(Excerpted from America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places, Berkley, 2014, by Eric Olsen and Theresa Argie)
The saga of the German immigrant Lemp family is an all-American tale of hard work and innovation, fabulous success, lavish opulence, and recurring, often self-inflicted tragedy, making it one of the most haunting in American history.
Lemp Legacy – Beginnings
Johann “Adam” Lemp emigrated from Eschwege, Germany in 1836. He settled in the American heartland of St. Louis among a burgeoning German population on the south side of town, and in 1838 opened a small grocery story that sold a variety of goods including homemade vinegar and beer. Utilizing brewing skills learned as a young man in the old country, he crafted German lager, a light and effervescent departure from the heavier English ales and porters popular in the U.S. at the time.
Lemp’s discovery of a nearby limestone cave helped propel him from corner grocer to brewing mogul in a few short years. When stocked with ice chopped from the nearby Mississippi River, the cave provided a refrigerated environment ideally suited for fermenting and storing his product.
Upon his death in 1862, Adam Lemp passed down the thriving Western Brewery to his son William Lemp Sr. To improve efficiency, William, an acute and innovative businessman, built a modern new brewery and bottling plant, which ultimately grew to five city blocks, directly above the caves.
In 1876, William and his wife Julia inherited an impressive Italianate-style home from her father Jacob Feikert, conveniently located a block from the brewery, which the Lemps lavishly remodeled into a 33-room Victorian showpiece, complete with subterranean tunnel between the brewery and the mansion. Among other mansion attributes were three room-sized, walk-in vaults where the family locked up their paintings, jewelry, and other valuables when they traveled.
After installing the first artificial refrigeration system in a U.S. brewery in 1878, Lemp began converting the caves to other uses including a private auditorium and theater, which could be reached from the basement of the mansion.
The Lemp family fortune grew along with the popularity of their beers. By 1895 the brewery employed 700 people, making it the eighth largest in the country. Their beer was shipped from coast to coast via its own Western Cable Railway Company.
William Sr. and Julia Lemp raised eight children (a ninth died at birth) in a majestic lifestyle befitting local royalty. William’s fourth and “favorite” son, Fredrick, was groomed to lead the business into the next century in conjunction with three older brothers, all trained in the art and business of brewing. But the hard working Frederick’s health took a turn for the worse, and in 1901, after what seemed to be an encouraging upswing in his condition, the 28 year-old died suddenly of heart failure.
William was devastated. His demeanor changed drastically, he withdrew from public life and lost interest in the business. William’s grief was compounded when his best friend Frederick Pabst, father-in-law of his daughter Hilda and fellow beer mogul, also died suddenly. On February 13th, 1904, just before the family was about to launch its Falstaff brand at the St. Louis World’s Fair, William took his own life with a .38 shot to the head in an upstairs bedroom of the mansion. He was 68.
William’s $10 million fortune was left in the hands of his widow Julia, who was stricken with cancer in 1905 and died in the family home in March, 1906. William Lemp Jr. (Billy), who was short of stature and temper but big on bravado and business savvy, now took his turn as captain of the Lemp ship.
Billy had married beautiful, eccentric heiress Lillian Handlan, famous for her enchanting smile and purple wardrobe, in 1899. The “Lavender Lady” employed a staff of seamstresses who steadily fashioned appropriately purple apparel for her. She also had a carriage accessorized and upholstered in her signature hue. But beneath the vibrant violet surface, all was not well in the Lemp household. The main bright spot in the couple’s union appears to have been their mutual devotion to their only son, William III, born in 1900.
In 1908, Lillian filed for divorce, charging that her husband drank to excess, threw mad parties with prostitutes, beat her, threatened her with a revolver, and mocked her Catholic religion. Billy shot back, accusing his wife of “excessive wearing of the color lavender to attract public attention,” using profane language, smoking, and being unfaithful.
In sensational and salacious divorce and custody proceedings that eventually went all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, the couple’s private lives were laid bare, and the inner sanctum of the privileged Lemp domain became fodder for a giddy press. Lillian was eventually awarded a lump sum alimony payment of $100,000, the largest ever awarded in Missouri at that time.
Among highlights of the post-divorce custody battle for William III: Lillian cited Billy’s habit of shooting neighborhood cats among the reasons for denying her ex-husband access to their son. William retorted that he did not kill cats for pleasure, only to depopule the area of those felines that disturbed his sleep.
Following the very public divorce, Lillian retreated from the spotlight, never remarried, and lived — lavender still — to the age of 83. Billy remodeled the mansion into offices for the company in 1911, moved to the country, and, in 1915 married Ellie Limberg, the daughter of Columbia brewery kingpin Casper Koehler. But whatever happiness he attained was short lived as a new nemesis loomed on the horizon – the temperance movement and Prohibition.
