One spot that travelers might want to visit along the Devil’s Backbone—a haunted highway in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio—is the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, a watering hole located on the site of an old Indian campground and what was once a stagecoach stop. It is patronized by ranchers, bikers, and locals (including the late paranormal author Bert Wall). It’s even the subject of a song. The “Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” was written by musician Todd Snider after he spent a summer in the 1980s performing there on Friday nights.
Devil’s Backbone Tavern is not generally open at times when I am conducting paranormal investigation along the haunted highway, but I have stopped there for a beer and chatted about the history of the establishment and paranormal phenomena people have experienced there. Tavern staff, in fact, readily acknowledge that it is haunted and are generally happy to talk about its resident spirits, as I was pleased to discover when my wife and I stopped there with some friends in September 2014.
We ordered beers and then explored the small taproom, large dancehall, and primitive restroom facilities while chatting with the bartender, Lincoln, about some of the things she and others have experienced at the tavern. She pointed out a number of interesting details to us, including a protrusion shaped like a devil’s face in the rock of the wall above the fireplace, signs acknowledging the presence of ghosts, and some pictures of deceased patrons—one framed photo once flew off the wall and struck the wife of the person shown in it when she was complaining about him! She also said that the jukebox sometimes turns on by itself and, what’s more, starts playing songs people were just talking about.
Other staff and regulars are similarly open about things they have experienced at the tavern, which include hearing disembodied footsteps and female bar staff feeling invisible hands touching
“It felt a little spooky last night,” bartender Melaine Walker posted to the “Devil’s Backbone Tavern (Ir)Regulars” Facebook page in November 2014. “I opened the doors because it was so muggy and the next thing I saw was this weird fog swirling around in the bar. Creepy when you’re all alone! It was swirling above the shuffleboard, came up behind me and over my head as I was cleaning it.” She went on to say she thought it might have been the spirit of her deceased father, who had frequented the tavern.
“I actually have a picture of that kind of fog,” Lila McCall responded about something she experienced at the tavern around 2008. “It’s a distinct human shape.”
There is no guarantee that you will experience any of these things if you visit the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, but there is a chance that you will—and, at the least, you can enjoy a cold one and chat about the ghosts whom many believe to be present there.
History: The first state fair to occur on these fairgrounds started on September 7, 1885. The site was chosen because it was about halfway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each city had previously had its own fair, and the state wanted to hold just one giant fair everyone could attend. As the years have passed and attendance has increased, the Minnesota State Fair has become the largest fair in the United States in terms of daily attendance.
On September 7, 1901, a week to the day before becoming President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt made an appearance at the Minnesota State Fair.
During this appearance, he made the most famous statement of his career: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
Many of the buildings and rides in the fairgrounds have been around for many years. The oldest ride in the fairgrounds, Ye Old Mill, was built in 1915. It is a series of dark tunnels that you float through on a small boat. Children’s music plays in the background, and small fairy tale scenes are displayed from time to time throughout the ride.
Strange Things Are Happening When Riding Ye Old Mill
Ghost story: A couple ghosts supposedly haunt the fairgrounds. The first ghost is that of a young blond man who is always spotted in the grandstand area. While many times this young man is seen at night, he is also occasionally seen in broad daylight. Witnesses who encounter this apparition see him walking around before he mysteriously vanishes into thin air. He is seen most often near a small building behind the grandstand stage that the employees refer to as “The Bunker.”
The other ghost haunts the area around Ye Old Mill ride at the fairgrounds just off Wright Avenue, adjacent to the grandstand. For many years, a man named Wayne Murray was a maintenance worker at Ye Old Mill ride. Murray passed away in 1986, and soon after his death, something strange began to happen at the fairgrounds. Every year since 1986, a small brown bird flies into the fairgrounds and disappears into Ye Old Mill ride. Those who have witnessed this bird appear year after year for the fair say that it is perhaps the ghost of Wayne Murray, keeping an eye on the ride that he spent so much time working on.
Other witnesses report strange things happening while riding Ye Old Mill ride. People will feel a presence behind them in the boat even though there is no one there. Others feel someone tap them on their shoulder despite there being no one behind them.
