Morse Mill, Missouri
November 15, 2014—opening day of hunting season (or so I’ve been told). The streets in Morse Mill seemed unusually deserted. The entire setting in fact seemed eerily surreal and almost too devoid of people. “It’s like we’re driving into Children of the Corn,” I joked to my friend as we proceeded slowly up the hill that led to the decrepit landmark. Situated in the Meramec Valley region of Jefferson County, the town is easy to miss. My friend and I had come to Morse Mill to see if we could locate the infamous “haunted hotel” that many have spoken about. After getting lost on what seemed to be an endless detour into oblivion, we finally found it. Having pulled off the highway to review our traveling directions, I happened to glance up by chance and spied it sitting there—through a bank of leafless tree branches.
It was getting late in the afternoon by then. Snow flakes were beginning to whip about as we pulled up to park. My friend and I sat there, debating whether we should get out of the van “for a closer inspection.” The building looked eerily uninviting—even more so, when viewing it at a tilted angle through the van’s wiper blade-streaked windshield. Though available for “ghost tours,” we had not scheduled one. Our visit was purely impromptu and came about at the spur of the moment. The building itself appeared to be vacant, as if stalled-out in a perpetual state of periodic construction. We saw no other cars. And it’s windows were all dark.
There are said to be over thirty rooms inside—and even a former “slave dungeon” with remnants of shackle bits still visible in the bowels of its old cellar. The Depression of the 1930s sealed its fate. It’s former 18 guest quarters were reportedly last used in 1938. For decades the hotel would sit empty, slowly weathering away. It’s trusty timbers would begin to rot. It’s stony foundation would begin to crumble. Signs are clearly posted—warning visitors of “quick-responsive police and video surveillance.” My friend and I heeded these warnings, careful not to give into our over-anxious curiosities.
I found myself eager to explore the exterior grounds. I took some random photographs, but soon discovered my efforts were being hindered by unexpected failing camera batteries. Historically, the Morse Mill building was an old farmhouse (built in 1816) before it was modified into a popular hotel establishment by engineer John Morse (who the town is named after). It was once a hospital for Confederate war prisoners (as well as a brothel, speakeasy, post office and half-way house). Outlaw Jesse James was said to have stayed here (actually J. Frank Dalton—who claimed to be Jesse James). Other guests were believed to include such personalities as Chicago gangster Al Capone, silent film actress Clara Bow and comic genius Charlie Chaplin. The hotel’s most notorious tenant was a farmer’s wife—Bertha Gifford. She and her first husband once managed the hotel. Between 1906 and 1928, she embarked on a series of murders. Many involved the poisoning of young children. Only one murder, however, is believed to have actually taken place inside the hotel itself. Gifford’s ghost is said to actively occupy the upper floors—and even administer physically-visible scratching on those she dislikes. Numerous child ghosts are said to occupy the dilapidated structure as well. Some of them even have known names. “Annabelle” (it seems) resides exclusively in the attic. She likes playing with the toys that touring visitors to the haunted hotel sometimes leave for her.
Jefferson County was settled by a reputedly powerful warlock—Francis Wideman. At the time, the entire area was believed to be “a stronghold for witches.” Wideman’s own brother claimed that Francis was such a powerful sorcerer, that he could even “conjure up the Devil himself.” As I navigated the property I could not help but sense a pervasive “chill in the air” whenever I got close to the building. It seemed to be steadily escalating the longer my friend and I remained. This was no doubt partly due to the declining temperatures as darkness was not far off. But still, there seemed to be something else lingering about there with us? I would from time to time glance over my shoulder to locate my friend. He seemed to be progressively positioning himself “farther and farther” away from the building—the more I continued to move “closer and closer” to it. I had read about the strange happenings at Morse Mill. They are well documented. There have been many witnesses over the years who have attested to these incidents. Unable to enter the building (at least not legally) I settled for gathering photos of the structure’s interior via its abundance of lower accessible windows (from the outside of course). There was enough available light to take a photo against the glass to get an overall idea of the layout.
THE LIT FIREPLACE: There was one window I took the liberty of photographing through which later revealed what appeared to be a fireplace area. I had heard about such a room—where ghostly “knocks, whispers, footsteps and audible growls” are a frequent and routine occurrence. The window pane was dirty. So dirty, in fact, that actually “seeing the fireplace” through the window (from my vantage point) was near impossible. It only became visible after I transferred the photo into my computer afterwards and studied it more closely. I do remain a bit puzzled, however, why there would be a prominent “red fiery glow” emanating from this particular fireplace in such a dark (and supposedly vacant) building? Did a worker forget to turn off a light bulb in the fireplace? Or was it a real fire burning? And if so—who was burning it?
THE WATCHER: Another window would later catch my eye, but (again) only after I returned home and examined the photos more carefully. The majority of the building’s many windows each have reflections from nearby exterior sources (such as bouncing tree branches, drifting clouds in the sky, etc.). This one did not. It had something unique to offer. It was located on an upper floor. In the lower portion of the window (when zooming in), I could just make out what “appeared to be” the smoky grey outline of some very small figure—peering back at me. Too short in height to be an “adult,” I took the figure (given the stories I had read) as being perhaps one of these so-called “ghost children” that reputedly dwell and reside within? It’s features seemed clear to me—with two beady eyes, a semi-developed nose, and somewhat of a mouth. It’s outline appeared fairly distinctive (but not overly so). It seemed to be “observing me,” while making a half-hearty attempt to partially hide itself from my view (like someone peeking out from behind a curtain, thinking that they cannot be seen). Trying to enhance these details (for enlarging purposes) have thus far been unsuccessful. Only a far-distant view of the “apparition in the window” is all that I can manage to reproduce clearly enough for transfer (as my photo was taken from about 75 feet away). None of my other photos showed or suggested any additional anomalies. No ghostly orbs, no vaporous trails. But then again, I would have taken many more pictures…had my camera batteries not failed me so quickly (as it seems so often the case when visiting in such “troubled” places as these).