillian fell apart, and the couple’s messy divorce in 1906 made head­lines. But the real crippling blow to the Lemp brewing empire came in 1919, with the passage of Prohibition. Billy shuttered the company with­ out notice, and within two years both he and his sister Elsa had killed themselves. The family retired from the public eye, out of the beer busi­ness for good, almost forgotten, until another of William Sr.’s eight chil­dren, Charles, followed in the footsteps of his father, brother, and sister, killing himself with a revolver on May 10, 1949. (Tradition holds that Charles shot his dog before himself, though this is nowhere mentioned in the police reports of the incident.)

Charles Lemp was the only one to leave a note, which read simply, “In case I am found dead, blame it on no one but me.” But most have instead chosen to blame a curse of some kind, a curse under which the Lemp family suffered, unable to shake the fate that awaited each in turn. In the Haunted Lemp Mansion board game, players move through the mansion while collecting various strategy cards; if a player collects both a “revolver” card and a “bullet” card and then happens to land on a “suicide” space, he’s out of the game—an oddly tasteless reference to the gruesome series of tragedies that repeatedly befell the House of Lemp.

Unlike the Winchester Mystery House, with its sprawling, formless labyrinth of rooms; the George Stickney House, with its rounded corners; or the House of the Seven Gables, with its secret staircase, there is nothing particularly odd—architecturally speaking—about the Lemp Mansion. It is large, to be sure, and stately, but its outer construction is straightforward, and its rooms are laid out in a fairly sensible order. Its additions over the years increased its size, but its overall shape and appearance don’t suggest anything out of the ordinary.

And yet the mansion itself—far more than the neighboring brewery, the caves below the city where the fabled Falstaff beer was once stored, or the other homes the Lemps have owned through the years—remains in­ extricable from the family and its curse. This is how we tend to think of old, august families that have lasted through the generations: there should be one central, ancestral home, a single estate that embodies the bloodline.

As I hold my camera on the window, a strange light moves across it, a wave of light that holds, then passes by and disappears.

It’s an idea ingrained in the very word “house,” with its dual meaning as both building and family. And like Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, the House of Lemp seems to have failed. In Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” house and House are conjoined so tightly that when Roderick Usher’s sister, Madeline, seems to rise from the grave to carry off her brother (the last surviving member of the Usher family) to his own death, the house itself collapses, supernaturally torn asunder, and crum­bles into the swamp just as the narrator escapes. But unlike the house of Usher—and despite the tragedies and calamities that have befallen its occupants—the Lemp Mansion still stands.

* * *

The rain is deluging the streets outside, and we gather in one of the din­ing rooms on the first floor, where there are light snacks and infrared camcorders. My friend Elizabeth has joined me for this tour, and we wait along with the other guests—there are maybe twelve of us total—who range from college age to mid­forties, and altogether we are a fair enough cross section of the general population. It’s hard to read the faces of the other people on the tour, or discern their interest in ghosts or this house. As we settle in and munch on our celery sticks and slightly stale cookies, the guide gives us a brief rundown on the history of the house. In our hands are ordinary camcorders to which infrared rigs have been attached, and we’re instructed how best to hold them so our arms won’t get tired, as well as other basic tips, such as don’t pan too fast through a room or the image will blur, and don’t look through the viewfinder while going up or down stairs or you’ll get vertigo.

After the guide finishes with the instructions, we gather our equip­ment and head toward the stairs. You feel a bit dizzy, but you tell yourself it’s probably because you’re looking through the infrared camera’s view­ finder too much. Your feet feel a bit unsteady, but that’s probably because, after more than a hundred years, the staircase and the floors have begun to slope slightly as the foundation of the house has become uneven. All your hairs are standing on end—probably, you tell yourself, from the storm outside. It’s time to go upstairs.

* * *

Ghost hunts without technological devices these days are almost unheard of; one could almost say that ghosts don’t exist without the technology that re­ cords them. But though the devices have gotten more complex, the spirit world has long been intertwined with technology. In 1884 Samuel F. B. Morse demonstrated the first use of the tele­graph; despite its very straightforward technical workings, here was a m­achine that could send and receive disembodied messages over great distances—as though they’d come from another world. The parallels between Spiritualism and telegraphy were immediately drawn, and early publications, such as the Spiritual Telegraph, attested to this very simple analogy: just as the telegraph could send and receive over great distances, the Spiritualist could send and receive across the divide of life and death. Four years after the telegraph’s invention, the table raps that famous Spiritualist Fox sisters claimed allowed them to talk to spirits, after all, were themselves a form of Morse code. Media and medium were two sides of the same coin.

