top of page
  • Writer's pictureIvy Boyd

Ghost Stories of Union Cemetery

Updated: Feb 25

Cemeteries are gardens of stone; a field of white and grey specks erupting from the ground as monuments to those who now lay in eternal rest. It is easy to feel overwhelmed as names and dates blur into each other as you pass headstone after headstone. But digging into a cemeteries history can uncover tragic and unforgettable tales. Union Cemetery is no exception, bringing us stories of grave robbing, murder, and the supernatural.

Union Cemetery at dusk, photographed by Ivy Boyd 2024

Union Cemetery was founded in 1857 and is Kansas Cities oldest public cemetery, acting as the final resting place for approximately 55,000 souls. And to no surprise, many locals have claimed to encounter paranormal phenomena here. The most commonly reported claims include shadow figures, feeling touched, and equipment batteries draining unusually fast. Some of the ghostly activity is attributed to numerous unmarked graves who's headstones were made of wood or soft stone that have disintegrated over time. A large portion of the cemeteries records were destroyed in two separate fires that occurred on the sites Sexton Cottage where they were held, so identifying some graves is difficult, if not impossible.

Allegedly, the cemeteries potters fields (an area where the poor or unknown were buried) was built over without proper removal of the remains after some of the cemetery land was sold off and developed, including the construction of the neighboring traffic ways. One caretaker has stated that the former boundaries reached Main street on the West side, 27th Street on the North, McGee on the East, and 30th Street on the South. If this is true, buildings and houses which run along the cemetery would also have been built over unmarked graves, as well as the parking lots south of 27th Street. Local stories of the cemeteries past recount the grisly details behind some of this construction: trucks were filled with dirt and bones and dumped into the Missouri River - many of the remains having belonged to black individuals in the once heavily segregated cemetery. At one point (decades ago) some claim to have witnessed a group of children parading through the cemetery with a human skull propped up on a stick. In another morbid twist, a past gravedigger was accused of secretly burying multiple people in the same mass graves while making people pay for what they believed was a plot just for them. Although these claims are mostly word-of-mouth, there is some documentation to support them. In March of 1911, The Star would report on how unkempt the cemetery was in an article titled "THE SHAME OF A CEMETERY" where it was reported that "a sackful of bones - those of men, women, children, picked up at random in a walk through the cemetery." To many believers in the paranormal, these ghoulish tales of Union Cemeteries past are a recipe for unrestful spirits.

There is another spirit who many believe they have encountered at Union Cemetery. Local legend states that a 12-year-old victim of prostitution, Libby Mavis, was buried here. Just after her funeral, her Madame had a dream that Libby came to her and told her that someone robbed her grave. Sure enough, Libby's grave was disturbed and her body was missing, never to be found. Did the spirit of Libby tell her Madame about this crime in a dream, or was this a coincidence? There seems to be no evidence to support this legend, but that doesn't stop local ghost hunters from visiting Union Cemetery to look for the wondering spirit of Libby Mavis, upset over her early death and the theft of her body from its final resting place.

One of Union Cemeteries more elaborate yet lesser-known ghostly tales starts in a section of the cemetery known as "Founders Row". Here, you'll find the large white obelisk-style headstone of Frank Barnum. The weathered stone reads “Frank Barnum - Murdered in Brownsville, Missouri, Oct. 6, 1876 Aged 44 Years.” Underneath, now barely legible, it also read “Vengeance Is Mine, I Will Repay, Saith the Lord.” It is this captivating epitaph that leads us down the rabbit hole of Frank and his spiritualist wife, Martha.

Frank Barnums headstone, photographed by Ivy Boyd 2024

Martha (Mattie) Simmis was born in Suffolk County, New York in 1833. In 1852, Martha married James H. Welch and in 1862 they would have their first child, Emma. They settled in Kansas City a few years after where James bought real estate and opened the successful St. Nicholas Hotel. As prosperous as they were, some tensions were high among their peers because Martha and James were spiritualists. Spiritualists are people who believe that the living could communicate with the dead, a practice and belief that was still viewed as taboo. This spirit communication typically occurs via a seance, which is defined as “a meeting at which people attempt to make contact with the dead, especially through the agency of a medium.” A medium being someone who has a "gift" and can more easily channel or communicate with the dead. 

