A Haunted Tour of Tucson Arizona
Haunted Tours A Popular Downtown Tourism Niche
Ghosts, goblins and other spirits have always been a part of the Halloween tradition since the time the ancient Celts in Ireland started the Halloween tradition with the belief that Halloween was an evening on which the wall between the world of the living and the world where the spirits of the dead dwelled was lowered allowing the spirits of the dead to return on that night.,
Down to the present time there are still those who believe that spirits of some of the dead continue to linger in this world rather than moving on to the next. In fact, not only are there people who believe that spirits of some of the dead continue to roam among us, there are a number of researchers who are actively engaged in identifying and studying this phenomena of spirits of the dead still roaming the earth.
Having never encountered such spirits, and not anxious to do so, I have not paid much attention to this subject. However, one of my sons has taken an interest in this. While skeptical of the subject like me, he is more curious and, in addition to some reading on this topic, he has taken an interest in haunted city tours.
Haunted city tours can now be found in most cities in North America.
Capitalizing on the public's growing interest in the world of spirits as well as seeing an additional opportunity to monetize the fruits of their investigations, professional spirit or ghost investigators have taken to giving organized tours of local buildings supposedly haunted by ghosts. The tours are conducted after dark, which helps to set the mood and are usually centered in the older section of the city's downtown which also adds to the drama as books and movies usually portray haunted buildings as being old and at least somewhat decrepit.
Guide's Introduction Reminds by of an Andrew Greeley Mystery Series
I first became aware of these tours while visiting Kingston, Ontario while on vacation. While there my son who enjoys haunted tales, saw a brochure advertising a haunted tour of the city's downtown. Unfortunately, the next tour wasn't scheduled until the day after we were to leave so we had to skip this tour. However, upon returning to Tucson, he did some research and found that such tours were available on weekends during our tourist season which begins in the autumn.
Thus, one slightly crisp Friday evening in October, I found myself standing in a parking lot downtown with two of my sons and some others waiting for our guide to show up, collect our money and start the tour. The dark night, old buildings and approach of Halloween all combined to create a slightly creepy atmosphere.
Our guide arrived shortly and, after collecting our money, presented a short lecture on what was in store for the evening. She explained that she was what is known in the profession as a sensitive which is a person who is able to sense and feel the presence of spirits. She went on to explain that the company she worked for did contract research on the presence of ghosts and other spirits in buildings.
The goal was to first verify the presence of the spirit and then discover why it was hanging out in the building. The company's method of operation was to employ two teams for such projects. One team would scour libraries, newspaper and other archives to learn everything they could about the history of the building in question while the other team would not be given any information, including the location of the project, until they were dropped off at the building and told to learn what they could from the spirits.
Once done, both teams would meet and compare notes and if the information learned by the second team from their contact with the spirit(s) matched the research of the first team this was deemed sufficient proof that, first, the spirit was real and, second, that what the spirit was telling them was true. They would make a recommendation to the person or company hiring them on how to get the spirit to move on.
Our guide further explained that the powers of people who are sensitives varied which meant that some had the ability to find and communicate with spirits while others could only feel the presence and possibly communicate with a spirit only when the spirit desired to make its presence known to them.
This introduction immediately brought to mind Nuala Anne McGrail, the heroine of Father Andrew Greeley's mystery series by the same name (Irish Mist, Irish Gold, Irish Whiskey, Irish Stew, Irish Lace, etc. to name a few of the books in this captivating series that I have read and enjoyed). Father Greeley explains in these books that there are people who can sense the presence of spirits of those who died in the past or get a feeling of what it was like to be an observer of a past event.
He goes so far as to theorize that this ability is some ancient survival trait, that most of us have lost, which was necessary for survival in past ages. The interesting thing about this particular series is that Fr.
Greeley places Nuala Anne in an area where some controversial event occurred and she will suddenly feel the spirits of some who participated in the event who will communicate to her that the conventional story about the event - such as the death of the Irish leader Michael Collins (Mícheál Ó Coileáin) who was ambushed and killed in August 1922 during the Irish Civil War (the plot of Irish Gold) or the Chicago Haymarket Massacre in 1886 ( the plot of Irish Stew) - is not the way things really happened. Nuala Anne and her husband then undertake extensive archival research and confirm the alternative explanation of the event. Great stories and thought provoking history lesson.
Our Tour Begins at the Heart V Nightclub
The parking lot we met at was on Congress Street a couple of blocks east of Stone Ave. Next to the parking lot was a small night club called Heart V. Heart V occupies the first floor of a two story building dating from at least the 1930s.
