By Forest Riggs
Gosh, it is that time of year again, when most folks dust off old ghost stories and share new ones. Galveston, long known as a “Ghost Capital” in America, is chock-full of famous and infamous tales of lingering and lost spirits, ranging from Karankawa Indians, pirates, spurned lovers and down-right murderers to children and adults that perished in the 1900’s Great Storm. There are even eerie tales of animal ghosts and a pack of howling phantom hounds that guard one structure.
One does not have to look too hard to find a Galveston ghost or ghost story. Ask anyone who lives on the Island, especially in an older structure, and you can bet they will have some story to share. Many are confident and long-time believers, sure of what they have seen or experienced. Those stories usually start with, “Well, I never was a believer until….” The ghosts of Galveston Island are alive and make their presence known and felt.
Haunted America Tours ranks Galveston as the second most haunted city in America after New Orleans, and USA Today ranks the haunted island at number three, after New Orleans and Baltimore. No matter where it ranks, Galvestonians are proud and honored to host the spirits, share the stories and broaden paranormal horizons.
It seems that many in the LGBTQ community live in old, Victorians or pre-1900 buildings now converted into lofts. These locals have had tons of spooky happenings and experiences. On many occasions, I have stood at parties or while imbibing at one of the many bars (one of which has its own ghost) and listened to the stories and shared my personal experiences from the three homes I have owned on the Island. It’s creepy and it’s kooky (do I hear finger snapping?) but it is fun. After all, it is Galveston!
Many folks wonder why a little bar island in the Gulf of Mexico would be such an over-loaded spot when it comes to ghosts and roaming spirits hanging around. There are many theories and reasons behind the vast hauntings of Galveston.
Dash Beardsley, owner of Ghost Tours of Galveston (by the way, there are at least four ghost tours companies operating on the Island) states it best: “The Island has a short life of unfair death and misfortune.” Everyone is familiar with the huge amount of death and horror that befell the Island in the Great Storm of 1900. Depending on which account or tabulation, it has been estimated that 6,000 to 10,000 or more lives were lost in one single day — and that only accounts for human life. Then there are famous murders, gangsters, Civil War soldiers, fire deaths, hangings, pirates, suicides over broken engagements and unrequited loves, and so on and so forth. There are tons of reasons that make the Island a haven for ghosts.
Even when I was a small boy at the knee of my Aunt Louise that raised us, I would be mesmerized by her tales of the “haints” down on the Island. She had good reason to know of them — her own grandparents were bought and sold the Island during the slave trading days! I would listen to her tales and hope that someday I might experience a ghost. For me and many others, those days arrived and did so on the Island. Even early explorers and visitors felt the Island was haunted by spirits, some good and some not so good.
It seems that most people “that believe,” have their favorite story or location for ghost sightings and activity; some are very secret, personal and private, while others tell and re-tell stories of the more famous hauntings at the Hotel Galvez and Spa, Tremont House Hotel, Ashton Villa, Menard House, Victorian Inn, the old Customs House, the cemetery on Broadway, and a myriad others.
There is even a ghost that haunts the building that now houses Rumors Beach Bar on the Seawall; it was once a Kentucky Fried Chicken where a clerk killed during a robbery. Several employees and owners have, over years, talked of sightings and weird happening in the bar, usually after closing in the wee hours of the morning.
The Hotel Galvez and Spa, built in 1911 is well known for its haunted activity. The very painting of Bernardo de Galvez that hangs in the opulent hallway has always given folks an eerie feeling of being watched; some say the eyes have moved to follow them around the hall. Others claim to see shadows and images in photographs of the painting as well as other anomalies when trying to snap a picture. Then there is the room 505 story and sometimes 501 and the entire fifth floor. One tale recounts Audra, a young lady who stared out from the towers, looking for her seaman beau to come home, only to learn his ship had gone down. Some say she jumped, other says she hanged herself. Room 505 is considered a “special room” that usually comes with a ghost of a crying female who touches guests, rearranges bedding and furniture, and sometimes hums a sad tune.
Ashton Villa, built by James Moreau Brown, is home to a number of ghostly sightings and happenings. Brown’s daughter Bette, known as Miss Bette, is often seen standing at the second floor landing, wearing a long, turquoise dress. Music had been heard around the house as well as “touchings.” Even the piano striking a few notes by itself. (Miss Bette did not play the piano; however, her sister Tilly often entertained guests with her tunes.) The house was quiet for years, but custodians say the ghostly activities really accelerated after the 1975 renovation and restoration.
At the Victorian Inn, a favorite bed-and-breakfast on 17th Street, guests in the 3rd floor suite have heard humming as well as muffled conversations in the living room downstairs. Folks have felt someone touch them and even the strains of a man whistling.
Everyone loves the beautiful old Menard house, one of the oldest on the Island, but beware as many have seen the ghosts of the Menard children playing about the house and gardens. Then there is the female sobbing in despair, seen at the foot of the staircase. Some say this is the distraught daughter of Menard whose fiancée broke of their engagement. Brian Davis, former Galveston Historic Foundation employee, had an eerie experience in the house while preparing a guest room for a visiting speaker. While standing in the bedroom and knowing he was the only one in the house, he saw a man walk past the open door. Upon racing into the hall, he found it empty.
The Bishop’s Palace on Broadway, one of Galveston’s grandest homes of all, is supposed to be teaming with spirits that knock on walls, walk through walls, and even hum and play music. Visitors and staff often tell of a sighting or strange experience while in the magnificent structure. Mrs. Gresham has been seen in her “painting room”, standing as though she were gazing out the rounded windows or painting. Some have reported hearing the Gresham children running and playing in the long hallways and on the stairs.
One of the oddest is the “Face of UTMB.” The story goes that a man owned property that is now UTMB. When approached by the Medical Center about purchasing his property for the ever-growing campus, he adamantly refused, stating he would never sell to the medical school and program. The story goes on to say that eventually his land went to UTMB but he cursed the structure built on his former property by causing his image to appear on the outer wall of the building. The image is indeed there. Over the years, the wall has painted and re-painted, yet the image continues to appear. Best seen from a boat in the harbor, it’s a giant portrait of a man who looks like Edgar Allan Poe.
Then there is the Maison Rouge, or Red House that was the home of infamous Pirate Jean Lafitte. Located on Harborside Drive, all that remains within the fenced location is the foundation and steps of a later structure, known as 12 Gables and built by Capt. Hendricks, after the original perished. Many claim the lot is guarded by a band of howling phantom hounds as well as several male and female spirits. Visitors that stop to read the historical maker, placed in mid-1960s, have often told of hearing noises, voices, men arguing and even gun shots, especially just after dark or early in the morning.
The list goes on and on, from the old Stewart Mansion to the Walmart on the Seawall, the former site of St. Mary’s Orphanage where many children and nuns, lashed together with bed sheets, perished in the 1900 storm.
These are just a few of the better known and more visited sites. However, as I stated, ask any resident about ghosts their experiences and you are sure to get an earful. Everyone loves their ghost and sharing the stories of their house and its strange and mysterious inhabitants.
Lastly, if you are real doubter, take your camera and go down the cemetery on Broadway, the eerie one, and after dark, snap a few pictures. Everyone I know who has taken photos in among the old stones and mausoleums has captured many orbs floating about.
Boo! And Happy Halloween.
A resident of Galveston where he can be found wasting bait and searching for the meaning of life, Forest Riggs recently completed a collection of short stories about his beloved island and is working on a novel.