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  • Writer's pictureIvy Boyd

Phantoms, Poison, & Pistols: The Tragic Tale Behind this 19th Century Grave

Upon entering Elmwood Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri, one of the first monumental headstones you will see is that of Charles Hopkins. Taking a look into the Hopkins family uncovers a particularly tragic story involving a life of accidental murder (both accidental and planned), gambling, pistols, poison, and even a ghost story to start it all out...

Burial site of Charles Hopkins in Elmwood Cemetery, photographed by Ivy Boyd, 2024.

It was 1876 and a horrifying phantom was terrorizing the area around Kansas Cities East Levee, nearby the area now known as the River Market. The figure was described as having a "fleshless face and burning eyeballs" and a police inquiry ensued. According to The Kansas City Times, officers Davis and Collopy "were detailed to capture, kill or dispose of the unearthly thing." They equipped themselves with pistols, clubs, ropes, charms, holy water, and lanterns and stationed themselves on either side of an old deserted warehouse where they waited... Much time passed with no sight of the entity, but just as they were about to give up she appeared gliding towards them. The Kansas City Times reported that "The moon shone brightly upon it, and the two officers had a good opportunity of looking it square in the face." They recounted the "white and ghastly" figure and that a struggle would ensue. The figure got away, but one officer believed it to have been a "man in female attire", with an article on the matter by The Kansas City Times listing the levee ghost(s) as being "bogus ghosts".

Nearby was the Gilliss (sometimes spelled "Gillis") House Hotel - a once lavish high-end hotel built in 1849 that was now mostly defunct, but inhabited by a family who also reported strange ghostly activity which inflicted them in the middle of the night. It was believed that the same ghost (or persons) may be responsible, so another investigation was under way.

Photograph of the Gillis House and Levee, August 1867.

A former resident of the Gilliss House, Sands Hopkins, was familiar with the families experience as he spent much of his childhood there, so he offered to help find out what exactly this supposed ghost wanted. Sands grabbed a friend, James Fairman, and they equipped themselves with pistols, as well as "matches, lamps and courage" and prepared to stay the night. At about 11 o'clock that evening, the men heard banging on the doors and the sound of bare feet on the ground, followed by whispers and the rustling of clothing as if people were passing by. These were odd sounds considering the house was nearly deserted. Sands and James drew their pistols and pushed their way through the door to confront what was on the other side and were startled to see something white rushing towards them. The Kansas City Times reports that "Both raised their pistols and fire simultaneously. Then there came a blood-curling yell in response which made both the men pause before giving chase to the white object which suddenly disappeared." They tracked down the specter again in another area of the hotel and opened fire, but lost sight of it once more.

Tragically, the next morning they were met with the reality of that nights ghostly adventure: a large white dog laid dead with several bullet holes, having mistaken the creature for the rumored spirit. This was only the start to a string of unfortunate events that would befall Sands and his short life.

Portrait of Sands Hopkins, from The Kansas City Times.

Sands Hopkins was born in 1859 in Kentucky to parents Dr. William and Elizabeth Hopkins. By 1860, they moved to Kansas City where his father and uncle, Charles Hopkins, had taken over the Gilliss House Hotel. In 1867, Sands father would pass away, and his mother two years later in 1869. Charles was left to care for the young Sands, sending him to the University of Notre Dame where he excelled in his studies and made the honor roll. During summer, Sands would return to the Gilliss House Hotel while gaining a reputation for his wild lifestyle full of women, gambling, and drinking.

By 1881, Sands had met and married a young woman Fannie Magee, much to the relief of his uncle Charles who hoped Sands would finally end his party ways, and it seems as though he did. But their happy marriage wouldn't last long. Shortly after their two-year wedding anniversary on January 29, 1883, Fannie was reading a book titled "A Day of Fate" when Sands, while cleaning his shotgun, accidentally shot his dear wife. Sands stated "As I pulled back the hammer of the barrel, it slipped out of my fingers and then the gun went off with a noise like thunder." He continued "The charge of [the gun] tore my poor wife’s head partially off, but when I grabbed her, she was dead," Telling The Kansas City Times “Oh my God, it was awful, awful!"

Fannie was only 24 years old at the time of her death. There was so much damage to her face that it was covered with a cloth and the casket was kept closed during her funeral, followed by her burial at Union Cemetery. Sands appeared absolutely devastated at what others believed was truly an accident, and no investigation was held. But death was waiting just around the corner once more...

On November 8, 1883, just nine months after the accidental killing of his wife, her families farm would be the site of even more bloodshed. Three of Fannie's younger siblings would return home to find their father, mother, and older sister dead. The investigation determined that her father, H. Clay Magee, shot his wife in the chest and his daughter in the back, both with a shotgun. He then took morphine to end his own life. Newspapers printed stories about his apparent violent past, stating that he was "a man of violent temper, amounting almost to a frenzy at times" and that he had actually killed a man in Kentucky. There are records to support this claim, showing that he had shot a man three times in 1878 during a heated political discussion, with the victim having died of the injuries. However, H. Clay Magee was somehow found not guilty.

