This strange ghost story has been circulating in Webster Groves, Missouri for many years…
Rachel and David
By Connie Corcoran Wilson
When Mike and I moved into the old house at 334 North Gore Street between North Rock Hill road and West Kirkham Avenue in Webster Groves, Missouri, we were intrigued by the handsome stone structure, the Rock House, our next-door neighbor.
“Wow! Look at that!” Mike’s awe at the beauty of this National Historic Landmark was evident in his voice. It was a great-looking place. The building had housed the Edgewood Children’s Center for emotionally disturbed children next door to our new rental since 1944.
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” I said, as we carried boxes from our U-Haul to the shabby-chic old house we had just rented as our new home. The landlord had seemed very glad to rent the place to us. We found out why when we settled in and discovered the extent of the renovation that was going to be necessary to make the house livable. Faulty plumbing. Creaking floorboards. Old furnace. The full complement of trouble.
“It’s a good thing our rent’s so low, or I’d consider moving to a fancier neighborhood.” Mike was smiling. He hugged me hard, too, and patted my pregnant stomach. I knew he was just having fun at my expense. We both loved the large leafy oak trees of Webster Groves and the grand houses that stood all around us. Our house might be a bit more run-down than the rest, but we were moving up in the world, for sure.
“Awwww! Don’t be like that. This is a terrific neighborhood. Why, the trees around here have to be at least one hundred and fifty years old! I read somewhere that a lot of this area was built around the time of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Don’t you think this street looks just like that Judy Garland movie?”
“What Judy Garland movie?”
“You know…the one where she sang ‘Clang! Clang! Clang went the trolley!'” I sang the verse, to get Mike’s full attention, just as he was plugging in a standing lamp, only to discover that the electricity to the outlet seemed to be non-functioning.
“Oh! That’s ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.'”
“Louie?” I asked, with a laugh. Mike came over and hugged me tight once again.
“You better not be meeting anybody named Louie. You’re my wife, and I’m very happy that you are.” He kissed me softly on the cheek and returned to the lamp.
“Just think, Meg. It’s our very own home. Our first house.”
“Rented house,” I reminded him with a grin, just to keep things real.
We were newlyweds, married just shy of a year. Up until now, we had been living in cramped apartment quarters. One place we lived, we even had to go down the hall to use the community bathroom, so “our very own place,” as Mike had dubbed the run-down two-story frame house seemed palatial to us. We were ready, willing and able to start a family. This would be a great house for a child. I was four months pregnant, but I wasn’t showing, yet. Mike had just been appointed regional manager of the new chain shoe store down the road at the mall. Life was looking up.
The chill in the late October air made the fireplace inviting, but a small disaster with the flue left us banging on the ancient radiators. We prayed the heat would kick in before we turned to Popsicles. We were having trouble making anything work in the decrepit old house.
“Let’s huddle together for warmth,” Mike said, laughing.
“You just want an excuse to huddle. I’m not sure it’s for warmth.” I hugged him in return. “And we both know where that impulse has gotten us.” Just then, our attention was caught by a redheaded boy of about twelve, approaching our house from the direction of next door’s Children’s Center.
“Straighten up and fly right, Boy-Oh. Wouldn’t do to terrorize the neighbors. Especially since they’re all supposed to be children with emotional issues already.” The doorbell rang.
A ruddy-faced carrot-topped boy of about twelve stood there on the porch when I opened the door, clipboard and pen in his hand. Behind him, clutching a toy stuffed unicorn and silently regarding us with big blue eyes was a little girl who looked about six years old, presumably his younger sister.
“Hello, Mrs.” He said, in a courtly old-fashioned manner. “Would you care to order a Christmas wreath from the Edgewood Children’s Center? It’s not much money. We’ll deliver the wreath to you a month before Christmas. We’re just taking orders now.”
He looked so eager to please and was so polite that Mike and I both said, in unison, “How much?”
“Only ten dollars. They’re real. Blue spruce. It’ll smell great, and it’ll look great on the front door of this fine house.” He smiled. Apparently the redheaded entrepreneur was not above a little insincere flattery. Anything to make a sale.
“What’s your name?” we asked simultaneously.
“David.” He shuffled from foot to foot, the cold wind making his ruddy cheeks appear rosier.
“You cold, David?” I asked.
“Want to come just inside the door while I give you our information? And maybe you’d like a cookie? We have some Oreos in the kitchen somewhere.” Mike and I were addicted to Oreos, always arguing about eating them “the proper way.” We had made sure before we packed the kitchen stuff in our former apartment that the Oreos would be right on top, so that we could have a quick pick-me-up of sugar whenever we wished. And, of course, we could also have our favorite debate over the “proper way” to eat an Oreo, with me favoring the white filling first and the cookie last, and Mike the reverse. We joked that we were like Jack Spratt and his Mrs. from the famous nursery rhyme.
“I’d like a cookie, Ma’am, but what’s an Oreo?” asked the shy, polite boy, as he stepped inside.
“You’ve never heard of Oreo cookies?”
“Oh! So it’s a type of cookie, then?”
