There are quite a few things that go bump in the night at Carlton and Randa LeJeune’s Sherman Hill home.
First there’s Bennett, who loves to grab ladies’ waists and caress the back of their necks. Then there’s Fae Warwick, who runs down the upstairs hallway. And occasionally a little boy named Frances can be seen playing in the front foyer.
“About the second week we moved here, we knew there was something else living here,” Randa says.
Historic home at site of fatal apartment building fire
The LeJeune home, called Hilltop Manor, was built in 1893 for Winfield and Georgia Jordan. It was originally constructed in the Drake neighborhood and moved to Sherman Hill in 1992. The lot on which the house now sits was the site of the deadly Coronado apartment fire in 1977. Five people perished in the blaze. The LeJeunes moved into the remodeled house in 1994, unaware of the history of the property.
Their first encounter with paranormal activity occurred shortly thereafter. They had gone to bed and suddenly heard very loud stomping and running down the hallway. They knew it couldn’t be one of their teenage children, as none of them was home, and the noise extended past the length of the hallway.
They eventually learned what they believe to be the source of the noise. Warwick, one of the fire victims, had polio as a child and wore boot-type braces. She had run up and down the hallway of the apartment building looking for a way to get out before she died from smoke inhalation. The LeJeunes believe her ghost continues to run up and down the hallway looking for an escape.
Additional things happened that led them to the discovery of other spirits and ghosts, they claim. Cabinet doors would be found open when no one had been home. Chairs slid across the floor for no apparent reason. A glass figurine elevated off the fireplace and crashed to the ground. Toys were put in the crib while no one was home or overnight.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Randa says.
Carlton says: “I think sometimes they just want to be part of what’s going on.”
Five spirits and ghosts in the household
Randa eventually met Vicki Stinson, founder of the Supernatural Research Society of Iowa. Stinson says she knew the LeJeune house was haunted as soon as she walked into it.
The supernatural research group conducted an investigation of the house, where they snapped photos of activity and used various pieces of equipment — including a ghost box, a radio-type devise that scans different frequencies — to record sound.
They discovered five spirits and ghosts who reside in the household.
One is Vivian Rand, another victim of the fire. Rand took her 5-year-old daughter onto the top floor fire escape to try to get out of the burning building. The crowd that had gathered below told Rand to drop her child down to them. According to legend, the last words she said were, “I can’t; I can’t!” before a ball of fire engulfed her and the child. Occasionally, those very words can be heard in the house.
Randa and Stinson say sometimes ghosts and spirits stay with a house, which is the case of the Jordans, the original owners.
Legend says Winfield Jordan was an unkind man to his wife, Georgia. She kept a pair of scissors in her room for protection. To this day, Randa says her scissors constantly disappear, and she finds them in Georgia’s former bedroom.
Winfield Jordan is said to occupy the second bedroom, which had been his former room. Unmarried couples or single people have a difficult time sleeping in the room. They awake not feeling well or have an eerie feeling someone is staring over them while they sleep.
Former resident Francis Digby’s spirit also occupies the house, legend has it. The 8-year-old became ill shortly before World War I and died in the house. He has been seen playing in the front foyer and on the staircase. Randa’s granddaughter once saw the boy, but Randa has only felt his presence.
A fifth spirit has identified himself through the ghost box as Bennett. It is unknown where he came from or who he is.
The LeJeunes keep a logbook to track the ghosts’ and spirits’ appearances and actions. No activity has ever been reported in July. It takes place at various times, but there seems to be more activity during thunderstorms.
Randa says activity increased after Martin Luther King Junior Parkway was expanded and 20th Street became a dead-end. Randa says the house originally faced east, so moving it and changing its facing to the west also could have shaken up energies.
Nearby Woodland Cemetery attracts fright seekers and grave robbers, was scene of two murders
Woodland Cemetery is visible from the LeJeunes’ front yard. It is the city’s oldest cemetery with almost 85,000 graves on 69 acres.
