It was long before sunrise when the gentleman tour guide at Vaile Mansion in Independence, Missouri stepped to the front door, key in hand. It would be a long day. A special champagne reception was to take place at the mansion that afternoon and there was much to prepare. It was that reception, in fact, that drew him to the mansion so early on a Sunday morning; it was he who would have to let in the decorators and caterers before beginning his regular slate of tours. Later the house would be bustling with activity. But now, before dawn, it was silent and abandoned, and he found that he had approached it with trepidation. It was so dark. There was little contrast between the mansion and the sky above it; there was only a pale outline of the place cast by the light of the moon. As he worked the lock he became acutely aware of his aloneness. The quiet had weight; it was like a thing that had settled on his shoulders. He could hear his own pulse. Then, when the lock gave and the door swung slowly from its casing, the house released an audible sigh that raised the hairs on his arms.
The old gentleman had heard stories of ghosts at Vaile Mansion long before he started giving tours there. He had never leant them much credence. Haunted or not, it was a beautiful environment in which to volunteer, and, in his retirement, he discovered for the first time that he was actually really good at telling stories and drawing visitors into the history of the home. But death was always part of the narrative. This was a home that knew death. Mrs. Vaile, wearied and pained by cancer, took her own life with a lethal dose of Opium and Morphine back in 1883. Later, when the home was converted into a sanitorium, other deaths would follow. In the daylight this grim plotline was amped up as an intriguing, but benign, bit of theater meant to widen the eyes of tourists. Now, as the gentleman set foot on the old wooden floor of the entryway and the deep darkness of the immense house stretched before him, he wondered what kind of imprint the passing of disquieted souls might have left there.
The gentleman stood, planted, just inside the door. The only light came from faint reflections of the moon on the many mirrors in the parlors to the left and right of the entryway. The parlors were rather large for the era. But then, the mansion was huge. With 31 rooms on three floors, there were many nooks in which to become startled. He thought of spaces that were currently invisible to him: the kitchen at the back of the house and the odd little séance-shaped room beyond it; the butler’s pantry tucked behind the dining room; the alcove beneath the stairs with just enough room for a chair and a small table. Each room suddenly seemed like a threat. But the spaces upstairs were the ones that now troubled him. Even when the house was peopled with tourists, the mirror atop the staircase made the old gentleman apprehensive. More than once, out of the corner of his eye, he perceived strange movements in that mirror that were imperceptible when looking at it head on. Now he found himself directly beneath it. The isolation of the scene, and his station within it, brought a wave of dread over him. Tense and alert, he never felt so sensitive to the air he breathed.
A sharp turn from the landing at the top of the stairs concealed various rooms with unusual or unsavory pasts. There was the bedroom in which Mrs. Vaile ended her life. Near it was that crazy little smoking room with hundreds of strange faces painted in the grain of the wood paneling. And then there was the ballroom on the third floor of the house—a cavernous blank canvas of a space that was never finished. Construction had just begun when Mrs. Vaile died, and Mr. Vaile saw little point in carrying out the project when he found himself alone. It was ultimately lined with beds of patients at the sanatorium, and now it was used for storage and blocked off from tourists. Just beneath it, in the space now occupied by the gift shop, was a bright room with lots of windows that had been used for surgery and electric shock treatments. Yes, thought the old gentleman, these things have an affect on a place. They leave a residue.
The gentleman shuddered, then snapped into action. Light would extinguish the gloom and set his heart back to its natural beat. He would make quick work of turning on the many lamps throughout the place, those nearest to him blazing a safe path to the furthest reaches of the home. He began in the parlors…
…and made his way toward the back of the house, the light stretching just ahead of him. The dining room was first, then the kitchen…
…The gentleman looked around and felt satisfied. He no longer sensed a menace on the first floor. But the floors above were still dark. They would always be dark, even when the sun burned bright at its apex in the sky. Heavy wooden blinds filtered the light, shielding delicate antiques from damaging rays and tamping down the late summer heat. No one ever saw a ghost downstairs, at least not that he could recall. No, it was the rooms upstairs that set visitors’ nerves to twitching. He made his way back through one of the parlors and stood at the foot of the stairs. He willed himself to look at the mirror above him on the second floor landing. It was faintly visible, shrouded mostly in darkness. No movement. Just glass and shadow. He swallowed hard, took a deep breath, then jumped into a wobbly, mad sprint up the stairs. Anxiety, coupled with a desire to vanquish its source, enabled his old body to tap reserves of energy he hadn’t accessed in decades.
