Part I: Tale of Molly Crenshaw has intrigued generations

By Raymond Castile

Woodcut illustration from "Salvation at Stake" by Brad S. Gregory, Harvard University Press.

The witch was chopped to pieces.

Her butchered body parts were buried in separate graves, scattered through the wooded countryside.

But beneath the shallow soil, the pieces are moving. Year by year, inch by inch, they draw closer together - crawling, wriggling, struggling to reassemble into the living corpse of Molly Crenshaw.

From one generation to the next, teenagers throughout St. Charles County have passed down this homegrown urban legend about a supposed witch who died a century ago but still haunts the local forests.

The tale varies depending on the storyteller. According to most versions, Molly Crenshaw was a freed Jamaican slave who lived in western St. Charles County during the late 19th century. A voodoo practitioner, Molly was often called upon to dispense spells and potions for local townsfolk.

One year, an unusually harsh winter decimated local crops. Villagers blamed Molly and her evil witchcraft. Pitchforks raised, they descended on her modest home. Molly defiantly confronted them, placing a curse on anyone who touched her. Unflinching, the mob attacked and killed her. Some say they cut her in half. Others say she was drawn and quartered. But every version of the tale ends with the townspeople burying the dismembered portions in separate graves.

"I heard she was hanged or burned," said Ryan Scherr, a 17-year-old senior at Francis Howell North High School. Scherr is the opinions editor of the school newspaper, North Star, which ran a story on Molly last Halloween.

"I first started hearing about her in my freshman year," he said. "As my friends got their driver's licenses, they started driving out to where they thought her grave was. They said they went to the site and felt something eerie, then high-tailed it out of there. Maybe it was just their mind tricking them."

Lisa Mestel, a 1992 graduate of Francis Howell North High School, said virtually all her classmates tried to find Molly's grave.

"They went driving through the countryside, looking for old graveyards," she said. "They would go out into the woods around Francis Howell High School, then they'd curse her and say things like, 'I don't believe in you, Molly.' I've heard that bad things happened to them afterward, like their cars wouldn't start."

Mestel said she never joined her peers on their Molly Crenshaw expeditions.

"I didn't really believe that she was a witch," she said. "It just seemed like a fun thing for a bunch of bored teenagers to do on a Saturday night."

Mestel's English teacher, Ron Ochu, lectured about Molly to his students.

"Francis Howell students have been talking about Molly since the 1950s," Ochu said. "I used it to teach them about storytelling. A lot of the legend is bogus."

Ochu has heard many grim tales about teens who dared search for Molly's grave.

"There was a story about two football players who went looking for the grave in the 1950s," he said. "They found it and tried to take the tombstone. They met with an untimely end. The sheriff's deputies found their bodies impaled on the graveyard fence."

Digitally altered version of an illustration from the 1900 book, "World's Best Music," scanned by Liam Quin.

Is there any truth to the Molly Crenshaw legend? As is often the case with mythology, the answer is a fuzzy blend of "yes" and "no."

According to a Feb. 26, 1913 newspaper story in the St. Charles Cosmos-Monitor, the real-life Molly Crenshaw committed suicide at 10:20 a.m. Feb. 22 of that year in the home of Harry Towers near Cottleville.

Crenshaw, whose first name was actually spelled Mollie, had been staying at the Towers home for a week when she was discovered in her room, unconscious and frothing at the mouth. An inquest determined she had swallowed carbolic acid.

According to the story, Crenshaw was related to several prominent St. Charles families. She was educated at the now-defunct St. Charles College and taught school until she lost her hearing. For a time she worked in St. Louis, but her deafness made her so despondent that she finally took her life. Interment was made in the family burying grounds, the story states.

The newspaper story lists Crenshaw's age as 40, but 1910 census records list her age as 47, which would have made her 50 when she died. The census also lists her race as white, dispelling the myth that she was a freed Jamaican slave.

Her death record lists her as Miss Mollie J. Crenshaw, a 52-year-old single, white female born in St. Louis.

Genealogical records indicate Mollie Crenshaw was the niece by marriage of Marianne Towers. A marriage index lists the 1849 union of Robert A.W. Crenshaw and Ann Eliza Towers. The pair may have been Mollie Crenshaw's parents, but this has not been verified.

Ann King, local history and genealogy librarian at the Kathryn Linnemann Library in St. Charles, compiled much of this genealogical information.

"Every year around Halloween, we get so many high school kids coming in here asking questions about Molly," King said. "I got tired of not having anything on file, so in the last couple years a couple staff members and I went through cemetery and census records and old newspapers to find information."

King said she found nothing connecting Crenshaw to voodoo or witchcraft. It seemed the only unusual thing about Crenshaw was the fact that she committed suicide, King said.

"I always thought the subject was kind of sad," she said. "When I found out she killed herself, I thought it was kind of tragic. We contacted some people who were related to Mollie, but they didn't want to talk about it. I can understand why a family wouldn't want to be reminded of something like that."

Crenshaw apparently had no children. Her only surviving relatives are the Towers family. Because of repeated vandalism over the years, the family has removed Crenshaw's tombstone from its place in their small, private cemetery in southern St. Charles County.

The real Mollie Crenshaw's gravesite.

It is not known exactly when the family removed the stone. Mary Johnson McElhiney, in her 1970 posthumously published book of genealogical records, "Gone But Not Forgotten," lists an undated tombstone inscribed "Molly Crenshaw" (sic) in the burial ground. But the authors of the 1987 book, "Cemeteries of St. Charles County Missouri," state they could not find the tombstone in the cemetery.

"From what I understand, the tombstone was removed by the family in the 1970s because kids were partying there," said Doug Glenn, a 1978 graduate of Francis Howell High School.

"We used to drive around looking for her grave," he said. "We heard that people who tried to take away her tombstone met dire consequences.

"We certainly never found her grave, but it turns out we did find the right cemetery. We just didn't know it at the time."

Glenn is president and executive director of Renaissance St. Louis, a nonprofit organization that stages living-history performances, including the Greater St. Louis Renaissance Faire every spring in Rotary Park in Wentzville.

For the last month, the organization has staged a different kind of attraction in the park. Molly Crenshaw's Haunted Forest is an outdoor, walk-through "haunted house" loosely based on the urban legend.

"We had been wanting to do some kind of haunted attraction at the park for a long time," Glenn said. "Our other projects were geared around living history, so we wanted something with an historical basis."

Jill Hampton, the organization's spokesperson, said they have been careful to separate the real-life Mollie Crenshaw from the fictional Molly.

"The only connection between the legend and the real person seems to be the name," Hampton said. "We contacted her relatives and they did not mind what we were doing. They didn't even realize they were related to her."

Hampton said her group is fascinated with how the Crenshaw mythology seemingly developed out of nothing.

"Every group that perpetuated it has put a different twist on it," she said. "That's how urban legends are created."

Haystacks adjacent to Mollie Crenshaw's gravesite.

Mollie Crenshaw gravesite images are digitally altered versions of photographs originally shot by Roy Sykes.

This story was originally published in the Suburban Journals of St. Charles County, Oct. 31, 2001. Used with permission.