|My Ghost Stories|
|I buy books the way an
alcoholic buys booze. The thirst is the same. The only
difference is what will slake it. I love true ghost stories, good
mysteries, and old children's books, especially series where I can join
the same characters for adventure after adventure. These days I
can search for almost anything I want online and have it shipped to my
door, but in the mid 90s, before I became familiar with the Internet,
the only way to find old books was to search them out.
I wish I could share with you -- really share with you! -- all the memories I made then. Long spring and summer days, driving through the Missouri countryside, headed somewhere I'd never been on the slender hope that there might be unplundered used book stores there, antique malls and flea markets waiting to be explored. I carry the images of tumbledown, ramshackle barns half-hidden by flowering dogwood trees, dark little shops smelling of dust and book paper, and the memory of sitting in strange towns at twilight, knowing that home is two or three hundred miles away but not being entirely certain in which direction.
It was such an excursion, but one much closer to home than most, that led me to Osceola, Missouri and the old Commercial Hotel.
The Commercial Hotel, on the town square, is the oldest building in Osceola. Originally built in the 1830s, it was all but destroyed by fire when Union General Jim Lane burned the town in 1861. In 1867 it was the first building to be rebuilt and the bannister on the stairs, they say, is a remnant of the earlier hotel. Today the Commercial is a bed-and-breakfast, but in the mid 1990s it was being operated as a combination tea room / gift shop / book store.
The hotel is a two-story brick building with (I am told) a basement that is supposed to be haunted by the spirit of a long-dead cook. I haven't been in the basement and I didn't know, when I visited the place, that there were any paranormal legends associated with it. I was just book shopping. It is an elegantly proportioned building. The first floor rooms are exceptionally lofty with, probably, twelve- or fifteen-foot ceilings. Both floors are bisected by a wide hallway that runs front to back, rooms opening off both sides. A steep, narrow staircase rises on the left as you go in. Downstairs were large parlors and a closed-off apartment, its door tucked back behind the stairs. The old hotel rooms are on the second floor. At that time the doors were propped open. All the rooms were emptied of furniture except for crowded bookshelves around the walls. The hall was also lined with bookshelves. At the back of the hall a loveseat and one or two chairs blocked access to a locked French door that overlooked a tiny, semi-circular balcony, dilapidated and obviously unsafe.
I was there on a sunny afternoon, around four-thirty as I recall. (They closed at five.) The building was charming and atmospheric, but the book selection left a great deal to be desired and I was cranky and discouraged. I'd seen an advertisement for the place boasting about what an enormous inventory they had, but the reality was that it was mostly old math text books from the 1970s, the sort of Book-Of-The-Month-Club rejects you constantly see in yard sales and junk shops, 57 cheaply-made, illustrated copies of Heidi, and that sort of thing. Also, the prices were outlandish. I recall seeing a brown-cover, 1950s Hardy Boys that was selling for ca. $3.00 in Springfield at the time with $35.00 written in the front cover. It was getting late and I was getting frustrated when someone walked behind me. I had just a glimpse of a yellow shirt, long dark hair, maybe a cowboy hat. Thinking it was the girl I'd seen working downstairs (I was the only customer at the time), I turned immediately to ask her a question.
I was alone on the second floor. The broad hall, open from one end of the building to the other, was empty. No one was in any of the rooms. The person I'd seen had been moving away from the front stairs and hadn't had time to get to the locked door to the back stairway, open it and pass through.
As I was checking out (you can't not find one book!) I confessed that I had a silly question: had anyone ever seen anything strange at the hotel? That's when the clerk told me the history of the Commercial Hotel. She also picked up a map of the hotel that detailed where the different catagories of books were shelved and circled the "most haunted part of the building". The circle was almost exactly where I'd been standing.
