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 stately mausoleum just a few steps from his beloved country home. It is this deep and 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 was born in Sheffield, England in 1800. He emigrated to the United states in 1819, eventually making his way to St. Louis and setting up a hardware business downtown. The westward expansion of the United States made Shaw a rich man very quickly, and he was able to retire at the age of 39.
Shaw spent much of the next decade traveling, where he was inspired by the majestic formal gardens of Europe. He would return to St. Louis and put that inspiration to work. Renowned architect George I. Barnett would design and build Shaw’s country home, known as Tower Grove House. Shaw would set to work establishing the Garden grounds around his new home, along with its library and herbarium. He would also donate the land for Tower Grove Park to the city of St. Louis.
Shaw spent much of his later years working to improve the Garden and oversee its collections of plants and scientific material, 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.
The passing of Henry Shaw was a big loss for the St. Louis community to which he had given so much. 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, philanthropist and public benefactor.
“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, but each has its own special attachment to Shaw’s spirit.
Henry Shaw was a meticulous man, and that included planning for his own death. One example is his lengthy will, spelling out in great detail how the Garden was to move forward after his passing. Shaw’s will remains a guiding document for Garden decisions to this day.
Another example is his mausoleum. Shaw had his first mausoleum built several years before his death, but upon its completion decided on a different look and location for his final resting place. 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.
Tower Grove House
The home where Shaw died, Tower Grove House, is now open to the public on a seasonal basis. It serves as a museum of Shaw’s life and the Victorian era. 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 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.
The Museum Building
One other structure which may hold a spiritual connection to the late Garden founder is the Museum Building. The museum opened in 1859 at the urging of his friend, botanist George Engelmann. After his death, Shaw’s body lay in state in the museum, surrounded by tropical plants, portraits of famed botanists, and facing up at the brilliant mural on the ceiling. The haunting image is among the most prized possessions in our photography archives, because it offers a rare glimpse at the interior of the building during Shaw’s time.
The Museum Building has been closed to the public for 35 years, but is currently undergoing a major renovation and addition. It is set to reopen in 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.
The Garden offers you several ways to experience the haunted history for yourself. Spirits in the Garden is an annual Halloween celebration featuring local distilleries, wineries and breweries. It also includes a costume contest, haunted tram tour, classic horror movies and more. Tower Grove House is open from 6 to 9 p.m. during the event. You could also take the Garden Ghost Stories class, a flashlight history tour of Garden grounds and Tower Grove House. This popular class fills up fast, and may not be available for last minute thrill seekers.
Cassidy Moody, Digital Media Specialist