A busy day, a fever, and a hacking cough, so, hastily rifling my files, I share a Christmas-ish ghost story by the fanciful Elliott O’Donnell.
One of the most extraordinary men I have ever met was Ephraim B. Vandergooch, who, at the time of my travels in America, practised dentistry in 6th Street, St. Louis. Dentists are not, as a rule, the people to associate themselves with physical research, and it is just as well for their patients, perhaps, that they are not, for sitting up all night in dark houses looking for ghosts has an unsteadying effect on the nerves—it is apt to make one “jumpy” —and if a dentist’s hand were to jump, it is more than likely that his patient would jump too. Mr. Vandergooch, however, was an exception. He was a ghost hunter, and his investigations had but a slight and temporary effect on his nervous system. His hand was as steady as a rock, his wrists like steel. I went to him to have a tooth filled, and during the operation I asked him if he knew of any haunted houses in the town.
He was a stranger to me then, and of course I expected a superior smile, if not an actual sneer, for, as I have said, dentists are, as a rule, anything but psychics. To my surprise, however, he took me quite seriously, and said he knew of several haunted places in St. Louis, and that nothing interested him more than really first-hand ghost stories. He told me he had had an experience himself, and narrated the following:
“A few years ago,” he began, “I learned of a haunting in a street of rather older houses than these, close to here; and as the evidence in this case was to a large extent corroborative, I decided to investigate it. It was Christmas time, and the thought of earthbound spirits pacing up and down cold, empty houses, when all around was warmth and jollity, depressed me. I felt that I must, now that an opportunity had come, try to see them, and if possible do something for them.
“I set out on Christmas Eve, and I admit that when I left the cheerfully lighted thoroughfare, and plunged into the dark silent emptiness of the house, my heart almost failed me. Apart from ghosts there were so many possibilities, and what more likely than that some tramp or criminal had forced an entrance, and was hiding somewhere on the premises. For a few seconds I stood and listened, and then, feeling a trifle more assured, I closed the door gently and advanced cautiously along the wide hall. At each step I took I became more and more sensitive to an atmosphere of intense sadness and desolation—an atmosphere of intense loneliness, loneliness that is without hope—that is perpetual and absolute. It could be felt in all parts of the house, but more particularly, perhaps, in the kitchen, which was built out at the back on the ground floor. I had never been in such a dreary and inhospitable kitchen. The night was bitterly cold and the bare stones sent chilly currents up my legs and back, into my very brain.
“To remain in such a hole till morning was assuredly courting pneumonia or rheumatic fever. I looked at the range, it was covered with rust and verdigris. If only it could be lighted! Then I uttered an exclamation of joy, for lying in one corner was a pile of wood—boxes, shelves, faggots, etc., intermingled with an assortment of other rubbish. In my early days I had lived on a ranch out west, and the experience I had had there now came in useful. In a few minutes there was a loud crackling, and the kitchen filled with a ruddy glow. A couple of dresser drawers served me for a seat, and I was soon ensconced in a tolerably snug position, from which, however, I was prepared to spring at a moment’s notice.
“The hours sped by, and the silence deepened.
“At last, just about two o’clock, when I was beginning to think nothing would happen, I heard a door slam somewhere upstairs. This was followed by a series of creaks, and I heard someone cautiously descending the stairs. A great fear now seized me, and had I been able, I should doubtless have beaten a hasty retreat. Instead, I was possessed with a kind of paralysis, which rendered me quite helpless and prevented me from either moving a limb or uttering a sound. The creaks came nearer— down, down, down, until quite suddenly they stopped, and I heard a cough.
“It was repeated—cough, cough, cough. The cough of a delicate, neurotic woman. At first it simply startled me—it sounded so distinct, so reverberating, so real. Then it irritated me, and then it infuriated me—almost drove me mad. ‘God take the woman,’ I raved. ‘Will she never cease.’
