If you’re in search of ghosts, October is a good month to join a ghost tour and meet them, or at least their stories.
Each October, ghost tours abound. Among California’s best are Haunted Haight, the Vampire Tour and Ghost Hunt in San Francisco, Dearly Departed in Hollywood, Ghost Tours of Catalina, the Whaley House and Ghost Tours of San Diego, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Hysterical Walks in Sacramento, the Queen Mary Ghost Tour in Long Beach and — of course — Ghost Tours of Placerville.
El Dorado County’s seat is often listed as one of the most haunted places in America, because of its long history, notorious beginning and many sightings. Literally dozens of apparitions or spherical blobs of energy, called orbs, have been sensed by locals, visitors and paranormal investigators.
It is often mistakenly concluded that Placerville has so many ghosts because of its notorious few years existence as “Hangtown,” a place where outlaws met swift justice. Though, that contradicts Hangtown’s actual record. The El Dorado County History Museum found that the Mountain Democrat reported in 1896 that fewer than 20 outlaws had, to that point, been “launched into eternity.” Thereafter, executions occurred at Folsom Prison.
The low number of hangings in “Hangtown” don’t sufficiently explain why so many ghosts have been reported as residing in Placerville. Linda Bottjer, who leads Ghost Tours of Placerville, believes the town’s long history and hard times provide the answer.
Many of the ghost stories told on her tours are about common souls: miners, teamsters, workers and innocents. Their unsettled spirits are not happy and linger on. “These were often people who probably were not successful, had seen lots of death or died alone and unexpectedly,” she said.
Lanny Hardy, director of marketing and public relations at Cary House (reputedly one of Placerville’s most haunted places) describes how the hotel’s most famous ghost met his end. Stan was the hotel’s alcoholic desk clerk, a man known as a womanizer and someone who wouldn’t keep his hands to himself. One day, Stan pinched a woman and was stabbed by her husband. Stan died on the hotel’s front steps and his spirit has remained at the hotel and along Main Street, looking for drinks at long-shuttered saloons and occasionally pinching people.
The room most reported as being haunted at Cary House is room 212, where Arnold Wiedman, a 19th century coach driver, died of influenza. Hardy says the teamster’s wife and baby lived in the room, following Wiedman’s death. The mother and child remain in the room, searching for their husband and father.
Bottjer says most of the most commonly sensed ghosts in Placerville are innocents, like Wiedman, not rabble rousers who would have been “launched into eternity” at the end of a rope. They’re benign and friendly, though clearly unsettled.
Darrell, the town’s remorseful bearded hangman, patrols Main Street between The Hanging Tree and the Chamber of Commerce, two spots where outlaws were hung. He is seen dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt and is often felt as a chill presence. A female spirit, smelling of lavender, is sensed in shops that sell no lavender products. Gothic Rose Antiques is frequented by Aunt Blanche, an apparition who seems at ease perpetually perusing its gothic décor. Singing is heard coming from the Placerville Soda Works; a phantom kitten is seen there; and men playing cards sometimes gather near its tunnel, as they might have to cool themselves on a hot August Sunday afternoon.
At Cary House, Hardy says a woman is seen as a form dressed in white. Ladies wearing white are a common apparition. The Bridgeport Inn’s White Lady forever haunts one of the hotel’s rooms. Reputedly, she was a bride who hanged herself after learning that her miner husband had been murdered on his way back to her from Bodie while carrying the gold he’d discovered.
At Richardson House, a vacation home in Truckee which resumes ghost tours in 2014, owner Christina Stoever Young says the original resident, Maggie Richardson — a young mother who died of intestinal illnesses in the late 1800s — is often seen in an upstairs guest room looking out the window toward the yard where her children would have played. “She’s a nurturing figure who takes care of the house’s guests. She loved her children and couldn’t leave the house,” says Shaw.
Most often, ghosts do not appear physically, Bottjer explains, but as unexplained phenomena … an unexplained breeze, creaking, things disappearing then reappearing, items falling suddenly, a sense of being watched and a lot of cold. Bottjer’s tours are not about exploring the supernatural, but about exploring Placerville’s stories, having a bit of fun and laughing.
She jokes, “Those looking for serious study are disappointed when I shoe them away.” The most she’ll say about ghosts is that psychics claim they result from unsettled and unhappy spirits that often had more to accomplish in lives that remained unfulfilled. That has kept them here.
To search for ghosts, join the Ghost Tours of Placerville any Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. for $5 (goldrushtales.blogspot.com). To stay with ghosts, visit caryhouse.com or therichardsonhouse.com. Each month, Cary House’s “Catch the Spirit” contest awards a free night’s stay to the best story or photo of a paranormal experience from a previous guest. On Nov. 9, the hotel will become “Downturn Abbey,” as the site of an interactive murder mystery. And, on Nov. 16, Wendy Wythe, the stained glass artist who at 17 years old crafted Cary House’s famous windows, will attend a reception in her honor.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.