Is There a Spirit in the House?
San Francisco Chronicle Pink Section
by Antoinette May

Antoinette May


By Antoinette May

It was Halloween. A group of women gathered for a night out in the City. We’d chosen the Mansions where the owner, Bob Pritikin, arranged a private room for us.

The Mansions, two great Victorians forged into one hotel and restaurant, had a colorful history. Some thought it haunted. There’d been wild tales of exploding wine glasses, unexplained cold spots and doors that closed themselves.

We had high hopes as we set up our Ouija board and gathered ‘round. Sandra Schleshinger, an English professor at City College, and her editor daughter, Victoria, were the “boarders.” Music and laughter wafted up from the dining room downstairs. We were a little silly too. Maybe that’s why the Quija board ignored our questions. The planchette moved reluctantly, its messages unintelligible.

Leaning back, disappointed, my eyes roved the room. Everyone looked so pretty. Sandra and Vic were beautiful, a mother-daughter combo for a magazine cover. Then I saw a man dressed as a Victorian, elegant black suit, ruffled shirt. He looked like a dude, perhaps a gambler. The other waiters weren’t in costume. When had he entered? How had he entered? It hadn’t been through the door, yet there he was in the room’s center.

He wasn’t a waiter, I realized, observing closer. He wasn’t even a man, not a living man. The form I saw was tall and solid, his skin tones natural, yet I knew he wasn’t alive. The being before me was handsome: thick, wavy, brown hair, combed neatly, gray dusted sideburns adding distinction. As he drew closer, I saw the expectant smile, felt the easy manner of a man confidant of his charm.

I felt certain that he had no connection to the Ouija board’s gobbligook messages. What drew him was the room’s energy—female energy. He studied Sandra and Vic intently, the smile fading, incredible longing in his eyes. He’d died too soon. Somehow I knew that.

“Does anyone see what I see?” I asked.

No one did and finally the spirit just faded away.

Okay, that’s my ghost story. Believe it or not.

The Mansions is gone now—morphed back into two private homes. You can no longer check that one out, but there are many San Francisco ghosts. Twenty years of investigating alleged hauntings has convinced me that, psychically speaking, the City is loaded and always has been.

During Gold Rush days, Mark Twain wrote of his encounter with the Kearny Street ghost, an apparition that confronted many San Franciscans.

In December 1871, several thousand curious people flocked to the widow Jorgenson’s place on Mason Street where a bodiless head appeared at a second story window. The floating visage manifested itself randomly—day or night.

Reporters described a sorrowful face with a goatee, droopy mustache and wavy hair. Though Mrs. Jorgenson disagreed, many felt that it resembled her husband. Eventually the window was removed and taken to a judge’s office for observation. The face followed. Later the window was acquired by Woodward’s Gardens, a popular restaurant. After a time the phantom face simply faded away.

That San Francisco with its riotous history and unresolved conflicts would inspire restless spirits is hardly surprising. Consider the case of Hewlett Tarr. Around this time, 71 years ago, young Tarr looked forward to a Thanksgiving wedding. It was his misfortune to be working the box office at the Curran Theatre when Eddie Anderson stuck a gun through the bars. Anderson, a low-level criminal, had a moll with expensive tastes.

“I only wanted two tickets to impress her,” he said later. Unfortunately, his gun caught under the railing and misfired. Wounded, Tarr fell backwards down a flight of stairs. Friends rushed to his side, but it was too late. Hewlett Tarr was dead.

Anderson escaped a wild chase but was caught two weeks later. Tarr’s fiancé, Dorothy Reed, appeared every day at the trial. Anderson’s fickle friend, Lorene, refused to acknowledge any connection. Angry headlines demanded a conviction: CURRAN KILLER MUST HANG.

In November 1933 Anderson was convicted, hanged, and buried on Boot Hill near San Quentin. That was the end of him, but not, apparently, of Hewlett Tarr.

According to Tess Collins, the Curran’s manager these past 20 years, Tarr still haunts the theater.

Again and again patrons report seeing the image of a handsome young man wearing 1930s clothes reflected in the large mirror opposite the entrance.

Look closely, you may spot others. A psychic told Collins that the Curran has more than 300 ghostly playgoers.

Who knows how many specters haunt the historic Hotel Union Square. Concierge Tom Steele says guests like their accommodations so much some never check out. Most recently a young Scot traveling with his grandmother confided 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 tries to avoid 207. “I turn my back there 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, energetic 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.)

Much 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.

The Flood Building may share custody of Dashiell Hammett’s ghost. During the 1920s, the aspiring writer was a gumshoe at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency which occupied offices there. Today Max Canton, the building’s security supervisor, believes someone or something haunts the halls.

The Flood Building, matriarch of Market Street, rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Baldwin Hotel, a destination resort complete with skating rink and swimming pool. Canton, patrolling the halls late at night, sometimes hears the sounds of men, women and children crying out. He speculates that they are ghosts of guests trapped inside the grand hotel when it burned to the ground in 1898.

