They had started down the hill by this time. There in the middle of the moonlit valley below them stood the “ha’nted” house, utterly isolated, its fences gone long ago, rank weeds smothering the very doorsteps, the chimney crumbled to ruin, the window-sashes vacant, a corner of the roof caved in. The boys gazed awhile, half expecting to see a blue light flit past a window; then talking in a low tone, as befitted the time and the circumstances, they struck far off to the right, to give the haunted house a wide berth, and took their way homeward through the woods that adorned the rearward side of Cardiff Hill.
When they reached the haunted house there was something so weird and grisly about the dead silence that reigned there under the baking sun, and something so depressing about the loneliness and desolation of the place, that they were afraid, for a moment, to venture in. Then they crept to the door and took a trembling peep. They saw a weed-grown, floorless room, unplastered, an ancient fireplace, vacant windows, a ruinous staircase; and here, there, and everywhere hung ragged and abandoned cobwebs. They presently entered, softly, with quickened pulses, talking in whispers, ears alert to catch the slightest sound, and muscles tense and ready for instant retreat.
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
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TIme was, nearly every small town had a haunted house. It wasn’t that these haunted houses housed ghosts, merely that they looked the part. Usually abandoned, often dilapidated, and if it sported a mansard roof it automatically qualified, these were the houses young boys sped up as they walked past of an evening. As they grew older, they often became involved in a rite of passage, girding one’s loins and going inside.
Sitting high on a rocky outcrop overlooking Hannibal, Missouri, the Mississippi River and lands beyond, Rockcliffe Mansion, became Hannibal’s haunted house, columns reaching skyward, wrap around porches upstairs and down, and tall windows which stare down on you at night like eyes.
Rockcliffe Mansion was built for permanence – even in decay, its massive size supported by double-brick walls, and a somewhat somber Colonial Revival style belied the opulence which lay deserted behind its doors.
The house was built in 1898-1900 by John J. Cruikshank Jr. an early lumber baron, one of several in the town of Hannibal. Two things made Hannibal ideal for the lumber industry – proximity to vast areas of timber from the north and west, and the Mississippi to transport them downstream. Cruikshank knew wood, knew what he wanted in his house and knew how to get what he wanted from the workers, and at the price he wanted.
Cruikshank’s wallet took a beating from a nasty divorce, with the alimony he was forced to pay being considered so outlandish for the age, that it was reported in the New York Times. The scandal rocked the little town of Hannibal, as well as the Congregational Church which collapsed under the divisions it brought. John J. Cruikshank had married Miss Mary E. Bacon, youngish at about 18 while still a young man himself. They had children and led what seemed to be a respectable life.
They were friendly with another couple living in Hannibal, Mr. Cyrus O. Godfrey and his wife Kittie, who ran in the same social circles and attended the same church. They were friendly enough that when Mrs. Cruikshank took trips east to be treated for a health condition “peculiar to women”, Mr. Godfrey accompanied her, with Mr. Cruikshank’s blessing. Within a couple of years, accusations were flying, as apparently Mr. Godfrey didn’t turn out to be as trustworthy as originally thought, and Mrs. Cruikshank was receptive to his advances. Meanwhile Mr. Cruikshank and Mrs. Godfrey were going at it like the proverbial dogs in heat as well. Eventually they all realized to their great consternation, that each was doing with each other’s spouses what they were doing themselves. The whole case was investigated by the church, all involved were found to be guilty of what everyone knew already, and Mr. and Mrs. Cruikshank split the sheets and the fortune.
Two years later Mr. Cruikshank married again, this time to Annie Louise Hart, who was somewhat younger, being twenty-seven years his junior. It is said that Miss Hart was actually engaged to Cruikshank’s son, but his father threatened him with disinheritance if he didn’t turn her over to his old man.
In 1898 and now retired, he began work on Rockcliff Mansion, where he dreamt of living out his days and overseeing his fortune with his wife and their four daughters. Rockcliff was the largest house in Hannibal, and considered by many to be the finest residential structure in the midwest. It’s thought that part of Cruikshank’s reasoning behind building such a house was to regain his place in Hannibal society. A celebration at the opening of the house certainly went a long ways towards this, as Cruikshank hired the Empire Orchestra to play for more than 700 guests.