We entered and made our way to the back of the building. Some years ago, the guide had no real details on this spirit, a young girl had been stabbed to death in the alley behind the building and her spirit now hangs out in the back of the first floor. She is a shy spirit who tends to hide in the shadows and not make herself known. She sounded like one of those lonely people who are content to hang around the fringes of gatherings, content to be in the presence of people but not engage directly with them,
On the second floor in the back, above the club, is a dance studio which we made our way to next by climbing the stairs at the back. No one was there, but the lights were on for us when we reached the top and entered a sizable room with six large mirrors on the walls. Some time during the 1930s and 1940s the building, like most in this commercial area, had housed small businesses and offices and the occupants of the office in the front part of the second floor had either used the back room to perform illegal abortions or had looked the other way while someone else had used the present day dance studio area to perform illegal abortions.
During World War II a young woman discovered that she had become pregnant following the last weekend spent with her soldier fiancée just before he headed overseas to fight. In the rush and uncertainties of wartime romances in that era, such pregnancies were not uncommon but there was still a strong social stigma against unmarried women getting pregnant. And, with the war, there was no guarantee that the father would survive to return to marry her.
So, this young lady visited the back room that is now the dance studio to have her pregnancy terminated with an illegal abortion. However, a problem developed during the abortion and, fearing the law, the abortionist and his assistant fled leaving the poor woman to bleed to death in the room. Today this poor girl's spirit hangs out in the dance studio accompanied by another spirit, claiming to be that of a dancer, who was attracted to the spot because it was a dance studio.
Like the spirit of the girl downstairs, neither of these two spirits felt like making their presence known that night so we exited and made our way down the street to the Hotel Congress.
Second Stop - The Hotel Congress
The Hotel Congress was built in 1919 and is situated across from the train station. The hotel managed to accommodate the needs of the out of town visitors to, what was then, a small city in the Arizona desert.
The hotel did do a good business with its first floor restaurant, beauty salon and showers which were frequented by travelers from the train station across the street during layovers between trains.
All of the railroad personnel and travelers who utilized these first floor services managed to get back on their train and leave as scheduled because there are no spirits hanging out in this area of the first floor.
However, going over to the bar area we find the spirit of Vincent, a stylishly dressed veteran of World War II, who ended up as a boarder in the hotel for the last part of his life.
Old and alone, but still spry, Vincent made the hotel his home for the remainder of his life.
Like Vincent, the hotel itself in those days was in decline as was the surrounding downtown area. However, this did allow him to live inexpensively and be within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
Like many in this situation, Vincent was a creature of habit who paid close attention to his grooming and followed a predictable routine each day.
Vincent is remembered for being the well groomed gentleman who ended each day by coming downstairs to the bar at the same time each night and having a nightcap at the same table.
According to our guide, people still frequently see the ghost of the elegantly dressed Vincent sitting at his table and sipping his drink in the evening.
Like the spirits at the Heart V there was no spirit at Vincent's table during our tour that evening.
Then there is the elevator. Despite the recent renovation which has restored the hotel to its 1930s elegance, the elevator remains unused.
According to workers at the hotel the elevator is supposedly haunted. During the renovation, while laying new tile one night in the deserted first floor, workers kept hearing the unused elevator going up and down.
Suddenly the elevator stopped across from them and the opened and no one was in it. The tile layers fled the building in terror. They did return to work the next evening and rumors about the abandoned elevator being haunted still persist.
Leaving the rather busy first floor with its lounge and restaurant packed with the avant-garde crowd with whom the hotel in now popular, we climbed up the elegant staircase to the second floor where our first stop was the hallway outside room 214. The room was occupied but our guide explained that during the period when the hotel was in decline, a man checked into Room 214 and proceeded to end his life by shooting himself in the face. The result was blood all over the walls.
Despite the room being completely cleaned, some guests still claim have found themselves awakened during the night and seeing blood running down the walls. Despite the stories of blood running down the walls, the staff often check honeymooners into Room 214 because it is located over the dance floor which drowns out the sound of the honeymooners' love making. It turned out that one of the couples in our group had spent their honeymoon in room 214 but were apparently so engrossed in each other that they did not have the experience of seeing blood running down the walls during their stay.
The big story was the 1936 fire on the third floor. This occurred when John Dillinger, on the FBI's list of ten most wanted criminals at the time, was in Tucson, hiding out from the FBI. While he and some of his gang stayed in a private house, a couple of his associates rented rooms on the third floor of the hotel. While they were there a fire broke out on the third floor. The hotel was evacuated safely and the fire, after extensive damage, was put out.
