Independence, Missouri, lies on the south bank of the Missouri River, near the western edge of the state and a few miles east of Kansas City. Few towns its size can claim such a rich history. The Kanza and Osage Indians initially claimed the area, followed by the Spanish and brief French tenure. It became American territory with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Independence was the second settlement in Jackson County and was chosen as the county seat in 1826. From 1841 to 1849, Independence was known as the Queen City of the Trails as goods and services were provided for travelers beginning their long journey on the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon trails.
In the 1840s, the cities of Independence, Westport, and Kansas City merged into the great city of Centropolis, envisioned as the dominant metropolis of the area, much like Chicago or St. Louis. Today, Westport is part of Kansas City, and Independence is its largest suburb.
In 1945, the city’s most famous son, Harry S. Truman, became President of the United States. While residing in Washington, D.C., his home at 216 North Delaware served as his summer White House.
There is much to see and do in Independence — from unique shops to thirteen heritage sites that paved the future of our country.
Old Jackson County Jail
This old jail, built in 1859, included 12 limestone jail cells and an adjoining Marshal’s House. The dungeon-like cells housed thousands of prisoners, including Frank James and William Clark Quantrill of Quantrill’s Raiders, from the time it opened in 1850 until it closed in 1933.
In 1863, the jail housed many women and children accused of harboring Missouri guerilla forces during the Civil War.
Reportedly, one of the first cells, as you enter the old jail, is thoroughly haunted. Staff and visitors describe a feeling of nausea and chills and hearing the sound of footsteps, growls, and gasps. Others have reported seeing a man in blue in this cell.
There are two theories of who haunts the jail. One is of Marshall Jim Knowles, who lived in the adjoining Marshal’s house. During the Civil War, Knowles lost his life trying to settle a fight between two prisoners with opposing sentiments regarding the war. Others say a deputy marshal who was killed during a jailbreak in June of 1866 haunts the jail.
When Legends of America visited the old jail, the museum host also said that the building is haunted by the many women and children housed there during the Civil War. Describing female and childlike apparitions and the sounds of children, the staff and guests have also experienced an assortment of odd occurrences, from radios seemingly turning on and off by themselves to items being mysteriously moved around.
On our visit to the old jail, there was undoubtedly an ominous perception as we entered the jail that passed as quickly as it appeared when we exited those old stone walls.
The jail is now operated as a museum located in Independence Square at 217 N. Main Street. The jail and the Marshal’s Home have been painstakingly restored, and self-guided tours are available from March through October.
Though this old building has no accounts of recent hauntings, it is said that at one time, it was so ominous that passersby would cross the street rather than walk in front of the old home. Built by Colonel and Mrs. Harvey Vaile in 1881, the 31-room mansion includes nine marble fireplaces, spectacular painted ceilings, flushing toilets, a built-in 6,000-gallon water tank, and a 48,000-gallon wine cellar.
Reportedly, sometime after Mr. Vaile built the mansion, he encountered some trouble when he was accused of mail fraud and potentially faced a jail sentence. The despondent Mr. Vaile began to deteriorate and went a little crazy.
Mrs. Vaile, mortified over the accusations, took an overdose of morphine and killed herself in 1889. Later, Mr. Vaile was exonerated, but, alas, it was too late for his wife. Mr. Vaile lived for another five years and never remarried.
Supposedly the mansion was haunted by Sophia Vaile, as she was often reported as having been seen looking out the windows after her death. According to one legend, her husband could not part with her when she died, so he buried her on the front lawn in a glass-topped coffin set flush with the ground. However, neighborhood protests finally forced him to give his wife a more conventional burial. We, at Legends of America, talked to the people working at the Vaile Mansion in the spring of 2004, who not only looked at us like we were insane but denied that Mrs. Vaile was ever buried on the property. (Who knows?)
After Mr. Vaile died in 1894, the home became an inn for a brief period. Then it was used as a private asylum and sanitarium. A mineral water company, the Vaile Pure Water Co., operated from the site soon after the turn of the century. Later it became a rest home for the aged.
Acquired by Roger and Mary Mildred DeWitt in the 1960s, the home was saved from destruction. It was given to the citizens of Independence after the death of Mrs. DeWitt in 1983. Today the mansion is operated at 1500 N. Liberty. It is open to the public daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Truman House – President Truman is said still to spend time in his old home in Independence. Witnesses have reported seeing him lounging in the living room, and the smell of his favorite brandy can often be detected. Truman House is located at 219 N. Delaware in Independence.
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.
Independence – Queen City of the Trails