On the night of March 15, 1874, two strangers took a room at the Commercial, registering under the names Allen and Wright. In reality they were Louis J. Lull, a Chicago Pinkerton detective, and his partner, John Boyle. Five days earlier another Pinkerton man had gone after the James boys up north and had been captured and executed, his still-bound body dumped in the river. Lull and Boyle were now out to capture the James' partners (and cousins, according to some accounts) the Younger brothers. Whether they sought justice or vengeance would be hard to say. The next morning a St. Claire county sheriff's deputy named Edwin B. Daniels met them at the hotel and accepted a job as their local guide.
Presenting themselves as cattle buyers, the three men made their way south. The morning of the 17th, the day after they left Osceola, they met up with Jim and John Younger on Chalk Level Road, just outside of Roscoe and near the house of one Theodoric Snuffer. Boyle rode away at the sight of the two outlaws. The Youngers quickly got the drop on Lull and Daniels and ordered them to drop their weapons, which they did. Lull, however, had another gun concealed on his person and, at the first opportunity, opened fire. When the dust cleared he was mortally wounded and John Younger and Edwin Daniels were dead. Daniels, unarmed, had been shot in the back in cold blood as he attempted to ride away.
Boyle rode to Osceola and reported to the sheriff that the Youngers had captured Lull and Daniels. By the time the sheriff gathered a posse he was gone. Where he went and what became of him remains unknown to this day. The Jameses and Youngers swore vengeance on him for John's death, while the law enforcement community cursed him as a coward for abandoning his partners in the middle of a gunfight. If he lived out his life to a natural death, surely he did so under a false name. If he met with some dire fate at the hand of an enemy, his body has never been found.
Today, people researching the ghost of the Commercial Hotel like to claim that it is John Younger, based on the facts that he is supposed to have been familiar with the place and that he died young (and violently) only some ten miles away. It seems to me, though, thinking back to that figure I so briefly glimpsed, that there is another with more reason to haunt these halls. For it was here that Edwin Daniels met the Pinkerton men and here that he accepted the job that would cost him his life.
As I was writing this story I did a little googling on the hotel and on the shootout at Roscoe. Here are a few links you might find interesting:
Here is a website with the story of the Roscoe shootout. There's a picture of the location of the shooting. (Next time I'm down that way I'll take a better one and post it.)
Here is a another account, with a picture of John Younger.
Here is an account of an investigation of the hotel by a paranormal research team that seems to have done a thorough job. (This is a PDF file.)
Here is a message board with a version of the story apparently taken from contemporary local newspaper accounts.
University of Missouri - Columbia
|During my senior year at the
University of Missouri - Columbia I lived on campus, in a big, modern
dorm called Gillette Hall. My room was on the second floor, in
the south wing. One sunny spring morning I followed a girl in a
blue bathrobe into a shower room that had no other egress, only to find
the room empty when I got inside.
This happened about ten o'clock in the morning. It was just before mid-terms and I'd been up for a couple of hours studying. I only glimpsed the girl -- honestly, I wasn't paying much attention to her. It was a big dorm and, except for a couple of close friends, I didn't know the other occupants well. It never occurred to me that she was anything but another perfectly ordinary student until she disappeared in such an impossible manner.
After that initial encounter, I saw her a couple more times, never more than a brief glance, just a flash of blue. Her steps sounded normally on the tile floor. I came to recognize her tread. She'd pass through the heavy metal door to the shower enclosure and I'd listen for the water to start, knowing that it wasn't going to. I don't know of anyone else who ever saw her. To the best of my knowledge there is no tradition of a haunting at Gillette Hall, and I have no explanation for my encounters.
|Imagine a small college
campus on a temperamental autumn day. Grey clouds obscure the sun
as a light breeze tumbles the first fallen leaves from the big, old oak
and elm trees. It is a womens' college, artfully landscaped, with
stately buildings and a background noise of girlish laughter and light
voices, raised now and again in song.
And now picture me, a shy, awkward, 18-year-old dreamer, standing on the lawn in front of Rosemary Hall, staring up in awe at the haunted theater.