Despite the fire being out, the guests and others were not allowed to re-enter the damaged building. After being told that they could not re-enter the building, two male guests approached some firemen and asked if the firemen would retrieve the trunks from their room. The firemen went and retrieved the two, very heavy, trunks and the men thanked them and left with the trunks.
A couple of days later while being shown photos the police had just received, the firemen recognized the two men with the trunks in the photos. The local sheriff followed up on the lead and ended up capturing Dillinger and gang at his hideout. The trunks were in the home where Dillinger, the two men and other members of the gang were hiding and, upon being opened, were discovered to be loaded with Tommy guns (machine guns) and other weapons.
Crossing the Street to the Amtrak Train Station
cross the street from the Hotel Congress is the train depot. The current station was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1907 and is now the local Amtrak Station. A few years ago the station was remodeled and restored to the way it looked in the 1940s when trains provided the major means of travel to and from Tucson.
The 1907 structure replaced an earlier station on the same site so the history of the site as a train stop pre-dates the current building. Thus, the first ghost we learned about was that of Frank Stilwell, a character of some renown in Western lore. Like other notorious characters in the annals of the Wild West in the late nineteenth century where most people fell into the vast grey area between good and bad, Stilwell has a reputation of being both a good guy, having once served as deputy sheriff of Cochise County Arizona, and bad guy, for numerous reasons including being an arrested, but not convicted, of robbing a stage. He was also a businessman in the nearby mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.
In the rough and tumble atmosphere of Tombstone's violent early days the difference between many a legitimate businessman and a criminal often depended upon whether or not you and your associates controlled the law or whether your competitors controlled the law. In Tombstone Stilwell's competitors on many business deals were the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, Warren and Morgan) who also held, at various times, potions as deputy sheriff and deputy U.S. Marshall.
Charges and counter charges flew between Stilwell's associates and the Earp brothers and their associates and these led ultimately to the killing of Morgan Earp which was followed the famous fight at the OK Cornall in Tombstone. Stilwell, avoided being killed in this fight and fled to Tucson to escape the wrath of the vengeful Earp brothers and their associates.
Wyatt Earp, along with family members and associates, also headed to Tucson, with the intent of both putting some family members on a train to California and meting out vengeance against Stilwell and others they had missed at the OK Coral as they were determined to get revenge for Morgan's death. On the evening of March 20, 1882 Wyatt Earp put family members on the train and then, with Doc Holiday and others, went looking for Stilwell. They did not have to search long because they soon found him lurking along the tracks. Wyatt Earp later claimed that Stilwell was laying in wait to ambush them when they, Wyatt and company, spied Stilwell first and surprised him. According to WikiPedia, Wyatt Earp shot Stilwell point blank in the ribs with a shotgun as Stilwell was trying to grab the shotgun with his hands. WikiPedia goes on to say that the supposed last words of Stilwell were Morg, Morg, apparently pleading with what he perceived in the dark to be the ghost of Morgan Earp.
For the rest of his life Wyatt Earp claimed that Stilwell was laying in wait to kill him and he had killed Stilwell first. Giving credence to Earp's story is an account by an associate of Stilwell in Tucson who said that despite the fact that Stilwell knew Earp and company were coming to Tucson to put relatives on the train that night he still chose that night to hide out along the tracks at the train station. Anyway, our guide simply stated that there was bad blood between Earp and Stilwell stemming from events in Tombstone and that they met, fought and Stilwell died at the hands of Wyatt Earp on the tracks that night. According to her, Stilwell's spirit still lurks around the station and yard although, like the other spirits we were looking for that night, he chose not to make his presence known while we were there.
Frank Stilwell's spirit does share the company of some spirits of other victims of violent death in the train yard. The first of these mentioned are the ghosts of William, Robert and James, three poker playing friends who, sometime in the late nineteenth century, had just had a big win nearby. Following the game William was killed at the station and his friends killed nearby. Who the assailant was, how and why they were killed and why William was at the station are not known and neither are their last names. This little information related to us by our guide is apparently all that the three friends have chosen to reveal to investigators from the company our guide works for who have encountered them during their investigations of ghostly presence at the station.
