The Ghosts of Galveston

Kathleen Rice Adams header

 

At only twenty-seven miles long and three miles across at the widest point, Galveston, Texas, is not a big place. Located about two miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico an hour south of Houston, the barrier island and tourist Mecca is home to 48,000 year-round residents.

At least, that’s the number of residents the most recent U.S. Census counted. Those who call Galveston home know the population is much larger, because a goodly number of the island’s dearly departed…well, never departed.

Bettie Brown

Ashton+Villa

1859 Ashton Villa
courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Built in 1859 by a wealthy hardware merchant, Ashton Villa is one of Galveston’s most striking museum houses. Miss Bettie Brown, the merchant’s eldest daughter, was quite the character during her lifetime. She never married, drove her own carriage, and smoked in public, scandalizing the community. She lived to a ripe old age and died in 1920…but that doesn’t mean she left the property. Today, she reportedly scandalizes tour groups by appearing in the Gold Room and her private dayroom, roaming the grand staircase, locking and unlocking one of her lavish trunks, stopping clocks, and playing the piano.

Clara Menard

menardatnight

1838 Michel B. Menard House
courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Also called “the Mardi Gras ghost,” the spirit that inhabits Texas Declaration of Independence signatory Michel B. Menard’s 1838 mansion is thought to be that of his daughter Clara, who died in her teens. According to legend, within the first few years after it was built, the house was the site of one of the first Mardi Gras balls in the country. During the festivities, a young woman slipped on the staircase, fell, and broke her neck. Ever since, the hazy figure of a young woman dressed in party regalia of the era has been seen standing at the foot of the stairs during Mardi Gras season.

 

Daniel Brister

1877 Smith Brothers Hardware Store

1877 Smith Brothers Hardware Store

In 1920, twenty-five-year-old police officer Daniel Brister attempted to stop a robbery outside the 1877 Smith Brothers Hardware Store. He had just handcuffed one of the perpetrators when the second one shot him in the chest. Though bleeding, Brister chased down and cuffed the second robber, too…only to die of his wound moments later. Brister seems to have become less upstanding in the afterlife. These days, he pinches women’s posteriors and breathes down their necks in the restaurant now located at the spot of his death. He also throws pots and pans in the kitchen.

Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte, artist unknown courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston

Jean Lafitte, artist unknown
courtesy Rosenberg Library, Galveston

The pirate Jean Lafitte built the first permanent structure on the island. All that remains of the 1816 smuggler’s refuge Maison Rouge, originally painted red and surrounded by a moat, is a crumbling foundation. The U.S. Navy chased the privateer off the island in May 1821, but Lafitte reportedly loved Galveston so much, he returned in 1823…after he was killed during a sea battle off the coast of Honduras. Legend holds the pirate buried a treasure beneath three oaks on the western end of the island. Treasure hunters never have found the loot, but several have reported encountering Lafitte—right about the time he chokes them.

Lovelorn Lady

1911 Hotel Galvez, courtesy Hotel Galvez

1911 Hotel Galvez, courtesy Hotel Galvez

Because of its location overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the 1911 Hotel Galvez once was a favorite getaway for Frank Sinatra and several U.S. Presidents. The most famous guest of the “Queen of the Gulf” never checked out of Room 501. According to generations of hotel staff members, the lovelorn lady awaited her fiancé in the room. When his ship went down off the coast of Florida and he was not listed among the survivors, she hanged herself. Sadly, the fiancé showed up about a week later. These days the Lovelorn lady doesn’t confine herself to Room 501, although that seems to be her favorite haunt. She has been seen or felt throughout the hotel, wandering the halls, breaking dishes, turning on water faucets, slamming doors, and blowing out candles.

