Some believe that spirits are tied to the places they frequented in life. The popular conception holds that places like these haunted homes in San Francisco are being plagued by the ghosts of former residents, or are spiritually echoing past traumas. We’ve all heard stories of cold spots, footsteps in an empty attic, items in places we’d swear we hadn’t put them, or an unwavering sensation of dread. We’ve seen pictures of faces in the windows of abandoned buildings, or shimmering forms in the stairwell, or shadows that dart from the corner of your eye. As we fall asleep, we hear the voices of long-dead loved ones, and we’ve all felt a presence over our shoulder.
Of course, many of these experiences can be explained away as the tricks our brains like to play on us, the effect of mass hysteria, or outright fiction. For every ghost and ghoul there’s a rational explanation, for every shade and specter there’s a natural cause, and for every rattling in the darkness there’s an animal rather than a boogeyman. Still, the history of haunted homes in San Francisco is riddled with the occult and the macabre. Paranormal or not, this collection of some of the most famous haunted homes in San Francisco will explore San Francisco’s darker past: the lurid, the eerie, and the downright spooky — trick or treat!
Built in the late 19th century, Atherton Mansion was remodeled in the 1920s into apartments. Twelve were made for tenants, and another for owner Carrie Rousseau, in what used to be the grand ballroom – totaling thirteen. Rousseau, who died about 40 years ago, was the last to join the ranks of ghosts who are said to walk the halls of the mansion.
The first is that of Dominga de Goni Atherton, for whom the estate was built, a domineering matriarch who ran the estate, controlling her hapless son George. In a twist of Freudian fate, George married Gertrude Atherton, who got on famously with her mother-in-law, but came to resent him as a nebbish. Eventually, Gertrude, in a legendary bit of henpecking, insulted and shamed George into taking a contract to sail for Chile.
Not far into the voyage, George succumbed to kidney failure and died. The captain, trying to preserve the body for funeral or commemorate George’s proclivities, had the body stuffed into a cask of rum, to be delivered to the Atherton estate when the ship made port.
So the story goes, the first news of George’s death came when the beleaguered butler opened the unmarked barrel, upon delivery. Gertrude, anticipating George’s post-mortem revenge, immediately moved away.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Tenants of Atherton Mansion reported the full range of supernatural goings-on so consistently that they caught they attention of ghost hunter Sylvia Brown. Everyone had been sure that George Atherton’s ghost was venting his frustrations, but Sylvia told a different story. She reported “bad vibes” from three female spirits, those of Dominga and Gertrude Atherton and Carrie Rousseau, but believed that there was nothing to fear from the fourth, and only male spirit, that of the long-suffering George.
The Queen Anne Hotel
A more pleasant “haunting” is that by Mary Lake, at the Queen Anne Hotel, an upscale bed and breakfast, originally built as a finishing school in 1889. The founder, Senator James G. Fair, trying to overcome his strained relationship with his teenage daughters, built the school so that the two girls could move to San Francisco, Fair’s hometown.
The school was named for Fair’s favorite mistress, Mary Lake. Lake was devastated when the school closed in 1896, for financial reasons, and moved away brokenhearted.
In 1906, the building was one of very few buildings lucky enough to survive the quake, and in 1980 it was renovated into the hotel as it is today.
Guests report cold spots, and misty apparitions wafting through the halls, but also a remarkable hospitality. Dropped objects are picked up, clothes are unpacked and hung, and guests often report being “tucked in” in the middle of the night. These incidents are strongest in room 410, which was once Lake’s personal office.
Lake, who once taught proper behavior and etiquette, seems to be finding fulfillment in the place that she loved so much, offering her old-fashioned hospitality to her guests.
William Westerfield, a German-born Confectioner, had the house built in 1989, but died just six short years later, in 1895. The house was then turned into a nightclub, and later into apartments, but the most notable occupant of the property was Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker. It was here that his film Invocation of my Demon Brother came to fruition, and it was here that he began his association with Bobby Beausoleil. Beausoleil, an enthusiastic member of the Manson Family, would later commit one of the first Helter Skelter murders, that of Gary Hinman, a music teacher. That may have been the result of a mescaline deal gone awry, but anger hosted Manson more than once, and it was this association that ultimately kept Beausolel in Mason’s cult.
The house was also the frequent home of Anton LeVey, an occultist, lion tamer, recreational psychopharmacologist, and eventual founder of the Church of Satan. In fact, the floorboards in the topmost room used to feature a pentagram carved by LaVey himself, with which he conducted a number of Satanic rituals. The pentagram has since been repaired, but several walls do still bear scars from the paws of the lion cub LaVey kept.
In 1986, the house, which had managed to dodge demolition during San Francisco’s Urban Renewal Projects, ended up in the hands of Jimmy Siegel. While not an occultist himself, he did feel compelled to have the house ritually cleansed and blessed. Since then, he has “never experienced any darkness or paranormal activity in the house.”
Mary Ellen Pleasant
The story of Mary Ellen Pleasant, an abolitionist and an outspoken opponent of racial discrimination, is shrouded in rumor and superstition. Some call her the “Mother of Civil Rights” and others would more readily call her a “Voodoo Queen”. Separating fact from fiction, in an account that was so ill-documented (it was, at the time, taboo to so much as recognize Pleasant’s accomplishments without a thick layer of recrimination) is a daunting task, but certain claims can be made with some confidence.
For instance, when Pleasant’s lover fell from the second story of their Octavia Street home, it was probably an accident, despite contemporary speculation. So Pleasant most likely wasn’t a murderer.
On the other hand, she was a strong woman and a brilliant entrepreneur, and she had considerable influence over some of San Francisco’s richest and most powerful men. At the time, her influence was attributed to voodoo, rather than blackmail, but the image seemed to work in her favor all the same. It was so useful to her, in fact, that she played up the image, carried a crystal ball in public, and encouraged the story.
After her death in 1904, sightings of her apparition were common in her home until it burned down in 1925. Since then, it’s said that she can be found in the nearby Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park. Even today, some believe that the Voodoo Queen, if she’s in the mood, will see to it that a wish made in the park is granted. But by the same token, she’s been blamed for throwing things at those she doesn’t like – those who don’t show the proper respect or good conduct in the park that bears her name.
What Haunted Homes in San Francisco Tell Us
The common theme in all these examples is the idea, born in some deep recess of the human psyche, that the energy of a person, and the place that person inhabits, are inextricably tied together. We cling to the idea that homes are something permanent, something we are tied to in a way that transcends time and misfortune and mortality. Similarly, when the essence of a former occupant permeates the space, as if it were in the walls themselves, we begin to feel like guests in someone else’s space. Dozens of movies use a haunting as a metaphor for the guilt of transgression.
Since we invest so much of ourselves in our homes, it’s important that they be treated with respect and reverence. Halloween all too often comes with mischief – running around in the dark and imagining ghosts and ghouls in every shadow is an adrenaline rush that sometimes gets the best of us. This Halloween, while you are trick-or-treating and running door to door or seeking out haunted homes in San Francisco, take a moment to remember that you are being welcomed into a community, and, even in the heat of the excitement, give those houses the respect they deserve.
Remember – there might be something creeping in the shadows.
For more San Francisco Halloween and real estate tips, come check out the SFhotlist blog! Wishing all of you a spooky Halloween from Danielle Lazier :: SFhotlist Team and Keller Williams San Francisco.