by Celeste Huttes
Life magazine once dubbed Lemp Mansion in St. Louis “one of the ten most haunted places in America.” Still, as I sit down to a scrumptious lunch in the bright semi-circular sitting room once loved by matriarch Julia Lemp, I can’t help but think that the Gateway City’s most infamous home is at least as charming as it is haunted.
Dog in the Dining Room?
Perhaps no one is more familiar with the spirits that linger at Lemp Mansion than my lunch companion, Betsy Burnett-Belanger. As Lemp family historian and head of St. Louis Spirit Search, Belanger has led weekly paranormal tours of the mansion for some 20 years.
Belanger’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lemp family history — and fascinating firsthand accounts of the supernatural — quickly drew me in. However, at one point in our conversation, I found myself momentarily distracted by the distinctive, throaty sounds of a large dog barking. This struck me as a bit odd, as the sounds had come from the busy dining area in the room next door.
As a lifelong dog lover, I had to fight the urge to rush over to meet a furry new friend. But Betsy had not missed a beat and I did not want to interrupt her, so I chose not to mention the barking. After we finished lunch and began our tour, I looked in the dining area for the canine in question and saw no animals of any sort.
A Haunted House is Born
Built in 1868 by William Lemp Sr., the stately home stood witness to the triumphs and tragedies of the Lemp family, who built an empire on the light lager beer they introduced to the area.
The Lemp brewery once covered 10 city blocks and was worth an estimated $7 million in its hey-day. But the tides would turn for this prominent family, leaving bitterness, broken dreams and death.
In fact, fate and a family history of depression led to four suicides in the immediate family – three at the mansion itself. Charles Lemp was the last family member to live in the mansion, which he shared with two servants and his beloved dog Cerva (named after a popular Lemp non-alcoholic beer).
The years transformed Charles from a popular banker into a bitter and eccentric recluse. On May 9, 1949, he took his own life, following in the tragic footsteps of his father, sister, and brother.
With Shakespearean-style tragedies like this at play, it’s no surprise that stories of the unexplained abound here — from candles lighting on their own to a piano played by unseen hands.
Betsy’s own experiences could fill a book, such as the terrifying, ear-splitting moan delivered at close range during her first overnight stay. And then there was her encounter with an oddly odiferous entity who later made quite an impression on television’s most famous “Ghost Hunters.”
“It was like the worst bad breath I’ve ever smelled,” she recalls. “It turned my stomach.”
While I noticed that some rooms felt colder — or just plain creepier — than others, I was fine with the fact that I had survived the tour without jumping out of my skin.
Bark from Beyond?
As we concluded our tour back in Julia’s sitting room, Betsy happened to mention that two dog spirits are known to roam the mansion, including a large dog believed to be Cerva. Only then did I realize that I may have had a ghostly encounter after all — a bark from beyond.
You see, Cerva has his own tragic story to tell.
“Man’s best friend” may have been Charles Lemp’s only friend in his final years. And Charles refused to leave this life without his canine companion, so he fatally shot Cerva before shooting himself in the chest.
While the barking I heard was as clear and loud as that produced by any flesh-and-blood dog, others have reported hearing sorrowful howls or feeling the wet nuzzle of a spectral snout as they sleep. Those who see the ghostly visage of Charles often find his faithful companion by his side.
Belanger — who did not hear the barking I heard — says: “Charles is the most visible, talked-about spirit here. His presence is found throughout the house — and wherever he is, his dog is with him.”
Loyal in life, steadfast in death, the spirit of Cerva will likely roam the rooms of Lemp Mansion as long as his master does.
Learn more about all things Lemp at www.lempmansion.com.