A Haunted Place

Along the bluffs of the Mississippi River south of the city of St. Louis lays acres of land overgrown with weeds, the former site of a city-owned quarantine hospital and sanitarium, and the final resting place for tens of thousands of the area’s nineteenth century immigrant poor struck down by epidemics that swept through the area. Currently for sale by the City of St. Louis, the site has entered local legend as being haunted; given its history if any place could be, this site most certainly is.

The city government of St. Louis bought the land in 1854, and used it for a quarantine station and hospital. Its remote location at the time, fifteen miles from the city’s center, was thought to be an ideal one for the isolation and treatment of people with communicable diseases such as leprosy, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, smallpox, diphtheria and other diseases that struck seemingly from nowhere and raged unchecked through the community. The City also used a corner of the property as a paupers’ cemetery. It is estimated that 18,000 men, women and children were buried there between 1849 and 1877 according to a 1983 newspaper article.

For the next 30 years patients with yellow fever, smallpox, diptheria, typhoid fever were sent to the Quarantine Hospital. the bodies of victims of these epidemics were buried on the grounds until by the end of the nineteenth century an estimated 18,000 people were buried at what was then called the Quarantine-Smallpox Hospital. Since during epidemics, bodies were buried en masse in some of the sinkholes on the property, while at other times only wooden headboards marked the graves, little remains to mark burial sites; burial records were destroyed by a fire in the late 1880’s. (source)

After vaccinations and improved sanitation brought many of those diseases under control, focus shifted to using the site as a hospital for tuberculosis patients. In the early 20th Century tuberculosis was the leading public health crisis facing American cities, accounting for ten percent of all deaths in St. Louis.In 1910 the city’s hospital commissioner Dr. John C. Morfit transferred 70 patients from other city institutions to the quarantine station and hospital against the wishes of the rest of City Hall, and was fired. Before he left Dr. Morfit named the facility the “Robert M. Koch Hospital” in honor of the German scientist who isolated the organisms that caused TB and cholera.

For the first half of the 20th century Koch Hospital thrived. Hospital administrators established a farm on the grounds in 1922 and by 1937 it supplied fresh produce including apples, tomatoes and grapes to other City institutions. The hospital published its own newsletter from 1925-1947 providing health care news and tips to the patients and their families. Patients received job training while recuperating, and could take classes in business, sewing and other trades. Bond issues in 1920, 1933 and 1934 allowed the hospital to expand to almost five hundred beds. It wasn’t enough; the facility had a waiting list of 200 in 1939. At that time TB claimed 600 St. Louisans a year, and it was thought that at a ratio of two beds for each death, the city needed 1,200 beds to keep up with the disease’s toll. Plans were drawn up for expansion in 1939, but went unfunded when Congress killed the appropriations bill that paid for them.

During World War II a health care professional shortage lead to the closure of some wings of the hospital. After the war, improved public health prevention measures and better medication reduced tuberculosis infection rates and the need of a specialized facility. Funding for the hospital was cut during the 1950s as the City tried to sell the property. In 1961 the City dedicated Koch Hospital to the care of the indigent elderly, but after trouble with federal and state payments and high running costs, the facility was shut down in November 1983, and its buildings razed in 1989 after a successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

On a personal note, my father worked at Koch Hospital in the maintenance department during the 1970s. Every weekday morning my mother would wake me up and I would crawl into the backseat of our station wagon where I would snooze on the drive taking my father to work. I remember seeing him framed in the window as we dropped him off, a face that’s now a smudge after 30 years of fading memory. One day he collapsed and died on the hospital grounds, ending the morning drives and beginning a long, winding personal journey that didn’t end until I became a father myself decades later.

Is my father one of the souls rumored to haunt the hospital grounds? My intuition, thanks to my Irish blood, emphatically tells me “no”. But what about the souls of those swept off prematurely by cholera, smallpox and TB? Even though I count myself as an unbeliever, I wouldn’t want to test my lack of belief with a nightly trip there.

Maybe the last request of the Dying is to be remembered. Those interred on the Koch Hospital grounds deserve at least that much. In 1866 175 members of a regiment of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War, the 56th United States Colored Infantry, died of cholera and were laid to rest on the grounds. During the mid 20th century their remains and a monument commemorating their service was moved to nearby Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a well tended memorial for the city’s veterans. While the nameless that remain buried there may not have lived as heroically as those men, they came to our nation from all over the world seeking better lives only to be stricken by diseases that were transmitted easily due to their abysmal living conditions. Their contribution to our nation lives on and deserves not to be forgotten.

