Walk down the streets of Galveston past aging mansions and buildings where generations of people have walked before and you might feel a chill on a warm night, see movement in the shadows or hear a voice when no one is near. Is it a Gulf breeze playing tricks, or something else?
There’s a saying on the island that the dead outnumber the living in Galveston. Some of those dead have refused to leave.
Since I was a child, I have loved a good ghost story. And not much has changed, except that now I’m the one sharing them with others.
After years of researching the history behind tales of Galveston hauntings and tragedies, and countless hours interviewing locals about their eerie experiences for my books Ghosts of Galveston and Ghostly Tales of Galveston, I realized that the truth of local history is far spookier than any fiction someone could create.
Working like a detective in reverse, I started with local tales and traced them backward to find early newspaper accounts, police records and death certificates that verified – and sometimes clarified – details. I’ve even found some first-person accounts of ghost sightings that date back to 1860. It’s no wonder the subject is nothing new to locals.
So why is Galveston so haunted? For an island no more than three miles wide and about 27 miles long, it has seen more than its fair share of tragedy. The most famous of these was the 1900 Storm which caused the deaths of approximately 8,000 people and still stands as the nation’s deadliest natural disaster.
But other eras have added to the death toll as well: fighting between local Karankawa Indians and Spanish explorers, pirates, multiple yellow fever epidemics, the Spanish Flu, maritime and railway accidents and even a Civil War battle that was fought along The Strand – which is a popular shopping and entertainment district today.
The anger, joy, horror, excitement and confusion experienced by people who lived through these times have left a sort of impression of energy behind. Energies that some people call ghosts.
Some paranormal investigators believe that spirits can draw energy to manifest from water. If that’s so then, being an island surrounded by the stuff, that might explain a few things.
I often think how, because the town has retained so much of its historic architecture, entire districts would be recognizable to someone traveling from the past to the present. Or perhaps they may never have left.
A decade ago, the historic tour homes hesitated to mention any spirit activity on their properties, fearing that those stories might take attention away from the home history itself. That has changed, and now the lore of the reappearances of former owners is often woven into the tours.
Earlier this year I filmed an episode with the television investigative show Ghost Brothers at the 1838 Menard House, the oldest home on the island. Having been a docent there years ago I have heard many accounts of odd sightings and experiences there such as cold spots, voices, items seemingly moving on their own and shadow figures. But I separate those from stories like the often-told legend of the bride (or Mardi Gras ball guest, depending on who is telling the story) falling down the stairs, which I’ve investigated and proven never happened.
Where can you find more “reliable” hauntings in Galveston? The simple answer is – everywhere.
Audra, the unfortunate “ghost bride” of the Grand Galvez hotel is one of the island’s favorite stories shared by locals. Her tale centers around a fiancée reportedly being lost at sea, and Audra hanging herself in despair. What could make the story any more tragic? Her fiancée, who had been rescued by a passing ship, returned soon after her death. She still wanders the halls of the elegant hotel, along with a number of other ghostly regulars. Two days a week visitors can take a tour with Melissa Hall, the inn’s ghost expert, and hear about the scores of spirits who have seemingly checked in to the hotel and liked it so much that they stayed.
Most native Galvestonians embrace the haunted culture of the island, even in their own businesses and homes. Just ask any shopkeeper if they have a spirit dwelling within their walls, or if anything unexplainable has happened recently. Chances are they will stop what they are doing to share a recent occurrence sure to send a shiver up your spine.
Tina’s on the Strand is a perfect example. The resident ghost of this upscale boutique and gift shop is one of a little boy they call Daniel, who plays with their signature square candles as if they were blocks and causes other harmless mischief.
Further down The Strand you’ll find the Mysticatz shop, whose owners have captured activity on night cameras for years.
Other locations, like Hendley Market, are reportedly home to multiple spirits including 1900 Storm victims and Civil War soldiers.
On the creepier side, the poltergeist of a decapitated sailor occasionally makes it known he is not happy about being stuck at the Galveston Railroad Museum in back of Shearn Moody Plaza. Poltergeist, which is German for “noisy ghost,” perfectly describes his grumpy behavior of knocking things off of shelves, glaring at workers from train cars and stomping through the lobby.
Even the brightly lit Walmart on Seawall Boulevard seems to be inhabited by the ghosts of nuns and children who perished in an orphanage that once stood on the same ground, but was destroyed by the famous hurricane. Not surprisingly, the toy section is the center of most of the activity.
But the most interactive way to enjoy stories of local spirits is by taking a ghost tour. As the music on The Strand fades and doors lock, a guided tour will lead you beneath the glow of gaslight street lamps, to peer into the windows of darkened shops while hearing accounts of spirits that linger around every corner.
Have my guests and I ever experienced the unexplained during a tour? Definitely. But even on quiet nights, unseen presences can be felt providing goosebump-worthy fun. Visitors don’t have to believe in ghosts to have fun on one of these tours, but they might change their minds by the time they go home.
In addition to the danger of a ghostly encounter, be aware that not all tours are created equal. A good resource to find a reliable tour is to ask the Galveston Island Visitor Information Center at 2228 Ships Mechanic Row for recommendations.
Those who are interested in sordid history, but skittish of ghosts, will want to check out Kimber Fountain’s Red Light District walking tour. The author of a terrific book on the subject, she’ll share stories about the notorious district from a bygone era where “hourly love” was available for a price.
Do ghosts really exist in Galveston? That’s for visitors to decide for themselves. If you’re ready to venture into the island’s darker side, check out these recommendations. Come with an open mind and you may leave with your own story to tell. Just be prepared to expect the unexpected…and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You may never look at Galveston the same way again.