Visiting: The fairgrounds are open for the Minnesota State Fair for 12 days a year. The fair ends on Labor Day, so it typically runs from the end of August until Labor Day in September. This is the only time that you are able to actually ride Ye Old Mill ride. The fairgrounds are open from time to time throughout the rest of the year, though, as other events are regularly held at the fairgrounds. These other events are constantly changing, so you need to check the schedule on their Web site in order to tell when the grounds are open to the public.
Directions: From St. Paul, take I-94 North for about 3 miles to exit 238, Snelling Avenue. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right onto Snelling Avenue. Follow Snelling Avenue for a little more than 2 miles. The Minnesota State Fairgrounds will be on your left. They are huge and you can’t miss them. To get to the grandstand, take a left onto Dan Patch Avenue.
Address: 1265 North Snelling Avenue N., St. Paul, Minnesota
Photo credit: By BenFranske (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Simon Foscue once made his living serving as a justice of the peace. He later expanded his career by building the Foscue Plantation House in 1804. At one time, the plantation spanned more than 10,000 acres. During the Civil War, the Foscue Plantation was taken over by Union troops and used as a hospital. Historic records show that in this area of North Carolina along the Trent River, Union troops destroyed all other houses in the vicinity. For a long period of time after the war, Foscue Plantation was the only house still standing in the area.
Apparitions of wounded soldiers and slaves in chains are reported around the Foscue Plantation House.
Traveling out to see the plantation, I couldn’t help but think about its history, a place of bondage for 40 slaves who worked on the plantation; a hospital for soldiers, many of whom undoubtedly died on the grounds; and a house ransacked by Union soldiers and then left alone, depleted and desolate after the war.
Here I was again, traveling to a home that had been built by a family who would end up having to flee to find safety during the Civil War. This War Between the States may have been the event most directly responsible for creating so many ghosts in the South—at no other time did brother fight against brother across this land.
As I approached the plantation home,
it appeared smaller to me than I had pictured it on the ride. While it certainly isn’t a small cottage by any means (the house has three floors and a basement), it just seemed too small to have held such sorrow.
The home itself is beautifully restored, and the architecture is quite interesting, including the bricks of the home, which were made by hand on the property. The house has remained in family ownership for eight generations, which is a testament to the strength and commitment of the family, who undoubtedly had to struggle to make ends meet for some time after the war.
The small graveyard located behind the home includes the grave of John Foscue and reminds one of the many deaths this place has seen over the years. Iron gates greeted me at the entrance to the plantation. There are several magical theories about iron, which state that iron can be used as a barrier to contain spirits in one space.
Apparitions of wounded soldiers and slaves in chains are reported around the home and grounds. While walking around the area, I could feel a presence watching me. It felt like a guardian, who kept a watchful eye for the slaves and was still attached to the land. It’s hard for me to shake the sadness I felt on this land; it still haunts me to this day.
Front view by Government & Exterior, Heritage Library, State Library of NC from Raleigh, NC, United States [CC BY 2.0 or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Close-up by Tradewinds (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
History: The Arcola Trail Bridge is an old railroad bridge that crosses over the St. Croix River. The bridge itself has become a fascination for many of the locals. People have called it the “High Bridge” (while this title may seem facetious because of its low clearance from Arcola Trail, it means that it spans high over the St. Croix River) to accentuate the danger of the bridge to pedestrians.
Throughout its history, several people have been killed while walking on the bridge. To this day the bridge is still an operating railroad bridge and has no railings. Many people have walked out onto the bridge for the views, thinking that the tracks looked too old and dilapidated to still be in use, and have been surprised by an oncoming train. At that point they have to decide to die by jumping off the bridge into the water or to die by getting hit by the train. Most have chosen to jump.
Once a young man was on the tracks and had to face this very same decision. He jumped from the bridge and was never found. His girlfriend went back to the tracks for years after the event, hoping to find her boyfriend.
Arcola Trail Bridge Haunted by Woman in White
The Ghost Story: The bridge itself is haunted by a woman in white. Often at night, people near the bridge encounter what appears to be a young woman in a white dress walking up and down the train tracks. She has been spotted as far east as the Arcola Trail overpass and as far west as the span crossing the St. Croix River. When she is seen, she never seems to notice the onlookers. She simply walks further down the tracks and sometimes disappears into the night. Many say this woman in white is the girlfriend of the man who fell into the river, and that she is still looking for her lost love.
