Essays — April 27, 2015 10:44 — 0 Comments

Ghouls Gone Wild: The Haunted Pubs Of Pioneer Square

I met Natalie (my Safety Monitor) at The J&M Cafe: a busy, wood and brass cantina beneath a crumbling tin-ceiling. It was the first stop on the Spooked In Seattle, Haunted Pub Tour and the first watering hole for the evening’s spirits. She wasn’t alone… a stocky-rockabilly was leaning over her table. Natalie can take care of herself, but I don’t like strangers and wasn’t sure whether I was going to have to deal with this guy all night. Thank god he was only the waiter, but there was a sinister aura about him that hinted toward the macabre.

I’m not sure what was going on before I arrived, but the waiter was drunk. To make matters worse it sounded like the greasy son of a bitch was trying to talk an innocent girl into buying his favorite drink. I cut to the chase and ordered the cheapest beer in a can; Natalie ordered the same thing and the greaser made a big deal about giving us “the neighborhood price.” I wasn’t sure what he was after, but took a long-shot and I tipped the dirty bastard two dollars (plus one dime), then hoped to hell he’d go away.

My friend Nick arrived with his girlfriend Tressa. Tressa wasn’t thirsty, but Nick ordered the same cheap beer as Natalie and I and after checking in with our tour-guide, the four us were standing outside, listening to good-humored jokes about Seattle’s sordid history. The guide had barely gotten on a roll, when the drunk waiter showed up again, this time lurking at the back of the tour-group and giving me the evil eye.

He staggered over and belched, “I hate to interrupt, but did you guys settle up with me?” I reminded him of my generous tip and the tour-guide tried to ease the situation with more levity: “I bet you’re regretting that tip!” Fuck yes I regretted that tip, but the waiter disappeared and it was time to move forward, or at least I thought it was. The waiter on the other hand still couldn’t get his head together and actually staggered back. “I’m sorry to bother you again-” he said, “But I checked the register and it shows that order as an open ticket.” Who the fuck was this drunken slob? No shit it was an open ticket. The waiter was too liquored-up to close it. I leaned into him, put my hand on his shoulder and laid down the law: “Let me be crystal clear. The beers were six dollars, I gave you twenty, you gave me change, I tipped you two dollars and one dime-” and that was the end of it.

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We left the demon waiter behind and dove into the The J&M’s basement, our first trek into the Seattle underground. It stank of rat piss, but our cheery tour-guide simply laughed it off as “The sweet smell of history.” She asked if anybody in the group was familiar with the term EVP and though I do maintain a healthy skepticism, I am a believer and an amateur paranormal enthusiast. I shouted out “Electronic Voice Phenomenon!” The guide awarded our group the gold-star and played an EVP captured on a previous tour. A voice from the grave moaned “Turn on that fan!” Evidently the dead are as fond of rat piss as I am.

The sweet smell of history aside, I was hoping to capture an EVP of my own. The Monarch had finally invested in a digital voice recorder and I made sure to bring it it with me. I didn’t pick up anything in the underground, but looked forward to our next stop: a bar across the street from what is now The Union Gospel Mission (formerly Madame Lou Graham’s brothel).

The Double Header was Seattle’s first above ground gay bar, but when the gay scene moved to Capitol Hill in the 1970s, The double Header passed into the hands of Pioneer Square’s heterosexual drinkers. They were a reserved group, with little or no interest in ghosts, doing everything they could to ignore the guide’s interruption “This used to be a drag club and people report feeling roving cold spots on the stage-” she said, then gave us 15 minutes to explore. I asked Nick to explore the stage with me and wanted to look for cold spots, but we were stopped in a matter of seconds. “Oh, I’m sorry, you can’t go up there-” said the guide. We were denied the experience of cold spots, but the tour wasn’t over – there was plenty more to observe.

