Haunted History: A Peek into Columbia’s Ghostly Past

Photos by L.G. Patterson

Fans of fall know one of the perks of the season is the heightened interest in haunted history. There’s a chill in the air, it’s getting darker earlier, the dried leaves rustle as they hit the ground and it all combines to give you a feeling of something … other worldly.

Columbia has a few famous legends and ghost stories, many tied to the area’s Civil War history. Here’s just a few of our favorites:

The Gray Lady

One of the most famous Civil War era ghosts belongs to Columbia College, but this one is not exactly the frightening type. Known as the Gray Lady, her story can be traced back to the college’s origin as Christian Female College. In 1861, one young couple in Columbia was separated by the war, as many couples were. But this young student vowed to don only gray clothing for as long as her fiancee did and until she could replace it with a white wedding gown.

Her beloved visited her whenever he could risk sneaking into the Union occupied area, but was discovered one night and killed by Union forces not far from the college. Grief stricken, the young woman jumped to her death from the top floor of Old Main, now known at Columbia College as Williams Hall.

Since her death, it’s believed her spirit remains on campus, though she’s far from vengeful. The legend goes that she roams the campus finding small ways to help current students, such as opening windows on hot days or ironing clothing. Some say she can still be seen, fleetingly, passing through the campus buildings.

The Ghostly Ladies of Stephens

Columbia College isn’t the only spot said to be haunted by a woman who took her own life af- ter losing love. Stephens College has a ghost of its own in the spirit of Sarah June Wheeler.

This story also takes place during the Civil War, when Stephens was known as the Columbia Female Baptist Academy. Sarah lived in one of the oldest buildings on campus in 1862 and was resting in her room one evening when a wounded Confederate soldier arrived, on the run and searching for a place to hide while in the Union occupied territory. The soldier, Isaac Johnson, was hidden by Sarah and her friends and, as she nursed him back to health, the two fell in love, making plans to elope.

What happened next depends on the version you’re familiar with. One says they successfully slipped off campus and out of town, only to meet a tragic fate that rainy night once they reached the Hinkson Creek. Trying to get across in the rising waters, the couple supposedly drowned and was never seen again. (Another version states the drowning happened in the Missouri River.)

According to another version, the couple never even made it that far. Isaac was discovered and executed by Union forces. One story says he was hanged on the street outside the school, with Sarah hanging herself at the same moment. Another says he was executed by firing squad just below Sarah’s window as a lesson to the other girls, and she took her own life soon after.

Whatever happened on that autumn night, many believe Sarah haunts Senior Hall to this day. Some say she is waiting for Isaac to return.

But Sarah’s spirit may not be the only one to haunt Stephens College. Stories exist of another spirit on campus – that of former head of the drama department and early American actress Maude Adams.

After a distinguished career on Broadway, Maude joined the faculty at Stephens in 1937 and quickly became known as a daunting instructor whose distinct footsteps would clear any hall as she neared. Adams left the college in 1949 and died in 1953, but stu- dents claimed to hear those distinct footsteps, and her recitations of Shakespeare, on campus for the next 50 years.

The Spirit of Jewell Cemetery

Near Providence Road in south Columbia is Jewell Cemetery, said to be haunted by the late wife of the early 19th century property owner and namesake, George Jewell, who once had an estate on the land. Many of his descendants are buried on the property, as well as Missouri’s 22nd governor, Charles Hardin.

The story goes that George’s second wife Cynthia E. Jewell haunts the now historic site, with some even spotting her ghost passing through the nearby Waffle House. It’s unclear how Cynthia died; one legend says she died in child-birth while another says she escaped to Mexico with a slave, where they both mysteriously died before George brought their bodies back to be buried in Columbia.

The Old Van Horn Tavern

Up until 2013, the old Van Horn Tavern stood in Boone County, between Columbia and Rocheport. It was the last known log tavern building in the area, built in the late 1820s, and once hosted author Washing- ton Irving while he passed through. In the early 20th century, the building was moved about 100 yards and was sheltered with what was essentially a barn constructed around the tavern, shielding it from the elements. In the 2000s, after local preservation efforts were unsuccessful, the tavern was dismantled and reassembled in Boone Monument Village in Marthasville, Missouri.

Photo provided by State Historical Society of Missouri

Legend has it that Ishmael Van Horn, who purchased the tavern in 1841, would refuse to rent out one of the rooms because it was haunted. Every time someone took the space, they never made it a full night, complaining of the sound of crying or of blankets being pulled to the floor. One guest even claimed to see a small, white figure float up the wall. Then, a minister came to the tavern and took the room when no others were available. After experiencing some of the same phenomena, the story goes that the minister called out in the name of God, demanding to know the name of the spirit, and was answered by a child’s voice saying he had been killed there. Once the minister promised to help the spirit, he was able to spend the rest of the night in peace. The next day, at the minister’s urging, Van Horn had the wall opened where a child’s skeleton was found. The legend says a workman confessed to killing a child who had approached begging for food and that once the child’s remains were put to rest, all stories of spirits at the Van Horn Tavern also were put to rest.

Other Local Haunts

Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City

Photo Credit: Ghost Hunts USA

Just south of Boone County in Jefferson City stands what was once the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. The Missouri State Penitentiary opened in 1836 and was decommissioned in 2004, but history and paranormal enthusiasts alike can still explore the property, thanks to the tours operated by the Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau. Once called the bloodiest 47 acres in America by Time magazine, this prison housed a variety of famous and dangerous convicts over the years, with many being executed on the grounds.

Thespian Hall in Boonville

Just west of Columbia, in Boonville is the famed Thespian Hall, one of the oldest operating theaters still standing. Built in 1857, the building has operated as a theater, dance hall, library, church and even a hospital during the Civil War. Stories say that ghostly audiences have appeared during rehearsals and the sounds of ragtime organ music have been heard when no one is playing the instrument.

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