Dead of Night - Chapter One

Like everyone who grew up in Chouteau Forest, Missouri, I knew the legend of the Cursed Crypt. The crypt was at Chouteau Forest University, one of the oldest academies in Missouri. The stories claimed that the restless spirit of a professor nicknamed Mean Gene Cortini had been causing death and destruction in the Forest for two centuries.

I’m Angela Richman, and I learned the legend of Mean Gene and the Cursed Crypt the same way many local teens did: around a campfire in the woods that gave the town of Chouteau Forest its name. When I first heard the tale, I was a gawky fifteen-year-old, the daughter of servants who worked on the Du Pres estate. I didn’t get many invitations to mingle with the cool kids, so when I was asked to join them, I sneaked out of the house one Saturday night to drink beer in a secluded part of the Forest.

It was a chilly March night, and the bare tree branches scraped together like old bones. I hated the bitter taste of the beer, but I wanted to adore my crush, high-school linebacker Danny Jacobs. The firelight turned Danny’s blond hair molten gold and highlighted his six-pack – the one under his tight T-shirt.

Alas, the only sparks that flew that night were from the crackling fire. Danny was devoted to the glamorous head cheerleader. He told us an ancient tale of adultery and betrayal, and we shivered in fear. All except the cheerleader, who was snuggled in Danny’s strong arms.

Here’s the tale, distilled from a thousand nights around local campfires:

The Cursed Crypt was a story of love gone wrong. What started as ordinary adultery unleashed two hundred years of plague, fire, floods and, finally, murder at Chouteau Forest University. The school was founded in 1820. The first president, Hiram Thaddeus Davis, was a grim, grave man with a grizzled beard and unforgiving eyes. He promised a well-rounded education in Latin, Greek, history, the Classics, mathematics and “moral philosophy.” Nobody knew what that was, but it didn’t seem to matter. The school was immediately successful. By 1822, the fledgling university was housed in a fine red-brick building and needed another professor.

Davis hired a brilliant scholar with a European pedigree, Eugene Franco Cortini, to teach Latin, Greek and biology. Cortini was devastatingly handsome, with thick black hair and sculpted features. He spoke five languages. He discovered two new species of American wild flowers – and named both after himself.

Cortini championed the theory of evolution long before Darwin. He wrote that Native Americans were really the lost tribes of Israel. And he preached that monogamy was “not a natural or healthy state for the animal kingdom.”

Cortini demonstrated his theory by having a passionate affair with Dolly, President Davis’s eighteen-year-old wife. Poor, balding Davis caught his curvy blonde wife in flagrante with Cortini, running her fingers through the professor’s thick black curls. Never mind where his hands were.

Cortini was fired on the spot, and banished from the campus. Before he left, he cursed the school on a dark windy night. Cortini stood in a circle of stones in front of the school, his hair wild and his black coat flaring, and shouted over the wind, “My Italian grandmother was a strega – a witch – and I inherited her powers. I am a streghone, a warlock. As long as I am banished from this school, death and disaster will fall upon it. As long as I am on the school grounds, it shall be safe.”

President Hiram Davis laughed while the pregnant Dolly Davis, imprisoned in her room, wept bitter tears. After cursing the school, the romantically handsome Cortini left for St. Louis, some forty miles east.

Two days after Cortini left, yellow fever struck the campus, carrying off six of its twenty students. Each month, another disaster hit the campus: lightning destroyed the huge oak in front of the school building. Disease killed the school’s milk cows. Chouteau Forest Creek flooded the fields where the school grew its crops.

Each time, President Davis dismissed these occurrences as unfortunate events and proudly declared that he “refused to give in to superstition.” He was a man of reason – until a fire broke out in the stables and killed his favorite black stallion.

That’s when President Davis invited Eugene Cortini to return to the campus. Cortini could no longer teach, but he was given a brick house to live in and conduct his research. The school flourished for seven years, and expanded to two buildings and a new dormitory.

Then Cortini died suddenly at age thirty-seven in 1845.

President Hiram Davis was taking no chances. He decreed that Cortini must be buried on campus, but he didn’t want the man’s grave on display. Cortini was buried in a crypt under the steps of the Main Building. His final resting place was hidden by a heavy iron door, but Cortini wasn’t forgotten. Students and staff whispered about the late Eugene Cortini, and noticed that Hiram Davis’s oldest son had thick black hair. Both his parents were blond.

Shortly after Cortini was in his crypt, President Davis died. But his school lived on, and so did the legend of Mean Gene Cortini. Every seven years, a disaster struck the school. The school tried to placate Cortini’s restless spirit by lining his crypt with marble. In 1857, a Victorian administration added a marble divan with a tasseled marble pillow, guarded by two weeping angels. A marble slab on the wall proclaimed the tomb was “Sacred to the memory of Eugene Franco Cortini, scholar, teacher, and researcher.”

These improvements didn’t work. The seven-year disaster cycle continued. While the school prospered, the legend lingered like a cloud over the campus.

More than a hundred years later, Chouteau Forest’s crafty one percent figured out how to make money out of the ancient tragedy. In the 1980s, the University Benefactors’ Club started auctioning off  “A Night in Mean Gene’s Cursed Crypt.”

The money went to benefit Chouteau Forest University, which soon had a fat endowment.

The prize was a big one: if any auction winner could stay the full night in the Cursed Crypt, they would be granted membership in the elite Chouteau Founders Club, which ran the Forest. The winners’ future in the Forest would be guaranteed.

So far, only one person had stayed the night in the gloomy crypt.

I was forty-one now, long past drinking beer while listening to ghost stories. I worked for the Chouteau County Medical Examiner’s office as a death investigator. That meant I was in charge of the body at the scene of a murder, an accident or an unexplained death. It had been more than a quarter of a century since I’d first heard the legend of Cursed Crypt in the night-struck woods, and I didn’t believe a word of it.

Until I saw the bodies.

© Elaine Viets and Severn House


Published on  March 26th, 2023