Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Suicides At Pythian Castle - What Really Happened?

Photo from Springfield-Greene County Library District; R0010 

Recently, my fiancé and I tuned into an episode of Ghost Adventures for the hell of it. He finds their program to be more funny than it is informative, plus we enjoy the locations they visit. For the record, I am not a fan of the show. Reluctantly, I sat through the episode. In this particular show, they visited the Pythian Home in Springfield, Missouri. I had no prior knowledge to the location, so I just sat there and listened to what was presented on the program, knowing all too well that everything they say has to be taken with a grain of salt, because most of the time their research is shoddy (to put it mildly). 

When the subject matter came up in regards to the suicides at the "castle," I was intrigued, especially since they claimed to have a bunch of death records. They mentioned that over 100 people died there, and they made it seem as if all these deaths that occurred on the property were either suspicious, violent suicides, or even a possible murder. They also insinuate that a spirit could be causing residents to kill themselves, given the fact that one of the tour guides lost her brother to suicide shortly after his stay there.

After watching the episode I felt compelled to find out the truth about the home so that others could learn the facts surrounding the deaths at Pythian Castle, especially the suicides that took place on the property. As I had suspected, a lot of misinformation has been sensationalized to make the property seem scarier than it is. Let's look at some of the early history before we get to the deaths at the property.

History of the Home

According to the Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri), the Pythian Home was proposed and approved in August of 1909, at a board meeting held in Kansas City. 

"The site for the proposed $100,000 home for the Missouri Pythians, which was selected by the board of managers at a meeting held in Kansas City Saturday, is a tract of land comprising fifty-three acres, three blocks east of the eastern limits of Springfield. The tract is high and rolling and fully half of it is covered with native forest trees. The land cost $15,000. Springfield's offer for the Home included a free site extension of water, gas mains to the home and free water for a period of one year." --(9/2/1909)

By October of 1911, the Marshall Republican reported that J.H. Sutton & Company had been awarded the contract for constructing the castle, while the design was left to the architectural firm Smith, Rea and Lovitt. 

"Awarding the contract for the Missouri Pythian Home, to be built in Springfield, to J.H. Sutton & Company of Bethany, Mo., for $100,000 the Board of Managers of the Missouri Pythians Grand Lodge in the annual meeting in Kansas City last week, concluded what it feels to be one of the most important steps ever inaugurated by any similar fraternal organization in the state. It is a matter which will mean much to the residents of Springfield, in as much as the new structure, which is to be one of the finest homes ever built by a fraternal organization, will also be one of the handsomest structures ever erected in Springfield." -- (11/2/1911)

The groundbreaking was started on November 22, 1911. The cornerstone was laid in  May of 1912, and the structure was finished by 1913. On June 1, 1914, it officially opened as a rest home for elderly Knights of the Pythias, their widows and orphans of former members. This sort of facility was also commonplace with other fraternal organizations such as the Masons. Back in those days there were no special rest homes and no sort of Social Security, so if you were elderly and did not have family to care for you, or some sort of lasting pension or independent wealth to hire some sort of caretaker, you were out of luck. With the Knights of the Pythias, they wanted to care for their own. 

They also wanted to care for the orphans of their former members instead sending them to a typical orphanage. I have found some articles online mentioning that some of the people who stayed there as children hated living there and that some ran away because of what they felt was harsh treatment.  Since most of the people at the property were elderly, they were probably very strict, so young children and teenagers might have disliked their stay there, but without actual witness accounts proving that there was actual abuse there, I am not going to make any insinuations against anyone. 

During the time that the home was in operation under the charge of the Knights of the Pythias, the home never had more than 50 people living there at any given time. It was open from 1914 up until the end of March, 1942, which is when the Army moved onto the property and the residents of the Pythian Home moved to 629 Campbell Street, Springfield, which was a much smaller location. 

Deaths On The Property

Since the "Home" was mainly for the elderly, as expected there would be a large number of deaths on the property. This is not strange and this is not scary. It just is what it is. If you have ever worked at a rest home you would know that it is a sad revolving door of the older ones passing away, and newer ones moving in. My sister worked at an assisted living facility for many years, and she grew attached to some of the older ones. So it was very hard for her when they would pass on. I have known many people who have also worked at facilities that care for the elderly and every person told me they chose other job opportunities because it really took an emotional toll on them over time.

