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San Francisco's Most Haunted
by Dennis William Hauck
The term "ghost" is one of those words that is easy to define, but hard to comprehend. The popular view, that a ghost is the disembodied spirit of a deceased person, contains many unnerving assumptions, not the least of which is the immortality of the soul. But if there is life after death, why do ghosts spend their time haunting us? Do hauntings mean that we can never get rid of our enemies -- or for that matter, our lovers? Is there some unknown energy at work here, or are we just fooling ourselves?
In hopes of finding answers to such questions, serious researchers study the behavior of "disembodied spirits", wherever they can find them. San Francisco has plenty of well-documented hauntings to occupy the spiritual Sherlock Holmes, and for every published case, there are dozens of true stories in which the subjects refuse any publicity.
With that in mind, and in my official capacity as State Director of the Ghost Research Society, I offer the following candidates for San Francisco's Most Haunted.
When you check into the Mansions Hotel at 2220 Sacramento Street, be sure to tell the desk clerk if you want a Non-Haunting Room. The hotel consists of two magnificent mansions. The newer one is free of ghosts. The older one is haunted.
The hotel documents its uncanny history in a display that includes affidavits of witnesses, transcripts of seances, and photographs. For years, guests have complained about strange noises, cold shadows moving about, and even toilet seats flying across the room. Last year, a ghost materialized in front of several witnesses during a seance in a third floor suite. The ghost's photograph is now part of the hotel's haunted gallery.
In July 1992, a scientific study conducted by parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach discovered powerful forces in the old section. "The magnetometer went crazy," said Auerbach, "The whole building is active." The results confirmed the impressions of psychic Sylvia Brown, who sensed numerous spirits in the hotel.
In August, a man and his wife checked into a room in the old mansion. Ten minutes later, the man returned to the front desk in a state of shock. His face was ashen. His whole body was shaking. Something had frightened him badly, but he refused to talk about it. Since he had already checked in, the clerk was forced to charge him. "I don't care," the man said, "I just can't be here anymore!" "The man just didn't know there were ghosts in the hotel," quipped owner Bob Pritikin. "Not long ago," he continued, "another guy, a famous movie actor, saw several ghosts here. We get all kinds of weird things happening in this place."
San Francisco Art Institute
More hauntings are reported in the Russian Hill area than any other section of the city. The old cemetery there, now buried under tons of concrete construction, might be the source of the manifestations. At least a few of those lost souls seem to have found a home in the tower of the Art Institute at 800 Chestnut. The monastic tower, which is adjacent to the cemetery site, has been considered haunted for fifty years.
Bill Morehouse, a former student, was taking a break on the tower's third level when he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He watched in disbelief as the door opened and closed, and the invisible footsteps went past him to the observation deck. Other students, a watchman, and a janitor have also encountered apparitions climbing the stairs of the tower.
During remodeling of the tower, workers reported an evil presence that caused "breaking sounds", and three near-fatal accidents occurred. A group of psychics attempted to contact the presence during a seance, but they only succeeded in verifying the presence of many "frustrated" spirits.
Moss Beach Distillery
The gruesome ghost of a lady in a blue dress, soaked in blood, haunts an old speakeasy on Highway 1. Locals say she is the spirit of a young woman stabbed to death in front of this cliffside restaurant, nearly 70 years ago. She was murdered on the beach by her jealous lover, the piano player at the bar.
Waitresses, chefs, and customers have witnessed her
phantom standing near the piano or dancing alone in deserted rooms. Once, a boy ran screaming from the restroom, insisting that a lady covered in blood touched him. Her bloody figure was even spotted standing in the middle of the highway. Last year, two waitresses saw a stool tip over and do a somersault. On average, her ghost has been sighted once or twice every year for the last 50 years.
A few months ago, all the settings in the restaurant's automatic thermostat system were changed. The reprogramming would have taken most people three or four hours. "The company told me that there was no way it could have been done except manually," owner John Barber related, "but I had the only key!"
The two-story, white frame house at the end of Franklin Street is known as Quarters Three by Fort Mason personnel. It was here that U.S. Senator David Broderick died from a gunshot wound in a duel with State Supreme Court Justice David Terry.
The year was 1857. Justice Terry, an influential Southerner, wanted California to become a slave state. Senator Broderick was a tireless critic of a state law that declared freed slaves as fugitives, the property of anyone who apprehended them. When the two men faced each other, Broderick's gun went off accidently as he drew it from his holster. Terry fired anyway, striking the Senator in the chest. Three days later, Broderick died at the home of his close friend, Leonides Haskell.
The Senator had spent the night before the duel at Haskell's house, where he paced about fretfully all night. The house was later confiscated by the Union Army and remains
military quarters to this day. Many of the officers who lived there have seen the Broderick's ghost pacing back and forth, reliving his anguish the night before the confrontation.
Recently, Capt. James Lunn's family reported disembodied shadows moving back and forth in the parlor. Colonel Cecil Puckett felt someone following him around the house, even watching him in the shower. Capt. Everett Jones and his family experienced a variety of poltergeist activity -- until they stopped joking about the ghost. According to Capt. James Knight: "There's no doubt the house was haunted."
After the death of her husband in 1880, Dominga Atherton moved from her country estate to the city. The huge house at 1990 California Street became the residence of Dominga, her daughter Gertrude, and son-in-law George. The two ladies dominated George and ridiculed him publicly as "the weaker sex".
In 1887, in an attempt to get away from his feminine oppressors, George accepted an invitation to visit friends in Chile. After only a few days at sea, he died of kidney failure. His body was preserved in a barrel of rum and transferred to another ship back to San Francisco. When it was delivered, a surprised butler discovered his master pickled in rum.
The ladies started feeling that there were more spirits in that barrel than just rum. Convinced of George's lingering presence, they sold the mansion. The house changed hands many times, but in 1923 it became a boarding house.
Former tenants have told of roaming cold spots and unexplained knocking at their doors, and one boarder moved out after seeing a bevy of apparitions in the tower apartment. A
seance conducted by researcher Antoinette May and medium Sylvia Brown revealed four presences. One was the frail spirit of George. The others were the angry ghosts of Dominga, Gertrude, and the lady who ran the boarding house.
The red sandstone building at 2090 Jackson Street is known as a survivor. Not only did it survive the 1906 earthquake, when other buildings around it crumbled, but some say that the spirit of its original owner survived his own death. William Franklin Whittier's residence was completed in 1896, yet something in the basement of his mansion keeps bringing him back. His ghostly form has been sighted in the musty cellar several times.
Whittier was an active member of San Francisco's business community right up until his death in 1917 at the age of 85. His family sold his mansion in 1938 to the Deutsche Reich, and it became the city's German Consulate. After the war, Mortimer Adler's Philosphical Institute used the building as a retreat for scholars and great thinkers. Finally, in 1956, the California Historical Society acquired the house for its headquarters.
Over the years, several people have encountered a shadowy outline in the basement or felt an ice-cold presence there. Most believe it is Whittier's ghost, but former docent Mary Dierickx says: "My theory is that the ghost is his ne'er-do-well son, Billy. The presence is often felt in the basement near the servant quarters, and Billy lived for wine, women, and song."
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