Sands fell back into old drinking and gambling habits while living off of an allowance given to him by his uncle. In 1882, Charles would develop luxury apartments in the posh neighborhood of Quality Hill where the two would now live. The complex featured Victorian turrets, carved wooden staircases, decorated fireplaces, a floral garden, and it was required that the residents all wear formal attire to the high-end dinners that were hosted in the dining room. But this lavish living quarters wouldn't be immune to more misfortune.

The Empire Court apartments - once owned by Sands and Charles Hopkins. Built in 1882, razed in 1961. Photo from The Kansas City Star.

According to the Kansas City Times, "No excesses became too steep for him. [Sands] He gambled and drank inordinately, and his expenditures were awful to contemplate." Sands would host upscale poker games in his apartment where he accumulated extensive debts with his gambling friends, one such debt was owed to another resident, Gavin, who Sands owed $400. Gavin would casually remind Sands of this debt which he didn't want to have to expose to everyone else. One night while attending a dinner together, a drunk Sands would approach Gavin and hold a gun to his face, warning him that if he exposed this unpaid debt, he would kill him. Tensions would escalate when Sands later approached Gavin again, this time wielding his gun in one hand and a whip in the other. Sands cracked the whip at Gavin as he fled the room, with Sands firing a round at him. He missed and fired again as Gavin continued to run. Sands would then go upstairs, lay in bed, and no charges were ever filed against him.

The luxury apartments at 418 West 10th Street, 1940. From the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Sands would catch an arrest three weeks later when around midnight, he went to their stables and tried to drunkenly ride a horse. The clerk that evening told him he was much too drunk, and Sands responded by trying to hit him, and returning with a gun to point in the clerks face. The two would fight and Sands would spend the night in jail, paying a $200 fine the next day.

In 1887, Sands would flee with a newly hired body guard to Europe but would return after only spending six weeks there, stating that Sands was ill in health. He headed to Hot Springs, Arkansas for the healing waters, but would soon fall into debt with other gamblers there. After returning home, he continued to drink heavily and began threatening suicide. On one occasion, he rode a horse into the Chapin & Gore's restaurant and began drinking at the bar while still mounted on his horse and saddle.

On December 13, 1887, Sands would walk into the parlor at the luxury apartments at 418 West 10th Street heavily intoxicated. According to one source, he proclaimed to Ms. Hattie Calvert, the boarding house manager, "I might as well do it now as any other time" as he pulled out a small glass vial which he drank half the contents of. He then said "One-half is gone; here goes the other half" and finished the bottle. Other sources report that he continued, telling Ms. Calvert, "I want you to testify to the world that I have never wronged anybody but myself." and announced "I have taken poison!"

Ms. Calvert didn't believe it was true until Sands fell over and she realized that the bottle contained laudanum, an opium tincture which also contained morphine and codeine. Charles emerged from his room to a still-alive Sands, and promptly summoned the nearby Dr. Porter. Sands refused to take an emetic to make himself vomit up the tincture, but finally agreed when they threatened to involve the police. Sands obliged, but it was too late. Around 9 a.m. that next morning, Sands Hopkins would pass away at just 28 years old. Sands total debts at the time of his death were around $35,000.

Recreating of Sands taking the poison, from The Kansas City Times.

Charles believed that had Sands wife lived, "he would have been a different man." Charles died in 1896 at the age of 76 in the same boarding house where his nephew lost his own life. His money and business were left to Ms. Calvert and another business parter, Thomas M. Barr. (The two would later marry.)

What's become of this tragic tale? The Gilliss House Hotel would run under a number of other business names, at one point even operating as a pickle factory, but the structure would be burned to the ground in the 1920s. All that's left is a hardly visible section of stone wall, and an old, weathered placard on a pedestrian bridge which runs near the former hotels location.

Placard for the Gilliss House Hotel on the Town of Kansas Bridge. Photographed by Ivy Boyd, 2024.

The luxury apartments at Quality Hill would be razed in 1961 to make room for a parking lot for the surrounding modern apartments. When searching Kansas City for surviving ties to this story, the large headstone of Charles Hopkins at Elmwood Cemetery remains as a testament to his influence and status in the area. (CLICK HERE for an Elmwood Cemetery haunting.)

Ivy Boyd taking photos of the Hopkins burial site in Elmwood Cemetery, 2024.

Charles had requested that Sands and Fannie be relocated to Elmwood from their previous burial location, Union Cemetery. Today, small headstones can be seen which mark their burials next to his.

Sands W. Hopkins headstone in Elmwood Cemetery. Photographed by Ivy Boyd, 2024.
Fannie Hopkins headstone in Elmwood Cemetery. Photographed by Ivy Boyd, 2024.

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Intriguing story!

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