“Cough, cough, cough. A nervous, hacking cough, a worrying, grating cough, an intensely silly, murder-instilling cough. I could see the owner of it—upstairs, hidden from me by impenetrable darkness, and yet quite distinct—a slight, pale, excessively plain little woman, with watery eyes and a quivering mouth. Heavens, how the mouth maddened me! On she went—cough, cough, cough! She was still coughing, when I suddenly became aware of a presence close beside me, and I saw in the glow from the dying embers the figure of a man seated at a table in the middle of the kitchen. He appeared to be trying to write, but to be unable to collect his thoughts. Every now and then he paused, dashed his pen down, and clenched his fists furiously. At first I could not understand his behaviour, and then it all of a sudden occurred to me—the coughing, of course. That perpetual noise, that everlasting hacking—it distracted, demented him. I watched him with feelings of infinite sympathy. At last, unable to stand it any longer, he sprang from his seat and dashed upstairs.
“I heard him race up two steps at a time. No madman would have raced faster or more nimbly. Then came a strange variety of sounds—a gratuitous course in phonetics—an altercation, more coughing, oaths, bumping, a scream, a thud, a little feeble cough, silence, and then rapidly descending footsteps—a man’s footsteps. I did not wait for them. The spell that had hitherto held me limb-tied now abruptly left me, and I fled out of the building—home.
“The next day—Christmas Day—I made my report to the owner of the house, and told her exactly what had happened.
“‘Good heavens !’ she exclaimed, ‘and he’s married Maisie! Swear that you will never tell a soul, no one, not even your most intimate friend, and I will give you an explanation of what you witnessed.’ (“All this happened years ago,” Mr. Vandergooch remarked, “so it’s all right my telling you now.”) I promised, and she at once began.
“‘Ten years ago the occupants of the house you’ve been in were a well-known dramatist and his wife, whom I will call Mr. and Mrs. Charles Turner. Mrs. Turner was exactly like the woman you imagined—frail, small and very plain; whilst her husband would tally with the man you saw in the kitchen—a tall, muscular, handsome man. He obviously married her for her money, poor soul, for there was nothing in her to attract him, and everyone could see how she irritated him, especially when she coughed—in fact, he often said to me, “You don’t know, Mrs. Wehlen, how Eva annoys me. Whenever I am in the midst of my work, trying to concentrate my thoughts, she starts her infernal coughing—I can hear her all over the house—hack, hack, hack.” ‘She can’t help it, poor thing,’ I replied. ‘You ought to feel sorry for her.’ ‘Feel sorry for her,’ he said. ‘You’d feel sorry for her if you were tormented as I am. I believe she does it on purpose.’
“‘Well, one evening—to be precise, it was Christmas Eve—Mrs. Turner was found at the foot of the hall staircase with her neck broken. There was no direct evidence as to how she came there, but as one of the stair-rods was found loose, it was presumed that she fell over it, and, accordingly, a verdict of accidental death was returned. Charles Turner left the house directly afterwards, and a few months ago married my niece, Maisie. As far as I know, what you have seen has never been seen by anyone else, but coughing in the house has been heard, and it is quite plain to me now that Charles Turner murdered his first wife. I only pray to Heaven he won’t serve Maisie the same.’
“But he did,” Mr. Vandergooch added, “for she, too, was found at the foot of the staircase with her neck broken! In all probability she had possessed some idiosyncrasy that worried and annoyed him; or, possibly having once taken to murder, he felt he must go on with it—the habit of homicide being, no doubt, just as fascinating as the habit of drugs or of drink.
“Nothing, however, was proven, and, for all I know to the contrary, he may still be alive, still be killing people to appease his hyper-sensitive and outraged nerves.”
