Whether you’re a believer or not, a San Francisco ghost tour is a great way to see a different part of the city and learn a bit of history at the same time. Of course, you usually need to take it all with a pinch of salt, because it’s in the tour guides’ interest to embellish a little every now and then. But I won’t lie, it’s fun to hear anecdotes of the ghostly figures of 18th century maidens wandering down the street in white dresses.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I get hooked by a good story and ghost tours tend to have the best. Tales of thwarted love, ill-fated journeys, people who are a little off-kilter, or just downright mad. Sometimes, mixed in with all of that, you hear about historic figures who should have much more notoriety than they do.
That’s where the San Francisco Ghost Hunt comes in. It’s billed as San Francisco’s “first and original haunted history walking tour”. And you can tell that guide Christian takes his job seriously and has done quite a bit of research into his stories. I think it’s suitable for children (of course that depends on how easily spooked your child is) so it’s fine to bring the family along. Plus, the tour route takes you through some of San Francisco’s most beautiful streets.
SAN FRANCISCO GHOST TOUR
So as not to spoil the tour for those who want to take it (and you should), I’m only going to tell you two stories. But I can tell you that this walking tour takes you to see some of the most beautiful Victorian houses in San Francisco. So if that’s on your bucket list, you can tick two things off at once. Christian, donned a top hat, clutched a cane, and delivered his stories with the panache of a man who truly loves his job. Overflowing with brio and flair, he led our little group on a stroll through the streets of the Fillmore with eyes peeled and ears ready for the next spooky story.
We were regaled with the tales of countless colourful characters. But I’m going to tell you about the “Voodoo Queen of San Francisco”. A woman who won a lawsuit against a San Francisco transport company for not letting African Americans ride, ran a section of the underground railway and became one of the first African American female millionaires. We’ll also follow the tale of Benjamin Franklin’s grand niece, who became an author. After she may or may not have drank from a barrel of wine that was preserving a dead body.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
If you want there to be constant conjecture about your life story, you should follow Mary Ellen Pleasant’s example and write two autobiographies – each telling conflicting tales. As such, much of Mary Ellen’s life is up for debate, but there are some parts that are on the public record. Such as her fights against Jim Crow laws (state and local laws that legalised segregation until about 1968), and for civil rights in general. And to make matters a little more interesting, Mary Ellen was the self-proclaimed “Voodoo Queen” of San Francisco, a title she may have cleverly used to gain an advantage not often enjoyed by African American women at the time.
She has one of San Francisco’s smallest “parks” named after her. It’s a row of six eucalyptus trees (it’s times like these that my Australian pride knows no bounds) planted on the sidewalk of Octavia Street, outside of the spot where Mary Ellen’s mansion once sprawled. So how did an African American woman become a millionaire back in the 1800s? Excellent question. Keep in mind that most of the “facts” of Mary Ellen’s early life can easily be disputed, so the truth is murky to say the least. She was born around 1814 in Georgia (or maybe Virginia), most probably into slavery. But Mary Ellen was bought and freed. Or maybe she was sent to school. In any case, she ended up marrying abolitionist James Smith, and they helped run a section of the underground railroad for four years until Smith died.
Mary Ellen continued helping to smuggle slaves away from their “masters”, and married again. This time to John James Pleasant, some time around 1848, and she moved to San Francisco four years later, fleeing prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of the time. Mary Ellen wasted no time in becoming a cook for San Franciso’s wealthy upper class and eventually bought a boarding house and opened a few restaurants, laundries and began amassing a fortune through investments in businesses.
Already, you can tell that Mary Ellen was a total baller – even before baseball was “invented”. She knew how to make a dollar and she helped former slaves get work as servants, and found homes for illegitimate children. It was how she had an ear in many houses across the city and new all the gossip. When streetcar conductors wouldn’t allow her to ride she sued them. Twice. Her 1866 suit was not successful but two years later she had the backing of a white man, who witnessed the incident and won damages.
While she worked as a housekeeper to banker Thomas Bell, Mary Ellen was said to have performed voodoo rituals, and she began intimidating enemies by calling herself the “voodoo queen”. Bell died in 1892, after falling from the second storey of the Octavia Street mansion. Many thought he had fallen victim to Mary Ellen’s voodoo powers and that she murdered him for monetary gain. But if that was the case, it was not a good move, since Bell’s wife inherited his fortune and kicked Mary Ellen out of the house.
Things went pear-shaped for her after that. She was the victim of a newspaper smear campaign and eventually her fortunes and businesses dwindled and Mary Ellen was reduced to pacing outside the Octavia Street mansion where she once lived. She died 1904, aged in her 80s.
I’ll leave Mary Ellen’s ghostly aparitions to Christian to regale you with on the tour, except to say, look out for gumnuts and ravens while you’re out there.
A littler further along the San Francisco ghost tour, we come across the home of Benjamin Franklin’s grand neice, Gertrude. The American author grew up in San Francisco until her parents divorced, and then went to live with her grandmother in San Jose. While her life wasn’t quite worthy of the Jerry Springer Show, Gertrude’s early life was tumultuous, at best.
She eloped, aged 18, with a man who had previously been dating her (twice-divorced) mother. George Atherton (of the family the San Francisco suburb was named for) was not the most driven of individuals and is said to have been constantly hen-pecked by his wife Gertrude and his mother Dominga, who lived with them. He got so sick of being the target of the two women that in 1887 he decided to sail to Chile with some friends to “prove” himself.
They hadn’t even gotten halfway when George began to have kidney problems and died. Despite the common practice of buring sailors at sea at the time, George’s remains were stored and preserved in a barrel of rum and sent back to his wife and mother in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the pair had not heard news of George’s death, and happened to be throwing a party the night that this particular rum barrel arrived at the Atherton mansion. It is said that the rum was put to good use until Gertrude thought it tasted a little strange. That’s when the butler found poor George’s body.
Even though he was given a proper burial, Dominga and Gertrude often awoke to knocks at their bedroom doors in the middle of the night, only to find no one there. Dominga was so unsettled by the knocking and unexplained “cold spots” throughout the house that she sold it. Gertrude went on to write more than 40 novels set in New York, England, Europe and California. Her books are characterised by the presence of strong-willed, independent women.
The Atherton mansion in San Francisco is said to be haunted by the ghosts of George, Dominga and Gertrude, as well as that of Carrie Rousseau who lived in the house with her 50 cats until her death in 1974.
MORE ON THE SAN FRANCISCO GHOST TOUR
Those are just two of the many stories we were told on our evening stroll through San Francisco. We ended up walking just a mile through the streets, but the area has no shortage of tall tales and interesting characters.
When: The San Francisto Ghost Hunt begins at 7pm through to October 31
Where: Meet at the corner of Octavia and Bush streets
Price: $25 per person
Tickets: Online here.