It’s cold in Hannibal’s Mark Twain Cave. Fifty-two degrees all year round.
The feet of tourists scrape along the dusty rock floor, where an uncountable number of feet have scraped since the cave’s discovery in 1819 – feet that belonged to the curious, the romantic and the likes of Jesse James and Mark Twain.
“I seemed to tire of most everything I did,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “But I never tired of exploring the cave.”
The cave has been home to town meetings, weddings and the ghost of a teenage girl.
When Twain was a boy, the cave was owned by Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell, a surgeon from St. Louis who founded the Missouri Medical College. McDowell was a gifted physician and a little nuts.
“He was trying to petrify a human body,” said Susie Shelton, general manager of the cave. “His own daughter died of pneumonia at 14. He took a copper cylinder lined with glass. He filled it with an alcohol mixture, put in his daughter and hung it from a ceiling in a cave room.”
Children would tell ghost stories around that cylinder – among other things.
“The top of the cylinder was removable,” Twain wrote in ‘Life on the Mississippi.’ “And it was said to be a common thing for the baser order of tourists to drag the dead face into view and examine it and comment upon it.”
After two years of complaints from the residents of Hannibal, Dr. McDowell moved his daughter’s body to the family mausoleum in St. Louis. But, according to some, the lonely figure of young Miss McDowell is still there, walking in the chilled darkness of the cave.
“I’ve had guides say they’ve seen somebody,” Susie said. “I’ve been in and out of there 15 years and have never seen or felt anything.”
Former tour guide Tom Rickey saw something there in the late 1990s that still haunts him.
“I got a cold chill,” he said. “I got them now thinking about it. I got a chill over me and I turned around and she was there.”
‘She’ was a girl wearing a long, old-fashioned dress with a cape.
“I happened to look back in McDowell’s room … and I saw her standing there as plain as day,” Tom said. “She had long dark hair. Very, very pretty. She was only there for an instant.”
Thinking the girl was a lost tourist, he tried to speak to her, but she turned and walked into the cave room.
“She walked off,” Tom said. “She didn’t fade away, but there wasn’t nowhere to walk. She went through the wall. She just walked off and she wasn’t there anymore.”
Susie said Tom’s experience isn’t isolated.
“There have been stories of people seeing a little girl in there, so it’s possible,” she said. “I’ve had a few tour guides who’ve said they’ve felt something. Some guides don’t like to go in there by themselves.”
Got a scary story? Ever played with a Ouija board, heard voices, seen a ghost, UFO or a creature you couldn’t identify? Let Jason know about it at email@example.com. Include your name, address and telephone number for verification only. Your story might make an upcoming installment of “From the Shadows.”
Jason Offutt is a syndicated columnist, author and fan of all things Fortean. His book of ghost stories, “Haunted Missouri,” will soon be available at www.jasonoffutt.com and all major bookstores.
Copyright 2006 by Jason Offutt