Local legends: three haunting stories

Photo Illustration by Caleb Bolin

Dybbuk Box

The very day Jason Haxton, museum director at A.T. Still University, came into contact with this old Jewish wine box, he broke out into red welts, began coughing, bleeding from the eyes and had distorted dreams. 

Haxton bought the dybbuk box from a Truman State University student in 2004. The student bought the box from eBay, but before that it was sold at an estate sale because it could not be buried with its original owner, a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

Haxton said he bought the box because his friend wanted it, but after his friend backed out he was stuck with the dybbuk box and its dark presence. With seemingly odd things happening since it was purchased, Haxton said he wanted to explore the box’s history. Haxton conducted his research from 2004-11.  

Haxton said the box was created as a prayer box and it contained rare granites, Hebrew writing, candlesticks, ritualistic kiddush cups, pennies, hair, roses and shiva — the Jewish prayer of protection. Haxton claims the woman would talk to God through the box in an effort to understand why the Holocaust happened. 

“It does have an unusual scent that doesn’t make sense,” Haxton said. “It’s a real heavy, real distinct scent and that’s the only thing I miss about the dybbuk box. Scents dissipate, but this scent keeps getting stronger and stronger in the dybbuk box and that’s odd. It kind of does it because it wants you to open it.” 

As a museum director, Haxton said he knew that some historical artifacts were coated in arsenic and cyanide because they are good preservatives, which would explain why Haxton became suddenly sick, however, through testing for heavy metals, Haxton found nothing but sugar water was used to preserve the box.

Haxton recalls one incident in which he was having lunch with his mother-in-law when she asked if her family was in any danger. Haxton dismissed the idea and said the dybbuk box was just one an old lady used to pray to. Haxton’s mother-in-law then told him a story of a ship and the Jewish people suffering on it.

“I’m thinking, that has nothing to do with my dybbuk box,” Haxton said. “Then the chandelier behind me shattered into the table and it broke everything but the chandelier itself. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back to work and look up the ship and the [Jewish people] and what was going on.’”

What Haxton found was the S.S. St. Louis, a German luxury liner that transported hundreds of Jewish refugees. Those refugees, however, were denied entry into the U.S. because of the immigration and sterilization laws in place at the time. These laws were the basis for Nazi Germany’s laws against its Jewish population during the Holocaust.

If you’re familiar with this part of history, you might know that the main proponent of those laws was Kirksville native Harry H. Laughlin, a former student and faculty member at Truman.

“That would be, basically, the connection to Kirksville,” Haxton said. “The woman said — or at least the family said — that once they didn’t bury the box with her that it was kind of like a clock. It was [wound] up and it would actually run until it answered her prayer, which was, ‘What was the small thing that caused the horrendous crimes of the Holocaust?’”

Haxton’s research on the story of the dybbuk box and its connection to Kirksville culminated into a nonfiction book he authored in 2011. The book is now a best-selling book published by the Truman State University Press. The story was so popular, in fact, that it was the basis for the 2012 horror film “The Possession.” 

Haxton said the movie is mostly Hollywood fiction, but he was a consultant on the film answering questions from the director and actors. 

After encasing the box in gold and a holy wood, and burying it under his house for a number of years, Haxton decided to donate the dybbuk box to Zak Bagans’ The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada, about three years ago. 

“Day after day after day of people wanting access to it, people feeling that it would do something for them, and when I would say, ‘No, you can’t come see,’ and, ‘No, you can’t come touch it,’ … the bottom line is I was no longer afraid of it. I just didn’t know what to do with it,” Haxton said. 


The Devil’s Chair

If you’ve ever spent a Halloween in Kirksville, then you might have heard someone talk about sitting in the famous Devil’s Chair in Highland Park Cemetery. There are many stories about what happens to someone who dares sit in the chair at night. 

Adam Davis, Missouri Folklore Society member, said although the stories about the chair varied, one thing that remained consistent was that a person had to go at a particular time, either New Year’s or Halloween, and it always had to be at midnight or sunset, never the middle of the day. 

The consequences of sitting on the chair, Davis said, could be something terrible if the act is seen as disrespectful. The stories range from dying within a year of sitting on the chair to immediately being pulled down into the earth by a ghost. 

“Or something good would happen because you’re being bold,” Davis said. “[It’s] a really interesting variation.”

Davis, who has done extensive research on the Devil’s Chair, said it does not seem to be a gravemarker. The owner of the chair was William Baird, a former Kirksville banker, which is why the chair’s formal but less common name is the Baird Chair. Baird, however, was not buried at the spot of the chair, nor is anyone else to Davis’ knowledge.

The chair was actually intended for cemetery visitors to sit on, Davis explained.  

 “It was common to go to the graveyard on nice days, especially on Memorial Day, and garden the grave and decorate it and have a picnic on the grave,” Davis said. “And that seems to us morbid, creepy, disrespectful, but it really was common.”

Although the chair was likely built with the intention of allowing people to sit, sitting on the chair has now become a taboo, Davis said, and the shift in meaning is quite interesting to folklorists such as himself.     


The Ghost in Grim Hall

In a 2003 Index article, Truman State University students who were living in Ezra C. Grim Hall claimed to have seen, heard and felt the presence of a ghost they believed to be a former student named Charlotte Burkhalter. 

“We [tried] to talk to her,” Elizabeth Higgins, former student and Grim Hall resident, said. “We try to figure out how she died, but she won’t answer us. Touchy subject, I guess.”

Higgins said Charlotte was a nursing student who lived in Grim Hall. Other stories say she died in the building, but there is no unanimous agreement on how she died. 

Adam Davis, Missouri Folklore Society member, said he has heard talk about a ghost in Grim Hall as long as he has been at Truman, a span of nearly 30 years. 

Davis said the ghost is regarded as a benign, protective and comforting presence. 

“That is a big division in ghost stories,” Davis explained. “There are malevolent ghosts who are unquiet and somewhere on the mischievous to dangerous scale, and then there are protective ghosts.”

With no people currently living in Grim Hall, it is unknown if any ghost is (still) roaming the hallways.