Twenty Years’ Experience as a Ghost Hunter, Elliott O’Donnell, London: Heath, Cranton, Ltd. 1917
Of course, O’Donnell was a brilliant story-teller (and something of a misogynist), but when it comes to his absolute accuracy, our motto should be “caveat lector.” The name “Ephraim B. Vandergooch” has a certain stage-Yankee ring to it and, sure enough, O’Donnell says in his introduction, “in order to avoid the danger of incurring an action for slander or libel, I have—save where expressedly stated to the contrary—resorted to the use of fictitious names for all persons and houses.”
So was there any point in trying to track down the identity of the St. Louis dentist, or, indeed, was there a St. Louis dentist who investigated haunted houses? I am helplessly drawn to such queries, so I started with the address. There were St. Louis newspaper advertisements from the late 1880s to as late as 1900 for a Dr. E[dward]. C. Chase, practicing at 6th & Locust St. in St. Louis. According to the census, Dr. Chase shared a house with his father, also a dentist. It was not implausible that they shared an office. Not finding anything unusual about Dr. Edward except a rather revolting cut of a pair of dentures featured in his advertisements, I took a closer look at Dr. Chase’s father, Dr. Henry S. Chase, D.D.S.
He came to my notice with this brief obituary:
DR. CHASE IS DEAD.
He Was a Reformer and the First Dentist to Locate in St. Louis.
Dr. Henry S. Chase of Benton, better known, perhaps, as “Pa” Chase, died at midnight Tuesday at his home, known as Komfort Kottage. He was born in Vermont, October 6, 1820, and was well known as an advocate of business and social reforms. He was the first dentist in St. Louis. His son, Harry, who died 12 years ago, was famous as a painter of marine subjects. Dr. Chase left a widow and four sons and one daughter, who is the wife of Prof. John Lawson of the University of Missouri. The body will be cremated. St. Louis [MO] Republic 13 January 1898: p. 9
That sounded promising. “Social reforms” and cremation were often code for “crank Spiritualist.” Looking further, I found that he had published a book called The Dignity of Sex in 1892. Ah, frankness about sex—practically tantamount to a declaration for Free Love! Better and better.
Then another obituary verified my suspicions:
Dr. Henry S. Chase died January 12, 1898, at his home in St. Louis.
He was born in Vermont before the war and came to St. Louis at the close of it. He was one of the first dentists in St. Louis and for years was one of the leaders in his profession. He devised many improvements in methods which he freely gave to the profession. Dr. Chase was a vegetarian in theory and practice, a pioneer among cremationists, a strong advocate of Henry George’s doctrines, and in his later years the leader of a group of spiritualists.
His wife and four sons survive him, also his daughter-in-law, Dr. Emma Eames Chase. Dental Digest, Vol. 4, 1898
Even if Spiritualism had not been mentioned, the vegetarianism would have clinched the deal.
While I’m not sure exactly what year he arrived, O’Donnell was supposed to have been in the United States for the Pullman Strike/riots in Chicago in 1894. He was back in England and married in 1905 and in the book cited above says he was at the Regent’s Park zoo in 1898. If we can trust his chronology; which is doubtful, it is possible that Dr. Henry Chase was the adventurous dentist. Perhaps a bigger problem with this diverting theory is that I have not been able to find any local reports of wives with broken necks.
Does it matter? In the scheme of things, certainly not. The luridly gothic tales O’Donnell spins can be enjoyed whether partial fact or utter fiction; credible or incredible. There is no rule that a Christmas ghost story must be true, just that it deliver that delicious frisson of Yuletide terror.
Other candidates for the ghost-hunting dentist? Or the date when O’Donnell came to the States? Thoughts to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com, who is careful to hold the rail when descending the stairs.
Dr Beachcombing wrote in October about ghost stories used as advertisements. I’m still a little surprised that this tale didn’t end with a puff for Dr. Locock’s Pulmonic Wafers or Dr. Bull’s Cough Syrup & Salvation Oil.
UPDATE: I received this excellent information from Jeffrey Chace, who is studying the life of Harry Chase, Dr. Henry Chase’s maritime artist son.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.