Ghost City, Texas

San Antonio could not scare Jen Scoville.

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The cries of Ana Salazar Esparza rang through the stone walls. She had survived the attack, but her husband Jose Gregorio was killed while manning a cannon lose to where his wife was hidden. Ana watched as her dear young soldier suffered a mortal blow to the side by a swift sword and then took a bullet in the chest, knocking him backwards with an inhuman force. He was twenty-six years old. They were newlyweds. As he fell to the ground spilling blood near her feet, the carnage burned into her mind’s eye; the indelible impression would feed her mournful sobbing for some time to come. But 160 years?

During a routine inventory of the Alamo gift shop in 1994, employees sequestered in the basement were interrupted from their tasks by the eerie sounds of a woman wailing. The noises were coming from behind the walls and they continued on relentlessly. Inventory lasted for two days and so did the crying, frequently reducing the employees—the ones who hadn’t fled already, that is—to tears themselves. This is just one account of the strange goings on that have been recorded as the Alamo’s second history.

The first history left the ground surrounding the Alamo soaked in blood. The 13-day siege in 1836 that ended in the battle of March 6 left close to 2000 men dead, and it is said that nearly 950 bodies are buried directly on the property—not only as a result of the infamous battle, but in burial grounds serving the missions that came before. If there is anywhere in Texas that paranormal activity might occur, it would be on this square mile of hallowed ground. And with the sheer number of lives lost violently before their time, it’s no wonder these crowded spirits have sought out some elbow room over the years, spreading out into the historic buildings nearby.

Hotels like the Gunter, the Menger, and the Emily Morgan have helped stablish the area’s reputation for being haunted with tales of ghostly encounters that both encourage overnight guests and also drive them away. A city so rich in history – murderous and otherwise—can’t deny its past, so it isn’t left with much of a choice than to embrace Ana Esparza and her spectral brethren, wailing walls and all. But more than offering up a gesture of tolerance, San Antonio seems to believe.

Martin Leal believes too. Ghost hunter and founder of the fledgling club Alamo City Paranormal, Leal works with psychics to attempt to prove the existence of spirits by collecting data—we’re not sure the word scientific applies—to support what paranormal investigators have come to expect from these types of phenomena. Using rudimentary equipment such as cameras (including one with an infrared lens), a non-contact thermometer, compasses, and an electromagnetic field (EMF) meter, Leal records cold spots and energy fluctuations—signs which herald an otherworldly visitor, of course.

A harder tool to come by, the dark lenses of Dycinianien glasses, are designed to make the aura, or the distinct quality of a living thing, visible to the naked eye. Also a member of the International Ghost Hunters Society, Leal conducts an informal Hauntings History of San Antonio tour of the area surrounding the Alamo complete with demonstrations of his equipment, insight into the spiritual beliefs of the Mexican-American community, and the most chilling elements of all—the ghost stories themselves.

Alamo City Paranormal

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Martin Leal has a ghost story of his own. When he was just eight years old, he was visiting his grandmother when he saw a strange woman in the house. He asked his mother who this lady was and she told him there was nobody there. But Martin saw the woman again, and he didn’t give up his questioning easily. Finally, his mother conceded and asked Martin’s grandfather (who was interested in the paranormal and had an extensive collection of books on the subject) to tell Martin that the woman he had seen was in fact an apparition of his great-grandmother.

“I wasn’t afraid, I just wanted to know who she was. I thought ghosts would look like Casper, but since she was an apparition she looked just like a regular lady. My grandfather had seen her too. After that, I started reading his books.”

Now, after stints in real estate, banking and time spent as a ski instructor, Martin—who doesn’t consider himself to have strong psychic abilities—is making ghost hunting a priority. Aside from conducting a nightly tour of the downtown area near the Alamo, he has also made himself available to investigate paranormal activity around the city with hopes of providing clients with data from infrared cameras and electromagnetic field meters which proves the creaky floorboards are more than just the house settling.

One of his clients, the wife of a San Antonio sports figure, is afraid her house is haunted by her sister who died a number of years ago after she fell off a balcony. “She wants us to see if we can get some readings so she can convince her husband to let some psychics in there to see if they can communicate with her sister, to find out if she was pushed,” he says. Another incident takes him to the property of an apartment complex, in fear of losing tenants, that has been plagued for the last two years by sightings of an eight or nine year old boy.

“Without the use of instruments, I did feel cold spots in Washington D.C. in some old buildings there, and at Gettysburg, but you can substantiate this stuff now. I’ll get readings in a certain area of a hotel and then I’ll call a psychic who has investigated there and ask why I’m getting high EMF numbers in this one stairwell and they’ll say, ‘Oh, that was this cowboy who got shot in the back and fell down the stairwell and died right there.’”

Still, the social aspects of the Hauntings Tour are what inspire Martin the most. Leading folks to where they might get a glimpse of the dark-coated specter who walks the Alamo grounds, or the Colonel Sanders-like visage of Richard King which shuffles the halls of the Menger Hotel, has required him to become a historian of sorts. And imparting this knowledge allows him to connect with tourists from all over the country who share his interests in the netherworld, while offering the unique regional viewpoint of a culture steeped in Hispanic traditions.

He never fails to stop the tour over the San Antonio river to recount the Mexican legend of La Llorona, the woman who weeps for her children slain in revenge by her own hand. With that grisly image in mind, one may wonder if seeking out a paranormal experience is a positive thing. “I guess it depends,” says Martin. “It’s just like catching a fish. Some people would cry and some would get excited and mount it.” And is Martin worried that having seen only one other ghost since the childhood occurrence at his grandmother’s house might tarnish his reputation? “Not really,” he says. “Andrew Green is one of the best known ghost hunters in Great Britain. He’s investigated tons of the most famous hauntings in Europe and he’s only seen one ghost since 1944. And the sighting didn’t even occur on a job… it was on vacation.”

CHECK THIS INFORMATION The Haunted Palace Tour is just one of the tours available at the Alamo in San Antonio. The walking tour takes approximately an hour and a half, covers less than a mile, and is handicap accessible. The tour can start anytime between 9 a.m. and noon, and costs $20 per person, with group discounts available. For more information about San Antonio Ghost Tours call 210-336-7831 or visit their Web site.

What is a Ghost

According to Martin Leal, there are three types of ghostly experiences:

Apparitions: They look just like humans but can walk through walls.

Poltergeists: The word means “noisy spirit. ” Usually we can’t see them but they’re mischievous and like to move objects around.

Hauntings: These are the transparent or translucent types of spirits that Hollywood has defined as the quintessential ghost. <!–

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This photo was taken by San Antonio resident Andrea DeBoom who has taken Martin’s tour. She feels that this might be a photograph of her uncle who died when he was a young boy. Leal believes that ghosts are auras—the energy a living thing possesses separate from its physical body—and that the above classifications are different stages a being’s aura might pass through. He maintains that when a person’s physical body is returned to the earth, their ethereal being is supposed to enter into the spirit world. (If you are religious, this might be Heaven.) Sometimes, for whatever reason, be it a violent death or a death before its time, this ethereal being gets stuck on the Earth plane in the form of highly-energized quarks. “It’s sort of like your ethereal being saying, ‘Hey wait, I’m supposed to stay here until I’m eighty-five.’

Should we be afraid of ghosts? Martin says no, pointing to the groups of tourists flocking the Alamo. “Look, there are a hundred people around us now and we’re not afraid of them. Ghosts are just ex-people. “

The Alamo

When it comes to strange phenomena, the Alamo is the Bermuda Triangle of the Southwest. During the famous siege of 1836, 1600 Mexican soldiers and 200 Texans were killed; the casualties were buried in mass graves, thrown into the San Antonio River, and incinerated in mounds. The sheer number of dead in that small area is enough to evoke an atmosphere of solemnity, and supernatural occurrences have been reported there for over a century. In essence,the history of the mission-turned-fortress must now compete with the history of unexplained events that continue to unfold on the Alamo grounds.

One of the most often-repeated stories of an Alamo ghost is the apparition of a small blonde-haired boy that can be seen from time to time in the left upstairs window, now the gift shop. According to legend, the little boy may have been evacuated during the siege and perhaps returns again and again to the place where he last saw his relatives. He usually appears during the same time every year, during the first weeks of February. Given the window height above ground level and the fact that there is no ledge to stand on and no other way to climb up, it makes it hard to argue that the boy is a real child. Recently, one of the Alamo Rangers told ghost hunter Martin Leal of another apparition they witnessed. He was wearing a long black coat and was walking across the Alamo grounds towards the library. The Ranger told Martin that he thought, “What kind of idiot would wear such a warm coat on a 90 degree day?” and then realized the coat wasn’t a design of this era. The idiot was a ghost.

