MU's Mary Collins Barile writes book on haunted mid-Missouri

Friday, October 14, 2011 | 6:05 p.m. CDT; updated 8:21 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 17, 2011

COLUMBIA — Visitors to Ravenswood, a plantation farmhouse built in 1880 south of Boonville, still report hearing an ancient music box play, even though the gears are frozen in place.

They say it's because the wife of the builder's son, who died about 70 years ago, lives there and likes to hear the music.

This story is one of nearly 50 tales in "The Haunted Boonslick: Ghosts, Ghouls and Monsters of Missouri's Heartland," a new book by Mary Collins Barile, associate director of MU's Office of Grant Writing and Publishing. 

The book covers a broad history of hauntings and unexplained occurrences since 1812. It is peppered with ghost stories that have very human explanations. 

Barile writes about supernatural occurrences and mysteries in Missouri's heartland, including hauntings on the MU campus, the John "Blind" Boone home and on back roads in the country.

The book's ghostly journey encompasses graveyards, taverns, mansions, theaters, jails, forests and academic halls. Reputed ghosts in MU's chancellor's residence on the Francis Quadrangle and the Conley House on Turner Avenue are both explored in the book.

The chancellor's residence has long been the disputed home of the ghost of Alice Read, wife of the first university president to live there, Barile writes. People say they have heard strange crashing noises in the attic, and objects — particularly electronic devices — can mysteriously disappear or turn up elsewhere.

The ghost of Alice is relatively harmless compared to others in Barile's book.

In a more hair-raising story, a strange black carriage is said to appear at night near Overton Landing, a village that once existed eight miles east of Boonville.

In the last century, there have been multiple accounts of people being lured into perilous situations by the ghostly vehicle. Even recently, Barile writes, the carriage was reported by a group of friends driving through the area on a summer night.

They said they followed the carriage down a dark road until it disappeared.

"By the time the driver rounded a bend, the vehicle was gone — probably, she thought, headed down one of the rutted roads," Barile writes.

At that moment, the driver stopped the car, nearly missing a train. "No sooner had the car slowed than the sound of a train blew through the hollow, and a Union Pacific locomotive and cars shot down the tracks — not a dozen feet in front of the car."

Barile doesn't just cover the supernatural; she also retells spooky stories that have practical explanations, from hoaxes to practical jokes.

"A lot of ghost stories come out of jokes, so there’s sort of the 'jumping out from behind a bush and scaring a guy who says he can never be scared' kind of thing," Barile said.

"It doesn't indicate disbelief. In fact, it clearly indicates belief because if you didn’t believe, you wouldn’t be frightened."

There is the story of Mark Cole, a prankster in 1820s Old Franklin, who wanted to scare young ladies by hiding behind a new grave in the cemetery.

As he sat on the grave, it started to rattle, which terrified him. He ran home and never went out alone in the dark again.

Little did he know that it was a group of his friends who wanted to turn the tables on him. 

Barile said many ghost stories are tied to the culture and history of the era. Medicine began to require corpses for the study of anatomy, and body snatching was prevalent. The disturbance of graves might have inspired any number of legends.

"You can't study ghosts unless you study the era in which they appear, and I think each era brings something different to their ghosts," Barile said.

She grew up in New York not far from Sleepy Hollow, the site of Washington Irving's famous tale of the headless horseman. Barile said she became interested in ghost stories because of that.

After moving to Boonville, she began researching ghost stories from the settlement era of the 19th century.

Barile said she hopes this book will encourage people to look into their own community histories. She said she didn't write the book with a target audience in mind, other than people interested in history, local folklore, or who are "just in for a good scare.”

Above all, Barile said the stories in her book are a link to the past and a reminder of the rich history in this region.

"Unfortunately, I think the older ghost stories are disappearing," but new tales are always emerging, she said.

"The new ones, 'I bought a house, it creaks, what do I do?' They’re there," she said. "They're alive and kicking, so to speak."

She hopes her book on the historical hauntings of mid-Missouri will help readers remember the ghost stories of their past.

"Our ghosts are part of our history," she said, "and they can disappear easily."

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