Sands W. Hopkins (1859-1887). Courtesy of the Kansas City Star

Scarier than a ghost story: the haunted life of a Kansas City socialite

Newspaper accounts from 1876 were the first to mention the puzzling character known as Sands Hopkins – a man whose short, privileged life so often involved predicaments, partying and loaded pistols. 

By Diane Euston

  Perhaps there were ghosts lurking along the levee – the line of Kansas City’s first businesses between current-day Grand Ave. and Delaware Streets. It was the location of Westport Landing where steamboats docked once upon a time pre-railroad and unloaded masses of passengers on their way to their final destination.

  Strange stories circulated the headlines in 1876 when the newspaper reported that some paranormal creature emerged from near an old warehouse night after night. Described as being a female dressed in white “with a fleshless face and burning eyeballs,” the alleged ghost would float and disappear into the bluffs.

  It startled so many people that the police got involved. Two officers were tasked with investigating on one dark night. Carrying pistols, ropes, lanterns and holy water, the officers spotted the ghost and chased after it. One officer struggled with “one of the most powerful and repulsive objects imaginable.” Before it could be captured, it disappeared into thin air.

  A few weeks later, two young men in their mid-20s made their way down to the levee to investigate. Equipped with “pistols, matches, lamps and courage,” Sands Hopkins and his friend headed toward the four story Gilliss House Hotel. Although it had been out of use as a hotel for several years, a family living inside the old hotel complained of ghosts startling them in the middle of the night. 

  Sands Hopkins was familiar with the location; he “had spent many of his early years in the building near the reported haunt and rendezvous of the ghost.” Because he had once lived at Gilliss House, Sands figured he’d be “the most likely to recognize and obtain information from the specter.” They decided to spend the night.

  Banging doors, whispers and the creaking of the floors drew the men from their slumber. With their guns drawn, they followed something white moving away from them and into the oldest section of Gilliss House. They pursued the shadowy white figure through various rooms, firing upon it when they saw movement.

  The next morning, Sands and his friend “discovered a large white dog lying dead in the attic with bullet holes in its body.” 

  The alleged ghosts along the levee and inside Gilliss House remain a mystery. These newspaper accounts from 1876 were the first to mention the puzzling character known as Sands Hopkins – a man whose short, privileged life so often involved predicaments, partying and loaded pistols. 

Gilliss House on the levee in 1867 was run by the Hopkins brothers. Image courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collections, KCPL.

Sands W. Hopkins’ Early Life

  Born in Kentucky in 1859, Sands moved to Kansas City as a small baby with his parents, Dr. William and Elizabeth Hopkins. By 1860, his father had taken over ownership and management of the famous Gilliss House Hotel, a four-and-a-half story brick structure equipped with a steeple with a bell in it to be rung at mealtimes. 

  Built in 1849 by Dr. Benoist Troost, the Gilliss House Hotel was the most fashionable of the accommodations offered in fledgling Kansas City. Nestled in between Wyandotte and Delaware, the hotel featured a 60-foot-long table and one room with 20 beds for those who couldn’t afford the private rooms available. 

  The hotel was under the joint ownership of Sands’ father and uncle, Charles Hopkins (1820-1896).   When his father passed away in 1867 and his mother in 1869, young Sands was left in the care of his unmarried uncle, Charles. All of Dr. Hopkins’ extensive real estate was placed in the control of his brother in order to take care of his son. Sands was sent away to the University of Notre Dame where he excelled in his studies and was on the honor roll. Charles tried to sell the famous Gilliss House Hotel to the city to be used as a hospital, but plans fell through. Although not in operation as a hotel at the time, the massive structure was inhabited by Charles until 1883, his nephew visiting and spending summers at the location.

  Sands tended to like to have a good time – especially involving whiskey, gambling and girls. His uncle thought it would take quite a miracle for him to ever settle down. “Up to the time of his marriage,” the Kansas City Times wrote, “Hopkins had sown enough wild oats to create a dozen corners in that popular commodity.”

Charles G. Hopkins (1820-1897) Courtesy the Kansas City Times

  After returning from Notre Dame, Sands met a beautiful and intelligent young woman from south of Independence, Mo. named Fannie Magee. In January 1881, the two united in marriage. Charles breathed a sigh of relief and spoke of their happiness. “They were like two children,” he told the Kansas City Times.

  Unfortunately, wedded bliss would not last long.

A Tragic Accident?

  Just two weeks after their second wedding anniversary on Jan. 29, 1883, Sands and his 24-year-old wife put away their horse in the barn after a visit into town. Around 2 pm, Fannie sat down in a rocking chair in the parlor near the stove and picked up the book she had been reading. Ironically, the book was called “A Day of Fate.”