“Why, yes. Yes, it is.” I didn’t know anyone who wouldn’t recognize the brand name.
“What about your little sister?” I asked David. The girl was lingering on the sidewalk. She had not climbed even one step up towards the top of the porch stoop.
“Oh, Rachel won’t come in. She don’t talk.”
“Can she have an Oreo?” I asked. In this day and age, you had to be careful about handing out candy or cookies to strange children.
“Sure, but she won’t say please and thank you, proper-like. It’s just her way. She don’t talk. And she won’t come inside, either. She got scared real bad. After that, she just quit talking.” I wanted to ask what had scared the poor thing that badly, but I didn’t want to pry into personal matters.
“That’s okay. If she can stand the cold, we’ll give her an Oreo to eat outside while she waits for you. It won’t take but a minute to give you our information. Her pet unicorn can have one, too.” As I said this, I extended two Oreo cookies towards the silent girl with the gigantic blue limpid pools for eyes, who was staring at me and clutching the pink stuffed unicorn as though it could save her.
Rachel took the first cookie and held it to the stuffed unicorn’s pink mouth. The unicorn did not take a bite. No surprise there. Rachel held the second cookie in her hand, her fingers clutched tightly around it. She made no move to put the Oreo in her mouth. Silence.
“Well, Rachel, we’ll have your brother back in a flash. Feed that unicorn while you wait.” I smiled in what I hoped was a kindly fashion as I shut the door against the cold. I could see that Rachel had not moved even one foot from the spot on the sidewalk she had chosen. She grasped the Oreos firmly in her slender fingers, uneaten.
“Our address is 334 North Gore Street, David, but we don’t have our phone hooked up, yet. We’re the Hansens…Mike and Meg Hansen.”
“Oh, that’s okay, Mrs. Hansen. We’ll deliver the wreaths personal-like, but not till one month before Christmas. I’ll collect the ten dollars then.”
“That sounds fine, David. And don’t forget your cookie!” David turned to leave as I almost forgot to give the young salesman his reward. I remarked, “It wouldn’t do to give your sister, Rachel, TWO cookies and not give you even one!”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Hansen. Rachel won’t mind. She knows I’d do anything for her. She’d share her cookies with me, if you forgot.” And then he was gone, giving us a last sad lingering look over his shoulder. He walked down the three steps to the sidewalk and rejoined his waiting sister and her pet unicorn. He took Rachel by the hand. They walked toward the cottonwood tree in the backyard of the Edgewood Children’s Center, fading into the haze of swirling smoke from autumn bonfires in the neighborhood of large trees.
Pyrite benzene, I thought to myself as the children disappeared in the haze from the burning leaves. Nasty stuff. That stuff can kill you. Those kids shouldn’t play near that bonfire. The people who work at the center should keep them away from that smoke. I hope the children don’t have asthma.
In the two weeks that followed, we learned more about the history of the Edgewood Children’s Center, researching it on the Internet. The children’s home was over one hundred and seventy-five years old. Originally, the St. Louis Association of Ladies had established it for the Relief of Orphan Children after the cholera epidemic of 1832. In 1834, the ladies came to the aid of the poor orphans, founding the Center. By 1848, the place had been renamed the Saint Louis Protestant Orphans’ Asylum. The asylum wasn’t located next door to us on Gore Street then, though. It had only moved to the Rock House, as it was known, in 1869. The Reverend Artemus Bullard, a preacher, operated a seminary for young men in the Rock House next door, until he was tragically killed in a train wreck in 1855.
Reverend Bullard was a strong believer in the abolition of slavery. The Rock House was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. A tunnel several blocks long ran beneath the Rock House. Slaves from the South routinely hid there on their way North to freedom. In 1890, two children became lost in the tunnel and died. After that, the exit was sealed off.
In 1910 a fire gutted the old Rock House. The interior was destroyed, but the lovely stone exterior remained just as we saw it daily through our kitchen window. A six-year-old girl perished in the blaze that year, although her older brother tried to rescue her and died in the conflagration himself.
As we continued to unpack our few belongings, following David and Rachel’s departure, a middle-aged lady wearing a plaid Burberry muffler picked up our package of paper plates. Dislodged from the kitchen goods, the package of plates had taken flight in the strong gusty winds of the late October afternoon chill. The plates behaved almost like a giant pack of Frisbees.
“Here you go,” the stranger said with a laugh, as she placed the plain Chinette plate package she had retrieved from the street into my chilly hands.
“Thanks so much,” I said. “I was afraid I was going to have to break out my track shoes to catch those things. And who knows where they are?” I laughed and extended my hand. “That wind is really fierce. Thanks from Meg and Mike Hansen, your new neighbors.” I hoped my smile conveyed my genuine gratitude at the friendly gesture from the white-clad stranger, the first adult we had met in our new neighborhood.
“Not a bit,” she said, shaking my hand. “I’m Lucinda Resnick. I was just getting off my shift at the center. I stay through the nights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. But, since it’s Thursday, I get to go home and actually cook and care for my own family.”