The table rappin' Fox sisters. Image via Wikimedia Commons
The table rappin’ Fox sisters. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s not that a belief in ghosts began in 1848, of course, but the Spiritualist revolution reformulated how we believed in ghosts. No longer were they purely emanations of terror; now a direct communication with the dead could be established through technology. This has largely continued through all subsequent technological advancements: nearly every major communication technology has sooner or later been appropriated by ghost seekers.

There is photography, of course: pioneered just prior to the telegraph, it came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century and be­ came one of the prime means of documenting ghosts (though from the very beginning the veracity of spirit photos was questioned by skeptics). Radio and television, too, were seen as receptors for spirit messages from the beginning, with ghosts frequently discerned through static and failed connections. The introduction of consumer magnetic tape recordings in the 1940s and ’50s spurred yet another revolution in communicating with ghosts; with recording now significantly cheaper and more portable, ana­log tape (with its added bonus of tape hiss and other audio imperfections) put the voices of the dead in the hands of the masses.

In the late 1950s Swedish painter and documentary filmmaker Fried­rich Jürgenson decided to record birds singing in his garden; while playing back the recording, he unexpectedly heard on the tape the voice of his dead mother calling his name. He spent years making further recordings and researching the technique before publishing Radio Contact with the Dead in 1967. Jürgenson’s work was followed and greatly expanded by Latvian psychologist Konstantin Raudive, who published his extensive documentation of EVPs in his Unhörbares wird Hörbar (The Inaudible Made Audible), published in English in 1971 as Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. Raudive reported his lengthy experiments with EVP and transcribed some of the more disturb­ing communications he received. “Here is night brothers, here the birds burn,” one voice told him one night. Another came through the wire to tell him: “Secret reports . . . it is bad here.”

Raudive claimed that his work would lead “to empirically provable reality with a factual background,” but skeptics point to the degree of leeway he gave his spirit voices in their attempts to communicate. He explained that spirits talked in multiple languages, even in the same sentence; that they could speak in languages they hadn’t known in life; and that they sometimes spoke backward. Considering all these allowances, it’s not ter­ribly surprising that Raudive could discern so much chatty conversation from the dead. If you’re looking for spirit voices, you can find them in just about any string of gibberish or noise if you listen hard enough.

Perhaps it’s less important whether one believes than why he believes.

Jürgenson used EVP as many Spiritualists did: to contact lost loved ones, to be reassured that they were okay and in a better place. The search for ghosts often takes this form: of a kind of mourning, a working through of grief and loss. We look for the ghosts of those whose deaths we have not yet gotten over, as though we need their blessings to let them pass on.

* * *

There is no sense of grief or loss—at least nothing outwardly visible—in any of the people climbing the Lemp Mansion’s stairs with me. If any­ thing, the vibe is of veiled thrill seeking and vague curiosity. Near the top of the stairs is the Elsa Lemp Suite, where I’ll be staying the night in a few short hours. Elsa was the youngest of William Sr. and Julia Lemp’s eight children, born in 1883, when Julia was forty-­one years old. Elsa married the vice president of a metal company, Thomas Wright, in 1910, but by all accounts the marriage was troubled. After losing their only daugh­ter in childbirth, Elsa filed for divorce in 1919, citing mental anguish and abandonment. After their separation, Elsa, the wealthiest woman in St. Louis, changed her will to write Thomas out of it entirely. But just thirteen months later they were reunited and they remarried on March 8, 1920. Twelve days later Elsa killed herself with a single self-­inflicted gun­shot wound to the heart.

The unassuming suite that bears her name, hers when she was a child, looks out to the north, with St. Louis spilling out before it. But though Elsa succumbed to the same “curse” as did her brothers and father, you will not find her ghost here. She died in her own home, at 13 Hortense Place, some seven miles from the Lemp Mansion. The ghosts that haunt this room date from a period in the mid-­twentieth century when the house was used as overflow housing for a local pediatric hospital. The spirits of termi­nally ill children, they’ve been known to engage in mischievous behavior: pulling at the sheets while guests are trying to sleep or tugging at their legs as if they were by their feet.