Famous scene depicting a seance in the German silent film Dr Mabuse, 1922. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

Negative judgement towards their spiritual beliefs was a nuisance, but it was only the beginning of more unfortunate events to come. On January 8, 1871, Martha and James were traveling down Westport road in a horse drawn buggy when something startled the horses and the buggy fell over. Martha was noted as having received severe injuries while James suffered a broken leg above the ankle. Although he was under great medical care, James developed an ulcer on that ankle which slowed the recovery. Just weeks after the accident and while “engaged in cheerful conversation with his family members” James, who was just 45 years old “suddenly extended his hands upward, gave a scream and fell back dead.” James would be laid to rest at Kansas Cities Union Cemetery. Just days after his death, the Journal of Commerce would report that the Welch’s home received visits from “disembodied spirits”. With this unwanted attention on their spiritual beliefs, a family friend and fellow spiritualist wrote to the local paper “The private religion of a bereaved family should not be an excuse for curious eyes and gossiping tongues.”

Martha would find love again and remarried to Frank Barnum. Frank was born in Syracuse, New York in 1832, but little is known about his early life. At one point he moved to Chile and established a trade route between Chile and Bolivia. After returning to the US, he bought and operated a hotel in Raleigh, North Carolina and started up in the newspaper business. In 1869 he was the editor for a local newspaper The Life Giraffe, but controversy struck when he attacked the management of the local railroad. Railroads were big business back then, and it was believed that Frank left for Atlanta, Georgia. The president of the railroad would publicly write about Frank, warning the people of Atlanta that they “would do well to keep an eye on this fellow Barnum.” However, some records do show that Frank didn’t go to Atlanta, and instead headed straight for Kansas City.

Cover of The Live Giraffe

Frank would find himself back in the newspaper business, making new business partners, investing in printing equipment, and revitalizing a local paper The Evening Star. It was through his success and publicity here that he would catch the attention of the now widowed Martha. The two would meet, fall in love, and married on October 5, 1873.

By 1874 the St. Nicholas Hotel had become vacant. In 1875, Frank would decide to leave the newspaper business and undertook expensive renovations to re-open the hotel as Barnum’s Hotel. The Journal of Commerce would write about this newly renovated hotel and noted that it featured “gas in every room, water using every floor and beds the life of which are not often seen..." and that it would "rapidly become one of the most popular hotels in the New West.”

Things were going very well for Martha and Frank, with Frank legally adopting Martha’s daughter, Emma. But for Martha, tragedy was just around the corner once more. At only 44 years old, Frank mysteriously fell ill and began to lose weight. In 1876, he paid a visit to Dr. Kellogg’s Turkish Baths, once located at 5th and Walnut. While soaking in one of the tubs, Frank passed out and nearly drowned before a doctor finally noticed and pulled him out. 9 days after his near-death experience, Frank would travel further to Sweet Springs in Brownsville, Missouri to reap the supposed health benefits of the waters out there. Frank wrote to Martha while he was away, but his letters would detail concerning events.

Sweet Springs Hotel, 1880

On October 4, 1876, Frank wrote to Martha “I was continually dreaming of being overpowered by a couple of brutish demons, who would choke and beat me into an almost deathly unconsciousness, even in my dreams, and from which I would awaken thoroughly exhausted, and so real did it seem that I would have to pull my ears to see if there was any of my head left on my shoulders.” He also shared a ghostly encounter he had that following morning after being unable the sleep the rest of the night. Here, he claims that he was visited by a spirit, ghost, or phantom who looked like a woman he knew from South America. Frank wrote “She was dressed in black. . . In her right hand she held a large black cross, and in her left a card photograph.” Frank mentions that the photograph appeared to have blood on it and that the phantom woman kissed the cross and warned him that he was in grave danger. He continued “Some people would look upon such [fantasies] as the forebodings of some great and terrible calamity, a sign of a token, the tail end of a forerunner, or something of that kind, and perhaps it may be.”

On Oct. 6, 1876, Frank wrote what would be his last letter to Martha, telling her that he was feeling better and would hopefully be home soon, ending it with "P.S. - I am feeling so much better today and am so anxious to see you, that unless I feel quite different in the morning I shall put out. But yet, if I don't you must not worry or think there is anything serious happened, it will only be because I think it will be better for me to stay. A good kiss for you and Emma, and my undying love for you both, I am, forever, your loving Frank." That same morning, Frank would leave to go on a walk and didn’t return. The proprietor of the hotel opened Franks room to find all of his luggage still there, a sign that he didn’t intend on being gone for so long. The very next day, a group of children were playing about half a mile outside of town when they came across the lifeless body of a man floating in a shallow pond. This would be the body of Frank Barnum.

