New Madrid, Missouri is the kind of small town where secrets are swept underneath the carpet. It’s a small old town in the Bootheel, home to a little over 3,000 people. It’s well known for the seismic zone that bears its name, and many of the community’s older buildings have been moved by force as a result of a Mississippi River that outgrows its banks. And as Jacob McCleland learned, New Madrid has seen its share of both good times and sorrow.
Eddie Gayman and Roy Hamilton were transients passing through New Madrid. They stopped at a gas station just outside of town. Out of money and looking to move on to the next community, they thought they could simply rob the filling station and make a quick getaway. But something went afoul; we’re really not sure what. Some heated words were exchanged, a gunshot went off. And Arthur Cashin was dead. Arthur Cashin worked at the service station Gayman and Hamilton attempted to rob. It was Christmas Eve, 1933.
“They actually escaped and got out of town,” says Christina McWater, executive director of the New Madrid Chamber of Commerce. “They put together a posse and hunted them down and brought them back in to town and put them in jail.”
Eddie Gayman had just gotten out of jail. In fact, that wasn’t even his real name—merely an alias. And Roy Hamilton was a youngster who got mixed up in the wrong crowd.
“They were criminals,” Christina continues. “That’s just what they did. You know, I don’t know if they went with the intent of murdering or killing anyone. But that’s just kind of the way that it turned out.”
Gayman and Hamilton went before the judge at the New Madrid County Courthouse. He offered them a deal: plead guilty and receive a sentence of life in jail, or be hanged.
They thought that sounded fair. They had murdered Arthur Cashin, and everybody knew it. They had no chance of convincing a jury. So they took the judge’s offer.
However, when the verdict was read, the courtroom suddenly echoed with shock—the two were sentenced to death, despite their plea deal. The same judge who promised them leniency dropped the gavel that led to the noose.
They lingered in the New Madrid County jail for a while, where they were supposedly model prisoners. But when their attorney moved forward with an appeal, authorities decided that immediate justice was required.
“They built the gallows,” Christina explains, “just a couple of blocks down from here where the old jail was…And of course this was a big event. And it’s sad to say, because it was 1935—It wasn’t that long ago. But still that was a big thing for the town, and the townsfolk came out for it. We actually have a copy of one of the tickets for the hanging. People would come out and sell lemonade to the people that were watching.”
Eddie Gayman and Roy Hamilton were led to the gallows, through the gawking crowd. Who knows what was going through their minds; As the hangman pulled the noose over their throats, did they feel guilt? Regret? Or vengeance for the judge that promised them life yet condemned them to death.
The hanging wasn’t swift. In fact, Christina says, something went horribly wrong:
“Possibly some of the folks that were involved might have been intoxicated.”
The executioners may have been drinking.
“It took them quite a long time to die. So I would think that if anybody had a reason to be haunting somebody, it would be those two guys,” Christina asserts.
And where do these haunting spirits linger? Why, the courthouse, of course.
“The story goes that one of the attorneys was on his way to Poplar Bluff to file an appeal. On his way back, the spirit of Roy Hamilton appeared in the passenger seat and supposedly rode all the way almost to New Madrid, and before they got to New Madrid he disappeared. He’s probably thinking, ‘Well, I can just call the judge. No need to appeal now. It’s pointless.’”
The ghosts of Hamilton and Gayman stick around the old New Madrid Courthouse, the place they were betrayed and condemned to death. The third floor, home of the courtroom, is frequently cited as the area where noises dart out of the silence, footsteps skirt across the floor then fade in the distance, and faint images are caught out of the corner of the eye. The unexplainable phenomena even bothered a janitor so much that he was driven to the point of refusing to work alone in the building.
Christina says that this story holds all the right ingredients for a good, old-fashioned haunting. “You can imagine, in those rooms they sit there and they’re in front of this judge and he says guilty and they’re sentenced to death. I would come back and haunt that place.”
Christina McWaters has a unique role in New Madrid. She’s the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, but she’s also the resident expert on New Madrid’s ghost lore. She has begun a successful ghost hunting tour of some of New Madrid’s most notorious haunts. Places like the Courthouse, the Dixie Theatre, and the Hart-Steppe House. “I try to know my stuff,” she says. “I do research it. It’s a lot of looking on the internet and going to the library. Talking to the elders in town to see if this is a legitimate story or if this is something that somebody just made up.”
