Anyone taking a tour of the famous Mark Twain Cave on Highway 79, just south of Hannibal, has heard the story of Dr. Joseph Nash McDowell and his young daughter. Many of the tour guides and visitors have actually seen the spirit of Dr. McDowell's daughter.

Dr. McDowell was an interesting character and moderately well-known in the St. Louis area. According to documentation at the Washington University School of Medicine, the doctor arrived from Kentucky to start the McDowell Medical College in 1840. Considered a brilliant physician and surgeon, he was also known for his eccentricities.

According to author Troy Taylor, the local citizens of St. Louis believed the doctor was bordering on insanity.

He kept a large collection of weapons and ammunition at the medical school certain that he had many enemies and might be attacked. According to his descendants, there were even cannons sticking out of portholes in the towers of the medical school.

The doctor had a pet bear that he kept in the basement of the college for years until the animal’s death. Local folklore indicates that he would sometimes set the bear free into throngs of people.

The tower of the St. Louis medical school building held recesses designed to hold the bodies of Dr. McDowell’s deceased family members. The bodies were placed in alcohol-filled devices.

The citizens of St. Louis were able to forgive and overlook the unconventional behavior of Dr. Joseph McDowell for quite a while. But, when he commenced the practice of body snatching from cemeteries to obtain cadavers for his students to learn and practice the illegal activity of dissection, the townspeople were aghast.

When the body of a young local girl who had died of an unusual disease was discovered missing, family members and friends were convinced that Dr. McDowell had taken the body. They arrived at the school to confront the doctor, but forewarned by the ghost of his mother, the doctor successfully hid the body and himself from discovery.

It was in 1848 that Dr. McDowell purchased the cave in Hannibal now known as Mark Twain Cave, according to Linda Coleberd, current owner of Mark Twain Cave, and documented on their website.

His daughter died of pneumonia at the age of 14, and the doctor pickled her body and placed it in a copper cylinder lined with glass and filled with alcohol which he stored deep inside the cave.

Local children in the area discovered the child’s body in the cylinder. They would gather there to tell ghost stories and, according to legend, would pull the body up by the hair of her head for a scary effect.

After a couple of years, parents of the children who played in the cave began hearing stories about the dead body of the girl. They were appalled and demanded that the doctor remove his daughter’s body.

The body of the little girl has long since been placed in a family mausoleum in St. Louis, but there are many reports from visitors and guides at the cave of seeing the apparition of a little girl.

She is always described as wearing old-fashioned clothing and is said to be very pretty with long hair. After she is sighted by a human being, she usually disappears quickly by walking into a wall. Many of the tour guides will not go into the cave alone.

On one of my visits to Mark Twain Cave a few years ago, I had the fortune of capturing an unusual picture that I have included above.

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