Like most old cities, St. Louis has its share of ghost stories.
There’s the Lemp Mansion, haunted by the the tragic history of the beer baron’s family.
There’s the Rock House on the campus of the Edgewood Children’s Home in Webster Groves, and the spirits that roam the land near Ralston Purina, which was once the site of a medical college and later a Civil War-era prison.
And for a brief moment in the late 1800s, St. Louis was at the center of a movement based around the ability to talk to spirits, or the religion known as spiritualism.
On a crisp fall night about 10 days before Halloween, David Riordan led a group on his St. Louis Haunted History Tour down a brick path on Laclede’s Landing known as Claymorgan Alley.
"This is where they tossed the bodies," he said. “At the height of the cholera epidemic, late July early August, 1849, bodies were stacked up on this street four and five high."
Riordan perfected his story-telling shtick doing haunted and Inquisition tours in Spain. He started the St. Louis tour three years ago, using the Morgan Street Brewery as his home base.
“This is where St. Louis started,” Riordan said. “This is the deepest part of the history of St. Louis, and there are plenty of ghosts here as well. A lot of what I do is a history lesson with goosebumps.”
As Riordan told the story about how the city dealt with its worst cholera outbreak, a red-headed woman, clearly in some kind of discomfort, caught his attention.
“Are you okay?” he asked the woman. “Yeah, I’m fine,” Ginger Collins-Justus answered apologetically.
“I just didn’t want to stand there and squirm in front of everyone,” Collins-Justus said later. “As soon as we were walking up, the bottoms of my shoes got really warm and I could feel it coming up my feet. And I have not felt that anywhere except on a Gettysburg battlefield.”
Collins-Justus had what she called an unusual upbringing in St. James, Mo., about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis. She spent a lot of time as a child in the historic cemetery behind her elementary school. Her family members were always “in tune” with the spirit world. Collins-Justus said she saw her first apparition at the age of 9.
“I’m kind of a walking bug light, like a bug zapper,” she said. “They’re like, oh, she can talk to me.”
Spiritualism At Its Most Basic Level
What Collins-Justus experiences is the core of a practice called spiritualism.
“The spiritualism movement that we are talking about was a religious movement that believes that through the use of a medium, we would be able to tap into the energy of people who had died,” said Kathleen Butterly Nigro, an UMSL English professor who teaches a class on 19th century spiritualism. Its rise coincided with the end of the Civil War, which killed more than 750,000 Americans.
“Because so many people had died in the war, the notion that individuals could possibly stay in contact with people they had lost was very appealing,” Nigro said.
She was most curious about how the movement impacted the writings of Kate Chopin, the St. Louis native who produced much of her literary output while living here. Although Nigro found no direct proof, a line in Chopin’s book “The Awakening” intrigued her. It came in a conversation between the doctor who cares for the main character, Edna Pontellier, and Pontellier’s husband.
“The doctor asks the husband, ‘Has she been talking to these pseudo-intellectual spiritual women?’ That to me was an indication that this movement had an influence on the society here.” Nigro said.
The novel also makes reference to Edna Pontellier becoming unbalanced, which led her to the St. Louis Insane Asylum. Records show many women were sent there because they claimed to be spiritualists or mediums, Nigro said.
St. Louis in the 1800s was among the 10 largest cities in the United States and was a natural stop for big names on the lecture circuit, Nigro said. East Coast spiritualists put on demonstrations at the Mercantile Library downtown, and there may have been as many as seven different spiritualist associations in the city at that time.
In 1859, Joseph Nash McDowell, who founded an eponymous medical college at Gratiot and 9th streets, scientifically “proved” that the famous Fox sisters, the founders of popular spiritualism, were not frauds.
“That was a big deal for a nationally-known surgeon with a medical college to say, ‘Hey, these sisters are the real deal,’” Collins-Justus said. “Of course, many years later the Fox sisters came out and said, ‘We’re not legit at all; it was all just a scam.’”
Spiritualism did not organize nationally until the late 1890s, so it is impossible to determine the exact number of believers at the movement's peak. Even now, there are dozens of organizations with “spiritualist” in their name.
The largest and oldest is the National Association of Spiritualist Churches, which wrote down six basic principles of the faith in New York in 1899, as a way to show that mediums arrested for witchcraft were just practicing their religion. The only NSAC church in Missouri is in the Princeton Heights neighborhood. The records do not show if the church is connected to any of the 19th century societies.
The songs and sermons at the Fifth Spiritualist Church wouldn’t be out of place at any church service. But most churches most don’t have healing chairs in the front of their sanctuary, and most services don’t include a “spirit greeting,” where mediums check in with the guides and spirits accompanying the congregation.
“We have phenomena here a lot,” said Pastor Marilyn Kalna, who often feels the presence of the church’s founder, Emma Ordrop. One morning, Kalna even heard Ordrop singing in the sanctuary.
“I’ve always tried to connect with her,” Kalna said. “I still say, ‘It’s your church, guide us what to do.’”
Even though the church is part of a large national organization, Kalna said, it is rooted in the individualism that defined the faith in the 19th century.
“It’s not our job to tell anybody what you should do, or shouldn’t do,” she said. “We try to teach to go with the God within. I think most people come here for that connection with a loved one.”
Even with Halloween looming, Kalna said, that’s not likely to change.
“Spirit could probably care less about Halloween,” she said.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann