Why you should care
Because this spooky story is a key cog in the history of St. Louis.
A dark and rainy October night envelops the Lemp Mansion, lit by eerie orb lights and surrounded by knotted trees. Its white facade is faded. The premises are now used for Sunday brunches and dinner theater, among other things. But the patrons here are not alone in their revelry — not according to Betsy Burnett-Belanger, a paranormal investigator who has studied the haunted manse for more than two decades. There are nine “identifiable” spirits in the house, she says, and while they aren’t malevolent, they aren’t exactly benevolent either. “They’re just people — and sometimes they have a bad day, and people make them mad.”
Yes, here we must insert some caveats. The study of paranormal activity is pseudoscience, at best, and ghosts aren’t real … right? Yet each year thousands of visitors flock to Missouri’s spookiest haunt, where they claim to experience bizarre occurrences: strange apparitions and glowing orbs caught on film, items that go flying through the air, chilling voices.
The devastation awaiting the Lemps began with a stroke of fortune.
They aren’t the only ones to discard their doubts. In 1980, Life magazine called it one of America’s nine most haunted houses, according to the Missouri History Museum. Since then other members of the media have visited, from Syfy’s Ghost Hunters to MTV’s short-lived show Fear.
Those who tour the house leave with more than a fright. They encounter a key part of St. Louis history, filled with immigrant dreams and unlikely riches, devastating losses and four suicides under the same roof. “At the time, Lemp was bigger than Budweiser,” says Mark Farley, founder of the St. Louis Paranormal Research Society. “You had this extremely successful family that went down this really bad road of tragedy.”
The devastation awaiting the Lemps began with a stroke of fortune. There were only 18 German families in all of St. Louis in 1833, according to the city’s cultural resources office. But by 1838, when John Adam Lemp arrived from Eschwege, thousands of Germans had immigrated to Missouri, romanticized in writings as “the American Rhineland.” Originally a grocer, John Adam discovered his biggest seller was a lager his father had taught him to brew. After just two years he sold his store, opened a brewery and used a cave system to ferment his golden ticket. The immigrant died a millionaire — the embodiment of the American Dream.
His son, William J. Lemp, also prospered, building a new brewery in 1864 that eventually spanned five city blocks. On the eve of the 20th century, the newly incorporated William J. Lemp Brewing Company became the first brewery to distribute coast to coast and launched the Falstaff beer brand, which is still in circulation. Hilda, William’s savvy daughter, married Gustav Pabst of Milwaukee’s royal brewing family.
Then the troubles began. William’s sickly heir, Frederick, died at age 28, in 1901. A month and a half later, his good friend Frederick Pabst died on New Year’s Day, 1904. Despondent, William went into decline. On the morning of February 13, he ate breakfast, retired to his bedroom and shot himself in the head with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson.
It was not the last shot to echo in the stately mansion. William “Billy” Lemp Jr. took over the business, along with his wife, Lillian, the so-called “Lavender Lady,” whose creepy portrait still hangs in the house. A playboy and philanderer, Billy used the beer-making caves as a playground for prostitutes and partiers. It is rumored he sired a bastard son with Down syndrome, although Burnett-Belanger is convinced “Zeke” was the legitimate child of the couple. If he did live, it was in the mansion’s locked attic, and visitors sometimes call up to his spirit.
The company struggled under Billy’s indifferent leadership. Then, in 1919, Prohibition passed, crippling the beer industry. No longer the wealthiest heiress in St. Louis and suffering from a troubled marriage, Billy’s sister, Elsa, shot herself in her bedroom, in March 1920.
Billy dissolved the company and sold its buildings and machinery. In 1922, following his father’s example, he also shot himself with a .38 caliber handgun, but in the heart and in the family’s first-floor office. Today, the suicides might be recognized as a genetic predisposition to depression. But Burnett-Belanger believes something more nefarious was at work when Charles, the other sibling, took over the mansion the year his brother died. “He was very ill,” she admits, suffering from arthritis, but also “he was drawn to that house, I think, by the spirits that preceded him.” In May 1949, Charles was found dead, also with a .38 caliber in his hand.
The mansion was sold and turned into a boarding house that flopped — its residents frequently complained of strange disturbances. Zeke’s voice is said to be heard coming from the attic; Billy the womanizer is accused of peeking over bathroom stalls. Some guests write about seeing glasses, or ice, tossed across the room. Others smell strange perfumes and experience sudden cold spells.
Skeptical? You don’t have to wait until next Halloween to test the spooky claims. “People think the Lemp Mansion is only haunted in October,” Burnett-Belanger says, but “the spirits are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”