While the buildings, designed at the turn of the 20th Century in the Italian Romanesque and Italian Renaissance styles, weren’t deemed worthy of being saved, the site itself must be preserved. One way would be to clean the site up and make it a state or national park, complete with a visitor’s center and hiking trails dotted with displays showing the grounds over the years, and the way disease and those who fought and suffered them shaped our nation’s history.

Koch Hospital’s main administration building as of April 1984
Koch Hospital main admin building - 1984

The grounds of Koch Hospital as seen by satellite in 2007 (maps.google.com) (click here for full image)
Koch Hospital by satellite

Combined satellite image with map:

For more recent photos taken of the site, please visit The Robert Koch Hospital website.

Thanks to The Robert Koch Hospital website for background information. Most of the information presented here is sourced from the National Registry of Historic Places nomination form available online by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

UPDATE: August 2008
I visited the site with my elderly mother but it’s completely fenced off and it’s difficult to tell the layout of the property from the ground when it’s overgrown. Better to explore the site in the dead of winter. I did note that there are some marked graves on the Elks Club property.

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  1. Harold Miller:

    I’m sure the graves have been relocated by now.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    As far as I know no graves have been moved. My concern is that there are numerous unmarked graves and mass graves on the site. As mentioned in the essay, an article in the Post Dispatch mentioned as many as 20,000 people are buried on the grounds.

  3. Harold Miller:

    That’s a lot of graves. So they are just going to bulldoze over them?

  4. Scott Kirwin:

    I’m not aware of any activity on the hospital grounds. Most of it has been a buffer between the quarry and the nearby neighborhoods. Have you heard of anything going on? The problem is that when the quarantine hospital operated before Koch was built, the dead were thrown into makeshift mass graves and even sinkholes. I’m not sure where these were located; I don’t think anyone does.

  5. Pete:

    Its interesting, I’d love to know how long they continued burials on the grounds. I recently (finally) discovered my Grandfather died there in 1958 of TB. My Dad’s side of my family is very small and my Dad never talked about his Dad very much except for his flying career. He only told me that he died in a hospital in St. Louis on the MS river. I ordered a copy of his death cert. and learned of Koch Hospital. On the line of the certificate that mentions cemetery , it only says “local”. This is the reason I was curious about how long they buried people on the grounds. Any thing from anyone would help.

  6. Dianne Swindle:

    Patty Burger – My mother worked at Koch at that time – X-ray technician, Doris Noonan.

    Was Clote still the telephone operator – I can’t remember! I spent lots of time there throughout the years. I was a Red Cross volunteer at Riverside and then I ran a little store (for Mrs. Hipp) for them. That was before the 1970’s. I have lots of stories about life there. I can’t remember the names of Mrs. Hipp’s son but spent times with them when I was at the hospital with my mother.

  7. Patty Burger:

    Oh yes I remember your mom. I started there in August 1974 until I left just before they closed August 1983. I loved working there, wished they never would of closed. As you know the building were old, but beautiful. I made lots of friends there that I’m still friends with. When I started there the phone operators that I can remember were, Georgia, Rose, Thelma, and another lady I can’t remember her name. Was the store at Riverside or up at the hospital? I remember your moms office was right at the bottoms of the steps coming from the main hall, right around the corner from he morgue! Thank you for contacting me, the memories are forever in my mind!

  8. Dianne Swindle:

    The store at Riverside was just in a very small room – I can only remember candy, chips and cookies.

    Do you remember Jacoby
    Good to chat with you – I have so many memories from there. They had a school there too – the doctors that lived there and on and on!

    Have a great day!

  9. Patty Burger:

    Yes it was Phyllis Jacoby and Mrs. McInnes. They worked in the Physical Therapy department.

  10. Dianne Swindle:

    That’s right – McGinnis. I’ve seen Jacoby a couple of times. Last time I saw her she told me how much I looked like my mother. I do look like her – freaks me out sometimes – you know that saying – ekk I look like my mother and also have some of her mannerisms.

    It is a small world!