New Madrid’s Dixie Theatre was built the same year that Eddie Gayman and Roy Hamilton slowly strangled to death on the gallows. Built for live performances, the Dixie has seen better days in the past, though it still has its uses for choirs and plays and such. The plaster is peeling, and it needs some new paint. On a tour of the building, Christina gestures to the original light fixtures, and comments on the newly installed roof.
When she takes people on her New Madrid ghost tours, the Dixie Theatre is always one of the attractions. She makes people sit down with a few seats between each of them. That way the ghosts have room to maneuver between the living, to give them some space if they want to sit down. Christina suspects that one of the spirits belongs to Red Roast, a gentleman who once owned the theatre. Another guest, she believes, is Cap Richards, who was in the theatre every time the doors were open. Cap had his favorite seat, which Christina says he still occupies.
“We think that the spirits that are here are here because they loved the place, not because they died here.”
Standing on the performance stage, McWaters uses a laser pointer to indicate where she has come into contact with the theatre’s ghosts: The balcony up there, we’ve heard footsteps. That fuse box over there…during the last tour with a big group, the metal door opened on its own. Backstage, people have seen lights dancing around.
“…And up here, usually when I’m up here on stage, I have a little corner that I sit in. I don’t know why, but I’m always drawn to that corner. And people out here in the audience will always say that they see things behind me. Which almost gives me goose bumps just talking out it.”
McWaters really seems to be energized by showing me the Dixie Theatre and talking about her ghost tours. We check out the balcony, an old projection room, and the really creepy backstage area that gives us both a case of the heebie-jeebies. The Dixie Theatre, it seems, is the perfect place to take folks who are curious about ghosts and want a little scare. There’s nothing menacing about any of the stories in the Dixie Theatre. And according the Christina, the spirits in the theatre enjoy the company.
“The later it gets, the more active it is. And when the guests are having a good time… it gets more active. And those spirits like that, and they feed off of that positive energy.”
Christina then takes us to the Hart-Steppe House, built in 1840. Now home to an art museum, the house was once a modest two-room dwelling and additional rooms were eventually built on to. The rising Mississippi River caused the house to be moved a couple of times, and it shows. Everything is crooked in the house, no line runs straight. Doorways are bowed. The ceiling is a normal height in some rooms; I can’t quite stand up straight in others. Everything about the Hart-Steppe House is just a little bit askew.
Christina leads us to a corner of a tiny room.
“This,” she says, “is where Miss Josephine likes to tickle the ears.”
Needless to say, I (Jacob) experienced a pointed lack of enthusiasm about sitting in the corner.
Miss Josephine is a lady who used to live in the Steppe-Hart house, and she hasn’t exactly moved on since her passing. Always a great admirer of the gentlemen, Miss Josephine will often sneak up behind guys that she takes a liking to and rub their ears. Especially if they’re sitting in that corner.
I declined the offer.
When McWaters takes people on these haunted tours, she says that most are pretty open to experience something paranormal.
“You know, if people and they are closed off and they’re like ‘Ah, this is a bunch of hooey. I don’t believe in ghosts,’ then it kills the mood, for lack of a better phrase, and we don’t have as much happen because they’re constantly being negative about it.”
So if people are open-minded about the supernatural while on one of her tours, then they are more likely to have an experience because they are looking for it and expecting it at the moment.
“We’ve had people who have heard whispers in their ear. They’ll say ‘Hello’ or ‘Hey.’ And it’s usually easy words I’ve guessed that spirits can say. But that’s usually what they hear. That’s physically hearing and not through a recording and not going back and listening. They have actually physically stood there and heard somebody speak into their ear in this house.”
And kids tend to pick up on paranormal activity quicker than adults. Christina suggests that this could be simply because children still have a wide-eyed sense of wonder. She ran in to her first ghost growing up in nearby Lilbourn:
“I was creeped out by this doll that I had in my room. It was a life-sized doll…It’d be sitting in a rocking chair, and I’d say, ‘Mom, I don’t like this doll. I want it out of my room.’ And she said, ‘Why?’ and I would say because that chair would rock. And they didn’t believe me for anything. They just thought I was some crazy kid. But that was my first experience. Either that doll was haunted or that chair was haunted.”
That first experience has led McWaters to pursue the supernatural in the Bootheel ever since, and New Madrid is emerging as a destination of sorts for those craving a ghostly encounter.