Mark Twain visited Hannibal for the last time in 1902, and on his last night there, a reception was held at Rockcliff Mansion in his honor. Twain spoke for almost 90 minutes on a special platform built over the grand staircase, to about 300 invited guests, the cream of Hannibal society. Twain spent at least one night under the Cruikshank’s roof, and as can be expected, visitors and guests of the house today still report that at times they can smell Twain’s ghostly cigar, wafting in the humid Missouri air.
One by one, the Cruikshank daughters married and abandoned Rockcliff Mansion, though one merely set up house next door. Cruikshank continued his habit of taking long walks at night to tend to his affairs, business or otherwise. Rumors had it that he was still carousing even in his later years, and that perhaps things weren’t going so well in the family, as when he departed the house for his nightly rambles, he would take the servant’s stairs, which was next to Mrs. Cruikshank’s chambers, so she would know he was gone by the slamming of the door.
John J. Cruikshank died in bed in 1924, and much to everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Cruikshank essentially walked out the door of Rockcliff Mansion and moved next door to live with her daughter, according to legend, never to return to the house again.
Over the next forty odd years, the house began to show show signs of disrepair, then fell into what many said was ruin – the porches crumbling, paint peeling and windows being broken out by the young Tom and Hucks of Hannibal. It became the haunted house on the hill, and the rite of passage in Hannibal became racing up to the third floor to the classroom where the Cruikshank children had been taught, tearing off a small piece of the map which hung on the wall and displaying it to friends who waited outside.
In the mid 1960’s Hannibal had had enough of the crumbling edifice, and ordered Cruikshank’s sole surviving daughter to do something about it. Her response was to tell city officials to dig a hole and bulldoze it into the ground.
Prior to demolition someone had the idea to go inside Rockcliff Mansion in the daytime and were stunned by what they found. Much of the original furnishings remained, everything from lamps, tables and statues, to beds and linens. Stained glass windows and light fixtures by L.C. Tiffany were intact, as well as the amazing woodwork and marble fireplaces. Oddly enough, some rooms had hardly been touched by vandals, including Mr. Cruikshank’s bedroom, likely believed to be haunted as he died there. The proximity to his daughter’s house next door also kept damage on that side of the house to a minimum, as people were afraid that the sound of breaking glass so close to the neighbors might attract attention.
So a few people in Hannibal got together and bought Rockcliff Mansion, began restoring it and giving tours. Cruikshank’s daughter returned many of the items she had taken from the house over the years, and eventually Rockcliff Mansion became a bed and breakfast.
Hannibal boasts two or three haunted bed and breakfasts, and Rockcliff has the added bonus of spending the night in a mansion. It’s hard to take a tour of a fabulous house like this and not wish you could at least spend the night there. Rockcliff Mansion lets you do just that.
The first thing that struck me walking in the door is the separation between light and dark. Mrs. Cruikshank had control over much of the design of the left side of the house, and her brighter personality shows. Laden with windows and with a grand piano at each end, a vast room used for entertaining runs much of the length of the house. To the right is Mr. Cruikshank’s study, dark wood panelling befitting his Scottish roots, and reminiscent of the great houses of Britain. Next to his study is the Moorish room, or middle eastern room, inspired by a visit by Mr. Cruikshank to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City.
Rockcliff Mansion was one of the first houses in Hannibal to use electric light, though Mr. Cruikshank, ever the pragmatist also had them outfitted with gas, as electricity at the time was notoriously unreliable. Restoration is ongoing, so the effect is of a house which is lived in, as opposed to spending the night in a museum. There are occasionally places where the paint is peeling, where wallpaper might bubble, and rugs and upholstery might be a bit threadbare. Yet overall, the condition of Rockcliffe Mansion is amazing, something that some put down to a supernatural caretaker watching out for the place.
We arrived in the middle of a tour which my 12 year old son and I joined. The tour was highly informative, with enough anecdotes to keep the kid interested, and not just a recitation of architectural details. Juan, the co-owner and guide went light on the ghost stories, as I had requested he not bring up some of the more disturbing ones around the kid, since we were spending the night in Mr. Cruikshank’s chambers.
Most of the ghost stories come from caretakers of Rockcliff Mansion over the years. The one which stood out most in my mind as we unloaded our luggage in Mr. Cruikshank’s bedroom is that on occasion, when making sure the room is ready for guests, the indention of a man’s body can be found to have rumpled the linens.