  Sands later reported that he had noticed some rabbit tracks near the barn, and he pulled out his shotgun so it could be ready if the rabbit returned.

  “I proceeded to load it and clean the locks,” Sands told the newspaper.

  The left barrel was already loaded when Sands went into the room where his wife was reading and sat directly across from her. He let the gun barrel rest partially across his arm and leg while he used oil to clean it. “As I pulled back the hammer of the barrel, it slipped out of my fingers and then the gun went off with a noise like thunder,” Sands recalled. In that flash, his wife fell over against the wall.

  “The charge of [the gun] tore my poor wife’s head partially off, but when I grabbed her, she was dead,” Sands told the Kansas City Times. “Oh my God, it was awful, awful!” 

  Her head was so damaged from the blow of the shotgun that at her funeral, a cloth covered her face. Sands, it was reported, was devastated. There was no investigation into her death, and after a quiet funeral, Fannie was buried at Union Cemetery.

  Nine months later, further tragedy rippled the already unstable waters of Sands’ life. Just as he was beginning to emerge from his depression, “an event occurred which again threw him off his mental balance and deepened the dark shadow which hung over his life.”  

  On Nov. 8, 1883, Sands’ deceased wife’s family was splashed across the headlines. H. Clay Magee , Fannie’s father, was at one time a successful and well-off politician in Cynthiana, Ky. who traveled back and forth between Kentucky and Missouri.

  Magee’s farm four miles southwest of Independence was isolated from the road and neighbors, so no one knew what lay in wait for his younger children who were returning home from school.

  There, three children under the age of 15 walked into the home to find the bodies of their father, mother and older sister. Fannie’s parents were dead.

  Detectives determined that Magee shot his wife in the chest with a shotgun, shot his daughter in the back and then went upstairs to take morphine, ending his own life. The newspapers said he was “a man of violent temper, amounting almost to a frenzy at times” and had come from Kentucky “where it is said he once killed a man.”

  Records do indicate that he did shoot a man three times in 1878 “during a heated discussion on political matters” in the streets in Cynthiana, Ky. The man died of his injuries. Magee was found not guilty.

  Sands was surrounded by tragedy in 1883, the worst being the loss of his wife. It was said that this incident is what led Sands back into his old, dangerous ways. The Kansas City Times wrote, “No excesses became too steep for him. He gambled and drank inordinately, and his expenditures were awful to contemplate.”

he Empire Court apartments were once owned by Sands and Charles Hopkins and built in 1882. They were razed in 1961. Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star.

Travel, Gambling and Threats

  It was hard for Charles to keep an eye on his out-of-control nephew. Instead of giving up the properties left to Sands, Charles managed over them and gave him an allowance. 

  By 1882, Charles had developed some of his extensive landholdings into elegant apartments on 10th Street in Quality Hill. Appearing as two buildings, the luxury apartments featured Victorian turrets and gingerbread trimmings outside and winding, carved wooden staircases, high ceilings, decorated fireplaces and wide doors leading to an extensive floral garden. Those living in the place were required to wear formal attire to elegant dinners hosted in the dining room.

  Charles and Sands both moved into their own stylish rooms inside 418 W. 10th St. where two unmarried sisters, Sarah and Hattie Calvert leased the building and ran the operation.

  When Sands wasn’t entertaining a plethora of friends inside this home, he was traveling. In 1885, he went with Thomas H. Swope to Europe. A year later, he traveled with Mrs. Kersey Coates, Mrs. George C. Bingham, Arthur Coates and Fred Bullene to Paris and Rome. He decorated his rooms “with flowers as well as works of Italian art, a very choice collection of which was secured by him during his recent rambles in Europe.”

  Sands never seemed to have a job, but the generous allowance given to him by his uncle seemed to never run dry; his uncle said Sands scarcely knew the value of a dollar. The lands that Charles managed over and co-owned with his nephew were worth a fortune; even as fashionable Quality Hill was packed with some of the area’s biggest mansions, they still held onto real estate on Washington St. that had yet to be developed.

  On June 3, 1887, Sands made headlines as two gunshots echoed through the posh Quality Hill neighborhood and Joseph E. Gavin rushed out the doors of 418 W. 10th St. 

  Sands had little control over his actions or his pocketbook when he got some whiskey in him. This led to extensive gambling debts and many upscale poker games at the boarding house where he lived. Gavin, also a resident there, claimed Sands owed him $400 and casually reminded him of this. Gavin told him that he didn’t want to have to expose the debt to others.   