Stinson, the supernatural research society founder, would visit the cemetery with her friends as a teenager. She says it was a place to scare each other, especially at the Savery mausoleum, which has a bust figure inside.
Stinson founded the research society in 2008 to bring like-minded people together who want to find out what is on the “other side” after death. Her team has performed investigations in various places in Iowa and Illinois from private homes such as the LeJeunes and another house in Sherman Hill, to public libraries and abandoned school buildings, to the Missouri State Penitentiary.
She says there is likely paranormal activity in Woodland Cemetery because of the people buried there and the circumstances behind their deaths. However, she avoids investigating cemeteries because it is disrespectful and wants to stay away from those who might have negative motives for being in cemeteries at night.
There have been two murders in Woodland Cemetery — one in the late 1950s/early 1960s and another in 2006.
Grave robbers also stole two bodies in 1896. The bodies were discovered in Drake Medical School. Three years before, five individuals were arrested when they were caught trying to steal a body on behalf of the medical school.
The most recent robbery took place in 1991. Three kids broke into the Sherman mausoleum and took the skull of Sara Sherman, the wife of Hoyt Sherman. The skull was later found and returned to its rightful resting place.
Sherman Hill, downtown areas site of American Indian grounds, burials
Randa says the downtown and Sherman Hill area were hallowed grounds even before Des Moines was founded. The entire area belonged to the Fox and Sac American Indian tribes, and some of the area served as burial grounds. Some claim there’s an American Indian chief who has been seen walking through the Sherman Hill neighborhood at night.
Sherman Hill is the oldest neighborhood in Des Moines with many of the original houses still standing. People in the 1800s and early 1900s died in their homes, and their bodies were on display in the home for people to pay their respects. All of this adds to the amount of paranormal activity in the neighborhood, Randa thinks.
“It’s old,” she says of the neighborhood. “More people have lived here and died here” than other areas of Des Moines.
This history, combined with the activity in her own house, led Randa to ask others in the neighborhood whether they had experienced any paranormal activity. The stories she uncovered from residents and her own research, combined with the fact that she had been on ghost tours in other cities, made her decide to bring the same concept to Des Moines.
Randa tells of the murders of two women in the neighborhood. One was Ramona Cox, who was killed with a linoleum knife in 1962 at 15th Street and Woodland Avenue. Her murder was never solved.
She also shares the stories of two neighbors on 20th Street who reported paranormal encounters in their homes — one of which had their house exorcised of the haunting.
There are at least two love stories Randa tells on her tours — one of a young woman who threw herself down a flight of steps of a house on 20th Street after she learned her fiancé was killed in World War II.
Randa says the tours are 75 percent history, 25 percent ghost story. Tours will begin again in the spring. Reservations are required by calling (515) 491-0593.
Downtown Des Moines the site of early cemeteries, graves, several murders
According to history books, several small cemeteries or burial sites were moved from the downtown area as the city developed.
The first cemetery in Polk County was located where the current Civic Center Court Apartments are at 200 Grand Ave. The site was the burial ground for solders and families who lived at Fort Des Moines. It is believed the bodies were removed and reburied in Woodland Cemetery. One soldier’s body was discovered when workers were doing grading work and installing a sidewalk in 1874.
There was another small, unnamed cemetery at East Fourth and Locust streets. The bodies were removed in 1854.
An unmarked grave was discovered in the mid-1870s in front of the sidewalk at 309 E. 11th St., which would have been at the base of the Iowa Capitol.
In the late 1880s, a small family plot existed near a church where Principal Financial Group’s tower stands today at Eighth Street and Grand Avenue.
Downtown Des Moines has also been the site of several murders, some of which are unsolved.
One of those involved Judy Ann Corbin, a part-time go-go dancer, who was stabbed to death in 1967 in room 522 of the Hotel Chamberlain at Seventh and Locust streets. The hotel was torn down in 1975 to make way for the Ruan building.
Stinson says she would still like to visit the site because “they say if you have a tragic death, you sometimes remain or are stuck to the spot.”
“I would hope to hear from her … and to let her know we can hear her,” she says of Corbin.