Charles Hopkins, Franks business partner, received a telegraph of his death which he relayed to Martha. After investigation, it was discovered that Frank had nine cuts on the right side of his head, hits from a blunt object, and scratches on his face. A towel had been tied so tightly around his neck that investigators could not untie it. Articles of his clothing were also found nearby, including his necktie which was found under a willow tree, and his overcoat was discovered in a nearby ditch. It was believed that a stake found near the pond was used in the attack, and “an old hatchet found in the pond was used to hack and mutilate the body after death.” The pond was drained to look for more clues, revealing Franks pistol and some of his jewelry. In the end, all that had been stolen from him was his watch and $12.

From the Kansas City Times, Oct. 8, 1876

The Journal of Commerce would insert themselves again into Marthas life in a rather insensitive way, writing about Franks death as if it may have all been self-inflicted. They pointed out that Frank was “an ardent spiritualist” who “clearly predicted the manner of his death.” Martha was furious and would write to them that Frank was not a spiritualist, and that it was only her who practiced spiritualism. Martha may have denied Frank being a spiritualist because she knew the stigmas towards it were effecting the investigation as his death was brushed off as suicide, despite the evidence that this was likely a murder. Martha would go on to state “He saw a singular phenomenon, is true,” and she pointed out that “had he had the faith I have, he would have left the place.” About the suicide claim, Martha would write “for no such reasoning could convince any reasoning mind that a man could chop his head open on the back in nine places, knock his senses out with a blow on the side of the head, tie a heavy towel over his throat to produce strangulation so tight that it could not be untied.” A coroner would also conclude that “the deceased came to his death by violence” and a $1000 reward was set for the capture of the murderer. Unfortunately, no one came forward, no one was captured, and the case remains unsolved.

From the Kansas City Times, Oct. 11, 1876

A year later, the Journal of Commerce would claim that Martha contacted a medium to try and communicate with Franks spirit. This medium stated that Franks killer had so much remorse and grief over the violent killing “that he died shortly after, and was present with [Frank] in the spirit world, a penitent sinner for his misdeeds.” The medium also alleged that Franks spirit wanted the search for the killer to end. Some find this suspicious, others believe that the medium wanted Martha to put her anger and vendetta behind her so that she, too, could move on.

Martha would remarry once more to a former Mayor of Kansas City R.W. Hilliker, but a four-year battle with cancer would lead to her own death on July 13, 1899. R.W. Hilliker passed away just three years after Martha at the age of 75 after having married Martha's 35 year old niece. Today, the names and memories of James, Frank, and Martha can all be seen on the white obelisk-style headstone they share. (The name Jacob Forcade is also featured on one side, I am unsure if there is relation to the rest.)

Obelisk headstone of Frank, James, Martha, and Jacob, photographed by Ivy Boyd 2024

Who killed Frank Barnum (and why) remains a mystery. Did this have to do with his past in upsetting the railroads? Was this a violent robbery attempt? Maybe the thief and killer didn’t take everything from his body because they saw someone coming…or perhaps Frank upset the wrong person. We just don’t know. We also cannot be sure how much of the spiritualist aspect of this story is true. Some believe it is true that Martha, being a believer in spirit communication, did try to contact Frank from beyond the grave, possibly even doing so here at his grave at Union Cemetery. Others wonder if this was a work of fiction at the hands of the newspaper for the sake of sensationalizing a story to sell more copies.

Today, some visitors of Union Cemetery claim that the energy and spiritual activity around the grave of James, Frank, and Martha is higher than other areas of the cemetery because of their seemingly strong beliefs in the afterlife and their possible attempts to communicate with the dead.

Frank Barnums headstone, Martha (difficult to read) is featured on the side to the right of Frank. Photographed by Ivy Boyd 2024

Union Cemetery is home to other burials who are connected to famous hauntings outside of the cemetery. Subscribe to keep up with the blog and other haunting legends!

Sexton Cottage at dusk, photographed by Ivy Boyd 2024

Union Cemetery extras:

Joining the Union Cemetery Historical Society gives you access to the grounds 24/7, and is how I was able to photograph it so late in the evening. Union Cemetery also welcomes picnicking, dog walking, cycling, skateboarding, and more. They have certainly put in a lot of work to clean up the cemetery, preserve what headstones and history they can, and want locals to enjoy the grounds once more. Private tours can be booked upon request free of charge, but they do ask for a $10 donation per-person. And be sure to stop by the Sexton Cottage gift shop on your way out! For more information and cemetery hours, CLICK HERE.

Main sources for this article:

18 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Feb 19
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So weird, because up until recently I lived near the Raleigh area and my birthday is October 5! Great story! 🖤

bottom of page