Ghosts of the West

Everyone loves a good ghost story, the kind that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck and cause you to look over your shoulder. But what attracts us to ghosts even more than their sheer creepiness are the stories that come with them. Most of the time, ghost stories are rooted in a darker side of human nature. A side of ourselves and our histories are exposed to use through the supernatural. In this blog, we explore the darker side of the West through the souls that were left behind.

Allegedly haunted mist rising over Hot Lake Hotel
Allegedly haunted mist rising over Hot Lake Hotel

Hot Lake Hotel

History. Built originally in 1864, Hot Lake Hotel drew travelers from all over the world to rural Union County, Oregon. Built over vast hot springs, it was thought that its waters had healing properties. In 1917, it was purchased by a wealthy doctor and converted into a half-hospital, half-hotel. It housed the most advanced radiation and X-ray treatments available at the time, and was often referred to as “The Mayo Clinic of the West“. In the 1930s a fire destroyed most of the medical complex, and carried off scores of patients with it. After being refurbished, it became a nursing home, then a mental asylum, and finally a restaurant before falling into disrepair in 1991. Recently, it was purchased and remodeled yet again into a luxury hotel, museum, and restaurant by a family of Eastern Oregon copper smiths.

A view of the old operating room, now library where a woman's screams can be heard
A view of the old operating room, now library where a woman’s screams can be heard

Haunts. Let’s review: 19th century hotel, state of the art hospital, nursing home, asylum, restaurant. Any one of these places could have been the seen of great haunting, but all of them combined? Over a creepy hot spring? Let’s start with the fire: shortly afterwards, reports started surfacing of a young boy with severe burns running up and down the stairs or through hallways while laughing. At the same time, rumors started that if you stand at the bottom of the staircase leading to the third floor, footsteps will descend and stop immediately in front of you…if you’ve dared to wait for it. If you haven’t, they have been known to follow you down the hallway. During its stint as a nursing home, employees started reporting rocking chairs rocking of their own volition, slow steps coming from the third floor hallway and rooms, and a phantom noose appearing in one of the third floor bedrooms. Apparitions of long dead patrons of the hotel dressed in clothing from the early 1900s emerge over the hot springs as steam rises across the water, and drivers on the old highway have often reported being stared at as they drive by figures in the mist who would have to be standing in the water. A woman’s screams have been heard coming form the old operating theater, which the new owners converted into a library. The new owners go to great lengths to quash any rumors of a haunting, though they seem to be working against decades of evidence…and perhaps the spirits themselves.

The beautiful Dr. Hazzard
The beautiful Dr. Hazzard

Butterworth’s Mortuary

History. Seattle, Washington is an eccentric city with an eccentric past. The West attracted those who wished to experiment with new medical technologies, including one Dr. Linda Hazzard. After settling in Seattle in the early 1900s, Dr. Hazzard opened her own clinic where she claimed she could cure any illness that plagued wealthy women: first, one would be kept on a diet of only hot tomato water for as long as possible, before starting a regime of thrice daily enemas. By the end, her patients were so starved and…cleaned out that they died of starvation. It was of little mind to Dr. Hazzard, who said some inevitably will die, but she was still convinced that they had been cured of their original illness.

A victim of Dr. Hazzard post starvation treatment: victim is in her late 20s
A victim of Dr. Hazzard post starvation treatment: victim is in her late 20s

No one knows how many women Dr. Hazzard killed in this way, though forty seems to be one of the more modest estimates. When she was eventually and inevitably brought to trial for these wrongful deaths, she wore the dress she knew made her look the most stunning: a long red dress that had belonged to one of her dead patients. At the trial, the judge said that he could not imagine such a beautiful woman committing such a crime. She was acquitted.

During this most morbid of all eras, Seattle was simultaneously suffering from both cholera and Spanish flu epidemics, and the city was suffering from an excess of dead bodies. Walking on  the street, it was not uncommon to see a rotting corpse in the middle of the sidewalk. The city of Seattle passed a law that declared that anyone who turned in a body they found on the streets would receive $20 per head, and the mortuary that took care of them would receive the same. This took care of the bodies-in-the-street problem, but gave rise to another: murder for hire. The state wasn’t asking where the bodies came from, and the people who turned them in didn’t say. They just collected their $20 fee, worth around $250 today.