The facts are, the Pythian Home would have had many deaths there, but most of the death records I found show that the elderly ones died from things like: chronic rheumatism, liver cancer, old age (yes it said that!), apoplexy, arteriosclerosis, myocarditis, pneumonia, stomach cancer, etc.....and the list goes on and on. Basically, the people who died there, died of natural causes for the most part. There isn't anything spooky about that. Unfortunately, it is the natural cycle of life.

The National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for the Pythian Home of Missouri states that "over the years, there would be 105 burials - 103 elderly and two children, both 14 years of age." In a footnote it states, "Many of the deaths, including the home's two suicides, occurred on site - one in 1940 and the other in 1942."

At the present date, I have not been able to locate the names or dates of the two adolescents who perished on the property, but I was able to locate the history of the two suicides (both who were elderly). Yes, there have only been two suicides. That's it. 

1st Suicide - Jess Rey

Jess Rey was a tough one for me to find. I didn't hear anyone mention his name on the Ghost Adventure's show, only that a man shot himself in the head with a .22 long rifle. They didn't say much more about that, but insinuated that it would have been difficult for him to kill himself as if perhaps he didn't take his life at all. Well, before we go jumping to conclusions, let's look into just who Jess Rey was. 

Like I said, he was not easy to find. I only knew a nameless man died in January of 1940, by a gunshot wound to the head. I had pulled Census records of the property for 1940 and started there with each and every name listed. I then went over to the Missouri Death Records site and started searching but since I didn't have a name I had to search every person who died in Greene County in 1940. After sifting through the lists of names, I finally found the right guy.  

Jess Rey's Death Certificate

Jess Rey was born on December 15, 1861, in Switzerland. He immigrated to the United States in 1882 and worked as a miner. He married a French immigrant, Ismer sometime prior to 1891, because their first daughter, Emma was born sometime in 1891. Their second daughter listed on the 1900 Census is named Clara who at the time was three, meaning she was born around 1897, while their youngest, Julia was born around 1899.  The Census records also indicate that he had moved around quite a bit, from Kansas to Missouri, to Alabama and then of course we know he eventually came back to Missouri because that is where he died later on in 1940.  His death certificate mentions he was still married, so where his wife or adult daughters were at the time is unknown. The informant on his death record was English Gay, the man in charge of the Pythian Home.

So why did Mr. Rey choose to end his life? And why a gunshot to the head? Well, what Ghost Adventures chose to leave out of the story is that poor Mr. Rey was suffering from "carcinoma lip & metastasis" meaning he had cancer on his face and it had spread, and was killing him. No doubt he didn't want to suffer a long, agonizing death, and perhaps he was becoming disfigured by the cancer on his face to the point that he just couldn't handle it anymore. He probably didn't want to be a bigger burden on anyone else than he had to be, and so the idea of ending it as quick as possible is the likely story here.

Then the question comes to mind, would Mr. Rey have been able to shoot himself with a .22 long rifle, given the size of the gun? And also, is it strange that he would have a gun like that at place like that? 

To answer those questions I contacted gun expert and author Bob Shell, whom I have consulted with in past investigations for forensic insight. According to Bob, "Yes, a .22 long rifle round is very capable of killing someone. In fact they have been used to kill large animals including bears. If he stuck it in his mouth & pointed it upwards, it would instantly kill him if the brain was hit. It would have to be maneuvered in order to place the gun in his mouth so the bullet went straight up." Shell went on to elaborate that if the bullet did not penetrate the brain it would not instantly kill the victim, and the suffering would be prolonged, but that death would still more than likely occur. So the first answer is, yes, it is possible for a person to use a .22 long rifle to commit suicide.

As far as an old man having a long rifle in his room at an elderly care home in 1940? Bob Shell weighed in on this, too: "In the 1940's, guns were not regarded as evil as they are today. They taught gun safety in schools and used real guns for that purpose. So someone having a gun there 75 years ago would not have been a big deal. I can remember when I was a kid, teachers would bring their hunting guns to school so they could deer hunt after school let out for the day. They were kept in lockers and no one cared." 

Times have changed over the years, so things were not so strict back then as far as standards with guns or weapons, meaning that any one of those old timers could have had their guns with them in their rooms and it would never have crossed anyone's mind as being odd or inappropriate. Only today people think about those things, so no, I do not think him having a .22 long rifle among his belongings was suspicious at all.

