Lemp Mansion: Tales of a Cursed Family and Their Haunted House

Funeral procession of William Lemp Jr. in front of the Lemp Mansion, 1922 | Source

Often, when a structure or area is rumored to be haunted, the explanation offered is a chapter from local folklore. A beautiful, Native American princess was said to be murdered by a warring tribe there. “Legend has it” that star-crossed lovers were killed on the spot. A cemetery may have occupied an area near the grounds. The reasons offered for the paranormal activity are as nebulous as the reported ghosts.

Yet the story of a mansion in St. Louis, Missouri, a property declared in a 1970 issue of Life magazine to be one of the nine most haunted places in America, is no undocumented tale. In fact, the Lemp family, one of nineteenth-century beer barons, was plagued with as many suicides and untimely deaths as they were blessed with wealth and power. So much so, that many Lemps believed their family was cursed.

Johann Adam Lemp left Eschwege, Germany to try his luck in America. He settled in St. Louis in 1838, opening a grocery store in which he sold beer that he brewed himself from a family recipe. By 1840, demand for Lemp’s beer became so great that he closed the grocery store and established Western Brewery.

The beer of German immigrants such as Lemp was new to America, as it was lager. The term is derived from the German “lagern,” meaning “to rest” or “to store.” Lemp, like other German brewers who moved to St. Louis, did so primarily due to a large system of limestone caves that ran for miles underneath the city streets. Lemp bought a property near a natural cave, in which he stored his lager. In this time before refrigeration, the cave was a perfect, cool environment for the task, made cooler by ice blocks carved from the frozen Mississippi River. Adam was the first brewer in St. Louis to manufacture this light, effervescent beer called lager, and its appeal was not lost on the citizenry.

By 1860, Adam Lemp was a leader in St. Louis beer brewing. He brought his only son William into the business, who proved to be an even more astute businessman than his father. When Adam died in 1862, William was there to ensure the business would continue to prosper.

Once William controlled the Western Brewery, his talents for streamlining and efficiency became evident. Deciding his father’s process of hauling lager to the cave by wagon was unnecessary, he built a new brewery, situated directly over the Lemp caverns. The complex William built, including a larger brewery, offices, ice house and bottling plant, took up a full city block and was constructed using the latest in technology. By 1877, Lemp Brewery was ranked 19th in the country in terms of distribution reach, size and success. Anheuser-Busch, another St. Louis-based brewing competitor, was ranked 32nd that year.

William married Julia Feickert in 1861. In 1868, Julia’s father Jacob built what is known today as the Lemp Mansion, likely with financial help from William. In 1876, William bought Feickert’s mansion, at which time he began to renovate it in a grand style. William and Julia moved into the lavish home, outfitted with the most extravagant textiles and modern conveniences of the day.

In 1878, William Lemp was the first St. Louis brewer to install a refrigerated area in his facility. This new technology freed him from reliance on his lagering caves. In time, the caves were converted into private underground amusements such as a theater; a bowling alley and a concrete-lined swimming pool, complete with hot water piped in from the brewery.

The Western Brewery was incorporated in 1892 under the name of William J. Lemp Brewing company. As his brewery had grown, so had William and Julia’s family. Between the years of 1862 and 1883, the couple had nine children, one of whom died in infancy. From oldest to youngest, the Lemp children were Anna, William Jr., Louis, Charles, Frederick, Hilda, Edwin and Elsa.

When the brewery was incorporated in 1892, William Lemp Sr. appointed his sons William Jr. and Louis as Vice President and Superintendent, respectively. Both were trained and college educated in managing business and the process of brewing Lemp’s lager. William Jr., called Billy, and Louis embraced their positions in the family business and as wealthy, powerful members of St. Louis society. Billy was active socially and had a reputation as a flamboyant playboy. Louis was an avid sportsman, horse breeder and racer.

Billy eventually married a young woman named Lillian Handlan, a wealthy socialite known for her beauty and exquisite wardrobe. Because of her fondness for wearing lavender clothing and outfitting her accessories and horse-drawn carriage in the color lavender, people called her the Lavender Lady.

Despite Billy being appointed Vice President of the brewery by his father, William Sr.’s son Frederick was said to be his favorite son and first choice to run the company after his death. Frederick immersed himself in his job at the brewery, evidently aware of his future as heir apparent. When Frederick began to have health problems in 1901, he took time off for an extended stay in California, hoping the warm climate would benefit his health. After a few months, just when it seemed as if he was improving, Frederick died at age 28. One primary source attributes Frederick’s death to “mysterious circumstances.” Another lists the cause of death as heart failure.