Enter Butterworth’s Mortuary. Butterworth’s, located in Downtown Seattle near the famous Pike Place Market, became the go-to for all in Seattle seeking to dispose of bodies. This included victims of the flu, cholera, Dr. Hazzard (who lived near the market), and any bodies turned in under less explicable circumstances. It subsequently became the go-to for all Seattle ghosts as well.

Inside Butterworth's chapel
Inside Butterworth’s chapel

Haunting. After the Butterworth family decided to sell the building, series of wildly unsuccessful restaurants took its place. It couldn’t have helped that entire racks of wine would explode, or bottles would leap from the shelves to hit unsuspecting waitresses in the head. Customers were made aware of the haunts, too, and were not spared their terrors. Thanks perhaps to Dr. Hazzard, the apparition of an emaciated woman with a hungry and wrathful look was often seen standing at the bar, and would target lovey-dovey couples. Apparently, the unsuspecting couple would notice her across the room staring at them as they ate. As they stared, this woman would slowly begin to walk toward the table, disappearing when she was finally close enough to touch them.

Your humble correspondent was able to visit Butterworth’s recently, and speak to a ghost hunter who leads seances and often spends the night there alone. He informed me that during a seance one night, a 14 year old girl present was dragged backwards four feet in her chair, as a man’s voice said in her ear, “Stay with us! Join us!” Later on, the girl’s mother reported hand shaped bruises had appeared on her ribs. (Awkwardly enough, during this conversation the ghost hunter pointed out that I was standing exactly where this girl was grabbed.)

Currently, the owners of the Irish pub in the basement of the of the building are attempting to start another in a long line of restaurants in the extremely haunted upstairs. The problem is, they can’t keep a contractor. The spirits make themselves known through inexplicable construction accidents, nails and screws being thrown toward workers, footsteps, whispers, and shattering glass. None of them dare stay too long…

Winchester House before the towers came down in an earthquake
Winchester House before the towers came down in an earthquake

Winchester Mystery House

History. In San Jose, California, the Winchester mystery house has long stood as a testament to one woman’s terror of the spirit world, her profound grief, and what you can accomplish if you are both crazy and wealthy. In this story, history and haunting interact from the beginning. The Winchester Mystery House may have the rare distinction of being the only American house built for the ghosts that haunt it.

During the Civil War, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company took off in popularity with the Winchester rifle. Made in the South but used by both the Union and the Confederacy, what made the Winchester family wealthy enabled the swift destruction of scores of young men in the late 1800s. William Winchester, the heir to the company, married Sarah, and together they had a daughter. By 1881, William and the daughter had died, Sarah had plunged into a deep depression (somewhat understandable given the circumstance). During the Victorian era, it was common for those who didn’t understand their fate to consult the spirit realm, so Sarah held a seance.

According to legend, Sarah’s husband William appeared to her. He revealed that the entire Winchester family was haunted by the souls of those who’d died violently at the hands of their rifles. Sarah could never hope to be rid of the spirits, but she could try to appease them. At this point, Sarah–who’d lived on the East Coast all of her life–got up, exited the room, and started “following her husband west.” He finally came to a stop in San Jose, California. She found an old six room farm house that she could construct around, and proceeded to build.

Haunting. Sarah was terrified of the spirits that haunted her family. The house she constructed was built both as a mansion to appease them, and a maze to confuse them. She would install doors that lead to a brick wall, stairs leading to nowhere, and would occasionally have rooms that had just been built torn down to start over.

Strange Sarah Winchester
Strange Sarah Winchester

While she had a seance most mornings to decide what the spirits wanted her to build the next day, she made sure to sleep in a different room every night so that they could not find her in her sleep. She mentioned in passing to those around her that as soon as she stopped building the spirits would take her life. Eventually, they did, and on September 5, 1922, she joined the ghosts she had so long feared. The ghost of Sarah is said to stalk the grounds, continuing to preside over the goings on in the house even in death.

She’s not alone. For all of its weirdness, working on the Winchester House was an awesome job for a contractor or worker at the time. Sarah took care of her people, paid them well, and always made sure they were happy. Some of the workers decided never to leave: from the basement one can hear the sounds of ongoing construction, and men in overalls have been seen in the house continuing the work long after closing time. The fact that another Sarah Winchester–a distant relative of the Sarah who built the house and the new heir to the Winchester family fortune–just joined the cast of The Real Housewives of Orange County may make this story even more frightening.

More than just being ghost stories, these three haunted places were significant in their time. While their ghostly activities are what make them notable now, perhaps those souls who continue to live there just don’t want us to forget what these sites once meant.