  11. Pete:

    Diane or Patty,
    Do either one of you know anyone who may have worked at the hospital as far back as ‘58-’59?
    My grandfather was there for 303 days with TB.
    I just started researching him .Any leads at all would be appreciated.

  12. Patty Burger:

    I’m sorry I did not start working there until 1974. Good Luck

  13. Dianne Swindle:

    My mother was working there at that time and retired from there probably in the late 80’s, but she died in 1993. The only one I can remember Dr. Chou – but I don’t know if he was there in the 50’s . Dr. Kiaruz was there but I don’t know his dates.

    I know my mother was very upset when they closed Koch because there was so much history to it – it was a political deal – how sad!

  14. Pete:

    Anyone that worked there during that time would be in their late 70’s now at the very least, so it’s doubtful there is many left unfortunately .

  15. Dianne Swindle:

    I know Phyllis Jacoby and Dr. Bart Kairuz are still living, however I do not know how to contact. Kairuz had an office at St. Anthony’s. I talked to Phyllis Jacoby about a year and a half ago. Also Steve Chou who has commented on this Blog lived at Koch Hospital because his father was a doctor there – and eventually ran the hospital. Steve (I use to babysit him, his brother and sister) but I do not know about this parents.

  16. Early Gardner RN:

    In 1962, I was a Missouri Baptist Hospital School of Nursing Student. I worked at the Koch TB Sanitarium for one rotation, It was a month and possibly 3 months. At the time they were doing pneumonectomies and filling the space where the lungs had been with sterilized ping pong balls. As students from a very conservative school of nursing, we were happy to live in the student housing on the grounds without a house mother checking on us to see if we were studying. Our first taste of freedom until we were graduate nurses and RN’s in Sept 1962. Early aka Earlene Gardner as I was known then.

  17. Don Nelson:

    I happen to own a 1947 Willys Overland Wagon that i discovered has the word KOCH on the rear passenger side of it’ And it was completely sanded off the driers side rear and the paint was touched up to cover it .I saw this and started looking for any old pictures or stories that it might have been a part of the hospitals equipment. This site is very interesting I grew up in Shaw area and we used to ride our bikes to Cliff Cave and camp in the cave on weekends around 1971 to 76. What an adventure 5 to 8 boys with 2 flashlights in the woods and cave then finally coming out the other end in a field off Becker Rd

  18. Stacey:

    I’m happy to come across this information- As I grew up on RKH road as a child and remember the creepy feelings I got from the area in general. I admit, I had some spooky experiences in my home as a child, in which I never fully understood at the time, and nor did my parents have the capacity to understand them either.
    But now, flash forward to 2015, and I am revisiting my childhood memories of where I grew up. It all sprung from the process of rehabbing my childhood home back in September of last year, in which I began reflecting on my younger days; the good times, old stomping grounds, old friends, etc- The questionable unresolved experiences I had were not too far back in my mind by any means, but I did want to see if I could find some answers. This lead me here, to your post, Scott- and everyone else who responded.
    Anyways, there’s more to this all. It wasn’t long after starting the renovations, that I noticed hundreds of orbs on live video shots I took of my house and property, along with regular photographs. Of course, back when I was a kid, orb (spirit/ghost) photography was unheard of, but with the advancement of technology, these entities are easy to see. It is my belief, from my past experiences and current ones, that this entire land is still inhabited and impacted from the history of past traumatic events of the hospital, and maybe even others.
    With this said, it is in my spiritual beliefs, that I do my best to cleanse my home and property from the heavy influence of spiritual souls still roaming the grounds. I can’t help but feel that there should be some kind of rememberance to the lives that were lost there- and on a side note, looking at the positive, remembering the lives of those who served their community to help humanity in general.
    All in all, now that I’m back in the place where my life began, I’ll take this experience as a healing one- hopefully, finding some answers along the way…

  19. Scott Kirwin:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. The dead on those grounds deserved to be remembered.

  20. Eric Bussen:

    I remember my father taking me to their physical plant at the bottom of the hill when I was a little boy. They made ice there, huge blocks and he was getting one for a party. They also generated the steam that was used to heat all the buildings in the entire complex.
    Years later I was an inspector on site when the hospital was torn down. I was in every single building and I can assure you there were no Satanic altars or even evidence of any. There was graffiti here and there but again none of it Satanic. I must admit that some of the buildings were pretty creepy. The secure wards with their steel bars and gates especially so. There was an extensive tunnel system that conveyed the steam via pipes to all the buildings on the campus. I went through all of them as well. Again no evidence of Satanic activities. Plenty of beer cans though.