Beautiful, elegant Rosemary Hall, lost now to age and the march of progress, was the second building to be built on the Cottey campus. It was a three-story structure of dark red brick. Originally an enclosed corridor connected all three stories to Main Hall, to the east. An enclosed set of stairs on the west side of Main is the remnant of this structure. In her prime, Rosemary housed the campus theater on the ground floor, with student housing on the second and third floors. The theater was lovely, a dark, cavernous room with plush red seats and curtain and a painted tin ceiling. But by the time I was there, in the early 80s, the upper floors had fallen into disuse. The third floor, I was told, was kept locked because the theater department stored props up there, but the second floor was open. Living quarters at Cottey are arranged in suites. In the modern dorms, these are geometric arrangements of square and rectangular rooms, but the original suites were a hodgepodge of strange-shaped rooms, random angles and odd nooks and crannies.
One of the second-year students in my suite had suggested I go up in Rosemary and look around and one October friday, when my last class let out early, I decided to follow her suggestion. If anyone had asked me, I'd have told them I was there out of historic curiousity. I even half convinced myself that all I really wanted was to see the way Cottey girls had lived in the early part of the century. Deep down, though, I knew better. I'd been fascinated with the concept of ghosts since I read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House the summer I was seven, and according to campus lore, Rosemary Hall was haunted. For it was here, on the second floor, that Vera played her phantom piano, the lonely notes shivering the dust motes in the still, dead air.
Many college ghost stories are apocryphal, but Vera was a real person, a tragic teenager who attended Cottey in 1919, when it was still known as the Vernon County Conservatory. Vera was one of a handful of high school students who lived on campus at the time and, in addition to a general education, she was studying music with an emphasis on piano. Contrary to legend, her room was actually on the second floor of Main Hall, in an area that has been heavily renovated and now contains (perhaps ironically) the music practice rooms.
On a warm autumn evening in 1919 Vera was using a gas chafing dish to make fudge. She had a window open to let the breeze in. Sadly, the wind blew the curtain into the flames and then into her, catching her nightgown on fire. She was taken across the highway to a hospital that stood where the library is now, and Cottey's founder, Vera Alice Cottey Stockard, sat up with her all night. She died the next day.
Since her death, Vera's name has been remembered by generations of Cottey Students as the ghost of Rosemary Hall. Older students, women whose honesty I trusted, had told me evocative stories of footsteps following them down the old staircase, of bodiless voices and a piano playing in empty rooms.
It was late afternoon, the day I ventured to the second floor of Rosemary Hall, overcast but still full daylight. The grass was still green, but the massive trees shading the building were beginning to lose their leaves. Not only the building, but that whole section of the campus seemed old, venerable. Caught in time. Haunted.
Broad, steep stairs climbed the front of the building. If I'd followed them, I could have gone through massive double doors into an elegant lobby, through that and into the theater beyond. On this particular day, however, the Missouri Repertory Theater was using the theater to rehearse a performance for that evening. Bypassing the main entrance, I circled the building clockwise and came to a side door leading into a shallow ell that contained a broad staircase.
The stairs were heavy woodwork, worn by the tread of many feet. Dim, grey light spilled in the windows, bright enough to illuminate the dust motes stirred by my passing. Rosemary stood, silent as a tomb and thick with atmosphere as I timidly climbed to the haunted second floor. Heart pounding, hands sweating as I clutched the worn rail, I set my foot in the undisturbed dust on the second floor. And in that instant -- that very instant -- I heard, from deep within the shadowed recesses of the building, the sweet, melancholy strains of a solitary piano. A second dragged itself out into an eternity as I stood there frozen, caught between fear and anticipation while music notes dropped into the silence around me like rain. And then . . .
And then . . . .
And then the rest of the orchestra joined in, and I realized I was listening to the Missouri Rep practicing down in the theater below.
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