A woman wearing a moonlit wedding gown stands at the corner of a lonely back lot, silently tilting her head as if in prayer. She may linger for minutes, or she may vanish in the blink of an eye.
The Lady in White reportedly haunts the 400 block of South Main Street in St. Charles, sulking behind the buildings where no one ventures after dusk.
No one except Michael Henry and the customers who sign up for his St. Charles Ghost Tours. Henry, a magician and psychic who lives in Florissant, launched the walking tour in April after spending two years researching the ghosts of Main Street.
Besides the Lady, the phantasmagoric menagerie includes a muttering riverboat captain, an invisible little girl, a suicidal sheriff and assorted generic specters.
Henry, 53, began investigating the paranormal 30 years ago. Discovering that much of it was fraud, he turned to stage magic.
"To detect frauds, you have to know how the tricks are done," he said.
Henry quit his day job as a computer consultant and became a professional magician. He still teaches computer science part time at Lindenwood University.
"Computers are today's magic," he said. "People don't know how they work. They just press a button and get the results they want."
Henry employs technology in his paranormal investigations, using electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, infrared thermometers, precision compasses and audio recording equipment to ferret out ghosts.
"I believe what we call ghosts are simply phenomenon that we don't have the means or equipment to fully define at this point," he said. "Did molecules exist 150 years ago? Yes, but we didn't have the means to detect them. That didn't make them any less real."
During his 90-minute, nighttime Ghost Tours, Henry leads groups of 6-to-20 people to 15 stops along historic South Main. The group convenes at the steps of the St. Charles County Historical Society building, where Henry passes out EMF detectors.
On Sept. 23, his customers included Leonard and Judy Holman and their daughters, Lenslee and Lisa. The Columbia, Ill., family had already gone on six ghost tours throughout the Midwest.
"We are ghost tour junkies," said Lisa, 15. "You can't explain why ghosts are there, or how their energy stays here instead of going with them."
Lenslee, 19, said she has taken at least 25 photographs of ghosts. Most show "orbs," a few show mist, but one captures a "full apparition," she said.
"Orbs are OK, but they get old," Lenslee said. "I like the misty photos."
Also taking the tour were Jo Ann Scott, 67, and her daughter, Mary Scott, 39, of St. Louis County.
"I kind of do and I kind of don't believe ghosts exist," Mary Scott said. "Sometimes places soak up memories of the past, energy that sticks around and pokes its head out once in awhile."
Jo Ann Scott said she does not believe in ghosts. "Ecclesiastes says the soul returns to Heaven," she said. "That's not to say memories can't remain. Memories of tragedies, lost loves and lives lived, an impression down through time. Memories linger, but I think the spirit of the people is gone."
EMF detectors in hand, the group set off for the unknown. Their first stop was 119 S. Main St., the old Post Office building built in 1909 on the site of the former St. Charles County Courthouse. The gallows was located where the gas meter is today. Executions took place as late as 1908.
Sheriff Ebenezer Curtis assisted in two of the final executions. History books cast doubt on whether the convicted murderers actually committed the crimes.
Though Henry has not found corroborative evidence, Curtis is rumored to have committed suicide. The "repentant sheriff," as Henry calls Curtis, lived in an apartment down the street above what is now Goellner Printing at 301 S. Main St.
A dark, narrow alley separates 301 from the adjacent building. An iron gate blocks the entrance.
"Some people claim to hear a voice in the alley, a whisper on the wind saying 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry,'" Henry said.
Photographs of orbs are common in the alley, he said. EMF detectors go wild, even though there is no electrical system near the gate. The tour group pointed their detectors at the gate. The devices let out an electronic whine.
Henry said the steps to Curtis' apartment are next to the walkway. "I think he hangs around that area, in the apartment or down the alley," he said.
Mary Scott poked her arm over the gate and pointed the EMF detector down the alley. The little box bleated and buzzed.
"Little Girl Lost" has been reported in several buildings along South Main, particularly 523 and 519. The girl supposedly died during the 1940s in a fire that destroyed a building next to what is now Canoe restaurant at 515.
"People on that block report feeling her hugging their legs," Henry said. "Display racks in stores start shaking back and forth for no reason. She does the things a bored little girl would do while shopping."
In Dahlias shop at 523, people have reported seeing the spectral vision of the riverboat captain who once lived there. The captain is said to have become irritated when the Crows Nest building was erected across the street, ruining his view of the river.
"He was reportedly senile by that time," Henry said. "He just sat in his front window, muttered and smoked his pipe as he rocked in his chair. Today, people still hear the captain muttering. They still hear his rocking chair creaking."
Next stop - the Lost Graveyard, home of the Lady in White.
"This is probably the most active site on the route," Henry said. "A number of manifestations have been reported. There may still be bodies here."
Behind 401 S. Main St., historic preservationists are constructing an authentic replica of the 1791 Borromeo Catholic Church. The original log building stood on the west side of Main between Jackson and Tompkins streets. Records indicate that the church cemetery was located adjacent to the building.
According to the 1991 book "St. Charles Borromeo, 200 Years of Faith" by Jo Ann Brown, a private excavation in 1981 behind 407 S. Main St. unearthed a human hip socket, leg bones and casket fragments identified as remnants of the original cemetery.
In 1831, the cemetery's burials were supposedly transferred to what would later become the site of the present day Borromeo brick church at 601 N. Fourth St.
"If such a removal occurred, it did not move all the deceased," Brown writes. The parish's records do not mention an exhumation. Brown speculates that some families may have moved some of the deceased, but there was no concerted effort to move all the graves. The parish again relocated the cemetery in 1854, moving it from North Fourth Street to its present location on Randolph Street.
According to Brown, workmen digging at the foundation of the present church in 1915 "brought up a bushel basket full of human bones and various tombstones dated 1820 and thereabouts." If the parish did not move all the graves in 1854, Brown posits, it is likely that it did not move all the graves in 1831.
"This is the location where the compass goes crazy," Henry said at the church reconstruction site, placing an oil-filled compass on a horizontal log.
The tour group watched. The needle pointed north.
"It looks like it's not going to cooperate tonight," Henry said.
The needle twitched, then pointed east.
Henry pointed to the northwest corner of the lot. "That is where people have seen the Lady in White standing with her head down," he said.
Earlier in the evening, Henry displayed an original handwritten letter by Hiram Berry, of St. Charles, dated Sept. 11, 1822. Berry, an ancestor of Henry's, wrote of a woman who lived nearby and died shortly after giving birth to a son.
"She was buried in her wedding dress, cream trimmed in white lace, the only nice dress she owned," Berry wrote. "She looked beautiful with her head turned to one side and a smile on her face."
Berry mailed the letter from Kansas. He seems to have never returned to St. Charles. Henry said he believes Berry fathered the woman's child, then left town after her burial in the Borromeo cemetery. Berry was probably buried in Kansas.
Henry said he believes the Lady in White is the young mother, buried in her wedding dress, searching for her lover who moved west and was never seen again.
"Perhaps someday this woman, her lover and their son will be together once more in a better place," he said.
For more information on St. Charles Ghost Tours, visit www.stcharlesghosts.com.