Have You Heard of The Laughing Ghost of Palmyra?
In the early part of the year 1900, Palmyra was plagued with an apparition that was witnessed by many of the town’s most distinguished citizens.
In early February of 1900, the city marshal of Palmyra, W.B. Markell, was forced to post a notice requesting that the reckless shooting that had “been indulged in, on account of the ghost scare in town” stop, or the offenders would be arrested.
Haunting the north end of Flower City, the spirit was believed by most of Palmyra to be that of an average-sized woman who moved “with a swiftness that is surprising,” according to the Monday, February 05, 1900 edition of The Quincy Daily Herald.
The ghost usually appeared in the early evening hours, but had been glimpsed as late as 10:00 p.m. It was heard to “utter a laugh that froze the blood of George Noble who heard it.” George had given chase to the apparition, and was just about to catch it, when “the thing laughed and disappeared.”
Another encounter occurred when Willie Springer, “a school boy,” heard the family dog growling in the back yard. He had his father’s revolver in his hand when he opened up the back door to investigate. Springer said he saw an apparition “hovering over the back porch.” He fired twice at the airborne specter, but “the bullets seemed to pass right through it and the spirit rushed rapidly out into the street.”
As the spirit was fleeing down the street, Col. Robert Schults saw it and tried to grab the elusive entity only to have it disappear before his eyes.
William Morrow’s encounter with the apparition was much the same when he attempted to apprehend it.
Marshal Markell was concerned about the safety of the townsfolk of Palmyra as people had taken to shooting at any strange noise or sudden movement.
Most believed that the spirit was that of Mrs. Mae Marshall, the beautiful young widow who had taken her own life with prussic acid a few months previously.
According to an investigation conducted and a story written by a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch 26 November 1899 edition, Ms. Marshall had been stalked by Palmyra resident Charles Hazlett Wishart and eventually driven to suicide when she rejected his marriage proposal.
Mae Heetfield was 16 years of age when she moved to Philadelphia, Missouri from St. Louis with her sister and mother, the newly married Mrs. William J. Tipton, in late November of 1892. Dr. Tipton was a physician in Marion County, and moved his new family into a “handsome country home” on his farm outside of Philadelphia, where he also ran a pharmacy.
Mae was known to be quite beautiful with wavy dark hair and dark twinkling eyes. She was an independent, restless girl ready for a change. She met a young farmer at a brass band concert. It wasn’t long before she accepted the young man’s proposal of marriage and became Mrs. James F. Marshall in September of 1894.
The marriage was a short one as James was in poor health and died less than two years later. Mae then returned to live at the Tipton home. She mourned for one season, but widowhood didn’t suit her, and she was soon joining her friends “at the country dances and picnics” in the area.
Relatives in Palmyra, J.W. Proctor of the First National Bank and his family, invited Mae to come and spend Christmas week with his daughters in 1898. With her exceptional beauty, intelligence and wit, Mae was quite a hit with the young men in town.
She was even serenaded by the smitten young men on the last night of her visit. The tenor singer in the group, Charles “Jenks” Hazlett Wishart, was especially taken with the young widow.
Charles was 34 years old at the time. Although his father, R.H. Wishart, had been a respected druggist in Palmyra, Charles was not looked upon kindly by his peers. He was a braggart and “mocked women and talked unkindly of them.”
He had taken a trip west a few years previously and supposedly married (possibly to Phoebe Bitter in Colorado, but that is not confirmed). No one is sure what happened to this first wife, but he was back in Palmyra two years later.
Wishart was not a welcome caller at the Proctor home, and it was not determined how he had come to be one of the serenaders that late January evening.
Charles continued to talk about the widow Mae with his peers, and it was noticed that his comments were not in his typical disrespectful manner. The young men often called the Tipton farm in Philadelphia as a group to serenade and talk with her over the wire.
With each phone call, Charles’ feelings for Mae appeared to deepen, and the following February he asked her to attend an opera with him. She left the Tipton house outside of Philadelphia and traveled to Palmyra to stay with the Proctors for a few days so that she could attend the opera with Charles.
The Tiptons and the Proctors were dismayed at Mae’s refusal to listen to reason about Charles; but, the independent young woman made it clear that she would do what she wanted.
Mae and Charles continued to spend time together through 1899. Her friends felt that she was not in love with the besotted young man, but enjoyed having him show her a good time and the gifts of flowers, candy and carriage rides.
In August of that year, Charles asked for her hand in marriage. It was at this point that the relationship took a dark turn.
Mae had no intention of marrying Charles; and, Charles had no intention of letting Mae get away without marrying him.
When he was refused admittance into the Tipton home, Charles “Jenks” Wishart “became wild and swore publicly that he would marry the girl.”
Mae told him she didn’t want to see him again and to leave her alone. Charles became obsessed with Mae and continued to try to call and visit. He would write letters that Mae would tear up without reading; although, it does appear that she did reply to many of his letters initially.