The Menger Hotel

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In 1859 brewery proprietor William Menger built an inn so his patrons could sleep off their drunkenness, rendering them less likely to fall off their horses on the way out of town. Since then, 7 additions have been erected and the historic hotel now boasts 300 rooms, some with a unique history of notable guests and infamous occurrences. It is common knowledge that Theodore Roosevelt recruited many of his Rough Riders in the hotel bar. Probably the most famous spirit said to haunt the hotel is the ghost of Sallie White, a chambermaid shot by her husband on March 28, 1876, who roams the fourth floor of the original wing wearing a long skirt and a bandanna around her head. But the paranormal activity isn’t confined to that area: stories of hauntings pervade the hotel and the property surrounding it. The newer rooms face the Alamo and guests have witnessed ghostly wanderings on the grounds from their windows above. The Mengers assistant hotel manager Ernesto Malacara has been with the hotel twenty years, and has become both a spirit enthusiast, a historian and the hotel’s best PR agent. We asked him about the reputation that the Menger boasts, of ghosts.

What have been some of the recent disturbances at the hotel?

Ernesto Malacara: We seem to be getting quite a bit of activity nowadays. We’re getting about one occurrence about every two or three days. We had a lady here that was in town for a convention for an entire week. We assigned her a room in the original building and when she went into the room she felt something was wrong. She said that when she and her husband laid down that night, when she closed her eyes, she saw skulls. Not skeletons, but just two skulls. Later in the evening, whomever or whatever it was started getting a little frisky with her; they started pawing at the bed sheets and she felt hands all over her body. So she got up and she told her husband, “We’re getting out of this room right now.” He of course didn’t want to do it, but being a modern woman as she was, she said, “I’ve got my own credit card and if you’re not going to do this, I’m going down to get another room myself and you can stay here.” She did.

And believe it or not, I was actually talking to some women doing a local story about ghost sightings when a woman walked up and said she’d like to register one small complaint. She said the night before she had gone to bed and all of a sudden the TV came back on so she got out of bed to turn it off. She went back to bed and shortly after the TV came back on again.

Two weeks ago I had a repairman working on the movies back here. We have three large steel lockers and each one of these units houses video players—about eight units per locker. The repairman was working on one locker and all of a sudden the door of another locker opens and a tape pops out. Do you know what the title of this movie was? The Devil’s Own. Whether this is someone trying to tell us something or something else, who knows? I hear these kinds of stories all the time.

The girls back in PBX say they feel as though someone is watching them. And when they turn around to see if anyone is there they see only half of a face left. I have a room service waitress who tells me she goes up on the floors in the morning to bring down dishes at about 5:30am and somebody plays hide and seek with her. She’ll hear her name called, “Yolanda,” and when she looks there’s no one there. A few moments later she’ll hear her name again, and this goes on while she does her job.

Has anything specifically happened to you?

EM: Two things have happened to me. See that door, that heavy glass and brass door? (He points to the main entrance in the central part of the hotel.) I would guess it weighs about 160 pounds. I’ve seen that door open completely. One of the girls said, “It’s the wind,” but I ran over and there wasn’t any breeze at all, not to mention it was the inside door that flew open; the outside doors, which are just as heavy, remained tightly shut.

And I’ve seen the woman in the blue dress more than once. When I first got here twenty years ago I heard the story of a lady in blue, but at that time I was told of a woman in a blue evening gown, and this woman had on a blue dress. It certainly wasn’t an evening gown but it was blue. It was a design from the late 30s or early 40s, and her shoes were like a short version of combat boots. And she had on these little round glasses.

Sam Nesmith, a local psychic and the one-time curator of the Alamo was here in the hotel and we had been discussing things that had happened here. We were on the second floor in the Rotunda area and he’s looking over in a northerly direction and he says to me, “Ernest, she’s there.” He said this woman is over there reading a newspaper; she dropped it down and raised it back up. The woman he describes is the same exact lady in blue that I’d seen on the second floor knitting, and a banquet waiter had seen her once on the second floor, going into the Renaissance room. You see things when you least expect them.

Is there a quick turnover of employees because of the hauntings?

EM: We don’t really have a big turnover because there’s nothing to be afraid of. These spirits are all benevolent; no one has ever been hurt during one of these experiences. Some of the employees take it in a joking way, others are not too sure and it frightens them. I’ve had everything from tears to not being able to talk, things of this nature. <!–

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–> The woman in a blue dress was seen in the charis on the second floor reading a newspaper. The same place where Ernesto Malacara saw a ghostly visage of a woman knitting

So if I wanted to try and have a paranormal experience, would you advise me on which room to stay in?

