Room with a Boo
Jerry Ward’s a cautious man. Feeling the effects of a lively party at Mokelumne Hill’s Hotel Leger, he took a room for the night rather than drive the treacherous Jesus Maria Road to his home some twenty miles away.
Ward’s sound sleep ended abruptly. He wakened suddenly smelling the acrid odor of burnt wood. Switching on a the light, Ward found the room charred almost beyond recognition. A woman knelt in the corner, keening miserably and cradling a baby in her arms.
As he watched frozen with fear, the image slowly faded. The woman disappeared and the room resumed its normal appearance.
“Well, that surely sobered me up!” Ward says today. “I knew I’d never get back to sleep so I got up, dressed and drove home.”
That’s one story. The Hotel Leger (pronounced “luh-zhay”) has many. A hub of Mother Lode activity since 1851, the building once included the county courthouse with a convenient downstairs dungeon and a hanging tree out back.
George Leger built the inn. A fire destroyed it in 1854—could Ward have relived the grim aftermath?— but within a year Leger and his wife, Louisa, were back in business.
The 1870 census no longer lists Mrs. Leger but there’s a daughter named Louisa. The story goes the mother died in childbirth. Does that explain the eerie sounds of a woman crying that hotel guests report?
Stories proliferate. In Room 2, visitors see a Victorian woman. In Room 3, it’s a little boy. Maids make beds in Rooms 10 and 11,then return to find them torn up. The wildest story is the midnight cattle drive down Main Street—sounds of mooing, hoof beats and cowbells. Guests—as well as Ashley Canty, a current owner—have rushed to the window only to see a dark, deserted street.
Ashley’s mother, Jane Canty, cleaned the dining room after a party, using three keys to lock three doors before leaving late at night. She returned the next morning, unlocked the doors and found the room in disarray. Tables were shoved together. Dishes, glasses and silver used. “A hoax seems unlikely,” she says. “It was so elaborate—a lot of trouble to execute and difficult to conceal.”
The hotel owners called in Bay Area Paranormal Investigators, a ghost busting team headed by Mark Boccuzzi. Dagmar Morrow, a Mountain View medium, accompanied the squad. At first she felt overwhelmed by impressions “So many spirits are connected to the hotel,” she said. “Imagine 150 years of passion and intrigue. Some are mischievous. They tease: ‘Find out about us if you can’.”
Slowly, Morrow sorted them out. In the dungeon, desperate men speculated on their fate. In the lobby George appeared, still keeping tabs on the hotel.
Morrow’s most vivid image was the “Gray Lady,” a thirtyish woman wearing Victorian clothing—nipped in waist, lace at the cuffs and neckline, a short frilly apron. “She was shy, diffident, looked at me questioningly as if asking, ‘Is everything alright?’ Some of the young women investigators were drawing diagrams of the hotel. She didn’t approve of them sitting on the floor, didn’t think it ladylike.”
While Morrow communed with her Gray Lady, Boccuzzi detected an electromagnetic anomaly; a column of energy recorded on his tri field meter. When he tested the spot later, the anomaly was gone.
I’ve always liked such stories. The scarier the better. When the tale was told, I’d laugh and say, “Naturally, no sensible person believes such things.” Now I’m not so sure. Consider the case of San Francisco’s Hotel Union Square. Concierge Tom Steele says guests like the hotel so much that some never check out.
Recently a young Scot traveling with his grandmother complained to Steele that a woman ghost appeared to him in Room 207. “She’s friendly—too friendly. I was up most of the night closing the bathroom door—then re-closing it. She wanted to come out and wake up my grandmother.”
Hotelier Yvonne Lembi-Detert avoids 207. “I turn my back and things appear out of nowhere,” she says. “Nothing scary—the last object was a Kleenex—but it still spooked me.”
On the other hand, many guests request 207. Some connect the mischievous ghost to Lillian Hellman. A boozer, a lover,
a fighter, the volatile playwright was not one to go quietly into the night. (She’s said to have propositioned a young dinner companion the night before she died—at 79.)
Some of Hellman’s glamorous and celebrated affair with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett played out at the hotel where Hammett headquartered while writing his noir classics. Hellman’s thought to have inspired Nora Charles, co-star of the Thin Man series. Jack’s Grill across the street is the setting for much of Hammett’s Maltese Falcon.
The restaurant and hotel are linked by an underground passage under Ellis Street. Before Prohibition, guests entered the hotel’s bar by means of a slide on Powell Street. Lively days—so lively that present day guests report bodies sleeping it off in the hotel hallways. Of course, on closer investigation . . . no one’s there.
They don’t have don’t have TVs at the Truckee Hotel. They don’t even have telephones. Guests make their own entertainment. Or someone . . . or something . . . makes it for them.
Karen Winter, who owns the historic inn, is used to guests who report women’s laughter and the sound of rustling gowns in seemingly empty rooms. “Why not?” she says. “The hotel was a brothel during its boomtown days.” The complaints of housekeepers are another thing. They see imprints of bodies on freshly made beds or return to find those same beds torn up. “What’s that all about?”
Truckee’s children are fascinated by the ghost of a man said to have broken his neck while attempting to flee a hotel fire. Recently a slumber party was arranged for some ghost chasing fourth grade girls.
“I hope they won’t be disappointed,” a parent confided to Winter’s sister, Kathryn Fisher, who’d agreed to stay with them.
“Oh, I’m sure I can arrange something,” Fisher replied with a wink. Later when settling down for the night with her baby, a container of baby wipes flew off a shelf and landed at her feet.
Fisher thinks it was the ghost’s way of saying. “I don’t need any help from you!”
Carol Muir had no qualms when she peeked through a locked iron gate and glimpsed Healdsburg’s Paxton mansion. As in a real-life version of the old flick The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the house stood empty and waiting. Muir waited too. She was seeking the perfect incarnation for her proposed Madrona Manor.
