It’s hard to imagine that less than a mile south of the Country Club Plaza, a high end shopping district in Kansas City, Missouri, lies the location of one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War. The Battle of Westport, often referred as the Gettysburg of the West, was one of the largest battles fought west of the Mississippi River located at present day Loose Park. Across from Loose Park resides the John Wornall House Museum, once the prized home of a wealthy landowner it became a field hospital used by both the Union and the Confederate armies during the Battle of Westport. Today it’s a refurbished museum open for guided tours and also a renowned paranormal hot spot.
John B. Wornall inherited the land where the manor presently sits from his father Richard who had prospered immensely from crop sales, largely due to the number of settlers seeking food and supplies for their journeys west on the Mormon, Oregon, and Sante Fe trails. John continued this trend and became one of the more financially successful farmers in Jackson County in the 1850’s. A well respected member of the community, John served as president of the Jackson County Agricultural and Mechanical Association, treasurer and moderator of the Big Blue Baptist Church, and a chairman on the William Jewell College Board of Trustees.
Perhaps as a symbol of showcasing his financial stability or to evoke images of Southern aristocracy to the western frontier (having been originally raised in Kentucky), John Wornall began constructing a Greek Revival manor positioned roughly 200 feet from the main road that led south from Westport. Working with local carpenters, the bricks were fired on site and sand was hauled from the nearby Missouri River (roughly 7 miles away). The house was completed in 1858 at an estimated cost of $4,500.
Unfortunately the peace and quiet of a new home would not last long. Tensions over the issue of slavery had exploded across the border in Kansas as Northern and Southern factions engaged in guerrilla warfare to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or slave state. The violence escalated and in 1861 the nation was in the midst of a great Civil War. The Battle of Westport took place in October of 1864 over the control of the border state of Missouri. The Union defeated an outnumbered Confederate army and won control of the state, securing any threat to the Northern states, however a heavy toll of 1500 soldiers were lost on each of the two sides. Throughout the battle and following days the, by then, abandoned Wornall Manor was used as a field hospital for both the Union and Confederacy at various times. Surgeries and amputations were performed on the main level (limbs were tossed out the window) and soldiers were carried upstairs to recover. Doors were taken off hinges for use as tables and transporting the wounded, the banister was also taken off the main stairwell so stretchers could fit to carry people upstairs.
Throughout the war John Wornall had many threats on his life from Northern and Southern groups alike. After the Battle of Westport his wife’s father was actually murdered by Bushwhackers (a pro-slavery guerrilla band) due to Union soldiers’ occupation of the Wornall home, and a letter was sent to John Wornall threatening his life if he ever returned to the manor. The Wornalls continued to live during and after the war in Kansas City at a separate location and did not return to the Wornall manor until 1874.
Touring the Wornall House Museum is a fascinating experience that takes guests on a guided tour through history. The house itself has been restored to its original state and each room is decorated with vintage furniture and artifacts from the 1850s including authentic heirlooms used by the Wornalls. The guides are very knowledgeable and demonstrate everyday activities of 19th century Missouri farm life such as cooking methods, dress attire, and room uses, as well as details on famous artwork. One of the highlights on display is a colonial suit John Wornall dressed up in for the American Independence Day centennial. Outside the house is a butterfly garden.
The guides are also well schooled in the life of slaves in Missouri and the Battle of Westport. The Wornalls did own four slaves: two men, a woman and her son. After Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they stayed on the farm as hired hands. As a tip, ask the tour guide to see the surgical kits and after the formal tour they will give a presentation on the amputation procedures (People sometimes feel faint during these, but remember they were necessary to save lives).
Fun Fact: Bed frames had ropes that supported the mattresses and often cranks were used to tighten them before use so they wouldn’t sag. Hence the term, Good night, sleep tight.
The past at the Wornall House also has a reputation of making itself present. Ghostly encounters have been so frequent that the museum itself hosts ghost tours and paranormal investigations. The knowledge that gruesome and traumatic surgical operations were conducted in the very rooms you walk through serves up an eerie and lingering atmosphere that can cause the hairs on your arm to stand on edge. One of the tour guides shared a story she felt was a little unnerving when closing up one night. She was locking the front door and felt something hit her lightly on the back, upon turning around she found a black top hat lying on the floor…absent from the coat rack across the room it normally occupied. Being alone in the house, she had no answer as to who had thrown the hat. Oddly I snapped a photo with my iphone of the hat on the rack when I toured the house last summer and noticed some eerie faces conjured on the right side of the mirror. I have no explanation as to what caused them, paranormal or not it provided a thrill. The carriage house outside is also supposed to be one of the most haunted locations on the premise. Oddly the tour guides did not like to talk about it and don’t highlight it at all in the tour.
The Wornall House Museum is an awesome destination to explore, with its rich Civil War history and spooky paranormal reputation, it is a great way to spend an afternoon and you are guaranteed to feel as if you stepped back in time.