Even before he and his wife bought the historic Thias house on Elm Street in Downtown Washington, Marc Houseman had heard stories that it was haunted. And after living in the house for several years now, he admits there are things they have heard (and smelled) that are unexplained.
“My wife has told me many times that she knew I was going to be home soon because 10 minutes before I got home she heard me walking up the stairs,” said Houseman, who is quick to note that this is not a creaking noise on the stairs, but more like a timed thump of weight being put on the stair.
Both of the Housemans also have experienced moments on the stairs that they were overcome by a strong scent of an unfamiliar perfume. And there have been times when the heat was unexpectedly found to be turned on in the house instead of the air conditioning, and vice versa, when neither had touched the thermostat.
Something unexplained like that typically happens once a week, said Houseman.
Everything has always been benign and nothing has ever given them pause to stay living in the house. Mostly, they are entertaining stories, said Houseman, who shared a few of them with passengers on an annual ghost tour of Downtown Washington Friday evening, Oct. 26.
As director of the Washington Historical Society Museum, Houseman is someone people turn to in their search for explanations for paranormal experiences. Over the years he has heard stories of many unexplained things in many of the old buildings in Downtown Washington.
The building he’s heard the most stories of is the Elijah McLean house, which in the ’80s and ’90s operated as a restaurant. Built in 1839 on Front Street, it is one of the five oldest buildings in Washington.
“People who’ve worked there tell us stories, particularly young women who worked there as waitresses,” said Houseman, noting whatever spirit may be lingering in the building mostly picked on young women. “They will tell me that they were pushed on the shoulder blades, like someone tried to push them down the stairs . . . Apparently one of the food storage areas was in the basement of the house, so when they would start down the basement stairs they would feel this push. One woman told me she almost fell down the stairs it was such a hard hit. Presumably there was no one there, visibly.”
When he shares these stories with people on the Washington Historical Society’s annual ghost tour, Houseman doesn’t speculate on who the ghosts could be.
“I leave that open to interpretation,” said Houseman, noting he simply tells the history of the building or the property and the unexplained stories that he has heard.
“Our take on the whole thing is this is a way to feed people local history using the theme of ghosts, which is extremely popular,” said Houseman. “I tell them who Elijah McLean was and when the house was built, and some of the major facts of his life — like he was a slaveholder, which automatically raises some eyebrows.”
He was told about a group of people who held a séance at Elijah McLean’s after working hours. Using a ouija board, the group asked for the name of the spirit present and the planchette (heart-shaped piece of wood used to receive answers) spelled out the name Elijah McLean. However, no more information than that was gained.
Stories From Front, Main Street
There is a legend with The Landing building, which was built in 1855 as the Pacific House, named after the Pacific Railroad, said Houseman.
As the story goes, on the night of a full moon, in a window on the east side of the building, there appears a young woman who steps up onto the windowsill and jumps, but then vanishes in midair, said Houseman, who is quick to note that there is absolutely no historical record of anything like that ever happening.
A few doors down at the Missouri Meerschaum Corn Cob Pipe Factory, which earlier this month held its own first-ever ghost tour of the factory, there was at least one death that resulted from an accident at the factory, said Houseman.
“Anton Tibbe, who was the second generation of Tibbes to have the pipe factory, had a son, Arnold, who was about 3 years old and was playing at the factory one day,” he said. “He was running with a pipe stem in his hand . . . when he fell, and the pipe stem punctured his eye socket and went into his brain. . . . a couple of hours later he passed away from the injury.”
Down the street a little further, a friendly ghost resides at the Schwegmann House.
Doris Noelke, who grew up in the house with her parents and her grandparents, said her Grandfather Flake passed away when she was still a child, and for the remander of her childhood, whenever she would wake up in the middle of the night, she would see him standing at the foot of her bed watching over her, said Houseman.
“She said it never scared her, that she knew Grandpa couldn’t really be there, ‘but I had the feeling that was I enveloped in protection, that he was watching over me all the time, even as I slept,’ ” Houseman said. “So that’s a nice ghost there! We like that one.”
One of the more interesting ghost stories Houseman has heard came from Jim Feltmann Sr. about the old Modern Auto building on Main Street. His family owned the business and years ago before he retired, Feltmann recalled how on nights that he stayed late at the office on the main floor and was completely alone in the building, he would often hear footsteps overhead in what had once been the old parts warehouse.
“He would hear these footsteps going down one way and back the other way, back down and up, like someone was walking in straight line down rows,” said Houseman. “But he said, ‘Over time I gradually started paying attention to the pattern . . . and there was always something familiar about it. Then I finally figured out who and what it is. It’s my dad taking inventory in the parts room.’ ”
Thias House Ghost Once Did Laundry
Before the Housemans’ bought the historic Thias home, the owner before them came into the museum to research the building’s history. She opened up to Houseman that one of the reasons she was doing research was because the home was haunted, and she claimed to have seen the ghost: an older woman with her hair teased up high wearing plastic Mardi Gras bead necklaces and a mumu.
“I asked if she knew Mrs. Swartz at all,” said Houseman, “but she said, ‘No.’ She had met Mr. Swartz, because that’s who she bought the house from, but Mrs. Swartz was already passed away.”