Capt. Marcus Fulton Mott

After serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Marcus Fulton Mott became a prominent lawyer and state senator. He built a grand Victorian mansion in Galveston’s upscale East End in 1884. The home burned in 1925. Prominent businessman George Sealy Jr. subsequently built an 8,200-square-foot “summer retreat” on the site after acquiring the property in 1926. Although the existence of a cistern on the grounds has never been confirmed, Mott’s son may have murdered three women and thrown their bodies into the well—or at least that’s what Mott’s ghost has told people. Reportedly, he vowed never to leave until the women’s bodies are recovered. Reports of supernatural activity at the house have died down in the past two decades, but prior to the mid-1990s, the ghost at the Witwer-Mott House allegedly ordered people out of the home, threatened them, and threw mattresses across the room…while people were on them.

Point Bolivar Lighthouse Ghost

1872 Point Boliver Lighthouse, courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

1872 Point Boliver Lighthouse
courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The original Point Bolivar lighthouse, built in 1850, was pulled down during the Civil War so the Yankees couldn’t capture the light and use it as a navigational aid. The new lighthouse, built in 1872, still stands, though it was decommissioned in 1933 and sold to a private individual in 1947. No one has been inside the 116-foot-tall structure for years, yet people—including Patty Duke and Al Freeman Jr., who filmed a movie there in 1970—have reported seeing a figure on the light deck at the very top. Some say the ghost may be that of a lighthouse keeper’s son who killed his parents at the scene. Others believe Harry C. Claiborne, who began a twenty-four-year, two-hurricane tenure as lighthouse keeper in 1894, was so devoted to duty that he still mans his post.

Samuel May Williams

1838 Samuel May Williams House courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

1838 Samuel May Williams House
courtesy Galveston Historical Foundation

Samuel May Williams served as Stephen F. Austin’s secretary, became the first banker in Texas, and founded the Texas Navy. The home he built on Galveston in 1838 is the oldest standing residence on the island. Known as “the most hated man in Texas,” Williams had a habit of pinching pennies and ruthlessly foreclosing on mortgages. Few are surprised he apparently hung around to terrorize the living. Fires have been lit in fireplaces when no one was in or near the home, there’s a “cold spot” outside the children’s rooms on the second floor, and a misty figure appears in the windows of the cupola atop the roof.

Tremont House Ghosts

Tremont House, courtesy Wyndham Grand Hotels

Tremont House
courtesy Wyndham Grand Hotels

The Tremont House opened with great fanfare on April 19, 1839, in commemoration of the Battle of San Jacinto. By the 1860s, the Tremont had fallen on hard times—in more ways than one. In 1862, the Union Army commandeered the hotel to quarter soldiers. In 1865, the Tremont burned to the ground. Seven years later, the phoenix rose from the ashes even bigger and grander than before. The Tremont hosted guests including Buffalo Bill Cody, Clara Barton, Stephen Crane, and five U.S. Presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant. More hard times and several hurricanes later, the Tremont was demolished in the 1920s…only to be rebuilt once more in the 1980s. Somewhere along the line, a whole passel of ghosts moved in. A Confederate soldier marches up and down the lobby, where a little boy the staff calls Jimmy plays with bottles and glasses at the bar. Jimmy is thought to be the child who was run over in front of the hotel in the late 1880s. “Sam” was murdered on the fourth floor by a thief who wanted the haul Sam had made at one of the city’s storied casinos. The spirit in Room 219, assumed to be a disgruntled former employee, scatters the contents of guests’ luggage.

Unknown Schoolteacher

1895 Hutchings-Sealy Building courtesy Mitchell Historic Properties

1895 Hutchings-Sealy Building
courtesy Mitchell Historic Properties

Among the many acts of bravery and selflessness recorded during the Great Storm of 1900, one stands out as especially poignant: That of a young schoolteacher who had taken refuge on the third floor of the Hutchings, Sealy and Company Bank on the Strand. As the seventeen-foot-storm surge submerged the island, sweeping property and lives from the face of the earth, the schoolteacher climbed through a window, perched on a ledge, and dragged people out of the flood and inside the building. She cared for the living for several days, until she succumbed to a fatal fever. To this day, no one knows her name, but she has a familiar face. Ever since the disaster, residents and visitors alike have seen a young woman dressed in the fashion of the day in various parts of the historic bank building. Before the restaurant that occupied the building for many years closed in 2008, some employees reported hearing her call their names.