  21. Scott Kirwin:

    I’ve always figured the Satanic stuff was overblown. I blame Black Sabbath. 🙂
    Thanks for your comment Eric.

  22. Deb:

    Note: Norman Berg lived in the home on Berg Hill Drive until the early 90s (not late 70s as Tom says above). I know this because my sister, Judy Berg, was married to Norman and lived there with him until they divorced in the late 80s. I spent most weekends in that house and on the property in the 80s. Norman Berg owned it until he sold the property to The Oakville Elks in the early 90s (that sale should be a matter of public record).

  23. Marvin Moehle:

    My ancestor died at the Koch hospital in 1923 -24. On his death record it says: cremation or burial … Anatomical board. What is anatomical board? My quess is his body was donated to science? Buried on site? His death record is the only document of him existing, so I would like to know if Koch hospital had any early records of their patients and how I can find them? I would be very thankful if anyone could send me information about any documents, patients pictures…anything. Marvin smurdesh@hotmail.com

  24. Scott Kirwin:

    Your ancestor’s body was donated to science. It was likely used to teach anatomy classes at medical schools in the area, after which it would have likely been cremated. That’s assuming the protocol for donations back then was the same as today.
    As for the rest of your request, hopefully someone can help.
    Thanks for posting,
    Scott K.

  25. Scott Kirwin:

    Please note that I have copied your comments over to KochHospital.org, a site that I decided to create after seeing the popularity of this post grow.
    Please visit.
    Scott Kirwin

  26. Karen Gilbert-Ladd:

    I grew up in the neighborhood the hospital backed to. We used to play in the woods behind the hospital; even had a rope swing back there. There were little graves in the woods, some had little fences around them. Once, a group of boys were digging in the woods, to build a fort or something, and came across a bunch of bones. The police were called; the bones examined. It was determined that they were very old and were part of a mass grave. Kept us all out of that part of the woods for a while. Creepy. The hospital was still open then, but most of us were too scared to actually walk anywhere near the buildings. Always thought it was haunted; especially the ‘tower.”

  27. Brenda Bouvatte:

    I worked there as a nurse for a short time in 1979. Thankfully I worked day shift. I remember the open porch area where pts slept all year round ( the thought was the fresh air and sunshine helped the TB pt. ). They would put windows up in the winter. We used to do our own aerosol sputum specimen collections. The main TB doctor was Dr. Lipshitz and my Head Nurse was Mrs. Rau. Other nurses there used to tell me of a women in white (? Nurse ) would roam the halls and get on the elevator. It was creepy and I never wanted to work right by myself.

  28. Le B Hulshoff:

    What is the best site to see the history? students from MBH, St Marys, N others were there for few months . Patients were so kind… was a great place to get away from the city… great experience 58- 60.

  29. Scott Kirwin:

    You can’t visit the site. It’s privately owned and a buffer for the quarry. Besides there’s nothing to see. Everything is gone.
    I suggest checking the satellite imagery via Google Earth.

  30. Marvin Moehle:

    Anyone know how I can find old Koch hospital records from the 1920’s?

  31. Peter Malone:

    I’d like them for the late 50’s

  32. The Razor » Blog Archive » The Razor Turns 15 Years Old Today:

    […] What was all the fuss about? A Haunted Place. […]

  33. Terese Duffy:

    Does anyone know where the cemetery was? My grandfather, John Fink, was that grounds superintendent and lived on the grounds from the mid 70’s until they closed. My brothers and I would spend weekend and days during the summer when he and my grandmother, Geri, were living in the big house (I think it was the hospital director/administrator residence at one time). We weren’t allowed to explore/wander around the grounds.

  34. irene gronewald:

    is this by j.b. bridge? off telegraph…koch rd.? we alawys haerd “tale”of insane criminalescaped…had one arm other a hook…and the lovers “necking”on cliff cave rd. got in argument…took off , when got home…hook on door handle? that koch hospital?

  35. William of Ockham:

    Yep, that’s the place. It’s been a fixture of teen stories for at least 35 years since the hospital closed in the early 80s.

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