Mr. Cruikshank has been seen on numerous occasions, both inside the house and even outside, through the windows. A portrait of him hangs downstairs, made so that the eyes seem to follow you as you move across the room. Mrs. Cruikshank has been seen as well, downstairs in the music room. Even the children have been spotted on occasion, playing downstairs as well as upstairs.
Some attribute the specters to hints of Cruikshank molesting one or more of his daughters, though there isn’t any evidence for this. Much has been made of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Cruikshank’s bedrooms are separated by two rooms, whereas his daughter’s bedroom is just next door. It’s a situation uncommon today, true, but at the time quite typical. Particularly with young children, proximity in bedrooms increases the chance of your kids surviving a fire, which occurred more frequently and with more devastating results than today.
But most important, once an abandoned house becomes the haunted house of a community, it takes on a life of its own. The original owners are forgotten, or in the case of Cruikshank, open to embellishment of the legend. What most people remembered of the man in 1960 was likely as not, colored by what they remember hearing about him as children, decades earlier. And it should be noted, with the intention of scaring the child prior to sending him into the house where Cruikshank died. The rumors of incest and even infidelity in Cruikshank’s later years, are likely as not, nothing but urban legends added by successive and ever more jaded generations.
Inside, the house is dominated by the main staircase. Massive and carved from dark wood, it is literally the heart of the house. The first landing is lit by a tall stained glass window, and all the bedrooms on the second floor open into a large open space which looks down on the staircase. As bed and breakfasts go, there isn’t a bad room in the house, each with its own charms. The third floor isn’t as opulent, not quite as restored, but also thought to be among the most haunted parts of the house, as the Cruikshank daughters have been seen playing in the ballroom, as well as other, equally eerie incidents.
As you wander throughout the house you begin to notice details, particularly faces, staring at you from where you’d least expect. Bulls on the staircase, which according to some superstitions, rubbing the nose increases fertility. Cherubs peer at you from carved wooden chairs. Bronze statues gaze down at you when you reach the landing. These are the kind of details which make a place like this someone’s home, rather than a restoration. It’s hard not to imagine the person who built this place, and the family who lived here, not to be here still. Not as spirits, but as living, breathing people.
But of course, there are stories about ghosts in Rockcliffe Mansion.
One story has it that a certain caretaker would frequently hear the door to the servant’s entrance slam, followed by heavy boot steps coming up the stairs around 2 a.m.. She believed this to be Mr. Cruikshank returning from his nightly rambles even in the afterlife. In fact she claimed it was such a regular occurrence that once she positioned herself at the top of the staircase to see what happened, and reported that the footsteps grew louder as they came closer, and a rush of air as the invisible specter passed by.
I spoke with Ken Marks while wandering downtown Hannibal, who lived at Rockcliff Mansion for some time. He believes with absolute certainty that Rockcliff Mansion is haunted, though he described it as a mundane haunting. You might stay there for weeks or even months without anything occurring, and even then it might be almost imperceptible – such as lights not working when there was no reason for them not to, or working when they shouldn’t. Together with his wife Lisa, they run nightly ghost tours in Hannibal, as well as having written Haunted Hannibal, an essential guide to tracking down ghostly sites in the town and environs. In the book he writes of the spirits in Rockcliffe Mansion being protective in nature, as though John Cruikshank is doing what it takes to keep his house standing on the hill.
This seems to be the opinion shared by the other owner, Warren Bittner. Bittner and his partner purchased Rockcliffe Mansion in 2010, and though Bittner lives in Miami, preservation continues, as well as tours and the bed and breakfast business. “While neither of us have seen anything of a spiritual or ghostly nature since we have been Rockcliffe’s custodians (since April 2010), we do not at all discount the veracity of others who say they have,” Bittner says. “In our view, the ability to perceive the supernatural is subjective: some people may be better able to perceive than others, and some perhaps not at all. Apparently, we fall in the later category.”
Bittner continued, “Or it may be that, if there is some presence at Rockcliffe, it, or they, realize that we are trying our hardest to care for, preserve and restore their beloved home – so there is no need to disturb our efforts. Indeed, they may be working with us behind the scenes (so to speak), as there have been too many coincidences aiding our restoration efforts. For instance, what were the chances that we could find (with not a tremendous amount of effort) 2 of the 4 original L.C. Tiffany sconces for the Turkish Room after the previous owner sold the pair on E-Bay? The 2 remaining sconces not sold were found in a box in the office apparently awaiting the same fate. Also, why is everything in the Mansion so well preserved, even when so many window were broken out for so many years? The bottom line, in our opinion, is, if there are spirits, they must like us, they are leaving us alone to do our work, and maybe even lending us a helping hand in ways we cannot perceive. Of course, on the other hand, it may very well be that there is no such thing as spirits or the afterlife …… and how sad and depressing that would be.”