Along with Stilwell and the three poker players, our guide told us of five other ghosts that haunt the station only one of which did not die a violent death. The first were three nameless prostitutes who were murdered in the vicinity of the station. Like the poker players William, Robert and James, the guide knew nothing other than what the spirits of the three prostitutes had told the investigators. Basically, all they have revealed is the fact that they were prostitutes and were murdered nearby. Other than sharing a common profession, they have not revealed anything about themselves including who they were, how and when they died and whether they even lived in the same era let alone whether they knew each other in life. Then there is a young runaway, named Cinnamon, who, in the 1970s who was raped and murdered and her body left along the tracks by the station where she died.
Finally, there is the ghost of an old lady who our guide said is claimed to have been seen by many (but not us) patiently sitting in the station with her luggage waiting for a train that never came.
The Santa Rita Hotel
Leaving the train station we still had three more stops with the first being the old, and still used for specialty films, Rialto Movie Theater. The tales of this place were similar to the others with some verifiable and some simply what the spirits had revealed to the investigators. Again, none of the spirits made themselves known to anyone while we were there.
Our last stop was across the street from Heart V where we began the tour. This was a bar and lounge known as The Grill on Congress. Like Heart V across the street, this building dates back to the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s when it was a crime to consume alcohol in the United States and gangsters did a thriving business serving liquor.
Waiters and other employees in the Grill claim to occasionally see ghosts of dressed Mafia types hanging out in the upstairs where gangsters had their business providing drinks for those who patronized this, not so secret, speakeasy in that era. There have also been reports of sightings the ghost of a young woman from that era who hangs out in the kitchen area. She was murdered in the alley behind the building and her spirit seems to have sought refuge inside the building while the spirit of her assailant supposedly still lurks in the alley outside.
Another figure whose headquarters during the Prohibition Era was the Grill and who still supposedly haunts the neighborhood is the spirit of a man named George who was known as the King of Downtown in his day. George supposedly ran the rackets downtown in those days and, according to our guide, his spirit still feels that it is in charge of what is left of Downtown Tucson and can still be seen wandering the neighborhood exercising his authority.
Santa Rita Hotel After Dark
However, of all the places we visited, it was the Santa Rita Hotel, a block or so away and the second last stop on our tour that was the spookiest. The, currently empty, hotel occupies all or most of a city block where it stands alone and dark. Since astronomy is a major Tucson industry, the city tries to keep street and other lighting low which leaves the Santa Rita Hotel dependent upon the reflective light of nearby street lights and cars as its only source of illumination at night.
According to our guide, construction of the hotel was started in 1901 and the hotel opened in 1904. She also pointed out that the builder of the hotel supposedly secured a deal in which he got the land free. The land or land adjoining the land on which the hotel sits, according to the guide, had been used as a camp for Union soldiers in 1862 during the Civil War.
She also pointed out that many parts of downtown Tucson contained ancient Indian burial grounds. This was not a surprise given that the area on either side of the Santa Cruz River between Sentinel Peak, known locally as A Mountain, on the west and present day Downtown Tucson on the east has been almost continuously inhabited for the last 10,000 years. Our guide went on to say that, among the supernatural occurrences reported at the Santa Rita Hotel has been the repeated sighting of a black orb floating in the halls. Theory is that an ancient Indian shaman was trying to exorcise an evil spirit and, when the exorcism went bad, the evil spirit ended up entering the Shaman's body and killing him. The black orb is the evil spirit still clinging to this site.
In addition to some other haunting events was the story of a man named Ferguson who was staying in the hotel with his wife. For some reason he killed his wife in their room and then went to the elevator shaft where he hung himself. Not wanting to face judgement in the next world for his crime, Ferguson's spirit has chosen to remain at the hotel where makes his presence known by having rooms light up in areas of the hotel where the electricity has been shut off.
Final Thoughts About the Tour
As I said above the huge empty building sitting in an island of darkness surrounded by the lights of the city gave the area a creepy atmosphere. It was here that the guide claimed to be feeling the presence of some spirits and the feeling was claimed to be felt by one of the tourists in the group as well. The rest of us didn't feel it but all agreed it was time to move on.
Over all the tour was interesting more for the insight into local history and the tales of minor, but still colorful characters from the past. For me the tour was very much like one of Father Greeley's Nuala Anne McGrail mysteries in which communication with spirits of the past becomes a segue for taking a different look at minor events and people of the past.
As to the existence of spirits and hauntings, I accept the fact that spirits exist but remain skeptical as to whether or not people can communicate with them to the extent which they claim. In a way my skepticism in this area is also an excuse for not investigating further and finding out things that I would really not want to know.
Additional Photos Courtesy of Ralph Deeds
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