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Rural Missouri Magazine

Haunted Hannibal
Mark Twain isn't the only spirit
still felt in this fabled river town

by Jarrett Medlin
Standing in Rockcliffe Mansion’s main entryway, tour guide Candace Klemenn demonstrates how to use copper wands to detect ghosts. The historic Hannibal bed and breakfast is one of a number of businesses capitalizing on Hannibal's Haunted reputation for ghosts and strange occurances

In 1903, Mark Twain penned a fictitious tale about a strange presence he once encountered during a stay in the abandoned upstairs of an old mansion.

He wrote: “I seemed groping among the tombs and invading the privacy of the dead, that first night I climbed up to my quarters. For the first time in my life, a superstitious dread came over me . . . I became conscious that my chamber was invaded — that I was not alone.”

More than a century after Twain wrote “A Ghost Story,” citizens of his hometown say they too have experienced similar odd happenings.
In the river town of Hannibal, along the banks of the mighty Mississippi, tales of ghosts are almost as common as the barges that float past town. Like Hannibal’s favorite native son, its citizens relish a good yarn with a mysterious twist.

Indeed, Hannibal has its share of ghosts and isn’t afraid to show them off — or at least their earthly abodes. Historic Rockliffe Mansion recently began offering tours and cemetery walks of Hannibal every weekend in September and October. The trolley and walking tours highlight the town’s many ghosts, including one who never made it to the age of 30, a victim of an unsolved murder and an apparition with a Napoleon complex.

During the two-hour sightseeing tours, visitors travel to different haunted sites and hear stories from property owners. The tour even encourages guests to detect supernatural beings on their own.

Darrell and Andrea Williams, residents of Tehachapi, Calif., examine a grave during a guided, night-time cemetery walk in Hannibal’s Old Baptist Cemetery.

Showcasing its ghosts and ghouls is nothing new to Hannibal. In October 1996, a downtown revitalization group called Hannibal Main Street hosted a fund-raising event called the Ghostly Gala. An old-fashioned trolley carried people to different sites, where costumed actors from the community theater helped the stories come alive.

At a downtown hardware store that’s no longer in business, a heavyset gentleman holding a pipe portrayed the ghost of Percy Haydon, the man who originally opened the store in 1919 and was believed by recent owner Jerry Adkins to haunt the building.

“The event was a lot of fun,” recalls Kirstin Hildahl-Dewey, who guided the tour that night. “But we pretty much exhausted all the stories that year. You can’t exactly find new ones.”

Since that night, nearly a decade ago, no other organized events gave visitors the chance to hear about Hannibal’s haunted sites — until last year.

That’s when Rick Rose and Chris Bobek, co-owners of the Garden House Bed & Breakfast, learned the B&B’s restored 1896 Victorian Queen Anne building had been listed by several publications and Web sites as one of the “Great Places to Sleep with a Ghost.” The two decided to capitalize on the discovery by offering haunted tours.

Guests of the Garden House Bed & Breakfast often report strange occurrences, which some attribute to the ghost of Albert Pettibone, Jr. The wealthy son of a saw mill founder, Pettibone died at the age of 29.

“The idea had been kicked around by several people, but it really took off when we found out the Garden House was on that list,” says Rick, who also owns Rockliffe Mansion and LaBinnah Bistro.

Rick and Chris gathered local paranormal enthusiasts like Candace Klemenn and Kae Blecha to host regular tours throughout the fall. They decided to start the tours at the Garden House or Rockliffe, then travel around town on a trolley and stop at various sites, where locals could give personal accounts of ghostly encounters. At night, they began offering cemetery walks, in which guests could traipse through a graveyard after sunset and learn about notable graves.

In its first year, the cemetery walks included Mt. Olivet Cemetery, resting place of Mark Twain’s parents, the Osage Indian who inspired “Tom Sawyer” character Injun Joe and many ancestors of the town’s wealthy families. After only a few trips, however, families of the deceased complained.

“They said, ‘How can our loved ones rest with people shining lights in their eyes?’” recalls Kae, who leads the cemetery walks with her boyfriend, Bill Winn. “I respect their point of view, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. They’re dead.”

Now, the only cemetery stop is at Old Baptist Cemetery, located on the west side of town.

On a recent Friday evening, Darrell and Andrea Williams of Tehachapi, Calif., took a nighttime stroll through the graveyard on one of the tours. As they walked, Bill snapped pictures with his digital camera and examined the viewfinder for orbs, or blue circles that ghost experts claim to be spirits. To his delight, several orbs appeared in the pictures.

“People have a natural interest in the afterlife, and this is our way of proving it exists,” he explained. “But you need to ask permission from the spirits to take photos. You don’t want them following you home.”

During Haunted Hannibal trolley tours, visitors can see and learn about the town’s many haunted buildings. At each stop, the guide and local residents tell about ghostly encounters.