Following our introductory tour, the co-owner, Juan Ruiz-Bello set us up with a bottle of wine, cheese and fresh fruit on the side porch of Rockcliff Mansion. He seems more passionate about the history of the family and the house than in recounting ghost stories, and I don’t try to draw owners of haunted bed and breakfasts into conversations about apparitions and things that go bump in the night. Because let’s face it, these things fill rooms with curious visitors. Instead Juan is more interested in making sure your stay in Hannibal is a good one, and otherwise keeps out of your way so you have the run of the house. His partner’s sister was visiting, and she even compiled a bibliography to help write this article. It’s a good feeling when exploring a house like this, to stay with people who are experiencing the exploration themselves, as Juan, originally from Cuba then Florida, had no prior ties to Hannibal. `
As luck would have it, we were the only guests that night, and once Juan retired for the evening, we had a sense of what life must be like in a home like this. Walking the dimly lit halls and passing through moonlit rooms, you can certainly get a sense that you’re not alone. But more importantly, you get a feel for what life was like in a time and situation which most of us could only dream of.
John Cruikshank built Rockcliffe Mansion no doubt with intentions that his family would occupy it for generations. Instead it is host to intrepid travelers from around the world, looking to experience the world which the Cruikshanks lived. Inside these walls lies the story of a man of his times – both good and bad, and the family that he raised there. And it’s also a piece of Hannibal folklore, its oral history and urban legends. Just as you expect to see John Cruikshank coming up the servant’s staircase, you also can easily imagine a young boy scrambling up the darkened stairs, the moonlight shining through the stained glass window, dashing towards the third floor to prove his courage.
Following a brilliant breakfast at the same table Mark Twain dined at, it was time to leave. And yet I felt like I had barely scratched the surface here, that there were stories still remaining to be told, along with those ghostly footsteps on the stairs. Instead, what I got was a night occupying another world, well outside the 21st century.
Footnote: The bathrooms in Rockcliffe Mansion are amazing, still containing most of the original fixtures. Mr. Cruikshank’s toilet for instance, like his wife’s, still has the original mahogany seat. Except his is square rather than the more traditional oval, as he felt square would be more masculine. So I’m having a bath in the original tub, the kid is sitting on the toilet and I wonder aloud if Mark Twain took a bath in this tub. That’s when I see the lightbulb go off over his head.
Now the kid isn’t in the process of defecation. He was brought up better than that. He’s used to traveling to macabre locations, but he doesn’t want to hear the stories beforehand. Still he stays pretty close to me just in case. In an age when it’s time to convince pre-teens to even acknowledge your existence, I’ll take any attention I can get.
“Do you think Mark Twain pooped here?” he asked.
I gave it some thought. When Twain stayed at Rockcliff Mansion, he stayed in the room currently occupied by the owners, which didn’t contain a bathroom. So he was given use of the master bathroom. And as Twain spent a fair amount of time in Rockcliffe Mansion, unless he was suffering from constipation, the answer would have to be yes. Now it’s one thing to stand in the same spot where a great man or woman once stood, but how often do you get to touch with your skin, the same spot where their skin touched. So I spent quite some time in the tub, and never felt closer to the man. The kid evidently felt much the same thing, as he sometimes would go into the bathroom, drop trousers and just sit. He’s definitely my kid, and I’m quite proud of him. And I think Twain would have gotten a chuckle out of it as well.
Gothic Travel Rating
Come on … a bottle of wine on arrival, you get to spend the night in a mansion, a plethora of ghost stories and you can poop where Mark Twain pooped. How could I not give it five stars?
Is Rockcliff Mansion haunted? I can’t say. Even in the most haunted of houses a person can’t be guaranteed a ghostly experience. So the idea that a night in a haunted hotel or bed and breakfast is going to result in a sighting is far fetched. What I can say is you can feel it. If you’re inclined to believe, a walk around Rockcliff Mansion at night is going to get your blood flowing. Laying down to sleep in the room that kids avoided because Cruikshank died there can make for a bit of tossing and turning, if a person is inclined towards the ghastly. If you’re reading this article, I’d have to assume you are, and assume you’d love a stay there as well.