In Mr. Rey's case, again, I think he chose to take his own life because he was dying of cancer, and perhaps a bullet to the head sounded a little less terrible than a slow, painful death. Could you blame him?

His death certificate stated that he was to be buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Springfield; However, it appears at the last minute it was decided that he be interred at Hazelwood Cemetery instead. 

(Photo Courtesy of Judy Young) 

2nd Suicide - William Renzenbrink

Now we are at the 2nd and last suicide at the Pythian Castle. William Renzenbrink ended his life on February 8, 1942, by slitting his throat with a razor. Mr. Renzenbrink was born on October 19, 1867 in Germany. By the time he was 17 years old he immigrated to the United States. According to his death certificate it claims that his previous employment had been as a laborer/contractor. What I found really interesting is that in the 1940 Census, which he is listed as a resident at the Pythian Home, at the very bottom of the page it states that his previous job was "veterinarian."  Why he listed that as a former occupation is anyone's guess, since his highest level of education listed was only 6 years of schooling. Still, I felt that was worth noting. 

On William's death record, it does not give us a lot of information besides his date of birth and date of death. It mentions he was divorced and there is a # 3 next to it, so I am assuming it means he divorced three times? Or perhaps that was a typo on the part of the person filling out the certificate. 

William Renzenbrink's Death Certificate

Another thing worth noting since one of my readers mentioned the fact that this location was also visited by another paranormal show that claimed an object belonging to William was causing the haunting there. Allegedly, this object was a German medallion from the Franco-Prussian war and I guess they tried to insinuate it was his medal? 

Well, there are two holes in that theory:

1. William was born in 1867 and the Franco-Prussian war happened 1870 and 1871, so unless William was the youngest soldier in history, serving at the age of 3 years old, that is not possible! (Yes, I am being a smart ass here, but come on!) 

2. The 1940 Census also adds that William was not a veteran of any war and never served in the military.

Bottom line is that the "medallion" found by John Zaffis and his team on the episode of "The Haunted Collector" did not belong to William.  There have been so many people in and out of that place for so long, there is no way to trace where it came from unless there was a name on it, like what you find on the back of a Purple Heart medal. 

What we do know is that on the evening of February 8, 1942, William Renzenbrink ended his life in a very gruesome manner. So the question now is, why?

Well, I think I may have an answer for you. You see, an article dated December 30, 1941, in the Springfield Leader and Press mentions that the Army was taking over the building. This was due to WWII. At that point they offered the Grand Lodge of the Pythias about a third of what the property was worth, but it was still going to be taken by eminent domain regardless, so the Lodge had no other choice but to accept the offer. They had 90 days to find another place to move. When William killed himself they only had a little over a month and a half left there, and perhaps he just couldn't bring himself to leave. Maybe change was difficult for him in his old age. It is possible he just couldn't handle being uprooted to another place. 

Why he chose that particular method to end his life (by cutting his throat) is a question none of us will ever be able to answer. Maybe he didn't have access to a gun?  We could theorize till the cows come home but some things we just will never know definitively.  

William Renzenbrink was buried at Hazelwood Cemetery, just like Jess Rey and many of the other elderly residents who passed away at the Pythian Home over the years.

(Photo Courtesy Judy Young)


In ending, I do not believe that the Pythian Castle is ominous or evil, nor do I think it has entities trying to cause people to commit suicide as the Ghost Adventures show seemed to insinuate. All logical conclusions seem indicate that these two deaths were just simply suicides. There is no proof whatsoever that points to them being anything other than that. 

Do I think the place haunted? Who knows. I am not going to say either way. What I will say is that this place is full of history, from its early beginnings to its time used by the Army as O'Reilly's Service Club, which I haven't even touched on. I will save that for another time.

What I set out to do with this blog was to uncover the stories and the names of the two men who committed suicide here, and I am happy that I was able to do just that. Let us never forget William Renzenbrink and Jess Rey, as well as all of the people who stepped through those doors of the Pythian Home over the years, who have all now passed on. Each person's life is worth honoring and remembering, no matter how they died. 

(Copyright 2017- J'aime Rubio,  www.jaimerubiowriter.com )

Thanks to Bob Shell for his forensic insight.
Thank you to Judy Young for the photos of the graves.

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