He fumbled for the first light switch. Where was it? Panicking, he swatted at Victorian bric-a-brac, something crashing to the floor, before finding the switch that would bring light into the darkness. With a stiff click of the switch, a lamp came on, and two ghostly, headless mannequins appeared as if by cruel magic. The gentleman sucked in his breath and clutched his heart before remembering that these old artifacts were staples of a scene he knew well. One cheerful day the curators thought it would be clever to place these mannequins, each wearing Victorian-era wedding gowns, on display as if they were characters in the colorful Vaile Mansion saga. Of course, the curators would never come upon them in the dark. The gentleman moved quickly to the next lamp, when, suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he perceived something impossible and horrible: the mannequin on the stairs had shifted its weight, ever so slightly, like one forced to stand for too long a time. He stopped breathing. His heart stopped beating. He slowly, slowly turned to stare down the ancient spirit. The mannequin was still as a statue.
“Come on, old man,” he said aloud to himself. “You’ve been up here a hundred times. It didn’t move. It didn’t move.”
The second floor hallway well lit, he quickly moved to the bedrooms, turning on one lamp—click—then another.
…and he finally came to the place where Mrs. Vaile died. In the uneven light from the hallway, long shadows distorted the landscape of the room. He was in the heart of the house now, its inner sanctum. If a ghost were to take up residence in the mansion, it would be in the bedroom where he now stood. He found the lamp switch and turned it. Click. Light filled the room. He exhaled, closing his eyes; it was finished. He had scared himself to the point of madness, but now he could go back downstairs, await the dawn and the caterers, and make fun of himself when the other volunteer tour guides arrived.
His back was still to the door when he heard it. Click.
That sound? What was it? It was faint, far away; the gentleman strained to identify it.
Click. Click. Click. It was louder now, coming nearer.
He turned and looked out the bedroom door. With each successive click, he could see the light beyond getting dimmer. The lamps! The lamps were being turned off! It had started down below, the parlor lights, the dining room, the kitchen. Then upstairs, the lamps, clicking off, one by one, of their own accord, in the hallway with the ghostly mannequins, in the creepy smoking room with the faces in the walls, in the guest bedrooms—those spaces were in total darkness now. Only the solitary lamp in Mrs. Vaile’s bedroom remained lit.
He waited, paralyzed.
There was a creak in a floorboard an instant before he heard it. Click.
Yikes. OK, Circa 19xx readers, it’s 12:39 in the morning, and I just wrote the last line of the story above. I’m surprised to find that I’ve frightened myself! You all will likely be reading this in the light of day, and perhaps then my silly little ghost story will seem ridiculous. But honest to goodness, I gave myself a chill. I didn’t know I had it in me.
Anyway, I took the pictures for this post last weekend when I toured Vaile Mansion. Vaile is known for the many ghost sightings and unexplained phenomena that have occurred there over the years. My interest is really in the antiques on display there. I always think the word “exquisite” sounds cheesy, but nonetheless, it seems the best word for the Victorian era furniture and decorative items within the home. None of them are original to the house, but they are true to the era, so when on tour, visitors get what feels like a thoroughly authentic walk through history.
The house was built in 1881 for local businessman Harvey Vaile and his wife Sofia at a cost of $150,000, the equivalent of $3-4 million today. Sofia had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and suffering terribly, ingested that lethal dose of morphine and opium in 1883 while her husband was away. Mr. Vaile lived in the home until his own death in 1895. It was made into a sanatorium in 1908. At one point in its history, it was actually threatened with demolition. It was acquired in 1983 by the City of Independence, Missouri, and benefited greatly from a long-term restoration project. It is now operated as a museum by the Vaile Victorian Society.
You might be wondering if there’s any truth to the ghost story I wrote above; Yes, there is. Now, I did do some literary gymnastics here and added a lot of color to what was essentially a throw-away tale told by one of the tour guides. A fellow tourist asked him about the stories of ghosts in the mansion. He said that in his time there he had only had one experience that couldn’t be explained. He came early to open the house and went around turning the lights on in the parlors. After he turned on the last lamp, it turned off. He then looked behind him and saw that all of the lights were off. He turned them all back on again, but he said it really gave him the creeps. He was glad when his colleagues finally arrived. The bit about the ballroom, the sanatorium, the surgeries, etc.—all true.
The mansion itself is a bona fide stunner. I was by myself for a large part of my visit. I was on a tour, but, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know that I like to venture off by myself. I was actually alone upstairs on that second floor for a long while. I did get a little creeped out up there. Now, in a place like this your imagination runs wild. I didn’t see anything unusual at all. I think my creepy feeling was brought on by the power of suggestion. Even so, I really wouldn’t want to be there alone at night.
I mentioned in my story a gift shop in the space that was, at one time, a surgery room and a room in which electric shock treatments took place. That’s true. What’s neat about the gift shop is that they sell some new things, but antiques as well. No, I did not leave there empty handed. I purchased a beautiful vase there that is currently serving as the centerpiece on my dining room table.
If you’re planning a trip to Kansas City, do plan on making a side trip to Independence to visit the mansion. Information about the mansion can be found at their website, https://www.vailemansion.org/
Have a happy and safe Halloween, everyone—and say your prayers! 🙂
Until next time…