William Watson
(May disturb some readers.)

Galveston Railroad Museum, courtesy Nsaum75

Galveston Railroad Museum
courtesy Nsaum75

Of all the ghost stories on Galveston, William Watson’s may be the most gruesome. A bit of a daredevil, the thirty-two-year-old engineer was standing on the cowcatcher of a locomotive as it left the Santa Fe Union Train Station September 1, 1900—one week before the Great Storm destroyed the city. According to reports at the time of his death, Watson frequently pulled the stunt. Something went horribly wrong that day, though. He slipped from his perch, went under the train, and immediately was decapitated. His body stayed put; his head ended up one-quarter mile down the track, where the engine stopped. Watson reportedly haunts the former station (now the Galveston Railroad Museum), though not usually in visual form, thank goodness. Most of the time he merely makes strange noises and redecorates.

A second spirit hangs out at the museum, as well. For a time, part of the building served as a residential psychiatric treatment facility. In the 1980s, a female patient jumped to her death from a fourth-floor window. Since then, the gauzy form of a woman has been seen sitting on windowsills, one leg outside, before disappearing.

These are only a handful of the non-corporeal residents of Galveston. Sometimes called “a cemetery with a beach attached,” the island is second only to New Orleans in the number of reported hauntings. In addition to the celebrity ghosts, other spirits with unknown names and less spectacular stories remain on the island, partly because of Galveston’s dramatic history.

The island switched back and forth between Union and Confederate hands several times early in the Civil War (the Rebs finally managed to hang onto it from January 1863 on), and both sides left bodies behind in buildings along the Strand. After the Great Storm, the surviving buildings along the Strand became temporary hospitals and morgues. The Strand fell into disrepair for a number of years until late Galveston philanthropist George Mitchell stepped in to renew and revitalize the area in the mid-1980s. During renovations, a number of skeletons were discovered in the walls, left there by war or storm victims who literally “slipped through the cracks,” evidently. That may explain why Galvestonians and visitors frequently notice vague forms in uniforms or period clothing floating near ceilings in some of the historic buildings.

Other reported hauntings include:

  • Orphans who drowned during the Great Storm have been spotted at the Walmart built on the site of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word’s doomed orphanage.
  • The Flying Dutchman was reported in Galveston Bay twice in 1892.
  • Bishop’s Palace may be haunted by the spirit of a former owner, who checks the building’s structural integrity when hurricanes threaten.
  • An unknown man, possibly a Great Storm victim, sometimes runs along the sand at Stewart Beach.
  • A pack of twelve phantom dogs with glowing eyes allegedly appears as an omen of impending tragedy or disaster.

Robbing Banks Stealing Hearts

 

 

Two well-meaning ghosts bedevil Tombstone Hawkins and Pansy Gilchrist in “Family Tradition,” one of two short novellas in Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts. The book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookstore, Kobo, and Smashwords.

 

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Rice Adams
A Texan to the bone, award-winning author Kathleen Rice Adams spends her days chasing news stories and her nights and weekends shooting it out with Wild West desperados. Leave the upstanding, law-abiding heroes to other folks. In Kathleen's tales, even the good guys wear black hats.

Her short story “The Second-Best Ranger in Texas” won the Peacemaker Award for Best Western Short Fiction. Her novel Prodigal Gun won the EPIC Award for Historical Romance and is the only western historical romance ever to final for a Peacemaker in a book-length category.

Visit her at the Hole in the Web Gang's hideout, KathleenRiceAdams.com. Or, connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest. Her Amazon author page is here.