EM: I don’t do that for one reason: I’d be opening up… my god… a big kettle of fish. I can’t say for sure that you’d have an experience, but it’s all over the hotel. I had two girls in here that I put in a room that I know (I keep the master list of what’s what)… I didn’t say anything but, ‘See you tomorrow.’ The next morning I asked them if they had enjoyed their stay and one of them said something happened early in the morning. At about 6:30 a.m. one of the girls heard someone walking across the carpet, making a slapping noise like when the heel of a shoe hits the carpet. She thought it was her friend who may have gotten up to go to the bathroom or something, and so she turned to talk to her but the friend was sound asleep. She just pulled the covers up over her head.

About six weeks ago I had a lady come from Delaware who wanted to make reservations for 1998. She went back here to ask one of the girls to take her up and show her some rooms. On the way up in the elevator this lady tells our employee that everyone in her family is psychic, and she doesn’t herself have this ability but she can sense things. The minute they got out on the floor the woman grabs the girl’s arm and tells her there was a man killed in a gun fight in this very hall. She wanted to know if I had any knowledge of that incident and the closest that I can come to that is once I had this doctor tell me that a cowboy came out of the original lobby and there were two cowboys standing in front of the hotel playing with guns and one accidentally shot him.

Are the Menger ghosts good for business?

EM: It’s a lot of fun. And I guess it’s a marketing angle to a degree, but any employee who has ever told me a story, I believe them. We’re not making this stuff up.

After what you’ve witnessed here, do you personally believe in ghosts?

EM: I do believe we have something here, yes. I really, really do. And as a matter of fact, with all of these little things that have been going on— I had one of the waiters tell me recently that in the Renaissance room there was a sideboard stacked with wine glasses and they just started falling off one by one. He said, “It’s that blank-blank ghost again.” So I do believe we really have something.

Are you ever afraid?

EM: I’m an old man and I don’t scare easily, but I was in the Renaissance room the other day, it was late evening, and we have a chandelier in there and one lamp over in the corner. So I was going to flick off the chandelier first and then I thought oh no, if I flick off the chandelier first then I’m going to have to walk back after turning off the lamp in the dark. Another time when I was with Sam on a hot summer day, we were up in the King Ranch room where Richard King died in 1885 and I said, ‘Sam, it’s about six or seven degrees cooler in here.’ That was spooky.

The Gunter Hotel

The most famous haunted room in town is in the Gunter; Room 636. Though the hotel was built in 1909, the woman who haunts its hallways is a more contemporary ghost. According to legend, a man checked in to the room in 1965, and left it bathed in blood four days later. After the room was found in this grisly condition, witnesses came forward saying they saw the man carrying a bundle in his arms. On careful inspection, a bullet hole was found in one of the room’s walls. It was reported that the man had been seen during that time coming in and out of the hotel with a sophisticated-looking blonde woman on his arm. During the investigation, police found receipts for some items the man had purchased earlier, including a meat grinder. A few days later they received a tip that the man had checked into another hotel nearby the Gunter, but before police could track him down he had committed suicide. Now Room 636 is a children’s suite—complete with Nintendo and bunk beds—adjoined to the adjacent room. <!–

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The door to Room 636—the site of the Grizzly Gunter Hotel Murder.

The stone-faced security guard that took us up to 636 didn’t confess to seeing anything unusual, nor would he corroborate the stories of the blonde lady or allude to any staff sightings. But Esther Martinez—a chambermaid who was cleaning when we arrived—spilled her guts, admitting that she frequently has seen employees quit after the first time they are assigned to clean the room.

Other Alamo City Haunts

The Railroad Tracks (Located just off Loop 410 South near Mission San Juan at the intersection of Shane and Villamain Roads) These “ghost tracks” south of downtown are the reported location of a fatal accident in which a train collided with a school bus full of children. The location has even been featured on “Sightings,” a Fox television show about paranormal occurrences. The legend says that if you park your car directly over the tracks and shift into neutral, the ghosts of the children will push it uphill, out of the way of the potentially oncoming train. And if you have the foresight to cover your bumper with baby powder or flour, the children’s fingerprints may follow you home.

The Ramada Emily Morgan Hotel (Located at the intersection of 705 E. Houston St. and Avenue E, across the street and north of the Alamo) Built at the site of the Medical Arts Building, this fairly new hotel was constructed in 1964. Most recorded sightings have occurred on the 7th floor, but cold spots, apparitions and strange noises have also been witnessed in the lobby. The basement used to be a morgue in the building’s previous incarnation.