When Charles learned that she was tearing up his letters, he told the mailman, Watkins, “I’ve spent enough money on her, and if I don’t win something is going to happen.”
Mae arranged to go to Kirksville by train in late September to attend the Normal School at Kirksville college. Wishart found out the time she was leaving and met her at the train station. Evidently they did talk “earnestly,” and appeared on friendly terms when she departed on the train.
There is evidence that Mae and Charles did write to each other over the next couple of months. Charles was evidently depressed as he stated to someone at the pharmacy that he wanted to die. A customer in the store obligingly offered him his gun, but Jenks replied that he knew something better and held up a bottle of prussic acid.
A few days after this, Mrs. Tipton received a letter from Mae “saying that she had received a threatening letter form “Jenks,” in which he had boasted that he could imitate her writing so perfectly that it would delude her best friend, and that he intended to ruin her character by letters if she did not consent to marry him.”
On Thursday, November 16, 1899, Wishart showed up in Kirksville at the boarding house where Mae Marshall was staying. He repeated his proposal, and she repeated her refusal.
At this point, Mae learned the true character of the man’s whose company and gifts she had enjoyed for so many months.
The following day, Charles went to visit Professor Kirk of the Normal School and demanded a consultation with him. He “repeated the stories he had circulated around town, and offered letters to substantiate what Wishart had said.” Kirk believed Mae, but she arrived home to find that Charles had visited her landlady with the same attempt to sully her name. Mrs. McKenna paid Jenks no more mind than Professor Kirk.
Unfortunately, Charles didn’t let this deter him. He made his rounds of Kirksville besmirching Mae’s name; and, within hours the entire town was gossiping about the “scandal of the beautiful Mrs. Marshall.”
Charles called upon Mae again that Friday night, and Mrs. McKenna overheard a terrible quarrel with loud voices and slamming doors. Mae was deathly pale when she passed through the sitting room on the way to her own apartments.
For some reason that is still a mystery, Mae took the train to Trenton, Missouri the following day, Saturday. She was not known to have any friends or relatives there. When Mae returned home that evening, she stayed in her room.
The following morning, Mae spent the morning with a sick friend across the street returning at noon where she “changed her dress, packed her trunk and swallowed prussic acid.”
She was found at 1:00 by Mrs. McKenna when she didn’t come down for dinner. She was in a chair by the table with a bottle of prussic acid “resting near her left hand on the table.” Although she still had a faint breath and a doctor was called, she gave a final “spasmodic gasp” and passed away quickly thereafter at the young age of 23.
A letter to her mother was found on the table. She explained that she was “simply desperate” because of the stories that Charles Wishart was circulating about her. She said that all of her friends had dropped her. He had again offered to marry her, but she felt “that death was preferable to marriage with him.” Mae went on to say that Charles “was considerate enough to leave me with this bottle which he says contains prussic acid. Maybe he is still fooling me, but at any rate I shall try it, and if it is not I shall procure something else.” She told her mother how much she loved her and how she regretted hurting her and to be brave and strong.
When Charles Jenks Wishart had returned to Palmyra that very afternoon, he spent the entire afternoon in Bill Fronzman’s restaurant. He was very restless, and when Fronzman asked him what was wrong, Wishart said, “Bill, I’ve done something that I’m sorry for.” He then walked out. Shortly after that, news of Mae Marshall’s death came through on the wires.
When a family friend knocked on the Wishart house and informed Charles of Mae’s death, he “threw his hands up to his face and muttered incoherently as he went into the house.” Shortly after that he was on a train headed to Kansas City.
The November 23, 1899 issue of the Palmyra Spectator indicates that Charles had taken a gun with him to Kirksville, and there is speculation he perhaps originally intended to shoot Mae and then take the poison himself. There is also speculation that there was a reason for Charles to be jealous of “a certain young man in Kirksville,” but that was not confirmed.
The November 30, 1899 issue of the Marion County Herald included the announcement of a warrant for the arrest of Charles Wishart for the murder of Mrs. Mae Marshall “by furnishing her with prussic acid with which she killed herself.”
Unfortunately, On January 25, 1900 the Grand Jury of Adair County granted Charles Wishart an acquittal due to insufficient evidence.
Records show he married Sarah Morton Lovell in November of 1904 in Dickson, Tennessee and fathered two children with her. No wife was indicated when he passed away at the age of 57 in Albuquerque, New Mexico on September 4, 1922 of Pulmonary T.B. He had worked as a railroad conductor for the Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad Company. He was buried with his sister and her husband in Los Angeles.
Mae Heetfield Marshall is buried in the Philadelphia Cemetery, Philadelphia, Missouri under the name of Mae Tipton with the inscription “Our Mae” 1876 to 1899.
A few days after the acquittal of Wishart, the laughing spirit many believed to be Mae began making her appearance in town to respected members of the community.