Sometimes the ghost is carrying a blue lantern in her search for her lost love. Witnesses either see the woman in white or a blue light traveling up and down the tracks at night. The apparitions always eventually dim and fade into the night.
Visiting: Arcola Trail North is open to traffic throughout the night. As long as you are not obstructing traffic, you can stop your car under the bridge and watch for the ghost of the mysterious woman in white. The road is rather remote, so it can get very dark and very quiet. This all adds to the creepiness of the place and many times will make this a fun spot to spend a night ghost hunting.
More recently, this has become a popular spot for teenagers to go to get scared and to fool around. As a result of this, police patrol this road rather frequently. If your car is stopped near the bridge and the police catch you there, they will ask you to leave. If you have stepped out of your car and attempted to walk out onto the bridge, you will be arrested.
Directions: From St. Paul, take I-35E North for about 4 miles to exit 111A, MN-36 East towards Stillwater. Follow MN-36 East for almost 12 miles before turning left onto Manning Avenue North. Follow Manning for about 3 miles and then turn right onto Dellwood Road North. After another mile and a half, turn left onto Stonebridge Trail North. After another 3.5 miles, turn right onto Partridge Road North and then make an immediate left onto St. Croix Trail North. Follow St. Croix Trail North for a little more than 2 miles and then turn right onto Arcola Trail North. The bridge is a railroad bridge a little more than a mile down the road that passes over Arcola Trail North.
In Twin Cities Haunted Handbook, ghost hunters Jeff Morris, Garett Merk, and Dain Charbonneau explore all the best haunted locales Minneapolis has to offer, including Dead Man’s Pond, Memorial Pet Cemetery, Padelford Packet Boat Company, the Old Jail Bed and Breakfast, and St. Thomas College and the Legend of the 13 Graves.
Photo credit: By Elkman (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Kala Ambrose Shares with Us the Story of the Lady in Black at the Fayetteville, North Carolina, Women’s Club
The Fayetteville Women’s Club is located in the historic Sandford House on Heritage Square, which was built in 1797. Apparitions of a lady dressed in black have been reported in the house since 1900 and are still being reported by some of the ladies of the Women’s Club. The “lady in black” frequently appears on the stairs, and many believe her to be Margaret Sandford, who lived in the house in the 1800s. But others believe in a much different tale.
One evening at the Sandford House, a Confederate soldier was visiting his true love. During this visit, news arrived stating that Union soldiers from Sherman’s army were close to taking over Fayetteville. Hearing the news, the young soldier was desperate to get to his regiment in time to help protect the bridge over the Cape Fear River.
At Sandford House, the Lady in Black Awaits the Return of Her True Love
The Sandford House had a secret tunnel inside that led to the Cape Fear River. The soldier’s beloved led him to the tunnel entrance so that he could reach his men and help protect Fayetteville. She wished him a safe and speedy return; night after night, she waited for him to come back to her through the tunnel entrance. The battle raged on, and the young soldier was never seen again, nor was his body ever found.
When the ghost of this young lady is seen, she appears in a long black dress, which all the ladies wore at that time as the color of mourning for their lost husbands, sons, and lovers. Reports state that the lady in black is often seen walking up and down the stairs, anxiously waiting for her lover to return to her home. Many witnesses have reported seeing her in several locations throughout the home, and they often feel her hand on their shoulder as she reaches out to them from behind. The legend states that some of the ladies of the Fayetteville Women’s Club believe that she touches them gently to have them turn to face her so that she can see who is in her home. Perhaps she also hopes that they will have some news for her regarding the soldier’s return.
The lady in black is reported to be gentle and sad. She appears to be patiently waiting and grieving. Her state of dress indicates that she may have received news that all the men in the battle were confirmed dead, but since his body was never found, she has a glimmer of hope that he may have survived and against all odds will return to her one day.
About the author: Kala Ambrose shares her love of history, travel, and the spirit world in her books Spirits of New Orleans and Ghosthunting North Carolina. Her books are designed to explore the history of cities in an entertaining manner while sharing haunted stories and offering travel tips on how to best see the cities to shop, dine, stay, and visit the haunted sites. Visit her on her website Explore Your Spirit.
