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Meeting Our Ghost Tour Guide
The gothic clad couple disappeared around the corner near the elevators, at the same time my friends rounded the corner and broke into a grin at seeing me. We talked for a while, awaiting our guide, and then a voice boomed out from behind me suddenly. I was glad I had used the ladies room prior to this. I jumped and quickly turned around to the black-clad male I had seen moments before. His arms opened wide, a rueful grin split his face and he bellowed, “WELCOME TO THE AUSTIN GHOST TOURS! Gather round as I tell you how you can safely enjoy this trip, and not give me one more grizzly story to tell the ghosts and guests. Although I wouldn’t be opposed to another tale of woe; I don’t think that sort of story would be good for business”. Ahhhh, a character indeed, I found myself mirroring his grin and became fully engaged in his performance and instruction.
Beginning the Tour:
After a debriefing for safety on the streets, when we would be traveling near 6th street (notorious in Austin for drinking games and accidents) we headed out the painful slow revolving door into the night. The air was thick and muggy, it perfectly set the stage for our walk among the haunted buildings of this strange city. Our guide led the group with the same purposeful walk I had seen him exhibit in the lobby. Why are people always in a hurry? Maybe he truly knew there were ghosts in this city and by keeping the group moving, we would avoid any tragedies or encounters along the way.
Our first stop was at HandleBar. This establishment was formerly a Blacksmith shop, according to our guide. A well known local patron died haphazardly (I forget the exact story of his demise), after weeks of the body sitting in the coffin on the sidewalk in the middle of August’s heat, it was finally agreed that cremation would be the best option. This was unprecedented! A cremation in Austin (then named Waterloo) had never been done before! Our guide continued looking all too pleased with the rapt attention we were giving him. He continued, “Please note that in order to burn bone properly heat must reach upwards of 1900 degrees Fahrenheit (1037C).
A typical blacksmith shop during that time period would typically only reach 1500 degrees Fahrenheit (815C). The first cremation turned out to be a little, shall we say, chunkier than what you would experience today”. The cremation, done so haphazardly, is now the reason this poor patron is doomed to wander around Handlebar at night. While our guide had not personally experienced any hauntings, he reported that there are multiple accounts of strange things happening within the bar itself & all we had to do was ask the staff to get all the ghoulish details.
He also suggested to get a Pizza next door, this is where the blacksmith forge turned crematorium was allegedly placed. So you can get a Pizza from the forge, and a beer with the ghost. If that is macabre I don’t know what is. For the non-believing patrons: Handlebar is well known in the city for its Wine, and rotating craft beers. Happy Hour is typically from 4-8 PM, Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday. They also have a free barbecue on Sundays at 4:30 for some authentic Texas brisket and pulled pork. Just don’t think too hard about this story when you go for the BBQ.
Our next stop was over at the infamous Buffalo Billiards, where hauntings, screams and unexplained phenomenon happen routinely. This place was built in 1861 by the Ziller family and reportedly was the town brothel back in the day. The ghost in this place has been named Bill, and even pulled out a chair for our guide when they did their team investigation. This happened after a scream was heard downstairs by his colleague, and he has sent his safety partner down to investigate. Walking along the bar, all the barstools were upturned on the counter as he ran his hand along the polished wood praying he wouldn’t die from boredom.
He turned around and started pacing his way back along the bar, and all of the sudden a barstool that was once on the counter was now on the floor in his path. While most people would be frightened by this, our guide reportedly called out, ‘Oh, Thank You!’ — and sat down. Nothing else happened that night to our guide. If you ask those who work at Buffalo Billiards if they think the place is haunted, you are sure to get a full accounting of the many many supernatural things that happen there. For those who still are having trouble believing in ghostly encounters: Buffalo Billiards is a great place to stop for beers and a friendly game of pool, foosball, darts, and multiple HD TV’s to catch your favorite football team.
We approached the Driskill Hotel and were greeted with the Romanesque revival type architecture complete with white trim and three grand archways leading into the hotel lobby. It was built in 1886 by a cattle rancher, who spent his entire fortune on this hotel. As people began to stay in this historic hotel, strange apparitions, sensations, and unexplained incidents began to happen to the guests. Room 525 is said to be the most haunted of all the rooms within this structure. It is said that two brides, on two different occasions, newly married, committed suicide in the bathroom of this room.
There were so many reports of hauntings, that the room was indefinitely closed until 1998 when renovations commenced. Even during the renovation, there were strange sensations, unexplained leaks, and visions reported by the construction workers. If you dare to try this room out, make sure not to bring any usable weapons into the room, lest you fall prey to the spirits enticings of woe. Oh, you want a few more modern stories? Ok, well our guide said that after he emailed a member of Concrete Blonde Band who stayed here years before – she related a chilling tale. She had a cat that was quite sassy and would bounce off the walls when she would bring it into a hotel room.
As she opened the door of the cat carrier, the cat did not come out, it did not move. She had to fight to get it out of her carrier and then hide the carrier so that it wouldn’t go back in. According to her email, this is something the cat NEVER did….and then as she climbed into bed, the cat jumped on the bed like a flash of lightning, curled up at her side under the blankets and did not move the whole night….again something the cat NEVER did.
I believe animals know when there is danger, and can sense things that we cannot. So for a sassy cat to behave in this manner…..it would make me question the safety of the place I was staying at. Other descriptions of ghosts seen at the hotel range from children to men and women. There is said to be a former housekeeper in a long gown arranging flowers in the lobby, a man who checks his pocket watch on the elevator and the little girl that chased her ball to the grand staircase to meet her untimely death is still chasing after that ball.
