Is There a Spirit Here Tonight?
Nob Hill Gazette October 2005

Antoinette May


By Antoinette May

Longfellow argued that all houses where people have lived and died are haunted houses. Few could disagree, yet the verdict’s still out on why some are spookier than others. With Halloween lurking ‘round the corner, thoughts turn to the anatomy of a haunt. Where and how does it all begin?

San Francisco’s legendary Mansions Hotel was built in 1887 by a silver miner who’d struck it rich. A pair of heiresses who couldn’t agree divided his proud mansion in two. One of them—Claudia—was also divided by a freak sawing accident. Historians can’t agree how it happened. A series of people lived in the double house after that—none for long.

By the time Renaissance man, Bob Pritikin, bought the property, the showplace had degenerated into two run-down rooming houses. Pritikin harnessed his flair for interior design to transform the dilapidated relics into an elegant hotel and restaurant and his talent as a musician to make them come alive.

He decorated in crushed velvet and brocade, crystal and pigs—ceramic pigs, wooden pigs, metal pigs and painted pigs. Claudia had raised pigs as pets. During the dinner show, Pritikin performed renditions of “Moonlight Sawnata” and “The Last Time I Sawed Paris”on a saw.

It was enough to wake the dead. Perhaps it did. An obstreperous guest was decked by a heavy door that fell on him, a toilet seat ripped itself loose from its steel hinge, a crystal wine glass exploded in the presence of several guests and the diaphanous form of a lady was seen countless times on the grand staircase.

Pritikin was skeptical. “Nobody in their right minds believes in ghosts!” he maintained. Later he wasn’t so certain. Claudia’s apparition on a dining plate was the last straw. He sold the place.

The Mansions morphed back into two private homes. You can no longer check them out, but San Francisco has many ghosts. A variety of restless shades are said to inhabit the Curran Theatre, St. Francis Hotel, the San Francisco Art Museum, the Plush Room, even Alcatraz.

You know those? Then get out of town. Visit Burlingame’s Kohl Mansion whose ghostly tale involves a fatal attraction, the dangerous liaison of its day. Whatever socialites said publicly, their private view was that the upstairs, downstairs relationship between "Freddie" Kohl, and his mother's maid, Adele, had gone too far.

Born in 1863, Kohl, a shipping magnate’s son, who hunted with the hounds and rode polo ponies, was considered a catch. His romantic choice was Bessie Goody. A marriage made in heaven—at least that's what Freddie said.

In 1909 the couple sailed to Europe with Kohl's mother, who engaged a French maid, Adele Verge. Well recommended by the very best families, green- Raven-haired, Adele was high strung, almost haughty.

Problems developed when Adele argued with a chauffeur, slapped him and spat in his face. The innkeeper thought she belonged in an asylum and called the police. The court disagreed. Adele was a bit on the temperamental side, but surely not deranged. She went free.

Kohl discharged Adele, offering to pay her way to France. She refused, followed the family home, and filed suit against him. When the court ruled against her, Adele rushed from the room. She was waiting near the elevator when Freddie emerged. Drawing a derringer from her handbag she fired point blank. "I knew it would come to this,” he muttered, slumping to the floor.

Adele turned and fled, then walked aimlessly along Market Street. Freddie lived, but the bullet remained imbedded close to his heart. When the victim refused to press charges, no trial was held. Adele was deported to France and confined to an asylum.

Bessie and Freddie put their troubles behind them and began work on an elaborate Tudor style mansion in Burlingame. On Christmas 1914

the Kohls opened the mansion, entertaining lavishly for two years. The rose brick mansion towered over a 40-acre estate that included a tennis court, greenhouses, rose gardens and a carriage house.

Apparently, it was not enough to dispel memories of Adele. The couple separated. A talented singer, Bessie entertained the troops in Europe. Kohl consoled himself with socialite Marion Lord, but their happiness was short-lived. The bullet in his chest was a constant source of pain, added to this growing anxiety. Adele, released from the asylum, now threatened to finish the job. In 1920, she wrote first from Quebec, then British Columbia. She was coming closer and closer. Kohl, certain that Adele was on her way to kill him, fled with Marion to the Del Monte Lodge in Monterey.