Nearly every room in the house, it turns out, has a story. In Charles Lemp’s bedroom, sometimes small items will move about the room without warning. In another bedroom, a smell of raw sewage sometimes emanates from nowhere, indicating that the spirits of the house don’t like you. Through the hallways roams the spirit of a young child whose iden­tity has never been completely verified. A shadowy figure lurks in the basement, and an unknown man has been seen sitting down for a meal in the first­-floor dining room, only to vanish when approached. With this many stories, I half expect a scene out of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, with rooms of translucent figures cavorting and mischief making—but so far, even with the spooky weather outside, we’ve seen nothing.

Then at some point I find myself alone in the Elsa Lemp Suite while the other guests are investigating other rooms. All the lights on the floor have been shut off, and the only way to see anything is through the infrared camera. I run the camera over the room, pausing on a small window air conditioner that’s rumbling slightly under the stress of keeping the room cool. As I hold my camera on the window, a strange light moves across it, a wave of light that holds, then passes by and disappears.

It could have been car headlights passing by outside, except that I’m on the third floor and the light would have to have been coming from behind me, where there are no windows or other sources of light. No one is nearby that I can see, and no other explanation offers itself. I keep the camera focused on the air conditioner, seeing whether the phenomenon will repeat itself. For a minute I watch the machine soldier on stoically, but the light doesn’t reappear and nothing else happens.

Viewing a dark mansion through an infrared lens is undeniably eerie, no matter who you are. The realm of otherwise mundane objects takes on a pall. People’s irises turn ghostly white, so that the folks standing next to you—living, breathing, and very much alive—look like hollowed­out zombies. Things that are still in normal light pulse faintly in infrared; they seem like they could come alive at any moment.

It’s not just the infrared; walking around the mansion, I see how the viewfinder of a camera can change the landscape. The way a camera can single out a specific object for our attention makes us presume that something specific is going to happen. The more ordinary the object and the longer the wait, the more our expectations heighten. You tense up.

Horror movie premises so often involve a perfectly innocuous object turned malevolent—a house, a toy, a child. I discover that holding the camera for a long five seconds on an object is usually enough to make it unnerving, and I begin to question the light that I saw playing out over the air conditioner. Perhaps it was just my expectation of something, but stand­ing alone in a pitch ­black room of an old mansion, with nothing for illumi­nation but an infrared camera, thunder rolling through the distance—it becomes unnerving very quickly.

* * *

We’re now on the second floor, in one of the large middle bedrooms. Be­cause houses were taxed based on the number of bedrooms, the Lemp Mansion, as was the custom at the time, has overly large bedrooms separated in the middle by pocket doors (once the doors were fully closed, two bedrooms could be had for the price of one). Supposedly ghost hunters have gotten strong electromagnetic pulse (EMP) readings from the center of this room, supposedly this is significant, supposedly the distant sound of a dog can be heard on some recordings. The infrared cameras, we’re told, can pick up organic matter that’s otherwise invisible on carpets. And sure enough, panning a camera down to the floor reveals stains in blotches and clumps. This is the room where apparently Charles Lemp shot his dog, and it’s strange to look down and see beneath your feet what looks like the poor animal’s blood, as though it was killed only yesterday.

But it’s probably not blood: without the camera, the stains look more like ground ­in dirt than spectral blood. Despite the great legends of the Lemp Mansion, it becomes clear that the terrifying experience always happens on some other tour, some other time.

It’s at this point that my friend Elizabeth reveals a secret: if you toggle your infrared lights on and off while standing near someone else, the inter­ference will cause orbs and shadows to appear on the person’s video. You can, in other words, create your own ghosts. The light I saw moving across the air conditioner in the Elsa Lemp Suite may very well have been this. Perhaps someone passed by me in the hallway while I wasn’t looking, and some unintended interference on their part was enough to create a momen­tary play of light—one that I was all too ready to accept as paranormal.