William Lemp took the death of his son exceptionally hard. His friends at the time said he never recovered from the tragic news, and seemed to lose interest in his business and his life. William went through the motions for three years, at which time he lost his best friend, Captain Frederick Pabst, a member of another beer brewing dynasty. William withdrew further and sank deeper into depression after the death of Pabst. He was observed going to work and sitting at his desk, staring off into space and making nervous motions with his hands. On the morning of February 13, 1904, William was alone at Lemp Mansion except for his servants. Lying in bed in his second floor bedroom, William shot himself in the head. He died later that day. At the time, his brewery was valued at $6 million and his personal assets at $10 million.

A year later, William’s widow Julia was diagnosed with cancer. She suffered with the disease until March of 1906, when she died in the same bedroom in which her husband had shot himself two years earlier.

After his fathers’ death, Billy assumed control of the Lemp brewery. Yet he seemed to excel more at socializing and partying than in business. Billy was said to participate in wild evening escapades, many in the caves underneath the mansion, fueled by alcohol and rumored prostitutes. Billy’s bad-boy ways and lack of time spent with Lillian and their son William III continually upset his wife. Lillian filed for divorce in 1908, on the grounds of mistreatment and desertion. She claimed that Billy brought women into their home and entertained them in her private spaces, while keeping her on a tight leash due to his jealousy. In return, Billy accused Lillian of Victorian female infractions such as using foul language and constantly wearing lavender in public as a ploy for attention.

News of divorce proceedings between the millionaire local celebrities captured the public interest. Crowds flocked to the courthouse each day, hoping to win one of the coveted seats. Newspapers and gossip columns reported daily on the courtroom events. Political cartoons even lampooned the circus-like atmosphere. The cross examinations wore on the couple, each of whom broke down at times on the stand. In the end, the divorce was granted, and Billy lost primary custody of his son. By 1913, Lillian was awarded the largest monetary divorce settlement in state history at the time.

Billy’s next bit of misfortune came in the form of the 18th Amendment, which put Prohibition into effect in January, 1920. While other local brewers like Anheuser-Busch remained in the black due to sales of non-alcoholic beer and other items, the Lemp Brewery failed to turn a profit. Billy adopted a bitter, dejected attitude about the turn of events. He made little concerted effort to keep the brewery afloat. Some surmised the children of William Lemp Sr. were so wealthy that they had no impetus to fight when business got tough.

Meanwhile, Billy’s sister Elsa Lemp lived in a mansion in the Central West End of St. Louis. In March of 1920, she and her husband reconciled after being married and divorced in the two previous years. Only eleven days after their remarriage in New York City, Elsa shot herself in the head while lying in bed after a night of insomnia. Upon hearing about the death of his sister, Billy blurted out, “That’s the Lemp family for you!”

In June of 1922, Billy sold the Lemp Brewery for a pittance, a move which added to his depression and feelings of failure. On December 29, 1922, Billy sat at the desk in his office on the first floor of the Lemp Mansion and shot himself through the heart. He died later that day. His son William Lemp III exclaimed upon seeing the body of his father, “You knew I knew it! I was afraid this was coming!”

William Lemp III tried to bring back Lemp beer after Prohibition was repealed. His attempt to resurrect the Lemp brewing dynasty was short-lived. His father’s country estate, in which he lived, was foreclosed upon, and his marriage ended that same year. It was an ugly divorce reminiscent of his father’s (though with decidedly less fanfare). William Lemp III died an untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 42.

In 1929, Billy’s brother, the reclusive, never married Charles Lemp had moved back into the Lemp Mansion with his dog. He reportedly never entertained or enjoyed social outings. Those who knew Charles described him as a sour, angry man. In 1941, Charles sent a letter to a local funeral home, giving them explicit instructions in the event of his death. He requested that his body not be bathed or changed prior to being cremated. He wanted no funeral service or published obituary. Eight years later, Charles shot his dog and then himself in the Lemp Mansion. He was the last Lemp to occupy the home.

Billy’s youngest brother Edwin Lemp lived a long, reportedly happy life to age 90 at his opulent country retreat, Cragwold, in what is now the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood. He was the last of William Sr.’s children to die. A lifelong collector of artworks and artifacts from his world travels, as well as being the recipient of many luxurious items from the estate of his wealthy family, Edwin requested that all such items be destroyed after his death. Though no explanation was given, it has been speculated that the request was due to his fear that the Lemp “curse” might live on in the family heirlooms. 

