St. Louis native Jim Longo revisits some local ghosts in a storytelling and booksigning appearance

Oct 27, 1999 at 4:00 am
So you've been to the Lemp Mansion and you think you've heard the last word in local hauntings? As charming as those restless brewery heirs can be, that's not the whole story. What about the near-dozen spirits who romped through an Edwardsville hotel that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad? Or the condo in Clayton that houses one inhabitant whose name isn't on any lease?

St. Louis native Jim Longo has made it his work to collect and retell such stories. His two books, Haunted Odyssey and Ghosts Along the Mississippi, are full of the spectral lore of the Midwest, gathered by word-of-mouth in towns like Hannibal, Mo., and Keokuk, Ill. With the help of longtime friend and collaborator Doris Voerster, he's expanded his turf lately, finding phantoms from California to New England. If you've got an uninvited, undead guest roaming your premises, Longo wants to hear about it. Now seeking out spooky tales on the East Coast, he estimates that he's visited hundreds of haunted sites and heard their stories from the people who live and work there.

Longo, who attended parochial schools here and later graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is spending Halloween weekend in the St. Louis area to treat audiences to some local favorites and newly collected stories from a volume in progress.

Although Longo no longer lives here, his friend Voerster does, so St. Louis remains a sort of base of operations for them. As a city particularly rich in faded glories, St. Louis is a natural hotbed for haunted activity, and Longo says the city has more than its share. And, yes, the Lemp story is one of his favorites.

"That story has all the ingredients," Longo says. "Money, success and suicide." The series of suicides that gave the Lemp Mansion its ghostly reputation is certainly a story redolent of those qualities. The first to go was William Lemp Sr., in 1904, despondent over the recent deaths of his best friend and, a few years earlier, his son Frederick Lemp. The coming of Prohibition forced the brewery to close, which so depressed William "Billy" Lemp Jr. that he, too, took his own life in 1922. The aging Charles Lemp, afflicted with arthritis and cancer, was the last of the line to live in the mansion, and he took his life in 1949. All three suicides were by gunshot. After Charles died, the house was used as a boardinghouse, its grand rooms divided into smaller ones, until the late 1970s, when the Pointer family bought the house and restored it. Today it's a restaurant, trading in large part on its haunted allure. The bustling eatery has retained its spectral door-slammings and unexplained chilliness, as well as a persistent feeling of being watched that mansion habitués have noticed for decades now.

"Doris and I have a great affection for the Lemp house," Longo says. "I was intrigued as soon as I heard about it, so we went down to eat there. They were very gracious and took us all the way through the place. We got to hear all the stories."

Longo's interest in the supernatural started one evening years ago, during a routine game of hide-and-seek near his boyhood home on the near North Side. "I saw something that just blew me away," he says. "It looked like a person, but there couldn't have been a person there. It looked lit up, but it was in total darkness. I didn't feel I was in any danger, but I was so startled I ran screaming. So I started to wonder about people who saw these things and didn't run."

That definition applies to Doug and Bev Elliott, former owners of the Three Mile House in Edwardsville, Ill., one of Longo's favorite hauntings. (The house no longer exists, having been largely destroyed by fire in 1985 and later demolished.) "They bought this old hotel that had been a coach stop," Longo says. "Now, they were nonbelievers, but their young daughters believed there were ghosts in the hotel. That's not unusual; young people seem to have a tendency to pick these things up. It's like a sixth sense.

"Well, eventually the parents believed, too. They reluctantly came to admit that there were 11-and-a-half spirits in the house." (Uh -- half a spirit? Longo says that in believer terms, a half-spirit is one that only manifests partially, such as a spectral hand or headless ghost.) Like the Pointers, the Elliotts ran their haunted house as a restaurant, serving creepy ambience along with steaks and salads.

Longo now counts the Elliotts as good friends among the many he has made in the course of his wanderings and through his books. "People have really been gracious and kind," he says. "Surprisingly so." Longo stays in touch with many of them after he moves on, building a network of friends across the haunted Midwest. "We get these wonderful letters from all over," he says, clearly pleased. "Our readers have been so loyal."

For his part, he tries to respect his subjects, which sometimes means leaving a supremely creepy story out of his books if it violates anyone's privacy. "We've always respected the storytellers," Longo says. "Some people initially think we're there to mock them, but we're always very careful about the parameters that they set. If there's something they don't want to talk about, we drop it."

So, the big question: Does he believe in ghosts? "I don't form an opinion either way," he says. "What I'm concerned about is the sincerity of the storyteller: If I believe that they believe. And if it's a good story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Otherwise, it's not for me to decide."

Jim Longo discusses and signs copies of his books at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, at Borders Books & Music-Creve Coeur, 11745 Olive Blvd.