Built in 1904 by silver scion James Flood, the classic revival structure with its high ceilings, marble hallways, iron-railed stairways, oak doors with frosted glass windows is a survivor of another time. The flatiron building looms over the cable car turntable and houses—amongst its 226 tenants—the Gap’s flagship store. Yet at night, Canton says things can get scary. “I feel like something’s watching me. I hear 1930s music and, though I wear a blazer and work up quite a sweat walking long halls and climbing stairs, I get a cold chill on the stairwell between the third and fourth floors.”

During the 1920’s, at the height of Prohibition, the owners of the York Hotel very quietly (and illegally) opened the now renowned opened Plush Room. Theatergoers found their way through a maze of subterranean passageways, some of which still exist today, to reach the secret cabaret. . San Francisco socialites gathered nightly to enjoy illegal spirits and watch the era’s top entertainers perform.

“Lester” played the piano for all of them. Many talk of wanting to leave this world doing the very thing they love best. Lester got his wish. The talented and much loved musician dropped dead one night while playing the piano. Well, yes, it was a show stopper.

Some eighty years later many believe that Lester is still there. Tracy Walker, the bar manager, often feels his presence. Brian Morris, the technical director who runs the sound and lights for the cabaret, has seen a shadowy figure and heard the tinkle of an old tune when no one was there to play. No one human, anyway.

On April 18th, 1906, John Barrymore, famous actor and alcoholic, was sleeping it off at the St. Francis when an earthquake tumbled him out of bed. The great hotel, now known as the Westin St. Francis, survived that cataclysm only to be shaken to its foundation 15 years later. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, having just completed a film, The Life of the Party, was ready for a party of his own. His celebration at the hotel culminated in a starlet’s mysterious death. Though acquitted of any wrongdoing, the comedian’s life and career were ruined.

The infamous (and most requested) Suite 1221 proved equally unlucky for singer Al Jolson who died while playing poker there in 1950. The Al Jolson Society held a séance in the suite hoping to lure their hero. Jolson was a no-show yet there are some staff members who believe that both he and Arbuckle and even Barrymore haunt the halls.

Just down the hall is the St Francis Suite guests report seeing a woman in an elegant white dress float by. Howard Mutz, the hotel historian, speculates that it’s the ghost of Edith Pope. Mrs. Pope and her husband, George, among the City’s legendary social and philanthropic leaders, occupied the suite—a large apartment— during the 1930s and 40s. Frequent guests were admirals Nimitz and Halsey who’re said to have planned some of their WWII Pacific campaigns there. If only the walls could speak . . . Perhaps the ghost tries to. Many have seen the lovely apparition.

It’s easy to imagine why Mrs. Pope—or any guest—linger at the St. Francis, but Alcatraz?! That’s a different story. Why would anyone—dead or alive—want to return there?

Prisoners were surrounded by steel and concrete, their lives dominated by rules. Failure to abide by those rules meant confinement in the “hole” a steel box where inmates remained in total darkness. Suicides and murders were common on the Rock until its closing 41 years ago.

Today the island is maintained by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. More than 900,000 visitors tour the crumbling remains each year.

Some see ghosts.

While spending a lonely night on the island, ranger Rex Norman was awakened by the sound of a heavy door swinging back and forth in Cell Block C. Upon investigating, he found nothing to account for the disturbance. When the sounds continued on subsequent nights, the park system decided to bring Sylvia Brown into the case. + While touring the laundry room, the medium had a strong reaction. “There was violence here. I see a man. He’s tall, bald, and has tiny little eyes. I’m getting the initial M, but think they called him ‘Butcher’.”

Norman was puzzled, but Leon Thompson, an ex-convict who’d been invited to join them, moved forward. “I remember Butcher. He was a hit man with Murder Incorporated before they caught him. His name was Abie Maldowitz but we called him Butcher. Another prisoner killed him here in the laundry room.”

One needn’t be a professional medium to see an apparition. They attract believer and non-believer alike. What’s apparently required is the ability to tune into the wave field or “vibes.” Some parapsychologists believe intense feelings or events create images that are “set” in time at particular wavelengths. Unaware of mortal viewers, the dramas are played and replayed like old movies. Eventually an individual whose “receiver” is tuned to the same wave length is confronted by an image—and a ghost is born.

Maybe the best explanation for the continued popularity of ghosts is their implied optimism. A spirit has literally been there and back. And who can ignore that kind of challenge?

Antoinette May is the author of Haunted Houses of California and Adventures of a Psychic.

Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., 415-551-2000

Hotel Union Square, 114 Powell St, 415 391-3000

Flood Building, corner Market and Powell

Plush Room, 940 Sutter St,, 415-885-2800

Westin St. Francis. 335 Geary St., 397-7000

Alcatraz, boats to Alcatraz Island leave from Fisherman’s Wharf, 415-546-9400.


Anne Abrahms (415 551-2023) is sending you a 1920s picture of the Curran

Am sending you pictures of the Hotel Union Square—I like the cable car one best. They have a great picture of Dashiell Hammett that could be copied (contact: Yvonne Lembi-Detert 415 397-3000)

I’m sending you an old picture of the Flood Building. (Contact: David Perry 415 693-0583)

Am sending you a picture from the Plush room (contact: Chris Rosas 415-885-6800)

Am sending you pictures of the St. Francis. (contact: Marsha Moore 415 774-0381)

You must have a great picture of Alcatraz

Copyright © 2002-2004 Antoinette May