Stories of hidden gold have always generated interest. Whether the tales involve gold hidden by pirates intent on stashing their ill-gotten gain, by civilians trying to escape the ravages of an enemy army, or by outlaws fleeing a posse, the amount of gold usually increases as the stories are repeated.
The details change and the questions surrounding the missing treasure become murkier as time passes. Generally, the stories fritter away when nothing is discovered, only to reemerge periodically. Treasurer hunters once again try to find the supposedly hidden gold. Sometimes the hidden gold stories are paired with tales of strange people or mysterious surroundings.
Pettis County has at least one such story. When Mr. E. Hurley was planning to build the Harrison Apartments, a modern, three story, brick apartment house at the northwest corner of West Third Street and Harrison Avenue in December 1919, the Sedalia Democrat shared Sedalia’s hidden gold story with its readers.
According to the Democrat, the lot on Third Street was once the site of a modest, one-story frame house occupied by John Hess and his wife. Hess had been born in Germany and worked as a carpenter. In 1903, Hess suffered a stroke while he was working on the roof of his house and died. His wife continued to live in the family home until 1909, when she died. Her body was found in her home by neighbors who became concerned when they didn’t see her outside.
It had been rumored for some time before Mr. Hess’ death that he had possessed a fortune. When his estate was processed, however, no large amount of money was evident. Rumors began to circulate that he had buried his fortune beneath his house.
The rumors spread rapidly and widely. When the house was vacant following Mrs. Hess’ death, hobos traveling through Sedalia on the many trains that came through the city sometimes slept in the house and searched for the gold. That Hess and his wife had both died at the house fed superstitions that the Hesses’ spirits remained there. The superstitions and rumors remained active even after the house had been demolished in 1914. The Democrat noted that children walking past the lot at night often walked quickly or crossed the street to avoid being too close to the place, fearing the place might be haunted.
Shortly before Hurley began the excavation for the basement of the apartments, a man from out of town arrived in Sedalia. The Democrat did not identify the man, but said he claimed to be able to use a divining rod to locate metal underground. The man walked back and forth over the lot, holding the diving rod in front of him. At some point, the rod began to quiver and then turned downward, indicating the presence of metal.
The man shared this news with Hurley. The Democrat seems both to scoff at the notion of divining rods, but also seems to place some credence in the man’s discovery. The press noted that in light of this information, “extra care will be taken in excavating.”
Hurley, the man with the divining rod, and the Democrat readers were disappointed. No gold was found.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.