Who would like to stay at the Driskill Hotel? The rooms here are considered upper-class, and can cost $243-$628 per night depending on how much you want to treat yourself. If you are brave enough, call the hotel, and ask for room 525 for your own ghoulish encounter. You cannot come to Austin without at least walking in the doors of this iconic building.
Here we stopped to have our guide recount the tales of public hangings that allegedly happened in this park. This is where criminals, murderers, and thieves were publicly executed for their crimes. Our guide recounted how it would have been to have your last meal of rice and beans, to ask to lay down in the grass prior to being hung….and then to have hundreds of people watch as you slowly suffocated at the end of the rope. It is reported that 200 people were hung in this square, and at night you can still feel their presence.
It was then that things got really spooky for me, he started to talk about the servant girl murders. These murders are well documented in history, and it is said that the first serial killer was born in Austin. Our guide recounted a gruesome and gory tale in such detail I had to walk away from our group for a few minutes to let my stomach settle down. I am a Physician Assistant, and have seen plenty of gore, guts, and trauma to last me a lifetime – but when it comes to brutality for no other reason than being a sick, twisted and demented monster……I can’t stomach it. I was grateful my guide was kind enough to warn me and gave me time to walk away briefly — to be honest, it triggered my own memories of trauma.
After a brief stint looking at the random, and oddly carved pigeon at the other side of the park – I wandered back to the group just in time to hear what the townspeople tried to do to catch this serial killer. Several options were proposed, a bell to sound when a body had been found. The problem with this was that they would have to wait until someone else was killed to raise the warning. The next option was moon towers, only 15 remain standing in the city today, but these 165-foot towers were the first electric use in a United States City. These huge monoliths were used to help light the city at night so that prowlers and possibly the serial killer could be caught. One tower, in particular, the Guadalupe and West 9th street moon tower is associated with the Servant Girl Murders.
This was one of the last murders that occurred, and the Serial Killer was never found. In total, seven females (five black and two white) and one black male were murdered by the Servant Girl Murderer. Some speculate, although historians may argue this, that the Servant Girl Serial Killer fled to London and became Jack the Ripper. I will leave this up to you, but it does seem suspicious that the Servant Girl murders only happened 3 years before Jack the Ripper murders began happening.
Still not spooked? Then you should check out the wholesome and delightful Farmers Market that happens every Sat at Republic Square Park. It is truly delightful and you can serve yourself some delicious ice cream, and pick your own organically grown vegetable victims to snack on.
Our last stop was my least favorite location to stop due to the smell of the garbage cans, the loud music blaring behind me, the lack of breeze and the uncomfortable sick sensation from the last story. Needless to say, stopping at SpeakEasy, made me feel uneasy.
This is where post-mortem photography would happen at the turn of the century. Coffins rolled in, pictures taken for the loved ones before being sealed in their graves forever. One night a fire broke out, and the diligent fire department showed up. This is when things took a turn for the worst for them.
The blaze was out of control, a scream was heard from the upper floors and the firefighters rushed up the stairs to investigate. One of these firefighters was named Jimmy Glass. As they pounded up the wooden stairs in their boots, the scream was heard again…..but from the lower floor as the flames licked the stairs. As the intended rescuers turned to head back down the stairs, there was a loud CRACK and the staircase collapsed taking all three to the ground floor instantly. Jimmy Glass became a victim of the flames as he was the lead, and plummeted straight into the flames that caused the staircase to collapse. It was too late for Jimmy, rescue efforts were attempted, but the flames were more intense and his firefighting brothers could not reach him. Thus Jimmy Glass became a victim, and the source of the blood-curdling scream that had prompted his bold rescue efforts was never found.
Our guide has had several conversations with the managers of SpeakEasy over the years. Recounting unexplained phenomenon of lights burning out within days, right below where Jimmy was said to have fallen to his death. Firefighters showing up at the SpeakEasy Bar multiple times over the years, when no fire alarm was said to have been pulled. Glasses shaking and rattling one night when it was thought an earthquake had hit; later to discover that no seismic activity had been registered in the area. Last but not least, the manager of SpeakEasy hearing a blood-curdling scream after things had closed down and he was finishing his books. He wandered the building, and as he went to look in the massive beverage cooler…..it shut behind him. After shouting for help for at least a half hour, the bartender went to lock up the merchandise and was able to release his boss who was chilled in more ways than one.
So should you find yourself, wandering the streets near this bar. Avoid the alley, and peer inside this popular place of local beverage worshipping. Who knows, you may even share your glass with Jimmy Glass himself.
For those who want a more practical visit to SpeakEasy Bar & Music Venue: This is a great bar for live music, great historical value, carefully crafted cocktails, a bowling alley overlooking the stage in this three-story local favorite. If you are brave enough, take the 59 steps carefully to the outdoor terrace for an incredible view of the Austin skyline – raise your glass and make a toast to Austin.
Heading Back to Safety:
We concluded our tour and quickly huddled into pairs for safety sake as we made our way back to the JW Marriot hotel. I was very grateful for the comfort of the lights on the cars that passed by us. All in all, I truly enjoyed the Austin Ghost Tours Guide, his stories, and his passion for performing in an engaging way. There were only two stops that while I enjoyed the story, I didn’t entirely enjoy the location of the stop. Bottom line, I would recommend this as a 7/10 and would do it again purely for how entertaining our guide was.
As always…..Happy Travels, Happy Tales, and See YOU on the Flipside 😉
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