Dave Lapham, author of Ghosthunting Florida, puts the spotlight on the Ponce de León Inlet Lighthouse
The Ponce de León Inlet Lighthouse, as it is officially known, has been around for a long time. The original lighthouse was built on the south side of Mosquito Inlet in 1835, but the oil for the lamp was never delivered, and Indian attacks in the Second Seminole War all but destroyed the tower. The area was then abandoned.
Eventually, after many shipwrecks near the Mosquito Inlet, a lighthouse was finally erected and put into operation in 1887. At the south end of Daytona Beach, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was not bad duty. Still, the original kerosene lamp needed constant attention, as did the later incandescent oil vapor lamp, and the light keeper had little free time.
Even though the lighthouse was near Daytona, living at the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was relatively isolated, and the keepers and their families were often lonely. Although there were few suicides and infirmities associated with isolation at the lighthouse, those who lived there had their problems.
Ghosts Roam the Keeper’s Quarters of Ponce de León Inlet Lighthouse
The lighthouse itself doesn’t seem to be haunted, at least not according to my ghost ferret, Joanne, but the keepers’ quarters brim with paranormal activity. There are three keeper’s houses. One is glassed off for viewing only, which, according to Joanne, is a pity, because it is “full of feeling.” She is desperate to get in the house and check it out.
The remaining two houses, on the other hand, are open to the public and are full of spirits. One has the strong presence of a woman, probably a keeper’s wife or perhaps one of the female keepers. Joanne thinks the room that now houses uniforms was her bedroom.
The third house is also glassed off, but there is on display a weird-looking china doll, something like the doll in the Audubon House in Key West. It immediately caught Joanne’s attention. She started taking digital photographs at an angle so she wouldn’t get any reflection. She took several pictures; when she looked at them, there was an orb. It moved around in each frame. She took more pictures. The orb seemed to have a mind of its own. Finally, she decided she’d experienced enough and left the house.
But as she departed, a feeling came over her, as though something had attached itself to her. She went to the restroom and the feeling still clung to her. “Get off me,” she demanded in a loud, angry voice. Several women in the restroom stared at her, but the feeling left.
Someday Joanne hopes to get into all of the keepers’ houses and do a real walk-through. She’d like to find out exactly what had been clinging to her. As for me, I’ll wait for her at the bar down the road on the Inlet.
Outside view: By ErgoSum88 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Interior of the lighthouse: By Ebyabe (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Donna Stewart, author of Ghosthunting Oregon, investigated the paranormal activities at Portland’s Bagdad Theatre. Here is her report.
Aside from its ghosts, the Bagdad Theatre has other claims to fame. In 1975, Hollywood came to the Bagdad Theatre when Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, and Michael Douglas attended the Oregon premiere of the now-classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Universal Studios funded construction of the Bagdad Theatre in 1927 for $100,000, spending $25,000 of that on a state-of-the-art organ. It wasn’t meant to be just another theater on a corner in the Hawthorne District of Portland but instead a centerpiece for an entire neighborhood and something to be admired.
The Bagdad had no specific style but was a cross between Middle Eastern and Spanish styles and was proudly described as “an oasis of entertainment.” Most theaters in the area at that time leaned toward a Middle Eastern theme, and the Bagdad also played to that, dressing its ushers in Arab-style attire. People in the Hawthorne neighborhood in Portland waited on the edges of their seats for the January 14, 1927, grand opening, and it certainly did not disappoint.
Paranormal Activities Recorded at Portland’s Bagdad Theatre
The Bagdad Theatre has a long record of paranormal activity. People seem to know who the ghosts of the Bagdad are—at least most of them. There is speculation that those who die in theaters, whether by suicide, murder, or accident, often remain there because of an emotional attachment to the site, because they loved to act, or because they enjoyed the job they held there. Maybe some of them just continue on with what they did in life or keep an eye on how others now perform their jobs.
One story claims that a former stagehand—a young man who wanted to be on the stage instead of behind it—committed suicide in the Bagdad’s backstage area and can now often be seen crossing in front of the screen and heard whispering behind it. So, perhaps in death, he has achieved his dream of being a performer.
Another ghost seems concerned about the work done by employees. Papers are often shifted, cleaning supplies are moved or removed from a room altogether, and many workers have reported hearing footsteps following them during the night as they perform their duties. This is especially common in the kitchen, the swinging doors to which are often seen moving with no explanation, as if someone were leaning against them on the other side.