On Nov. 23, 1921, he breakfasted alone in his suite. At 10 a.m. a single shot was heard. Kohl was found, still seated at the table, a .38 caliber revolver clutched in his hand. The bullet had passed through his skull, lodging in the wall. One way or another. Adele Verge had gotten her revenge.

Was that the end of Freddie? Hardly. The story had barely begun. Soon after his 63-room mansion was leased to the Sisters of Mercury for a nunnery, the sisters became aware of a mysterious presence. A novice, sleeping on the fourth floor frequently wakened to find white powder on the stairs or on the tops of drapes high above the floor. Sisters sat up all night hoping to apprehend the intruder. They heard unaccountable footsteps, but saw no one.

Visitors sleeping in the third floor guest room heard the sound of invisible gravel thrown at the window. Limping footsteps were heard issuing from Freddie's billiard room down the corridor. Freddie had a limp. But Freddie was dead.

The nuns suspected that high spirited girls were playing tricks, but after persistent interrogation this theory was abandoned. The spirits involved were of a different—far more mysterious—sort. Exorcism seemed the only solution.

Priests were called to liberate the strange forces permeating the place. Masses were said. The fathers led a procession of fifty nuns, blessing every room and closet in the house and sprinkling holy water throughout the gardens. Did it work? No. In 1931 the nunnery was closed.

Freddie's a stubborn case. Visions and eerie night sounds persist. The mansion’s become a private high school, concert and reception hall. Present day staff complains about the elevator going up and down by itself and a professional who came in to clean up afterward a particularly rowdy party felt the house "vibrate" for hours.

Hardly the happiest man in life, today Kohl appears in his element. No longer the guilty, anxiety-ridden victim of an unfortunate association, the new Freddie performs a public relations role. Considering the lively interest sparked by his long ago legend and present day antics, Freddie's one ghost who's become a social asset.

Still not a believer? Consider the mysterious “Blue Lady” who returns again and again to the Moss Beach Distillery. Something or someone delights in opening and closing the creaky ladies room door and dancing a lively Charleston in seemingly empty rooms.

The restaurant, originally a hotel-cum-whorehouse, was built in 1927. Constructed on a steep cliff overlooking the sea, it speaks of a time when Moss Beach was notorious as a supplier of illegal Canadian liquor. The secluded beaches and coves along the isolated stretch of rugged coast was an open invitation to rum runners. Bootlegging was dangerous business, murder and hijacking common, but that didn't discourage a lively clientele from flocking there.

One, a beautiful blond, loved two things: the color blue and the piano player. That second love proved her undoing. The pianist was the jealous sort who didn't take kindly to her flirtations. One night on the beach below the restaurant,

he stabbed her to death in a jealous rage.

Over the years, staff and patrons have seen and heard her ghost. Managers working late at night hear faucets suddenly come on. After turning them off, they return to an office locked from the inside. Once a boy ran screaming from the restroom where he'd been confronted by a woman in blue—covered with blood. Another night an out-of -owner asked the bartender, "Who was murdered? I feel it over there," she pointed to the spot where the piano once stood.

Sheriff's Deputy Jim Belding reports an even stranger tale. He’d attended an impromptu séance with several employees at the restaurant. There was an inexplicable cold spot and a candle that suddenly ignited—but no apparition.

Belding and his partner left the restaurant at 3:30 a.m. and headed north on Highway 92. Suddenly Belding's car developed a mind of its own—swerving first to the right, then to the left. A white light blazed before them. Belding swerved again, smashing the car. Miraculously they survived the crash and went for help. When they returned a tow truck was already on the scene.

Later, when Belding picked up his car, the tow truck driver inquired about "the lady." When Belding looked blank, the mechanic persisted, "the pretty girl in a short blue dress, kind of like a costume. She was standing in the road crying and bleeding."

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 inn 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 did. This was my house. I like what’s been done to it and wanted to tell someone—now you can tell them.”

Antoinette May is the author of Haunted Houses of California and Adventures of a Psychic. She can be reached at


Kohl Mansion, 2750 Adeline Dr., Burlingame. Phone: (650) 343-3631.

Moss Beach Distillery, corner of Beach and Ocean streets, Moss Beach. Phone: (650) 728-5595

Madrona Manor, 1001Westside Road; Healdsburg. Phone: (707) 433-4231

Copyright © 2002-2010 Antoinette May