14 Comments

  1. I have heard, read and seen some of Galveston’s elaborate history of both ghosts, storm and war and I think natural disaster and drowning too. Sort of a writer and historian’s Mecca. Even the Ghost Chaser or Hunter. Although to be fair, it boasts quite a diverse collection of history and/or ghosts. Still I would love to visit and see/feel for myself. It must be fascinating though. Somehow it just lacks the Indian Burial Grounds many haunted places boast or do they?

    1. Hi, Elaine! You should visit Galveston when you get a chance. It’s a beautiful city overflowing with history dating all the way back to the days of the Republic of Texas.

      We don’t have an Indian burial ground, per se, but the Karankawa’s considered the island their territory for a long, long time. I’ve never heard of any Indian ghosts haunting the area, but there may be some.

      The cemetery on Broadway is the site of several notorious reported hauntings. One “ghost hunter” or another hosts events there every Halloween … for those who are brave enough to attend. 😉

  2. I love this post. I remember some of these stories from taking a ghost tour in Galveston one time with my mom. But the one I remember most is Miss Bettie from Ashton Villa. Me and my husband went down one year and we had scheduled a tour in the home the next morning. There was a tropical storm in the gulf, but we figured since we were there, we would play it by ear as to if we stayed or left. When we got to there for our tour, the guy running the tour asked why we were still on the island because a storm was coming and most tourists had left already. We were the only ones who showed up. There was a very strange feeling in the home and it felt like we were being watched in several of the rooms. The guy told us how Miss Bettie would warn people of a storm coming and we took it to heart and went back to the hotel after the tour and got our stuff and left. The storm turned into a hurricane hours later. The worst part missed Galveston, but hit Kemah. I always wanted to go back in October and do the ghost tours in the homes (if they still do them).

    1. Hm. Hurricane Rita, maybe? That one occurred between Katrina and Ike. The eye of the storm passed over High Island, which is about 70 miles from Galveston as the crow flies (and is neither high nor an island). Galveston got lots of rain and plenty of wind, but suffered very little damage.

      I’m glad you got to take the Ashton Villa tour! That is such a lovely old house. Being the only ones on the tour, I’ll bet you got to see some places and hear some tales most tourists don’t. The Galveston Hysterical Historical Foundation goes to great lengths to play down the ghosts that allegedly inhabit its properties — except at Halloween, when they offer a tongue-in-cheek tour of several reportedly haunted museum homes.

      1. You could be right about which hurricane it was. The timing sounds about right. I don’t know if we got any special info from the tour or not, but it was very interesting and I really enjoyed it. We were hoping to go again a couple weeks ago when my husband was on vacation. But as usual, no money for a vacation again this year. One year I will make it in October and hear more ghost stories.

  3. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for the fascinating info on ghosts. Always interested. ( I think the Tremont House was on Ghost Hunters. I remember the boy Jimmy. ) In the meantime, please keep these interesting tidbits of the past coming. Jesse

    1. The Tremont House was on Ghost Hunters? Why doesn’t anyone ever tell me these things BEFORE they happen? I’ll see if I can find that one in the “view whenever you can find it and have time” list on cable. 🙂

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Jesse. It’s always good to see you! 🙂

  5. Kathleen, this is a wonderful post. I have never been to Galveston. What a wonderful history it has, and these ghost stories just add more “must see” stuff when I ever DO get down that way.

    It’s no wonder you slipped a bit of “ghostliness” into Robbing Banks, Stealing Hearts!
    Hugs, from the Okie!

    1. Hugs back, Okie! (But don’t tell anyone about it. An Okie hugging a Texan? We’d both be run out of our respective states!)

      You’ll have to come down for a visit. The island will never be the same… 😉

  6. Fascinating information Kathleen! Perfect for October! I’ve never been on a ghost tour…I’m not sure if I’d make it through if something spooky happened. I’d rather read about them then experience them!

    1. Kathryn, we’ll just go watch from a distance together. 😀

  7. Good Heavens, Galveston has more than its share of ghosts. We have at least three in our house, but they are not frequent visitors and we hope it stays that way.
    Thank you for a most interesting post.

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