As an observer in this century, I’m fundamentally preoccupied with the idea that (now more than ever) fantasy is more important than reality. Everyone who has a job is working for the weekend, when they can either toke their way into Interzone, or LARP their way into the Medieval town of Fortnight. My only reward is that of a job well done, peppered with the prospect of being able to re-write my life’s experience as something worthwhile. Natalie is just beginning to embrace this philosophy and has accommodated me in more ways than one. In this instance, I asked her if she’d be willing to smuggle along some form of alcohol during the tour, she asked if I needed “One flask, or two?”We drank our way from the Double Header to The 88 Keys, a Cajun/dueling-piano-bar split into two levels; the stage and dining tables were on the lowest level and the bar was an exalted alter, lording high above the crowd. The place was a zoo, a young woman in a tube-top was hanging off the bar like a simian prostitute and her orangutang john (at least 20 years her senior) was hanging off her. Another woman, with beehive hips, was hustling for drinks while a skinny, possum-faced piano-player (described by Natalie as Deacon Blues personified) was wining over his audience with a rendition of Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock & Roll.

The underlying principle of the tour was to drink at every stop, but Natalie and I had been drinking between stops and Nick was too cheap to buy another beer. Still, we were all there for a good time… I caught site of an empty table on the lower level (next to a group of sweaty bachelorettes) and led my small group of seekers to it. A waitress asked us if we wanted a pitcher and I asked her if she’d seen anything weird while working after hours. “No-” she said, but continued to explain that she’d done a tour of duty at the J&M. “That place was spooky-” she said. No kidding… their waitstaff are a bunch of paranoid-drunks.

After 15 minutes of dueling piano, our guide was hinting toward the door, it was time to leave the zoo animals behind. Every animal has a grammatically correct term for a grouping of its own species, the right word for a collection of fish is “school,” for locusts it’s “swarm.” You can run into a “crash” of rhinos or a “shrewdness” of apes, but upon exiting The 88 Keys I was introduced to a “splash” of seamen… more than a dozen uniformed young men, celebrating the 115th anniversary of The American Submarine Force. They looked relatively modest in their white caps & brass-buttoned jackets, compared to the ladies accompanying them. The women wore pastel chiffon, glittering rhinestones and discount cubic zirconia. It was a freaky scene, an oasis of elegance in the down and out dessert of the original skid-row.

It didn’t last long though, I may have been discouraged by the lack of frigid-transvestites in The Double Header, but The Haunted Pub Tour didn’t disappoint, in an ocean of seamen a banshee was floating toward me.

She was four feet tall, cloaked in a black hoody and wearing what looked like a little schoolgirl’s outfit. I examined her from the bottom up, noting the thigh-high socks and miniskirt. Her legs were spindly and under-fed, her fingers were worn and thin. When I realized that not only did she have the face of an 80 year old woman, but was one, the rest of her seemed all too real. She was making her way through the handsome crowd, begging for change with a paper cup. Nobody gave her a second glance, that’s when I wondered if maybe the only real ghosts in pioneer square are the lost souls who’s lives are penned-in on the wrong side of the street. She moved past me like a night terror, then she was gone… though not forgotten.

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Every stop on the tour so far had been for fun & games, but a real ghost hunter isn’t after laughs, history, or even proof; the genuine querent is a thrill-seeker and there’s no greater thrill than abject horror. Our next stop promised to be the most horrendous experience of the evening.

Built in 1890, The Merchants Cafe has been a part of the Seattle experience for over 100 years. Like everything in Pioneer square, it’s a brick building, trying to look as red as possible beneath a century of abuse. It’s always been a restaurant, but at one time held a speakeasy, a gambling room and the hotel that used to exist above it was one of Seattle’s most infamous brothels. Legends of the Merchants’ haunting go back decades and in 2013 it was visited by the alleged medium and psychic-investigator Amy Allan of TV’s Dead Files. Amy spun stories of an angry man with a missing face, a deadly religious woman in black and a cast of child-sized, crablike creatures scurrying unseen along the hardwood floors.