“The house seemed to call—beg –me to uncover its secrets,” Muir says. “As I talked with old-timers and searched Sonoma County records, the story of a wine dynasty emerged. It sounded like the old TV show.”
State legislator John Paxton built the showplace in 1880. Having made a fortune in mining, banking and lumber, he was ready to turn his attention to Sonoma’s fledgling wine industry. There were seven good years before Paxton’s heart attack. His wife kept the body in a lead-lined glass coffin in the house until her own death 14 years later.
The couples’ sons, Blitz and Charles, inherited the dynasty. Blitz, who took over the family home and became president of the Bank of Santa Rosa, shocked the community by deserting his wife and two children to marry another woman. Charles took his life after his wife deserted him for another man. The mansion was sold in 1913, passing from one owner to another.
Small wonder guests claim the place is haunted. Carolyn Yarbrough, a Los Angeles Times reporter, was confronted in Room 100 by a woman in her mid-30s wearing a long black dress.
“I closed my eyes,” Yarbrough said, “forced myself to breathe slowly. When I felt more in control, I opened them. The woman had moved and was sitting in a velvet chair by the window. ‘What do you want?’ I asked. There was no answer and, as I watched, her slender form dissolved.”
Another specter appeared to SanDee Partridge of Buena Park. Sitting beside her husband at dinner, Partridge saw the French doors open. A small, gray-haired woman dressed in Victorian clothing entered the room. No one noticed her. As Partridge continued to stare, the woman approached. “I’m glad you can see me,” she said. “I’ve felt bad that no one can. This was my house. I like what’s been done to it and wanted to tell someone—now you can tell them.”
The Sutter Creek Inn is alive with ghosts—both naughty and nice. Not only does the house—a New England clapboard in the heart of the Mother Lode—attract ghosts, but also its
owner, Jane Way.
Listening to Way’s stories, one wonders if every night isn’t Halloween for this remarkable lady. Since buying the place in 1966, she’s been hostess to a passing parade of ghostly guests.
The apparitions began almost immediately. “It was Saturday evening and all the guests were out,” she recalls. “I was getting ready to leave too; friends were having a costume party. Suddenly conscious of being watched, I looked up. There was a tall man wearing old-fashioned clothes standing in the doorway. For a moment I thought we must be going to the same party. I heard the words. ‘I will protect your inn.’ Smiling, he faded away.”
Way believes her visitor was State Senator Edward Voorhies, a California statesman who lived in the house during the 1880s. The apparition was just the beginning. Over the years, the innkeeper experienced a variety of phenomena.
“There was a German ophthalmologist who tried to help me with an eye problem,” Way recalls. “He didn’t—but I know his intentions were good.” She’s less certain about a spectral exhibitionist—a flasher. “You’d think death would be the end of earthly hang-ups; but, if he’s any indication, we take them with us.”
Guests have had experiences too. A doctor and his wife were sitting in the garden when a solicitous ghost asked: “Have you been served?” Reeca Martin of Sacramento, retired early to her room to send an email. Seated at her laptop, Martin looked up to see an elderly man standing beside her. “He looked as real as you do,” she told Way, “then faded away.”
“I told Reeca that it was her psychic self emerging,” the innkeeper says, “but she didn’t want to hear that. Reeca was more interested in having her room changed—‘Right away!’”
Tired from a day’s work, Kim Gilbert relaxed with a nightcap in the bar at her parents’ Brookdale Lodge in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At 2 a.m. the first floor was deserted. Suddenly, light footsteps echoed through the empty room. Looking up, she was startled to see the image of a small child dart past her into the lobby. Following, she saw no one. Thinking it was her own daughter, Gilbert hurried upstairs but found her child fast asleep.
“What I’d seen was a real little girl,” Gilbert says, recalling the evening. “The child looked like any other except for her old-fashioned clothes. As I sat beside my daughter’s bed thinking about it, I remembered a couple who’d come to check out the lodge. They’d talked of seeing a child, too, a little girl that no one else saw or could account for.”
The ghostly girl isn’t the only strange happening at the lodge. Doors slam by themselves. The jukebox and television blare on their own. Toilet paper rolls unwind simultaneously in the men’s and women’s restrooms. Gilbert notices mysterious cold spots on hot summer days. The unaccountable scent of gardenias often wafts through the hotel. Guests have heard big-band music, the clinking of glasses and laughter from an empty storage room.
Perhaps the answer can be found in the hotel’s turbulent history. During the 1940s and 50s both movie stars and gangsters hung out at the lodge. Secret passages and tunnels were installed. There was talk of bodies buried under the floor.
During this time, six-year-old Sarah Logan drowned in the creek that runs through the dining room. A series of disasters followed. Five people died in a fire in 1952. There was a serious flood in 1955, then another fire. The lodge changed hands several times, standing vacant until purchased by the Gilberts.
Well, what do you think? Don’t buy that stuff? Watch out! Apparitions attract believer and non-believer alike. The next spook could be seen by you. The best explanation for ghosts’ continuing popularity is their implied optimism. A spirit has literally been there and back. Who can ignore that kind of challenge?
Editor’s Note: Antoinette May is author of Haunted Houses of California and Adventures of a Psychic.
WHEN YOU GO Hotel Leger, 105 Main St., Mokelumne Hill; (209) 286-1401 Hotel Union Square, 114 Powell St., San Francisco (415) 391-3000 Madrona Manor, 1001Westside Road; Healdsburg (707) 433-4231 Truckee Hotel, 10007 Bridge St., Tuckee; (800) 659-6421 Sutter Creek Inn, 75 Main St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-6506 Brookdale Lodge, 11570 Highway 9, Brookdale (408) 368-6433