San Francisco's haunted history
November 30, 2010 6:04 PM
The golden glow of a lantern dances across the eager faces of the crowd. A wrinkled hand lifts the light higher, illuminating tawny, brown eyes. "Your guide into the supernatural," says Jim Fassbinder, opening his mouth while gray mustache and long beard sway slightly in the breeze. Wearing a caped, black trench coat, vest, and top hat, Fassbinder looks as though he has stepped out of the pages of Victorian era history. However, he is a modern day ghost hunter and tour guide, dedicated to revealing San Francisco's paranormal side to its bravest citizens. He begins his tour, turning to his guests and chillingly disclaims, "I'll really love it if something strange happens to you tonight."
Founded in 1776, San Francisco has a long and rich history that includes major events like the California Gold Rush and the devastating earthquake of 1906. Many, like Fassbinder, believe lost souls from such historic events continue to roam the city streets. He has been leading the San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour around the city's Pacific Heights neighborhood for more than twelve years. "[This tour is] a chilling adventure that will introduce you to San Francisco's most notorious ghosts," says Fassbinder.
San Francisco is the seventh most haunted city in the nation, according to Haunted America Tours, an online website dedicated to finding the nation's most haunted places and scariest ghost tours.
But what is a ghost? "I've come to believe that ghosts are energy forms created by extreme emotion, somehow stuck in time," says Fassbinder. These so-called energy forms have been haunting the Pacific Heights area for over a century, including the Queen Anne Hotel, the starting point of Fassbinder's tour.
The Queen Anne Hotel at 1590 Sutter Street looks like a pretty, pink dollhouse to those walking the streets of the Pacific Heights neighborhood. An exemplary form of early Victorian architecture, the Queen Anne was built in 1890 by Senator James G. Fair. The building was originally used as a preparatory school for young women called Miss Mary Lake's School for Girls. Miss Mary Lake, the head mistress, ended up with a broken heart when the finishing school closed after only nine years. In 1980, it was converted into a hotel and now contains one permanent guest: the ghost of Mary Lake.
Mary Lake's spirit is said to reside in her old office--Room 410. According to recorded accounts, guests are said to have awoken, after falling asleep on top of their bed covers, with a blanket tucked warmly around them. Mary Lake cared for her students in a similar manner. Ghosts are also known to manifest themselves in the form of cold air spots. One such spot is said to float through the halls of the Queen Anne, exactly how Mary would once patrol the halls. Mary has never caused harm or inspired fear. "Mary is the friendliest ghost I've ever met," says Linda Petery, a guest of the hotel who once stayed in Room 410.
Along with cold spots, spirits can make themselves known by manifesting into smoke-like apparitions. San Francisco City Hall is one haunted location riddled with such ghosts. Rob Spoor, a tour guide for the free City Guides Ghost Walk through City Hall that takes place every Halloween, has experienced first-hand the sight of an apparition.
One evening after a tour, Spoor left the Board of Supervisors Chamber, turning off all lights and locking up behind him. He quickly realized that he had forgotten his binder of ghost stories sitting on one of the wooden desks. As he returned to the room, a small, bright white orb of light caught his eye. Spoor circled it and tried to find a possible cause, but failed. "There was no possible source of light," says Spoor. "Then it just faded and disappeared. One ghost was making itself known to me, and I was quite happy."
This isn't the only time Spoor has met a ghost. During one of his ghost walks last year, Spoor was speaking with some guests when he felt a poke in his back. Assuming it was a poke from someone wishing to pass behind him, Spoor stepped to the side and waited. When nobody emerged from behind his back, Spoor turned around and found the space empty. "There was nothing strange about it, just a poke in the back," says Spoor. "I believe it was just a playful ghost letting me know he or she was there."
According to reports compiled by Spoor, workers within City Hall have been treated to many paranormal encounters. From doors and cabinets banging shut, lights turning on and off by themselves to dark shadows seen roaming through hallways with no earthly explanation, the ghosts within City Hall love to make themselves known. Such consistent activity can be linked to the land's past, says Spoor. The ground beneath both City Hall and Civic Center Plaza was once home to the city's largest cemetery. The remains were sloppily dug up and moved to Colma to make room for construction. It is believed that these disturbed spirits linger around and within the structures now sitting on the land.
Along with his tour of City Hall, Spoor has also been leading a ghost walk through the haunted Palace Hotel, located at 2 New Montgomery Street, for the past ten years. Spoor's primary thrill when telling ghost stories is trying to get people to open their minds. "People should keep an open mind because you cannot always explain away these stories," says Spoor.
The former site of Mary Ellen Pleasant's mansion is another spooky San Francisco location. Mary Ellen, some know her as the Voodoo Queen of San Francisco, resided at the intersection of Bush and Octavia, where the Healing Arts Building now stands. The mansion was referred to as the House of Mysteries, where she and her followers would practice dark voodoo magic.
A row of large Eucalyptus trees remains along the sidewalk outside where this mansion once stood. Mary Ellen planted these trees, where she would have once been seen furiously shouting and madly pacing back and forth. Passers on this corner sometimes felt a sharp slap of pain on the back of their heads, as gum nuts from the trees were inexplicably thrown at them. "The nuts have been thrown at myself and my tour guests many times," says Fassbinder. "When this happens, we know Mary Ellen is with us."
If you are an amateur ghost hunter hoping to catch a glimpse of a spirit, Fassbinder has advice for you. "It helps to get the ghosts' attention by talking about them by name," says Fassbinder. "But don't mess with their surroundings, 'cause then you'll just annoy them."
There is one ghost who holds the title of San Francisco's most famous spirit, according to Fassbinder. Flora Summerton was a bright young woman who lived in the city at the turn of the twentieth century. At the age of 18, Flora ran away from her comfortable, affable home to avoid an arranged marriage. The lonely ghost of Flora has been sighted numerous times roaming along California Street near Octavia Street miserable over having gone from riches to rags. "A whole cable car full on passengers along the California Street line once saw her," says Fassbinder. "And a little girl on my tour did too, describing her as 'the girl made out of cigarette smoke.'"
Spoor says it would be impossible not to be haunted with so many stories and evidence about ghosts within the city. "It would be pretty amazing to even consider that it not be," says Spoor. "Considering the history, it would be inconceivable that we wouldn't have a significant haunted history."
Despite this, there remain many nonbelievers. "It's just such a happy place," says Jamie Wells, a San Francisco State student who has lived in the city for five years. "The city as a whole is so bright, it's hard to believe it's haunted." Fellow San Franciscan, Sherisse Utodor shares the same sentiment; "I don't believe in weird things," says Sherisse. "To me, ghosts are like the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny."
Through ghost walks, however, believers have been made. Alica Huerta took the ghost tour of City Hall, going in a skeptic and coming out a believer. "So many people have had experiences, it has to be true," says Huerta. Spoor agrees that there is just too much evidence not to believe. "All types of people have the same stories, year after year," says Spoor. "There's so much consistency. Clearly there's got to be something to it."
For those brave souls willing to tempt the ghosts of San Francisco into making them believe, Fassbinder would love to have you. "I want us all to have a real supernatural encounter," says Fassbinder. "I will do my best for you to raise the spirits."
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