Houseman asked then if she’d ever seen a photo of Mrs. Swartz, because the ghost she described sounded exactly like Millie Swartz.
After the Housemans bought the Thias house, they didn’t have to wait long to be “introduced” to the ghost there. Marc Houseman said one afternoon before they moved in he was at the house ripping up some old carpeting when he heard a dull thud that sounded like someone had come in the back screen door. That thud was followed by the sound of really heavy footsteps slowly walking across the dining room.
“I looked down the staircase to see who might appear and I remember thinking, ‘Who walks like that?’ ” said Houseman, adding that as each footstep fell it was followed by a crunching sound, like someone was stepping on pototo chips.
But after about five footsteps, the sound just stopped.
“I sort of paused and then called out, but no one was there, so I pretty quickly went downstairs to see who was in the house, and there was no one. I ran outside to look and no one was around,” said Houseman. “I still can’t explain it.”
One of Houseman’s favorite stories to tell of the Thias house “ghost” was how it did their laundry one night.
As Houseman tells it, he had taken a load of laundry downstairs to start in the washing machine. He put the laundry in the machine, but then was called away from doing it for some reason, leaving the lid to the machine open.
It wasn’t until the next day that he remembered the laundry that he never started, but when he returned to the machine, he found that the clothes had been through the wash cycle because they were still wet and plastered against the side of the tub. Yet the lid to the machine was still open just as he’d left it, and the machine can’t operate without the lid being closed.
His wife hadn’t done the laundry and there hadn’t been anyone else in the house . . . except the “ghost.”
“I cannot figure it out. I can’t explain it practically,” said Houseman.
The Old Busch Brewery
Just like Elijah McLean’s, there’s no shortage of “ghost” stories centered on the old Busch Brewery, which has had several ghost-hunting groups come through over the years with their divining rods and other specialized equipment.
A medium who had been at the brewery for an event one time met with a middle-aged couple and before they told her anything, she told them, “I have a message for you. There is a young man standing here telling me to tell you that Eric is all right.”
It turned out that Eric was their son who had been killed a year or so prior in an accident, said Houseman.
“Those kinds of stories really grab your attention,” he remarked.
And back when the brewery was open as a restaurant some 20 or 25 years ago, a woman who purportedly was a psychic was eating there for dinner one night and claims that she saw the ghost of a Confederate soldier walk through one of the walls.
“During the Civil War, the brewery was raided as the Confederate Army came through tearing up the railroad,” said Houseman.
The annual Washington Historical Society ghost tour always ends at the brewery, where people can go inside to look around and see the space for themselves. One year someone took a photo of Houseman as he shared ghost stories of the brewery and the photo showed a large orange orb just above his head. Many ghost hunters believe orbs that are revealed in photos but not visible to the naked eye indicate the presence of spirits.
All of the stories of ghosts at the brewery prompted Houseman to ask Antonia “Sis” Busch, back when she was still alive, if she knew of anyone ever dying at the brewery. Sis’ grandfather was John B. Busch and her father helped continue the brewery. She was born in the mansion and spent a lot of time there.
Sis informed him that yes, there was a man named Fritz who had died at the brewery around 1912 when she was 3 years old or so. He was a homeless man who had come to the brewery looking for work. There weren’t any openings, but the man was desperate, so her father let him stay in a washroom-like area in a corner of the brewery where there was a sink and they set up a cot, if he would keep the grounds kept up.
Fritz had only been at the brewery about one month, when he dropped dead at the sink one morning. Sis thought he was maybe in his late 50s.
Armed with that information, ghost hunting groups that visit the brewery continue to call upon Fritz. Local ghost hunter Dan Terry, who is known as “The Spookstalker,” has used divining rods to ask, “Fritz, are you with us?” and almost always cross for him, which indicates, “yes,” said Houseman.
When a ghost conference was held at the brewery some time ago, Houseman experienced the presence of Fritz firsthand. He was there to relate the history of the brewery and Busch family, and when he began to talk about Fritz, a piece of long metal pipe that had been propped up in the corner behind him suddenly moved forward — defying gravity — and then fell forward landing on Houseman’s shoulder before clanging to the floor.
“Well, the whole room went nuts when that happened,” said Houseman, noting that the entire thing had been captured on video and film of the many ghost hunters who were there.
Saddest Story Is Truly Haunting
The saddest story of all those that Houseman has heard and that he shares on the ghost tour occurred at the intersection of Fourth and Cedar streets in the 1890s either on or near Halloween night. The neighbors were all burning leaves in the street, when a 3-year-old girl, Rosa Common, got too close and her dress caught fire.
“She died there in the street in agony, screaming,” said Houseman, somberly. “But the story goes that on the anniversary of that night, people have heard what sounds like a girl screaming.”
There have been other stories of ghosts and haunted places in Washington and around the county that Houseman has heard over the years. Many are not backed by any kind of historical record that would support them, but others are.
To learn more about the history of old buildings in Washington, people can visit the Washington Historical Society Museum at the corner of Fourth and Market streets in Downtown Washington or call 636-239-0280.