Her assertion was that the angry man was a former bartender named Otto Hink and the woman in black was Mary Schreiner, wife of one the building’s original owners (Franz Xavier Schreiner). She suggested that the crablike creatures were victims of The Great Seattle Fire and it was intimated that The Merchants might be more spirits, who died in a lynching across the street. With so much history behind the location I couldn’t wait to get in and get horrified, but there was something nagging at me about the sensational style of documentarianism in Amy’s show, of particular concern was the mention of the people who died “across the street-” or the ones who died “a block away in a fire.” I decided to contact George Higby, the Seattle historian consulted in the Dead Files episode.

According to George: “There isn’t any evidence of death in the building.” Otto Hicks died at Western State Hospital (in a suburb of Tacoma) and according the Special Collections department of the Seattle Public Library, Mary died in her home (at 105 16th Ave N). I had to see for myself…

For a variety of reasons, certain staff members are uncomfortable in The Merchants’ basement, which was the first place the tour-guide led us. The stories are that people have been pushed by invisible hands while walking down the brass-handled staircase, or that they’ve seen non-corporeal beings in the kitchen. According to Darcy Hansen, the restaurant’s current owner, customers have reported faucets turning on all by themselves and even seen a mysterious woman in black going into the lady’s room.

Like most sexually frustrated men, I had developed an unhealthy interest in the lady’s restroom and that was where I wanted to start, but I was indoors (subject the authority of The Washington State Liquor Control Board) and no longer able to indulge in Natalie’s bootleg rum. Thankfully the Haunted Pub Tour included one well-drink, beer, or house wine at the final destination. Natalie, Nick, Tressa and I listened to a few ghost stories from our tour-guide, who illustrated her narrative with pictures of mistsorbs and other images taken at a Spooked In Seattle official investigation. It was convincing evidence, but I couldn’t report anything secondhand. When we were finally given our drink tickets, the entire group fled upstairs to the safety of the busy bar, ironically it was there that I encountered the most monstrous fiends of the entire trip.

I just wanted the cheapest beer on tap, but something was monopolizing the bartender’s attention. I waited impatiently (drink ticket in one hand, tip in the other) for nearly six minutes as he feverishly mixed vodka, cranberry and orange juice into three separate glasses, followed by Red Bull & vodka into three separate tumblers. Finally, he delivered the six drinks to four broad-shouldered harpies, wearing the very best that Forever 21 had to offer. But wait a minute… two times three drinks, for four lumbering lassies? Had I miscounted? No, but the bartender had and just when I thought I was going get my drink, he took another two minutes to mix the last Sex On The Beach, plus one more Vod-Bomb, lest he incur the wrath of four feminine wraiths having a night on the town.

After doing more than 100 years of business, I would’ve thought The Merchants could get around to hiring an additional Bartender, but I understood his position. His choice was to either make me wait or submit to being brutally savaged by the hulky bosom of an old-world evil. The fourth beast was given her grog and the murder of harpies toasted to what I’m sure would amount to an evening of public urination, followed by the sacrifice of a male virgin and 18 minutes of puking into a grease-addled garbage can.

I didn’t have anything against the harpies on a personal level, I happen to like big girls, but on a practical level they were standing between me and my alcohol. I can’t think of a more heinous crime, or a more ghastly ghoul.

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My order only took 12 seconds and as soon as it was filled I convinced my intrepid friends to follow me back into the basement. Once more we braved the brass-handled staircase, turned the corner past an invisible man and settled on a velvet couch in the depths of underground Seattle. It was a nice basement and with the rest of our group celebrating a Mariners win upstairs, my friends & I had the whole place to ourselves.