“Nothing bad,” one young woman told me. “It just feels like a mom or a grandma making sure I am doing it the right way. So I try to do it the right way.” A more discomforting type of ghost is often seen, heard, and felt in the downstairs restroom. Many claim to have heard someone walk in while they were in the restroom. They smelled men’s cologne, and they had the strong feeling that someone was watching them from over the top of the stall. And while no one has claimed to feel threatened, they do say it is an awkward sensation. The last place anyone would want to feel spied on is in a bathroom stall.
“All that came to mind was that old men’s cologne called Hai Karate; it was that tacky and pungent,” one woman who said she had had a similar experience and heard footsteps in the restroom told me with a laugh. “Did I feel like I was being watched? Not really. I mean, I couldn’t get over the bad cologne! And, seriously, if a dead guy wants to peek over a bathroom stall at me, all the more power to him. Who says ghosts can’t be playful now and then?” I agreed. And I loved her attitude toward ghosts and the paranormal.
Other random activities could be attributed to the paranormal but do not seem to be affiliated with any specific ghost. It could be that many spirits linger at the Bagdad. People claim to have seen a young female sitting in different seats in the theater, for example, never making a noise and only visible for a few seconds before fading away. There have even been reports of children playing in the aisles. But when people notice and mention the sounds, they cease immediately.
One thing is for certain—the history of the Bagdad is alive within the restored walls. It is still quite the sight to behold in Portland.
The Bagdad is now a first-run theater with a screen that is 50% larger than in most theaters. It boasts a 20,000-watt surround-sound system, a K Prime digital projector, and lush rocker seating. Everything is state-of-the-art at the Bagdad, including closed captioning and other options for the hearing impaired.
Like the theater itself, the concession stand has grown up and into the 21st century as well. Tried-and-true treats like popcorn, sodas, and candy remain, but visitors can also enjoy an expanded menu that includes items like fresh-baked pizza, a selection of tap beers, and an ever-growing menu of delicacies. The theater also has gluten-free selections, vegetarian selections, and a host of burgers and sandwiches. And you don’t need to wait in long lines because your food can be delivered right to your theater seat.
You will still get a grand glimpse of the Bagdad’s heyday as soon as you enter the theater, with its balconies, vintage lighting and decor, and massively high ceilings. It is a combination of luxury and history that will not disappoint. Enjoy a movie in comfort, have a microbrew or two if you are so inclined, and meet the ghosts that might be seated right next to you.
Donna Stewart’s book Ghosthunting Oregoncovers more than 30 haunted places throughout the Beaver State, all of them open to the public.
The Miami River Inn is a cozy little jewel nestled on the Miami Canal just south of I-395 and west of I-95. And it is a real hideaway—nothing fancy but very comfortable, close to downtown Miami, the beach, and dozens of great restaurants. In former times, it was the destination of presidents, celebrities, and dignitaries. Henry Flagler even stayed at the hotel in the early 1900s. It is not only a hostelry of note, but it is also haunted. The inn was built in 1910 and has seen several makeovers. Reportedly, it was once a funeral parlor. Maybe that’s why it’s haunted. Or maybe not.
Room 12 at the Miami River Inn becomes spooky at 11 p.m. sharp!
In one of the rooms, there seems to be a residual haunting that replays itself every day at 11 p.m., which is very inconvenient if you’re not a night owl. First, precisely at eleven, a door opens and slams shut, very loudly. Then what sounds like feet being wiped on a doormat can be heard. Next there is silence, followed by the sound of running feet—and it sounds like a person is coming right into Room 12. Then the door of the room rattles and the knob actually shakes, followed by the sounds of crashing lamps, vases, and pictures. In Room 12, it sounds as if someone is ransacking the room above. Then there are the sounds of more running feet, someone bounding up the stairs, and the door of the room above Room 12 opening and slamming shut again.
After a moment of silence, it sounds like the furniture upstairs begins to move around, scraping, bumping, thumping, smashing against the walls and the floor. The vibrations can be felt in Room 12. After an hour, it finally stops. Now, if you can, you’re free to go to sleep. Nothing will happen again until 11 p.m. tomorrow. If you’re a morning person and like to go to bed early, perhaps you shouldn’t stay in this room. On the other hand, if you’re not there for the nightlife, why are you in Miami?
A feud about the land gives rise to wicked laughter at the Witch’s Castle in Oregon.
Folklore, legends, and ghost stories abound regarding the Witch’s Castle.
As with so many purportedly haunted locations in the Portland area, one must carefully sift through the lore in order to filter out the truths. Even then, it is sometimes difficult to paint a completely accurate portrait, and one is left with a dramatic narrative at best. But this is also what makes traveling to haunted locations so intriguing. Visitors are left to decide whether their own experiences and senses reflect paranormal activity. But what most ghost-hunting travelers do know is that they should expect the unexpected.
What is left is the eerie shell—roofless and covered with moss, clinging ivy, and graffiti. It has been called the Witch’s Castle for decades and has a reputation throughout the state of Oregon of being haunted. It is all that scary movies are made of—an odd, out-of-place structure; a bloody tale of former tenants; and the haunting of the land on which it resides.
One of the most accepted stories about the Witch’s Castle is that of an ongoing ghostly feud on the land that gives rise to wicked laughter, sinister whispers, screams of terror, and angry specters—phenomena that give many a hiker second thoughts about venturing down the trails after dark. Many have also claimed to see dark figures darting between the trees and behind the shrubbery and in and out of the old stone structure.
There have been reports of bright, glowing lights encircling the building before disappearing into the woods and even a few reports of full-bodied apparitions of young women and children. People I spoke with who have experienced what they feel is paranormal activity at the Witch’s Castle, however, do not stray from their accounts, and
I tend to believe them and that this consistency points to the spirits of the Balch family haunting their old homestead. I can assure you that, after dark, each noise, whether it is the falling of a leaf or the crack of a twig, is amplified around the Witch’s Castle. So whether the old stone building is haunted or not, it is not the most comfortable place to be when the sun goes down. I didn’t see a ghost during my visit, but that doesn’t mean they do not reside there—only that I was not in the right place at the right time. And, as we all know, history never dies.
If you enjoyed the story of the Witch’s Castle, check out Ghosthunting Oregon, a book by Donna Stewart in which shecovers more than 30 haunted places throughout the Beaver State, all of them open to the public.
John McSorley arrived in New York City from Liverpool in 1851 on the ship Colonist. In 1854 he opened a saloon at 15 East Seventh Street, naming it The Old House at Home. It was a place for Irish immigrant workingmen to feel at home while enjoying a beer with some cheese and crackers. By 1908 a storm had ripped the original sign down, and it was replaced with a new sign bearing a new name: McSorley’s Old Time Ale House. Later on, the word Time was removed from the name, and to this day the establishment is called McSorley’s Old Ale House.
In 1910, at the age of 83, John McSorley died in his apartment above the bar. His son Bill took over the business. By 1936, two years before his death, Bill sold the bar to its first non-McSorley owner, Daniel O’Connell. Only a year later, in 1939, O’Connell died, leaving the bar to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan. Dorothy promised her father she would not allow women in the bar, and she kept that promise. She appointed her husband, Harry Kirwan, as the manager. Dorothy entered the bar only on Sundays, after closing time. Eventually, ownership was passed along to the Kirwans’ son, Danny.
The next owner of McSorley’s was Matthew Maher. He and Harry Kirwin had met by chance when Harry was visiting Ireland in 1964. Harry’s car broke down, and along came Matthew Maher to save the day. In return, Harry promised Maher a job if he ever came to New York City. Later that year, Matthew Maher began his employment at McSorley’s as a waiter and bartender. Maher was promoted to night manager of the bar, and in 1977 he purchased the bar from Danny Kirwan.
McSorley’s has been the subject of a stage play, of poetry by e.e. cummings, and of artwork by John Sloan. Its list of notable guests ranges from Abraham Lincoln to Woody Guthrie and John Lennon. The very chair Lincoln sat in is up above the bar, in fact; a few feet away hangs one of the original “Wanted” posters for John Wilkes Booth. Amazingly, the first time women were allowed in McSorley’s was in 1969, following a lawsuit, although a ladies’ restroom was not installed until 1990. Today, McSorley’s is the fourth oldest bar in New York City. (The oldest is the Bridge Café, another entry in this book; it is believed to have opened in 1794.)
My mother and I visited McSorley’s Ale House in January 2010. The bar is within walking distance of Cooper University, which I am sure the students there greatly appreciate. The swinging wooden doors with their oval windows are worn along the edges from 156 years of use. Sawdust is strewn over the floor, and a coal-burning potbellied stove keeps the place warm and inviting.
I met with a bartender known as Pepe who has bartended at McSorley’s since 1973. At first I thought it odd to see a black plastic garbage bag suspended at his waist under his apron, but I soon realized how much sense it made as waterproofing, or beer proofing, for his trousers. Pepe’s real name is Steven Zwaryczuk. He’s not fazed by the reports of ghosts and other paranormal activity at McSorley’s. In fact, he laughingly pointed out two regular customers, Brian and Mark, as the most paranormal things to happen to him. Brian has been coming to McSorley’s since the early 1980s, when he was in the eighth grade. Back then, he said, he was the same height as he is now and weighed only about 20 pounds less. Mark was at the end of the bar where Mini, the cat, was curled up in the corner. I asked Pepe, “Was there ever a time when you were completely ‘creeped out’ by being here?” Without missing a beat, he pointed to Brian and replied: “Nothing has ever creeped me out, except him!”
Mark chimed in that a friend of his who once rented the apartment above the bar would occasionally hear tables and chairs moving, as well as distant voices, long after the bar was closed for the night. Pepe was kind enough to bring owner Matthew Maher down to the bar so I could interview him. Although Matthew has been living and working in New York City since 1964, he’s maintained a sweet Irish brogue. I asked him, “Have you had any ghostly experiences while working here?” and he chuckled and said, “Have ya got a year to spare?” Well, that certainly got my attention. Maher told me that McSorley’s is famous for always having at least one feline “on staff” at the bar. One night after closing, Maher was cleaning the kitchen. He returned to the bar area and saw the cat at the end of the bar purring and nuzzling up against an unseen hand that was petting it. According to Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg, tour guide for Ghosts of New York, whenever a cat is seen in the window of McSorley’s, Harry Houdini is present as the spirit inside the cat. Why Houdini, you ask? Dr. Schoenberg claims that the set of handcuffs secured to the footrail of the bar once belonged to Houdini.
Maher also pointed out the print depicting McSorley’s that hangs behind the bar. He said that when a local artist presented the print to him, Maher immediately commented, “Very nice! You even included one of the McSorley’s cats.” The artist, appearing confused, stood back and carefully examined the print. He told Maher that he never painted the cat and had no idea how it ended up in the finished print. The cat’s body is facing the entrance of McSorley’s, but its head is turned, looking over its shoulder toward the rear of the dining area. According to Ted Andrews in his book Animal Speak, cats represent mystery, magic, independence, and nighttime. In ancient Egypt, the cat was revered and usually represented the goddess Bast. Cats have been associated with witches as their “familiars.” In this respect, it is believed that the cat embodies the spirit of a former witch who crossed the line and did something worthy of punishment. That punishment is to incarnate as a cat and serve the needs of another witch for nine lives before being allowed to incarnate once more as a human. It’s interesting to note that cats are typically feminine in their energies and connections. McSorley’s did not allow women in the bar until 1970, yet the cats have been present all along.
Brian pointed out to me a dust-covered gas lamp that hangs in McSorley’s. On it are several turkey wishbones, also covered with dust. McSorley’s tradition calls for a soldier leaving for war to place a wishbone on the lamp, then remove it when he returns. Brian thinks this tradition started with World War I; other sources claim it started with the Civil War. Other than a soldier leaving or reclaiming his wishbone, no one is allowed to touch the gas lamp, not even to clean it. Brian said that the dusty wishbones still on the lamp serve as a memorial of sorts for the soldiers who placed them there before leaving for war and never returned.
I doubt Houdini is hanging around McSorley’s as a cat. However, the disembodied noises, the unseen admirer seen petting the cat on the bar, and the lengthy history of notable guests at the establishment certainly lend credence to assertions that the place is haunted. Personally, I did not capture any evidence of paranormal happenings. Rather, my mother and I were captured by the mouthwatering aroma of the burgers that landed on the table by the front window for a young couple having lunch. The motto of McSorley’s is “Be Good or Be Gone.” Apparently, someone is being good for an indefinite amount of time, as they’re not yet gone. Keep this in mind if you visit McSorley’s, and order an extra round of “light & dark” beer when you belly up to the bar.