Prohibition and Dissolution
The 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States — which made production, transport and sale of alcohol illegal — was ratified January 16, 1919, and set to take effect on January 17, 1920.
Prohibition, obviously, took a devastating toll on the brewing economy. The Lemps had a number of factors — including aging equipment, costly overhead, and outdated brewing methods — against them, and, unable or unwilling to compete in a vastly reduced market, Billy, without warning, closed the brewery doors for good in 1919.
The next blow came in March, 1920, when Billy’s youngest sister Elsa Lemp Wright, 37, was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the heart in her bed at her 13 Hortense Place home. Oddly, her husband did not call the police when he found her, but called a doctor, a family friend, an attorney, and his wife‘s brothers. When he arrived, Billy said only, “This is the Lemp family for you.” The Wrights had been remarried for just 12 days after a previous nine-year marriage and a year of divorce.
The dissolution of the family business was heartbreaking. Records show that the floundering Lemp brewery sold at auction for a paltry $585,000, a fraction of its pre-Prohibition value of $7 million. The third family suicide came in February 1922, when a distraught Billy, presiding over the liquidation of the brewery’s assets, shot himself in the heart — twice — in his Lemp Mansion office. He was 55.
Like father like son.
William and Julia’s third oldest son, Charles, a lifelong bachelor, moved back into the family mansion in 1929 where he lived a secluded life, attended only by two servants and a pet dog named Cerva. A germaphobe who suffered from OCD, Charles became increasingly bitter and arthritic with age. In 1949, Charles shot himself — and allegedly his dog — with a .38 caliber Army Colt revolver. The only Lemp to leave a suicide note, his read, “In case I am found dead, blame it on no one but me.” Okay then.
Charles was the last Lemp to live — and die — in the family mansion. In 1950, the mansion was converted into a boarding house. Odd reports began to surface from the residents. Paranormal activity was commonplace until the place closed two decades later. The once palatial estate sat empty, collecting dust and ghost stories.
Lemp Mansion Resurgence
After years of neglect, Richard (Dick) Pointer Sr. purchased the property in 1974, with hopes of restoring this important piece of St. Louis history.
Paul Pointer remembers the circumstances that led his family to become the new caretakers of the famous St. Louis landmark:
“My older brother and my father were interested in history and knew of the significance of the property when they bought it. We didn’t plan on buying a haunted house. It was a combination of the historic setting and the restaurant space. The hauntings just came along with it.”
With renovation came renewed paranormal activity. Workers were so frightened by strange noises and unusual sights that they walked out before finishing their daily tasks. Richard Pointer realized sometimes the spirits were being helpful. Original antiques and artifacts would “turn up” just as they were needed, as if the spirits were assisting the Pointers in their quest to restore the Lemp home.
After the mansion finally opened as a restaurant, many reported ghostly figures roaming the dark hallways. Some said they resembled Billy Lemp, while other claimed to see Lillian.
Other reports included objects moving by themselves, puzzling and sometimes pungent smells, shadow figures, unexplainable cold spots, and baffling disembodied voices. Visitors have also spotted a phantom dog along with an ominous male spirit. Psychics say the man is Charles Lemp, accompanied by Cerva, his ill-fated canine companion.
Over the years, staff and guests have reported sightings of the so-called “Monkey-Faced Boy.” His small figure has been seen staring out of the attic window, or playing a ghostly game of hide and seek. He is alleged to be “Zeke,” youngest child of William Sr. and Julia, kept hidden away in the mansion attic due to his physical deformities. Others speculate he may have been the illegitimate child of Billy Lemp, product of an extramarital affair and born with Down‘s syndrome. However, there are no records to support either claim.
Paranormal investigators have been drawn to the Lemp Mansion for years, hoping to unlock its many mysteries. Some investigations have yielded incredible results, most notably those of TAPS in a 2010 episode of Ghost Hunters. Other programs that featured the Lemp include Ghost Lab, My Ghost Story, and Children of the Grave II.
Theories as to why the mansion is so haunted come in all varieties. Some believe the Lemp family was cursed. For the superstitious, it is interesting to note that the number “13” comes up quite a bit in relation to the family. Billy was born on the 13th of August, his father died on February 13th, the home where three family members committed suicide was located on South 13th Street. Elsa Lemp Wright lived at 13 Hortense Place.
The Lemp Mansion lures like a siren with its bizarre history of fortune and calamity, and now with a new family breathing life back into the building, it has been born again.