“You have children at home?” I asked. My question came more from curiosity than politeness. I wondered how the woman could manage to stay overnight next door while supervising active children of her own at home.
“Oh, yes. My husband is a fireman. He works weird shifts that we can usually coordinate. You know…week on, week off stuff. I really love kids, including my own,” she said, smiling. “These kids need me more even than my own, though, because most of them have emotional problems. Different traumas, you know. It didn’t start out that way, of course. The home originally was for orphans from the 1832 cholera epidemic, but, over the years, and with the move here to Rock House, today’s kids all seem to have psychological problems. You know the drill. Kid comes home and finds his father hanging in the basement. Parents leave to play golf and Mom and Dad never come home, killed in a car accident. Eventually, many of those kids wind up here.” She said all this so matter-of-factly that I was impressed with her efficient, calm demeanor.
“Well, it’s wonderful work that you do,” I said. And I meant it. “We met the young redheaded boy, David, and his sister, Rachel, just an hour or so ago. They seemed like such nice, polite young people. Although it’s sad that Rachel doesn’t speak. Why is that? Do you know?” I had been wondering about the small, frail six-year-old with the big blue eyes and the pink stuffed unicorn pet, clutching her Oreo cookies and waiting patiently for her older brother. Wondering why Rachel didn’t speak. What unspeakable horror had her young blue eyes seen?
Lucinda seemed startled. “David? When did you meet David?”
I turned to Mike for confirmation. “It was an hour ago, right?” I asked Mike. He was hammering away at a loose step on the front porch, two nails in his mouth, and nodded assent.
“Yes, an hour ago David came selling Christmas wreaths. Reasonably priced ones, too. We ordered one and gave him a cookie. His sister, Rachel, wouldn’t come inside, although we gave her an Oreo, too. David said she doesn’t speak. He was such a courtly young gentleman. Very Old World. So polite and courteous.” I smiled at Lucinda, expecting her to smile in response. Instead, she wore a puzzled expression, so I went on, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a child or an adult who didn’t know what an Oreo was, though. I had to explain to David that an Oreo is a cookie.”
“How old was this David?” Lucinda asked.
“About twelve. Why?”
“We have a David at the center…the only one,” Lucinda explained, “but our David is six feet two with dark hair. David Leibovitz. He’s Jewish. He wouldn’t be selling Christmas wreaths.”
“What about Rachel?” I asked. “Do you have a Rachel? Little girl of six? Big blue eyes?”
“Yes and no,” Lucinda finally said, with great reluctance.
“What do you mean? You do have a Rachel? A small six-year-old who won’t speak? Or you don’t have a small girl with big blue eyes who just stares at you as though she’s clairvoyant or something?” I had noticed the unusual nature of Rachel’s gaze. I felt uneasy as she stared at me, while her friendlier older brother chatted to us about the wreath.
“There was a young girl named Rachel in the home many years ago. She had an older brother named David. Both were orphaned by the flu epidemic, and so they came to live at Edgewood. Near Christmas in 1910, the house caught fire. Rachel was trapped in an upstairs bedroom. David died trying to rescue her. Sometimes, people say they can still se a red glow in the upstairs bedroom on the right. That was Rachel’s room. There are residents who claim to have seen Rachel swinging in the swing hung up in the old cottonwood tree. Others say she floats in the air near there, especially at Halloween. Of course, you can’t believe what kids say when it’s Halloween, now, can you?”
“Did Rachel have a pink stuffed animal…a unicorn?”
“How did you know?” Lucinda asked. She opened her car door, preparatory to leaving.
“I saw them both…remember?”
Lucinda quickly slammed the door to her car shut without further comment. She started the car and drove away, no longer our friendly new neighbor, but a spooked white-clad nurse from the institution next door who probably thought we were both nuts.
Mike finished nailing the loose porch boards. We both just stood there, absorbing everything we had just heard.” Neither of us felt threatened; we both just felt infinitely sad.
“Do you remember that neither one of them ate the Oreos?” I asked. “In fact, David didn’t even know what an Oreo was!”
“Well, to be fair, the unicorn didn’t eat the Oreo, either,” Mike said.
“The unicorn is a mythical beast, Mike.” I sounded cross. I was really just struggling to understand the unknowable. I was spooked.
“My point, exactly,” said Mike, as he opened the door to our home at 334 North Gore Street, and we returned to reality. “Guess we should just plan on picking up a wreath ourselves when we get our Christmas tree,” he added, with a crooked smile.
“Funny. Very funny.”
I moved to the computer and quickly googled Oreo cookies. 1912. Oreo cookies weren’t invented until 1912. The fire that killed both children occurred in 1910.
We hugged each other and moved to the couch in front of the fireplace, as a chill pervaded the room.
“Mike?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He settled deeper into the comfy chintz couch and pulled me towards him.
“When we have the baby, if it’s a boy, let’s name it David.”
Mike looked at me seriously. His eyes wrinkled with understanding. “And if it’s a girl?”
“Rachel, of course.”
The fire crackled in the fireplace, warming the cold room, and I almost could swear that I smelled the crisp aroma of blue spruce.