Previously: The Portland Underground and the Shanghai Tunnels.
The history of the Lemp family is one of those things I usually file under “So Weird, You Can’t Make It Up.” Once one of the most popular brewers in pre-Prohibition St. Louis, they rocketed to wealth and success before plummeting dramatically back to earth, dogged by a serious of most unfortunate events as they went. Their mansion and the remains of their brewery still stand today, and if I ever make it out to Missouri, you can bet they’re on my list of places to go.
Here’s the story:
The William J. Lemp Brewing Company saw its humble beginnings in 1836, the year German-born Johann Adam Lemp immigrated to the United States. By 1838 he had settled in St. Louis, intending to make his fortune as a grocer; he quickly realized, however, that his grocery had become known more for its home-brewed German lager than for its produce or other sundries. Accordingly, he closed the grocery down in 1840, opening a brewery and saloon he called the Western Brewery in its stead. Later that year, he moved the brewery to a large complex in south St. Louis and began training his son, William J. Lemp, to take over the family business. When the father passed away in 1862, the son took over the company, moving it once again to a new address at 3500 Lemp Avenue. The new property harnessed the power of a series of natural caves that run beneath St. Louis; they both functioned as an excellent source of refrigeration as well as a way to connect the brewery directly with the Lemp family’s mansion at 332 Demenil Place.
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Under William J. Lemp’s direction, the Western Brewery became one of the largest breweris in the country. Among the many innovations he put into practice were the brewing and bottling of beer in the same facility (hitherto an unthought-of idea), the installation of the first refrigeration machine in an American brewery, and the creation of refrigerated railway cars to allow the shipping of beer across the country. In 1892, the Western Brewery became the William J. Lemp Brewing Company—a powerhouse among American brewers.
Here, of course, is where it all started to go downhill. William Sr. had been grooming his second youngest son, Frederick, to take control of the brewery once he was gone—but on December 12, 1901, Frederick died extremely unexpectedly of heart failure. The family had no idea that Frederick, only 18 years old, had any health issues; as such, it hit them all hard, though none harder than William Sr. He drifted into a steady decline over the next few years, finally committing suicide in the family home by gunshot on the morning of February 13, 1904.
William J. Lemp, Jr., known as Billy, installed his wife and child in the mansion and took up running the brewery in Frederick’s and his father’s stead. Billy was nowhere near the businessman his father was, though, and the William J. Lemp Brewing Company began to suffer. Prohibition was the final nail in the proverbial coffin; the brewery’s trademark Falstaff beer was sold, as was the brewery itself—for a pittance. Once valued at $7 million, it went for a mere $588,500 at auction. Neither had Billy’s home life gone well: Although he had married society girl Lillian Handlan, nicknamed the Lavender Lady due to the color of her wardrobe, in the late 1890s, she filed for divorce in 1908. The divorce was granted, and Lillian took full custody of their only child, William J. Lemp III—who, it should be noted, would later die from a heart attack at the relatively young age of 42 (the heart problems from which Frederick suffered apparently ran in the family). Billy Lemp himself, like his father before him, committed suicide by gunshot in the mansion on December 29, 1922.
Neither are William Sr. and Billy the only two Lemps to have ended their own lives. Elsa, the Lemp daughter, committed suicide in 1920 after a tumultuous marriage to Thomas Wright of the More-Jones Brass and Metal Company. Charles Lemp, the third oldest son, lived in the family mansion along with his dog and two servants after Billy’s death; a bachelor ‘til the end, he had left the brewery in 1917 to go into banking and finance and had never married. On May 10, 1949, he shot first dog, then himself, leaving a suicide note that read, “In case I am found dead blame it on no one but me.” His body was found by the youngest and sole surviving Lemp, Edwin. Edwin lived until the age of 90, passing away in 1970; his final orders were for his art collection and all family heirlooms to be destroyed.
With such a history, it’s no surprise that the mansion in which the Lemps resided has gained a reputation. After Charles’ death, it was sold and turned into a boarding house; during this period, it fell into disrepair, becoming a shabby reminder of the grandeur it had once seen. Perhaps as a result of this decay in conjunction with its dark past, stories began to emerge from the boarding house’s residence: Sounds of knocking and footsteps, glimpses of ghostly apparitions, and occasionally, even though Lillian Handlan did not meet her end on the mansion’s grounds, the scent of lavender in the air. The stories continued when the Pointer family purchased the house in 1975 with plans to renovate it. During the rebuilding process, workers often reported strange sounds, vanishing tools, and a feeling of being watched. Although many of these workers refused to return to the site after experiencing something out of the ordinary, the renovations were eventually completed; today, the Lemp Mansion stands as a restaurant and inn.
The Lemp family and their bizarre and tragic history first came to my conscious attention via a play written by one of the playwrights I went to grad school with. I say “conscious,” though, because I realized after the fact that I was already familiar with the brewery: It served as a filming location in the second season of MTV’s ghost hunting reality show, Fear. As was the case with a number of Fear’s locations, the brewery was given a new name—the Boettger Brewery—and a fictional backstory, although they do seem to have drawn their inspiration from one of the weirder tales that clings to the family’s legacy. Rumor has it, you see, that there was another Lemp boy—one of whom the family never spoke. Presumed to be an illegitimate son of Billy’s, the child was supposedly born severely disabled; as such, he was kept out of sight in the mansion’s attic. But despite the persistence of the tale, there’s no evidence that this other Lemp existed—and really, with a name like “Monkey Boy,” are you surprised? I mean, seriously. MONKEY BOY. Ghost story fail.
As with most haunted houses, it’s up to you to determine whether or not you believe the ghostly tales. For me? I’d say that the real-life history of the Lemp Mansion would be enough to give me the heebie-jeebies even if a ghost hunting attempt yielded no concrete results. History bears a certain amount of weight when it comes to old buildings—one that can sometimes be felt, even if the presence of something otherworldly can’t be.
The Lemp Mansion boasts various ghost tours and experiences in addition to its standard function as a hotel and restaurant; find out more, including which suites are available for overnight stays, over at their official website. Additionally, a high-octane haunted attraction has taken up residence in the remains of the Lemp Brewery in recent years; although it has traditionally been themed after the Lemps’ story, word on the street has it that the tale is being retired in favor of a new, as-yet-unannounced theme for 2014. Stay tuned to Scarefest.com for more info as it becomes available.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost five o’clock and I have a beer to drink.