Saturday, October 31, 2009

Old Lorimer

Old Lorimer Cemetery is one of the most historic places in Cape Girardeau. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the burial place of Cape Girardeau’s founder, Louis Lorimer. The cemetery dates back to the earliest days of Cape Girardeau in the early 1800s. It is located on Lorimer and Fountain Streets, an area originally considered the outskirts of town.

It’s not surprising that there are probably more ghost stories associated with Old Lorimer Cemetery than anywhere else in Cape. Regional historian Dr. Frank Nickell took KRCU’s Jacob McCleland to the cemetery to shed some light on some old ghosts.

Listen to Frank Nickell and Jacob McCleland discuss Old Lorimer Cemetery.

Jagged trees push up scattered tombstones in Old Lorimer Cemetery in Cape Girardeau. It’s a place veiled in mystery where the long shadow of history has fomented nearly as many ghost stories as there are gravesites.

To the best of our knowledge, Charlotte Lorimer was the first person buried here, in 1808. Charlotte was the wife of Cape’s founder, Louis Lorimer, and a Shawnee Indian. Louis Lorimer indicated that he wanted to bury Charlotte on the hilltop to return her to her people, according to Dr. Frank Nickell.

“This supports the idea that Old Lorimer Cemetery may have been used as a Native American burial ground long before there were European here,” Dr. Nickell says. “There are recurrent stories of burials here in which they dig the graveside and hit human bones. There probably were burials before this. It’s a beautiful hilltop overlooking the river, overlooking the community, so it’s a natural cemetery site.”

This is an old cemetery with some old tales. The most well-known and persistent ghost story from Old Lorimer is “The Tapping Ghost.”

Old Lorimer Cemetery did not have a fence until just a couple decades ago. People could easily walk through the cemetery at all times of day. People who lived to the north of the cemetery would often cut through the cemetery on their way to the downtown district, which at the time was where all the businesses were located.

“Many people indicated, and have told persistent stories, that as they were walking through the cemetery someone would tap them on the shoulder. They would turn to the right or to the left and no one was there. And then they would look and think ‘Something must have fallen on my shoulder. It must have been a hickory nut.’ And they would walk a little further, and then two taps, or three taps. And then they would be frightened and dash off to downtown, wondering ‘Who is this? What is this?’ And so there were many people who would report to newsmen and it would be placed in the local newspaper that there was a “tapping ghost” in Old Lorimer,” Dr. Nickell says.

Lorimer Cemetery ghosts do not confine themselves to simply tapping people on the shoulder. There have been a number of accounts, primarily from women, who have been walking through the cemetery when someone or something would tug their hair from the back.

A tour group from Washington, Missouri came to Cape Girardeau recently with the sole intention of visiting Cape’s haunted areas. The group spent most of the night at Old Lorimer Cemetery. A young woman was standing alone near the Houck burial site when her hair was yanked. “She assumed it was a good friend of hers,” Dr. Nickell says. “But she turned and there wasn’t anyone there, and she thought, ‘Well that’s strange,’ and discounted it. She turned back, and then there came two tugs and she became frightened and dashed off to join the crowd for support. “

One of the most long-lived legends about the Old Lorimer Cemetery is the alleged tunnel that runs to the Sherwood Minton House, located just a block away. The Sherwood Minton House used to be a small pox hospital during the Civil War, and it is alleged that soldier who had succumbed to injury and disease were transported in the underground tunnel or in the middle of the night to their burial in the cemetery so as to avoid a panic amongst the locals.

“And so they would have stories about processions of soldiers bringing dead bodies to be buried in Old Lorimer in the middle of the night without any record. That gives rise to all of the stories about the ghost of Old Lorimer, and the connection to the Sherwood Minton House, which is supposedly haunted by the ghosts of those soldiers who died there in that hospital.”

Dr. Nickell says that ghost stories are a vibrant part of folklore. Even though mass media and pop culture have drowned out many aspects of folklore in modern times, ghost stories persist.

“We use folklore to explain things we don’t understand. In time periods when you have the least amount of control of the environment and of your life situation, the more you belief in folk traditions and folk explanation. I think there is an attitude right now that we don’t have a lot of control about what’s happening in our economy and our society. And so it gives rise to more mysterious or ghostly explanations. Maybe that’s part of it. But there certainly is a resurgence in ghost stories,” Dr. Nickell says.

Why do some ghost stories persists, and others fall forgotten? The stories that perpetuate across generations need to be understood by the youngest members of the family, which is why, according to Dr. Nickell, guided tours of historic location to third graders invariably have to include a haunting. Ghost stories can hold a third grader’s attention.

“Even children can understand the ‘tapping ghost.’ There has to be a simple explanation to a complex issue and a complex story,” Dr. Nickell explains. “Many of the ghost stories are very simple. They are about reoccurrence, they are about reappearances, they are about things that happen that you cannot explain rationally.” According to Dr. Nickell, ghost stories often reflect a society’s values, and he sees American culture embracing supernatural themes with increasing regularity these days.

There’s a cyclical nature to ghost stories too, and how they relate to society. Decay. Decay is a big part of many, many ghost stories. The once opulent house, filled with vivacity and hope, begins to see tough times. The natural human process of aging. Lorimer Cemetery, for instance, went through a period of vandalism and neglect. Part of this, Dr. Nickell says, is due to a loss of confidence in the concept of progress. Instead, our society is embracing circles, cyclical history, cyclical stories.

“Great houses that once were showplaces of wealth and stability will change over time. We don’t have the family size anymore, so we have big house with two people living in them. Or big houses with one person living in them. That’s difficult to maintain, so we often see houses, old houses, historic houses change. As the landscape changes, the buildings change and consequently you’ll see a big old house, Victorian in style and architectural features, or a Queen Ann House with gothic windows… as that house is no longer used to the full extent – you don’t have eight kids or seven kids in the family – you now have maybe an older couple living there, and they don’t maintain the upstairs as well. They don’t take care of it. They don’t get out and paint it themselves. As a result the house deteriorates a little bit and it becomes more mysterious. Questions are asked about it, and those houses sometimes become the basis of haunted houses. You can see that in any river town, especially, that once had great captains an

d captains of industry who lived there and had a lot of money and built an opulent house showplace facing the river. Today those houses no longer meet the same needs. They may stand empty. They may be for sale. They may sell and resell. And the result is they deteriorate a bit and that adds to the mystery of that house.”


  1. My Great-Grandfather (Major GAR) Alonzo B. Carroll and other ancestors are buried in this Cemetery. I visited in 2007 and have a number of pictures.

    Andy from San Jose, CA

  2. I own the Sherwood Minton House. We bought it in June, 2006 and lived there til August 2009 when we moved back to the big city because of our jobs. Anyone interested in it can contact me.