The Lemp Mansion became a boarding house when it was sold after Charles’ death. The once magnificent structure deteriorated and was in a severe state of disrepair when the Richard Pointer family purchased it in 1975 in order to convert it to a restaurant.

As they worked to renovate the mansion, the Pointers experienced a number of unexplained occurrences. Once, when Richard Pointer was painting Billy Lemp’s former bathroom, he was frightened into leaving early. In describing the event, Pointer said, 

"I was painting the bathroom by myself. There was no one else in the house, and I felt someone behind me, watching me. I mean, it was a terrible feeling, the most burning sensation you could have. I get goose bumps just now, thinking about it. I turned around, and nothing was there. I started working again and got the same feeling, so without looking behind me, I cleaned my paintbrushes and got the hell out of there.”

Pointer hired a local artist named Claude Breckwoldt to restore the mansion’s hand-painted ceilings. Breckwoldt was not informed by Pointer of any strange goings on at the mansion. Yet he, too, had a similar experience. Breckwoldt said,

“I was on the scaffolding, lying on my back and painting the ceiling in the dining room, when I got the feeling that someone was staring at me. I felt as though they were in the hallway just outside the room, but I couldn’t see anything through the frosted glass doors. I went on working, and about an hour later, the feelings returned. It was weird. I felt like I just had to get out of there right then.”

Breckwoldt left without cleaning up, washing his brushes or even locking the door behind him. He told Pointer, “That place is crazy. You must have a ghost in there or something!”

Pointer’s son Dick was once sleeping in the mansion, alone except for his Doberman Pinscher Shadow. He and Shadow awoke to what sounded like a loud bang or kick outside his bedroom door. A subsequent search of the house turned up nothing.

One night, Dick was closing the restaurant with an employee when they heard two keys played on the piano in the empty mansion. A search for anyone who could have made the sounds was fruitless.

Dick, his sister Patti, and various Lemp Mansion employees and guests have experienced unexplained events too numerous to recount here. These include a candle on the mantle being inexplicably lit, the drawer of a furniture piece that belonged to the Lemps opening and closing without the aid of a human hand, glasses moving, objects disappearing and reappearing in different locations, soft, disembodied voices, and hearing the “clip clop” of phantom horses’ hooves on the streets leading to the carriage house.

The Pointers say that over the years, they’ve lost a number of employees due to the unexplained phenomena in the mansion. One such incident involved former waitress Bonnie Strayhorn. She explained,

“Early one morning I was going through the house, making sure that everything was as it should be as the restaurant opened, when I noticed a dark-haired man seated at a table in what was originally the Lemp family  dining room. He was facing away from me, so all I could see was the outline of his shoulders and head. I was surprised to see someone in the restaurant so early, but I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee. He did not answer. When I looked away for a moment to flip the light on, I turned around and he had vanished.”

Strayhorn quit her job that day and sought employment elsewhere. She said it was impossible for a man to have been sitting there and then to have exited the room without her seeing him do so.

Today, the Lemp Mansion is a restaurant, bar and event space, as well as a bed and breakfast. Patrons visit there to drink, dine and to explore the restored mansion to satisfy their curiosity about its reported paranormal activity. In some years during the month of October, haunted houses are set up in the caves beneath the old Lemp brewery, which are pitch dark and have required visitors to take an elevator several stories underground or descend an old, spiral staircase to the caverns below.

One Halloween several years ago, this writer spent the night in the suite in which William Lemp Sr. committed suicide and his wife Julia died. I can attest to a feeling of discomfort; sort of an oppressive feeling of slight melancholy. I also got the uneasy feeling that someone was watching me from time to time. Yet those sensations could be easily explained by my knowledge of the mansion’s history and reputation. Often, one sees and feels what they expect to see and feel.

Walker, Stephen P. Lemp: The Haunting History. St. Louis: The Lemp Preservation Society, 1988. Print.

Photos of the Lemp Mansion by Lisa Marcus, except where indicated 
  Lemp Mansion lobby, just inside the front entrance

 Chandelier inside Lemp Mansion front entrance

 Side yard along north side of Lemp Mansion leading to the carriage house

 Atrium, now part of restaurant dining room

Dining room after closing, the site of Billy Lemp's former office in which he committed suicide

Suite of William Lemp Sr., in which he committed suicide
Closer look at the painting (from photo above) in William Lemp Sr.'s suite

 Death certificate of William Lemp Sr.

 Lemp Mansion in 2012

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