I’d been running my digital voice recorder off & on all night and sincerely wanted an EVP; my best bet was to send Natalie or Tressa into the girls’ bathroom. As Safety Monitor it’s Natalie’s job to remain at my side, at all times and people might’ve gotten the wrong idea if she and I walked into the restroom together… Thankfully, Nick’s girlfriend could go in solo, so I explained the situation to Tressa. “Mary wasn’t the only woman to suffer from extreme illness at The Merchants Cafe-” I said. Darcy was also stricken, with near-fatal pneumonia, shortly after reopening the bar in 2011. She spent five days in the hospital and her illness came on just as suddenly as Mary’s, who departed after only ten. “It’s too much of a coincidence, for two religious women to suffer from either fatal or near fatal pneumonia, in the same bar.”

Wherever there is even the specter of paranormal activity, nothing should be overlooked. I was convinced that Mary wasn’t haunting the lady’s room, but accepted the possibility that some other maleficent entity may be on the prowl, something that might’ve been responsible for Mary’s death and Darcy’s close encounter with it. I knew that I was sending Tressa into what may have been the mouth of Hell, but she understood the risks and decided of her own free will to dance with the devil.

I pressed the appropriate button on my digital-recorder and handed it to Tressa. It’s a sensitive piece of equipment, with empathy enough to convey the sound of a plucky young girl venturing alone into eldridge territory. I’m replaying the audio now, my voice and the voices of my companions fade in the distance as Tressa moves further and further away from the mundane. I can hear the bathroom door close. There’s a long silence… the uneasy solitude of an empty room. Finally, a very brave young woman dares to inquire “Hello? Is there anybody out there? Mary Schreiner, are you here?” Tressa waits a good 15 to 30 seconds between questions. “Is there something here older than Mary Schreiner, something older and more powerful?”

In short, there was no reply, but I’m not an average journalist and I don’t write average articles. I don’t put my work on the wire, cross my fingers and hope that the associated press will lap it up. I write for the fucking Monarch and it’s my job to get the fucking story. I knew that unless I went into that bathroom alone, with no safety-line, I wouldn’t be able to report anything beyond hearsay.

I asked Natalie to wait outside and make sure no one came in after me. Regardless of whether or not I was crossing over, I was still on dangerous ground. Few men have ever wandered into the menacing pink-wonderland, then lived to talk about it. This was an allegedly haunted wonderland (allegedly haunted by a particularly menacing woman). My fist order of business was to apologize. “I’m sorry if I’m intruding on your territory-” I said. “I just want to know if anyone’s here.” I was as drunk as a rockabilly-waiter and in-spite of my usual cautious nature, I took an unusually incautious liberty by leaning against one of the bathroom stalls. I caught site of myself in the mirror opposite where I was standing and the stall-door behind me closed… all by itself.

My heart skipped a beat and my knee-jerk reaction was to run like hell, but the premise of journalism granted me a measure of courage and the freedom of the press meant that I had a God-given right to be asking questions, even after midnight, even in the lady’s restroom. Besides, if the ghost had anything important to say, maybe I could relay the message to the right people. “I have a device that might pick up on your voice-” I explained. “If you can say anything, I promise I will not let your voice go unheard.”

I didn’t get any EVP’s that night, just the sound of a toilet flushing in men’s room. I can’t say whether my brush with the bathroom door was a brush with the other side, but it was enough to keep me guessing. To be honest, I’m sure that most ghosts are people-shy and I don’t think I had any real chance of piercing the vale on a busy Saturday night, but there’s more to be seen & done at The Merchants… The ghost tour is offered largely as entertainment and delivers in that regard. More serious thrill-seekers can join Kimberly Bizjak at her Ghost Hunting 101 class, to learn how to use EMF detectors, infrared thermometers, EVP recorders and more.

In the meantime, consider the words of Dr. Bertram Pincus: “We have to let the dead go, until we can, they can’t move on.” Yes, a lot’s happened in pioneer square, but the stories we’ve been told may not belong to the demons we discover.

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Words and pictures by: Poster Bot

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney