San Diego is a popular haunt for people in search of beaches, sunshine and a California tan, but many visitors may not realize it’s also said to be a very literal haunt of Victorians and other former residents who are, shall we say, no longer of this earth.
Once a raucous seaport and cattle town where Wyatt Earp ran gambling operations and gold miners came down from nearby hills to spend their loot, San Diego today has many remnants of that past that are quite visible in places like the city’s historic Gaslamp District and Old Town. Some say it’s not only the buildings that remain, but also spirits of those earlier days who make noises, move objects and generally frighten the heck out of both believers and non-believers who happen to bear witness to their shenanigans.
Ghostly Tours in History aims to capitalize on all of that paranormal activity, thank you. The six-month-old San Diego company conducts regular nightly tours of some of the most haunted buildings in the city, combining the comfort of an open-bar limousine with ghostly and ghastly stories designed to raise hair on the most skeptical of visitors. In essence, it’s Halloween every weekend of the year in San Diego, as well as on many weekday evenings as well.
We heard about the tour and wondered just how “ghostly” this tour really was. Would we see objects move? Would we feel the presences of spirits? Would we find anomalies in our photographs or some kind of “proof” that ghosts are real?
We joined the tour on a busy Friday night in the Old Town area, where the tour operators had two stretch limousines awaiting as many as 30 guests for the three-hour tour of the city’s cold spots (because, you see, ghosts suck the heat from the air, creating a chill wherever they happen to be standing). It was easy to figure out which tour it was – the company’s three principals were all dressed in Victorian garb looking like they just appeared in A Christmas Carol.
The tour guide for our group was Phinius Ashcroft, a great name for someone who leads ghost tours but, alas, not this gentleman’s real name. The 20-something Charles Spratley, as well as the other guides, all assumed stage names for the evening and, if you listened carefully, Charles also had just a touch of Vincent Price in his careful delivery. Music somewhat reminiscent of Disney’s Haunted Mansion played in the background as we entered the limo.
About 15 people were in our limo which, no doubt, had seen heavy prom duty. An open bar was available at no extra cost but, even though we were all consenting adults, the focus for the evening seemed to be more on ghost stories than partying. A couple of people had a drink or two, a few more had water or orange juice. This definitely was about the ghosts, not about getting gassed.
Phinius Ashcroft…er, Charles Spratley…explained to the group that this was going to be a PG-13 tour. If kids had been along, he would have toned it down somewhat, he said – but he made it clear that was not his preference. “I show the world as it is, not as it should be,” he said. “I have no problem talking about gambling, prostitution and drug use.”
Spratley explained that a similar tour had been conducted in San Diego by another company and that, when that was shut down, he and his partners jumped at the chance to start up their own company and put together tours that were, in general, more historical and “edgier.” Spratley explained the historical facts in this tour have all been checked and re-checked by Sean Shiraishi – his real name – another principal in the company and the former curator of the San Diego Historical Society.
First stop on our tour was the Star of India sailing ship in San Diego Harbor. One of the ship’s deckhands had been the victim of a malfunction that caused a couple of tons of chain to fall on him, killing him instantly. On the forward portion of the middle deck, where the incident occurred, we were told there are pockets of air that are subject to sudden temperature fluctuations of 20 degrees or more. On this night, it seemed, everything was normal.
But the ship’s tales did not end there. The ship’s captain died on the maiden voyage of scarlett fever. And a drunk by the name of Barnett committed suicide in one of the passenger cabins. Today, Spratley explained, teacups and other objects in the captain’s cabin move without explanation. Teachers sometimes stay overnight on the ship as part of an education program and one awakened one night to having the covers ripped off her bed. Another couldn’t get out of bed because of an unseen object exerting downward pressure. The smell of whiskey was in the air.
Such was typical of the stories we heard over the next few hours in visits to such well-known San Diego attractions as the Hotel del Coronado, Old Town’s Whaley House – said to be the most haunted building in California – and San Diego’s Gaslamp District where the city’s former morgue is being turned into a new restaurant even though, for years, there have been reports of objects moving, strange sounds and an elevator that operates entirely on its own. The tour also visits the William Heath Davis House and Museum, which has objects that move, gas lights that shut off and re-start themselves and, on one occasion, a ghostly apparition witnessed by several members of a tour.
By the time of our last stop of the evening – the El Camp Santo Cemetery – we’d heard a lot of stories but it had proven difficult to get ghosts to do their tricks on cue. No moving objects, temperatures were all pretty normal, no feelings that anyone was watching us. The cemetery was the last chance and, sure enough, the tour operators chose this location to do a demonstration of paranormal activity. They asked for a “believer” and then a “non-believer” and asked the crowd to snap a digital image of each. Once that was done, tour guide Andrea Rustad – her real name -- explained that the believer shots would have an “orb” or light spherical object above the person’s head and the non-believers would not.
“Yes, I see it – there it is!” exclaimed one excited tourist. Another looked at the first tourist’s camera and matter-of-factly pronounced: “It doesn’t look any different to me.”
And so, it seems, ghostly phenomena may be in the eye of the beholder. But if you’re not a believer, Spratley doesn’t want you to feel bad: “Sean Shiraishi is our historian and he doesn’t believe a word of it, either,” he said.