For in-depth information on these sites check out Spirits of San Antonio and South Texas by Docia Shultz Williams and Reneta Burn.

Alamo Street Restaurant and Theatre (located at 1150 S. Alamo Street). This former Methodist church turned restaurant and theater is well known for its cast and crew of ghostly inhabitants. The most ubiquitous specter, Eddie (as he is known to staffers) is supposedly the ghost of a young boy who died of polio but is now free on the spiritual plane to tear through the house like a banshee on a whim. He has been especially known to haunt the kitchen, and has playfully pushed the cook into a walk-in refrigerator. The ghost of Martha Gething, a former actress who wears a white, Victorian-style dress and haunts the choir loft, was photographed in 1995 by a tourist with a Polaroid camera.

Victoria’s Black Swan Inn (1006 Holebrook, between Eisenhauer And Rittiman Roads on the northeast side of the city). Archeological evidence has pointed to Native American occupation of this site, which later hosted the battle of Salado Creek. The Inn now functions as a restaurant and special events venue. When proprietor Jo Ann Rivera first purchased the property she was awakened nightly by the apparition of a man standing at the foot of her bed. Since that time, there have been plenty of unexplained phenomena, including lights turning on and off, music coming from the walls, and doors locking and unlocking on their own accord. This property was also investigated by the TV show “Sightings,” which determined the property chock-full of spooks. Apparently the South Wing is the only area of the historic house where the presence feels ominous, though— a man who was working underneath the house once complained of children taunting him and poking him with sticks.

How to Hunt a Ghost

“Hunting ghosts doesn’t require any special gift—you don’t have to be psychic, conduct exorcisms, or perform any strange rituals,” Martin Leal says. The best place to do ghost investigations are where ghosts have been recently seen or felt, not necessarily in a location where there has been an accident or murder. A cemetery with a fresh grave site is a good place to ghost hunt because the ethereal being may take minutes, hours or days to leave the body after death.

But since this aura can’t be seen with the naked eye, a spirit seeker will need the tools of his trade: a non-contact thermometer to measure cold spots (temperatures 25-60 degrees lower than the surrounding area may indicate you are not alone), and something to indicate energy fluctuations, such as a compass or an EMF meter (an inexpensive one will run you about $30). Once these environmental shifts are identified, all the ghost hunter has to do is point his camera, shoot and wait for the best.

“I use three cameras during investigations,” Martin explains, “one that uses infrared film since cold spots are associated with ghosts, and two regular 35mm loaded with both ASA 400 and 1600 film. You want a fast film to capture ghosts that may be cycling at a rate that is not detectable to the human eye.” Martin reminds us not to disregard photos that look as if the film may have been damaged, as photos of ghosts may not be what we expect. “Often spirits appear on film as clouds of mist or fog, swirling vortexes, balls of light or white shapes that appear human-like,” he says. Most of all, a ghost hunter must be patient, since it’s possible that rolls and rolls of film may turn up nothing more than the landscape.

What to Do if You See a Ghost (suggestions to help you cope while continuing to investigate) <!–

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Reprinted with authors permission from The Haunted Alamo: A History of the Mission and Guide to Paranormal Activity by Robert Wlodarski and Anne Powell Wlodarski.

1. Don’t panic; sit back and enjoy the phenomenon. Try to notice every detail you can.

2. After the event, write down exactly what you saw in as much detail as possible. Remember if there were any particular smells; sensations such as cold spots, gusts of air, feelings of nausea; music playing or other audible sounds; voices or conversations in the background; or feelings of being watched or touched, etc.

3. Try and sketch what you saw: what the image was wearing, including the style of clothing, shoes, glasses, hats, etc.; anything which may give an indication of a particular time period or era.

4. Draw a diagram or map of where the apparition was seen, and where you were when the event took place. Note furniture, windows, or other features in relation to the sighting.

5. Note what time of day the event took place as well as weather conditions and temperature, if possible.

6. Record general information regarding how the event made you feel (sad, happy, frightened, etc.).

7. Note any unusual circumstances surrounding the event, including storms, power outages, other people working in the area, etc.

8. Note other people present, including any children or animals who might have witnessed the event, or may have been affected.

9. Attempt to investigate the experience further, including who the ghost might have been; attempt to rule out any explainable causes for the occurrence; and try to research the area in more detail.

Other ghostly reading:

Ghost Hunter
by Edward Packard

Spirits of San Antonio and South Texas
by Docia Shultz Williams and Reneta Burn

When Darkness Falls
also by Docia Shultz Williams.

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