  At dinnertime, a drunk Sands approached Gavin and put a gun up to his face – Sands warned him that if he exposed him, he would kill him. Later that evening, Sands burst into a room and approached Gavin with a whip in one hand and a gun in the other. Gavin ran from the room as Sands cracked the whip in his face. As Gavin exited the room through the doorway, Sands fired and missed. He chased him through a doorway connecting the two buildings and fired again. 

  When he couldn’t find Gavin, Sands stumbled upstairs and went to bed. No charges were filed.

  Three weeks later, Sands was back in the headlines. Around midnight, he went to the stables to retrieve his horse. The clerk saw how drunk he was and “reminded him that he was too much under the influence to go riding.” Sands tried to hit the clerk and demanded an apology. A short time later, Sands returned and pointed a 38 Smith & Wesson in the clerk’s face. A tussle ensued until the police arrived and arrested Sands.

  He spent the night in jail and paid a $200 fine the next day. 

The Downward Spiral

  With things crumbling in Kansas City, Sands decided to head back over the pond to Europe in the late summer of 1887. His paranoia and alcoholism were on the rise, so he opted to hire E.A. Hickman, “a familiar light in sporting circles,” to accompany him as his bodyguard. Hickman was instructed to “slug any person or persons who might incur the displeasure of Mr. Hopkins on his tour.” 

  He was to be paid $100 per month and all of the expenses. Those who knew Sands “were talking and laughing over the strange contract and making bets on Mr. Hickman reaching home alive.”

  After only six days in Europe, Sands and his companion returned home in November 1887. Stating he was in ill health, Sands immediately took off for Hot Springs, Ark. where he quickly became indebted to gamblers there.

  When he returned in December, Sands was drinking constantly and had threatened suicide many times. His uncle tried to keep a close eye on him, but there was little he could do.

A drawing of Sands Hopkins’ untimely death. Courtesy the Kansas City Star

  On Dec. 13, 1887, Sands stepped into the parlor at 418 W. 10th St., highly intoxicated. He turned to Ms. Hattie Calvert, the boarding house manager, and announced, “I want you to testify to the world that I have never wronged anybody but myself.”

  With that, Sands gulped the contents of a small bottle and exclaimed, “I have taken poison!”

  The event was so dramatic that Calvert didn’t believe it was real. It wasn’t until he fell going up the stairs and she examined the bottle that she realized he had taken laudanum. After Charles emerged from his room, they called for a doctor.

  At first he refused help or to take emetic “until his uncle told him he would call the police and force him.” He finally agreed to take the emetic that forced him to vomit. It seemed he would be in the clear, but around nine the next morning, Sands Hopkins died.

  He was 28 years old.

  His uncle declared, “Had his wife lived he would have been a different man.” Hattie Calvert claimed that he died heartbroken over the wreck he made of himself.

  Although Sands Hopkins died with extensive property, his personal debts added up to $35,000. 

Rest in Peace

  What was left of Sands’ real estate was left to his uncle. Charles G. Hopkins died at the age of 76 in 1896 at the boarding house where his nephew took his last breath. With no close family in the area, he left his money to a business partner named Thomas M. Barr (1843-1923) who also lived in the boarding house. He willed the impressive building to its manager of 14 years, Hattie Calvert.

  In 1900, Barr and Calvert were married. They held onto the boarding house at 418 W. 10th St. and lived there. When Hattie died in 1934, she willed the Victorian building, known as Empire Court, to a niece. In 1961, Quality Hill lost a massive treasure when the building was razed to make way for a parking lot.

The 1940 tax photo showcases the impressive Victorian apartments where Sands and his uncle, Charles lived at 418 W. 10th St. Photo courtesy of State Historical Society of Missouri

  Charles Hopkins removed the bodies of his brother, sister-in-law, Fannie and Sands from Union Cemetery and reinterred them at Elmwood Cemetery where he was later buried. The Hopkins family made their mark in early Kansas City when they occupied the Gilliss House on the levee and purchased prime real estate that lined their pocketbooks. 

  Ghosts were supposedly spotted in that spooky location- the Gilliss House Hotel –  long abandoned. A young, impressionable socialite named Sands Hopkins searched for the answers along the levee to those ghost stories – unaware that in just ten years, his life would be shrouded in tragedy. Today, he is hopefully at rest with his beloved Fannie by his side.

Charles G. Hopkins left money in his will for an impressive monument at Elmwood Cemetery; surrounding it are the graves of Sands Hopkins and his wife, Fannie.

Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to 


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