Ghost Stories
Spooky Tales About the City's Most Haunting_and Popular-Spirits
San Francisco Where Magazine

Antoinette May


Hewlett Tarr was a happy guy. He loved the theater, adored his job at the Curran. Newly engaged, he looked forward to a Thanksgiving wedding. Life seemed perfect that warm night in October as he worked the box office.

Suddenly a man pressed forward, sticking a gun through the bars. Eddie Anderson a low-level gangster, had a moll with expensive tastes. “I only wanted to impress her,” he said later. Unfortunately, his gun caught under the railing and misfired. Mortally wounded, Tarr fell backwards down a flight of stairs. Friends rushed to his side, but it was too late.

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 floozy, 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 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.

That San Francisco’s riotous history and unresolved conflicts would inspire restless spirits isn’t surprising. Who knows how many specters haunt the historic Hotel Union Square? Concierge Tom Steele says guests like the hotel’s accommodations so much that some never check out.

Recently a young Scot traveling with his grandmother complained to Steele about a woman ghost in Room 207. “She’s 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.”

Market Street’s matriarch, the Flood Building, might be the last place one would expect to see a ghost, yet building security supervisor Max Canton believes someone or something haunts the halls.

The office building rose phoenix-like from the ashes of the Baldwin Hotel, a destination resort with skating rink and swimming pool. Canton, patrolling the halls late at night, hears

the sounds of men, women and children crying out. He speculates that they’re ghosts of guests trapped inside the 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 and iron-railed stairways, 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 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 1920s, at the height of Prohibition, the owners of the York Hotel quietly (and illegally) opened the now renowned Plush Room. San Francisco socialites found their way through a maze of subterranean passageways—some of which still exist—to reach the secret cabaret, gathering nightly to enjoy illegal spirits and watch the era’s top entertainers perform.

Many talk of wanting to leave this world doing the things they love best but Lester, the piano player, got his wish. The talented and much loved musician dropped dead one night while performing. Well, yes, it was a show stopper.

Some eighty years later many believe that Lester’s show goes on. Bar manager Tracy Walker feels his presence. Brian Morris, 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 same infamous (and most requested) suite—1221—proved even more 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 staff members who believe that both he, Arbuckle and yet there are some staff members who believe that both he, Arbuckle and Barrymore haunt Suite 1221.

An elegant specter in a white dress haunts the St. Francis Suite down the hall. Howard Mutz, the hotel historian, speculates that it’s Edith Pope. Mrs. Pope and her husband, George, among the City’s legendary social and philanthropic leaders, occupied the suite 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. The lovely apparition has startled many.

It’s easy to understand why Mrs. Pope—or any guest—lingers at the St. Francis, but Alcatraz? Why would anyone—dead or alive—want to hang around a prison?

Convicts, surrounded by steel and concrete, were dominated by rules. Failure to abide meant confinement in the “hole,” a steel box where inmates lay in total darkness. Suicides and murders were common on the Rock until its closing 42 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. He investigated, but found nothing to account for the disturbance. When the sounds continued on subsequent nights, the park system decided to bring Sylvia Browne into the case.

While touring the laundry room, the medium had a strong reaction. “I feel violence here. I see a man—tall, bald, with tiny little eyes. I’m getting the initial M, but think they called him ‘Butcher’.”

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.”

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?

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

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) has a 1920s picture of the Curran.

Hotel Union Square—(contact: Yvonne Lembi-Detert 415 202-8700

Flood Building. (Contact: David Perry 415 693-0583)

Plush Room (contact: Chris Rosas 415-885-6800)

St. Francis (contact: Gena Egelston 415 774-0118)

You must have a great picture of Alcatraz

Copyright © 2002-2006 Antoinette May