No matter how hard we look, it seems, the ghosts won’t materialize on demand. Why should they? Moving through these rooms supposedly haunted by the Lemp family, the other people on the tour are eagerly hunting for orbs and shadows, evidence of the ghostly presence of the Lemps and their supernatural curse. But it seems equally plausible to read their story as a history of family mental illness, perhaps a clinical depres­sion or bipolar condition passed down through William Sr.’s genes to his doomed children, children who lacked the cultural or medical support to combat this neurological condition. The tragedies of the Lemp Mansion might have been entirely a matter of brain chemistry, attributable to noth­ing other than a lack of timely medical intervention.

* * *

The Lemp Brewery. Image by Moose Winans

In 1901 a man in a black suit entered a downtown jewelry store and identi­fied himself as William Lemp, Jr. He asked for the largest sunburst dia­mond in the store, then told the owner, “I will take it with me now, and you may send the bill to the brewery.” He pawned the diamond and was never heard from again. In 1915, according to historian Davidson Mull­gardt, a woman named Mrs. Fannie Zell had herself sent flowers from Billy, Charles, and their brother Edwin Lemp to convince others that she had admirers among the rich and powerful.

And then there’s the curious case of Andrew Paulsen, who appeared in St. Louis in 2010 claiming to be one of the last living descendants of the Lemp family. He had a key to the Lemp mausoleum, along with a painting by Louise Lemp (one of Billy’s nieces and an established artist) and other assorted memorabilia, including housewares he claimed were from the family, which he began selling on eBay. “Our desire and passion is to let the wonderful people of St. Louis and the world know there is a Lemp descendant who is willing to share never before told stories of the famous Lemp family of St. Louis,” his business partner, Cheryl Sochotsky, wrote on their Website, Lemp Treasures. He began giving tours of sites in St. Louis and attracted admirers among those obsessed with the Lemp family.

But in short order Paulsen’s story began to unravel. The woman he claimed was his mother—Anne­-Marie Konta, granddaughter of Annie Lemp (Elsa’s eldest sister)—died in 1973, thirteen years before Paulsen was born. As people began asking questions, he was unable to provide anything like proof that he actually descended from the Lemp family. When St. Louis Magazine reporter Jeannette Cooperman asked him for some kind of confirmation, he stonewalled, then threatened legal action. Why someone would concoct an elaborate fiction solely to hawk some meaningless housewares online for a few bucks is a mystery, but just one more example of someone trying to capitalize on the long, sad history of the Lemp family.

It does speak to the aura surrounding the family, which has not dimin­ ished along with their fortunes. In some ways, the dramatic ending of Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” seems overly optimistic and convenient: with Roderick’s death and the end of the family line, the house falls into the swamp and the name vanishes as well. In reality, decline is much messier, and even though the House of Lemp has lost its former glory, the house and the name still linger, drawing an odd breed of revenants along with the ghost seekers.

After the tour one of the dining room servers stops us in the hall. “Did you see anything?” she asks, excited. She has been working here for only three weeks and hasn’t experienced any haunted moments, though she’s hoping to. She has no doubt in her mind that the house is haunted; after all, she’s seen ghosts all her life. She was seven or eight, she says, when she first saw one, on her family’s land, which had once been a plantation: a young girl, pale, running, terrified, always returning near her birthday. The server didn’t ever try to figure out what the story was: “I figured it wasn’t my business. She wasn’t hurting anyone.” Her face now is full of excitement: how lucky we are to have had the chance to commune with the spirits in such a legendary place. How could we have failed to see at least one?

Spend enough time debunking the legends associated with haunted places, trying to see past it all—the marketing, the dubious electronic devices, and all the other trappings—and you sometimes forget how real, and how persistent, the belief in ghosts is for many of us. A belief that in various ways, and for various people, gives an explanation and a meaning to experiences that can’t be explained away easily. A belief that can help us mourn and give us hope.

The hunt finally over, I retrieve my bags from the foyer and head back up to the Elsa Lemp Suite, hoping for a good night’s sleep in the most haunted room of the most haunted mansion in the country. By now I’ve been awake for almost nineteen hours, having woken up at four thirty in the morning to make my flight to St. Louis. I am thoroughly exhausted, and though I toy with the idea of staying up to see what happens through the night, the truth is, I pass out in minutes. If ghosts swarmed about me that night, they did not trouble my sleep.

* * *

From the book Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey, to be published on October 4th by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
Copyright © 2016 by Colin Dickey.