By MARY POLETTIHerald-Whig Staff Writer
HANNIBAL, Mo. -- There's a spooky side to America's Hometown, Lisa Marks insists. Even to the life of its favorite son.
A youthful Mark Twain once discovered a corpse in his father's justice of the peace office in downtown Hannibal. And there's the bizarre tale of Joseph Nash McDowell, the St. Louis surgeon who tried to petrify his own daughter's corpse in what is now Mark Twain Cave when its namesake was a boy.
As the caretakers of the Cliffside Mansion, the owners of the Gilded Age antiques and gift shop, the wards of vintage wooden dioramas depicting Tom Sawyer and the proprietors of Hannibal Tours, Lisa Marks and her husband, Ken, have immersed themselves in the colorful stories of Hannibal's history -- including its eerie side.
For a second year, the Markses are leading haunted tours of historic Hannibal. The stories they share on their tours are also the basis for their book "Haunted Hannibal: History and Mystery in America's Hometown," published this year by History Press.
Although the year-round bus tours tell the ghost stories of Hannibal and include a stop at a local cemetery, usually the historic Old Baptist Cemetery north of downtown, the Markses emphasize that they are interested in history first and mystery second.
"We are not ghost hunters. We are truly historians," said Lisa Marks, who acknowledged that the couple are "open to the possibility of energies lingering after someone passes on."
Tours are undeniably history-oriented, in keeping with their leaders' self-identity, with any spooky stories of Hannibal's homes and other locales deeply couched in the history of Hannibal as a booming river town and a hive of colorful personalities through most of the 19th century. As a result, the tours frequently attract history and genealogy buffs, not just devotees of the supernatural.
"It's way too easy to listen to a lot of stories about supposed haunted places and be able to recite them back, but without a context or something that lends itself to a little more believability or plausibility ... it becomes sort of a shock value thing," Ken Marks said.
Lisa Marks adds that a friend recently teased her about the couple's propensity for "really giving folks a history lesson and sugarcoating it as a ghost tour."
But guests on most historical tours don't hunt for ghosts in local cemeteries.
In a unique twist, guests on the tours of haunted Hannibal get a chance to prowl around a cemetery with dowsing rods, pairs of brass rods that scientists and paranormal investigators alike use to detect the electromagnetic energy the latter say is a sign of the supernatural.
Although Lisa Marks calls the exercise with the dowsing rods "good, clean fun," uncanny incidents abound, some of which the couple document on their blog at hauntedhannibal.blogspot.com.
One local woman's dowsing rods pulled her to a grave bearing her mother's maiden name not long after she had begun researching that branch of her family. Another couple used dowsing rods, which allegedly cross or remain apart for yes-or-no answers, to guess the sex of departed Hannibal residents buried at Old Baptist. And the spirit of a woman buried at Old Baptist is said to be present on tours.
"It's just intriguing, if nothing else. It's just fun to think that maybe we can connect to the other side, even if it's just for a moment," said Lisa Marks, who emphasized that she and her husband do not attempt to judge the experiences guests say they have to determine whether they are truly evidence of paranormal activity.
To give back to the community in return for their prolific use of its cemeteries, the Markses are involved in restoring Old Baptist's aging headstones along with Friends of Historic Hannibal. They also hope to photograph headstones for the genealogy website findagrave.com and for people who are searching for loved ones buried in Marion and Ralls counties.
The Markses first began conducting limited haunted tours last October, a few months after moving to Hannibal from the St. Louis suburb of Maplewood to take care of the Rockcliffe Mansion, which a Miami couple ultimately bought this spring. As the Markses conducted further research on Hannibal's ghoulish side in the quiet winter months, the Charleston, S.C.-based History Press approached them about writing "Haunted Hannibal."
"A lot of times, especially coming from a smaller region, it's hard to even beg somebody to publish a book," said Ken Marks, noting that he's confident in History Press' reputation for publishing regional histories. "We're very, very fortunate."
"Haunted Hannibal" is available for purchase at online mega-bookstore Amazon.com and at the couple's business headquarters at 323 N. Main, a building that houses Hannibal Tours, the Gilded Age and the Tom Sawyer dioramas under one roof.
For the Markses, an antiques dealer and a former automotive factory manager who fell in love over their shared love of historical interests and will celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary next month, a tremendous challenge exists in cobbling together their historical businesses. They hope to expand their shop into a small, free museum of Hannibal's history. The museum will ideally comprise the tour business, the 16 wooden dioramas and other Hannibal landmarks.
"If you really wanted to just understand what made Hannibal tick, what made it such an overachieving river town for the best part of 75 years, where are you going to go? There's no place for that," Ken Marks said.
Ultimately, history, which brought the Markses to Hannibal and made them stay, remains at the heart of what they do -- including their ghost hunts.
"History is the foundation of it all," Lisa Marks said. "It's certainly fun to think that there's a way to reach to the other side and have a little experience, but it's another thing to use it as a memorial, get (people) excited about really remembering their past and learning more about their ancestors."
Tours are conducted daily year-round at 3 and 7 p.m., with additional tours at 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $15 for adults and $7.50 for children under 10. The tours typically last 75 to 90 minutes and leave from the Gilded Age at 323 N. Main in downtown Hannibal.
Ken and Lisa Marks' book, "Haunted Hannibal: History and Mystery in America's Hometown," is available at the Gilded Age and at Amazon.com. They will hold a reading and book signing Oct. 26 at the Hannibal Free Public Library, 200 S. Fifth St.