The Missouri Botanical Garden stands out among peer institutions for many reasons. But nothing sets it apart quite like its unique—some might say haunted—history. Garden founder Henry Shaw not only died on the grounds, but remains here to this day, buried in a mausoleum just a few steps from his country home. It is this continuing connection to Shaw that fuels one of our most unusual visitor questions: “Is the Garden haunted?” Whatever your views on ghosts, it is safe to say Henry Shaw’s legacy is very much alive and well at the Garden today.
“The death, peaceful and painless, occurred in his favorite room on the second floor of the old homestead; by the window of which he sat nearly every night for more than thirty years until the morning hours, absorbed in the reading which had been the delight of his life.”Missouri Botanical Garden Bulletin, November 1924
The Life (and Death) of Henry Shaw
Henry Shaw opened the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1859 on the grounds of his country estate. Renowned architect George I. Barnett would design and build Shaw’s country home, known as Tower Grove House.
Shaw spent much of his later years working to improve the Garden, rarely venturing far from home. Shortly after celebrating his 89th birthday Shaw succumbed to malaria. He passed away peacefully on August 25th, 1889, surrounded by doctors and Garden staff in his bedroom in Tower Grove House. The official cause of death was listed as malarial fever and debility senile, the latter referring to his weakened health due to old age.
A copy of the official death certificate for Henry Shaw. Cause of death is listed as malarial fever and debility senile.
The passing of Henry Shaw was seen as a big loss for the St. Louis community. The mayor ordered flags at municipal buildings to be lowered to half-staff. Black bunting was placed at the entrance to the Garden and Tower Grove Park. Hundreds came by to pay their respects as his body lay in state in the Museum Building. The local papers waxed poetic about the life and legacy of Henry Shaw.
“The peaceful death of Henry Shaw was the natural going out of a bright flame that had burned brilliantly for nearly a century. He sank to rest as quietly as the peaceful man falls asleep, and his last hours were soothed by those who in his old age had been his comforters and good friends.”Obituary for Henry Shaw, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“The dying man’s favorite dog, as if haunted by a fear of something he knew not what, whined piteously in his kennel till he attracted the attention of the human mourners – but the buds and flowers and growing vines outside that have wrought gloriously in singing the praises of Henry Shaw, waved and nodded in the night wind, and when the sun arose smiled back their gratitude to the summer sky as if conscious that he who had made their home a paradise was ready to be buried beneath their grateful shade.”Closing Scenes of the Life of Henry Shaw, St. Louis Republic
For those who believe in the paranormal, physical spaces create an attachment for spirits. There are several structures at the Garden that have a strong connection to Shaw today, more than 125 years after his death. These buildings are all located just steps from one another in the Garden’s Victorian District.
Henry Shaw was clearly planning for the eventuality of his own death. He had a white stone mausoleum built as a final resting place, but upon its completion decided on a different look and location. Today, that original mausoleum is home to the statue “Victory of Science Over Ignorance.”
The second mausoleum, made of red granite, stands just north of Tower Grove House. Before his death, Shaw commissioned a marble likeness of himself, even posing for the photo below, which was sent to the sculptor Ferdinand von Miller II. The finished sculpture was kept in the basement of Tower Grove House until his death. Visitors can still see the sculpture of Shaw in the mausoleum today, surrounded by a grove of sassafras trees.
Henry Shaw poses for his mausoleum sculpture.
Tower Grove House
The home where Shaw died, Tower Grove House, is typically open to the public on a seasonal basis. Today it serves as a museum—telling the story of Shaw’s life, the lives of those enslaved by Shaw, and the history the Victorian era, among other historical exhibits and displays. It includes original artifacts from Shaw’s personal effects, and about 85 percent of the furniture on display belonged to him.
Several items in Shaw’s bedroom are representative of his final days – including a medicine box and a prayer book. During operating hours, staff and volunteers are available to provide interpretation of the space, Garden history, and the legacy of Henry Shaw. You can always visit in person and decide for yourself if you feel any paranormal presence.
Tower Grove House circa 1880. The east wing of the home would be added after Shaw’s death under Garden Director Dr. William Trelease.
Tower Grove House is not the only home of Henry Shaw’s located on Garden grounds. His downtown St. Louis townhouse was moved from 7th and Locust to the south end of the Garden after his death. It served first as the Garden’s library and herbarium collection, and now houses administrative offices. An addition was later built onto the existing home, and the interior has changed throughout the years. Its private offices are closed to the public.
Henry Shaw seen standing on the balcony of his townhouse at 7th and Locust. The home was moved to the Garden after his death.
The Museum Building
One other structure which may hold a spiritual connection to the late Garden founder is the Museum Building. After his death, Shaw’s body lay in state in the museum, surrounded by tropical plants and facing up at the brilliant mural on the ceiling. The haunting image offers a rare glimpse at the interior of the building during Shaw’s time.
The Museum Building was closed to the public for 35 years, but recently underwent a major renovation and addition, reopening in April 2018 as the Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum.
So, is the Garden haunted?
It depends on who you ask, but some people seem certain the answer is yes. Garden employees have reported strange occurrences over the years, many of which were documented by Monster Paranormal. The group also recorded a number of ghostly sights and sounds during an investigation of Tower Grove House and the Museum Building in 2015.
Cassidy Moody, Senior Digital Media Specialist