After stopping at the cemetery, the tour usually continues to LaBinnah Bistro, a notable site because of Hannibal’s unsolved Stillwell murder. The story goes that one night in 1888, Amos J. Stillwell began his evening by playing euchre at the mayor’s house, the building where the restaurant now resides. In attendance was the town’s doctor, a man rumored to be having an affair with Stillwell’s wife, Fanny. After the card game, Stillwell and his wife retired home and went to bed.

In the middle of the night, Fanny awoke to see a dark figure standing over the bed with an axe. The person called out, “Is that you, Fanny?” before swinging and severing Stillwell’s head. The mysterious stranger then disappeared. Fanny was later seen running around town in her nightgown and knocking on doors for help. By the time police arrived, she and several neighbors had cleaned up much of the bloody scene.

A year later, Fanny and the doctor were married. While Stillwell’s murder remained a mystery, the case had been solved in the court of public opinion. Passing neighbors would yell to Fanny such things as, “Axe me no more questions.” Fanny and the doctor eventually moved to escape harassment, before being called back to Hannibal for a trial. And while the evidence indicated otherwise, the doctor was quickly acquitted by a jury of card-playing buddies. Stillwell’s case remained forever unsolved.

In recent months, Melissa Sexton, a former resident of New Orleans, moved into the house. One day, she walked into the dining room and saw a translucent figure scramble across the room and into the kitchen before turning into a glowing blue dot, she claims.

Rick Rose, owner of Rockliffe Mansion, points out of one of the mansion’s bedroom windows while telling guests an eerie story of Rockliffe’s deceased previous owner, John Cruikshank. Rick also owns the supposedly haunted LaBinnah Bistro and Garden House Bed & Breakfast, voted one of the “Great Places to Sleep With A Ghost.”

The odd occurence scared her so badly that she moved out. A few weeks later, a guest snapped a picture of a strange form, much like the one Melissa saw, peering through the front window with a blue dot in the photo’s corner. On haunted tours, Melissa shows this picture to guests and tells about her strange encounter.

Melissa isn’t the only one to claim to experience such strange occurrences. Rick, who lives in Rockcliffe Mansion, says camera crews have come to film movies and their cameras lock up. He also talks about how guests sometimes say they smell smoke in a room where Mark Twain, a notorious smoker, slept after giving his last speech in Hannibal in 1902. He even claims to have once seen the impression of a 5-foot, 4-inch figure — the same height as the mansion’s original owner, the eccentric John Cruikshank — in one bed’s sheets.

“Do I feel comfortable in the mansion at night?” Rick says to visitors. “Maybe once every 30 days.”

While in the mansion, guests are given copper wands used for detecting ghosts. The guests are instructed to hold the bent rods loosely as the wands turn, as if pulled by a strange force. Candace, who leads daytime tours, says ghost experts attribute the phenomena to electromagnetic waves given off by spirits. Some people, she says, are more sensitive to these waves. For instance, she says she doesn’t wear watches because her body’s electromagnetic field will make them go dead.

After the two-hour daytime tour, which also includes stops along mansion-lined Millionaire’s Row on South Fifth Street, the former residence of Union commander Moses P. Green and several downtown stores, guests can spend the night in the Garden House Bed & Breakfast. It’s believed the ghost of Albert J. Pettibone, the house’s original owner and wealthy son of a local saw mill founder who died at the age of 29, still wanders the halls and upstairs rooms at night.

Kae Blecha, a local palm reader and tour guide for cemetery walks, reads visitor Andrea Williams’ palm while sitting in the LaBinnah Bistro. The historic restaurant is also supposedly haunted.

St. Louis resident Melissa Thibodeau recently took the tour and spent the night at the Garden House with her husband, Mike, for their 11th wedding anniversary. That night, another guest ran out of her room in terror, claiming Pettibone’s ghost had entered her body as she slept and her friend was unable to rouse her. Although Melissa doesn’t believe in ghosts, the experience shook her.

“I know I was a little uneasy,” she said after the trip. “It’s amazing what the mind does to us.”

So why is Hannibal haunted? Some say it’s because it was a bustling river town with plenty of brothels, bars and crime at the turn of the century. Others say spirits travel along the Mississippi.

Kirstin Hildahl-Dewey, the town’s original ghost tour guide, has another theory.

“We live in a town that’s very old and tied to a historic figure like Mark Twain, so we look at what happened while he was here,” she says. “That focus on the past, which is tied so closely to the town’s identity, really brings Hannibal’s history to life.”

To learn more about the Haunted Hannibal tours, call 314-494-2918, e-mail info@historichannibaltours.com or visit www.hauntedhannibal.com.

For more information about Rockcliffe Mansion, call (573) 221-4140 or visit www.rockcliffemansion.com.

 

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