On an island known for a deadly storm and houses with history, everyone has a ghost story
Sometimes, when people look at the Old Central Drug Store building in Galveston’s downtown, they see a man gazing out the second-story window. Perhaps he’s expecting someone or merely watching the passers-by. But he isn’t a flesh-and-blood person. Here, he’s a ghost among many.
In this historic seaport city, hit by storms and pestilence, almost everyone has a ghost story.
Clyde Wood and his wife, Kim, run The Witchery, 2116 Postoffice St. downtown, on the first floor of the Central Drug Store building. There, curious customers seek esoteric goods and guidance about hauntings.
“Dozens of people — ones you would never expect — come into the shop year after year looking for information on spirits or how to cleanse a house,” Clyde Wood said. “Sometimes, they tell me their story right away, sometimes it takes a while.”
Wood has heard many paranormal accounts since opening the shop in 2009, and they all have something in common — they’re hard to explain.
“Someone might hear voices in the next room or footsteps on the stairs when no one else is home,” he said. “Occasionally, someone glimpses a figure that vanishes before they are certain what it was. It can be disconcerting to people who do not expect it.”
Sheri and Darrell Davis, small business owners from the Dallas area, bought their Galveston dream home in 2005. The beautifully crafted Victorian, with its winding cypress staircase and longleaf yellow pine floors, was built by John Hagemann in 1892. The house on Avenue L survived the 1900 Storm, during which dozens of neighbors and the family horse took refuge on its upper floor.
The Davises began restoring the house immediately, dividing their time between the island and the metroplex.
It started with small things — unexplained noises and the sound of someone talking softly.
“I always rationalized it,” Sheri Davis said. “I didn’t want people to think I was crazy.”
One day, she was at the bathroom sink, and a picture of the island’s 1892 Bishop’s Palace flew off the wall.
“It didn’t drop down, it went straight out,” Davis said. “That’s when I talked to my husband.”
Darrell Davis told her he was a Baptist boy from a small Texas town and didn’t believe in any hocus-pocus.
So, Davis came to terms with the presence she felt by talking to it out loud.
“I’d say, ‘Please don’t scare me; I love this house and I am taking care of it,’” she said.
She also said prayers of peace and happiness for the house and the people in it.
After Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, Sheri Davis decided to have a mural of the sky painted above the staircase. She hired artist Barney Stinnett from Beaumont to paint it while she and her husband were in North Texas.
Stinnett had been working on the house for about a week when he arrived one morning to find a neatly etched note, painted in red, in a high corner of the ceiling. He took a picture of the message with his cellphone and sent it to Davis. It plainly said: “Leave my house.”
The artist thought it was a practical joke, or that vandals had broken in over the weekend. But the doors and windows had remained locked. The note was written in a difficult place to reach. The mystery was never solved.
Some people believe the island is spirit-filled because of the thousands of souls that lost their lives suddenly during the 1900 Storm. But Clyde Wood believes it goes back much further — centuries back to the ancient Karankawa tribe, a legendary race of tall Native Americans with oddly shaped skulls and an affinity for dogs.
“It’s always been a spiritual place,” Wood said. “That’s why the island was sacred to the Karankawa, and why they brought their dead to be buried here.”
Students of the spiritual world say the threshold between the past and the present, the living and the departed, grows more translucent as our coastal summer slips into fall.
“Here in Galveston, the veil is already pencil thin, something that makes it a special place,” Wood said. “Those who are sensitive to other realms can actually feel the change when they cross over the causeway.”
Tales of ghosts are part of the fabric of life on the island, but Jami Durham, a researcher at the Galveston Historical Foundation, is still a skeptic.
Durham set about debunking the oft-told Galveston ghost tale about the Michel Menard house, 1605 33rd St., which is supposed to be haunted by one of Menard’s daughters, who tripped on her wedding veil and broke her neck. In another version, the victim is a woman who died when she tripped on the stairs at an elaborate Mardi Gras party in 1856.
As local lore, it’s a favorite. But it’s fanciful fabrication, Durham said.
“The Menard daughters were both married,” she said. “The eldest, Helen, lived into her nineties, and the second daughter, Clara, died in Alabama during a yellow fever epidemic.”
What about the woman who was supposed to have snapped her neck at the Mardi Gras festivities?
“Also not true,” Durham said. “The Galveston newspaper wrote a detailed account of the party, including costumes, food and decorations, but there was no mention of a death, an unlikely detail to omit.”
Durham is an agnostic when it comes to ghosts, but she had one experience at the historic 1859 Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway, which she can’t explain.
“I was working on a wedding exhibit with another staff member, and we both saw a woman come down the stairs and turn into the main hall,” Durham said. “There was a tour in the house and we both thought she had come downstairs to find a restroom. When I followed, there was no one there.”
Later, the tour guide told her there were only two couples on the tour and that they stayed with him the whole time.
“But, we both saw her and that’s the truth,” Durham said.
Local mysteries aren’t limited to 19th century properties.
Last year, Paul Murdoch and his wife, Shelly, opened the Driftwood Café, 1110 23rd St. in Galveston. Since then, they have had one too many close encounters with a restless spirit, possibly a temperamental cook.
“A few weeks ago, pots and pans went flying in the kitchen and a loaf of bread sailed from a shelf and landed in front of our cook,” Paul Murdoch said.
The couple cheerfully calls the resident ghost Charlie — a former restaurant on the site was called Charlie’s Burgers. And while neither has witnessed the apparition, other people claim to have seen a large figure wearing an apron.
“I know it’s weird,” Murdoch said. “I can’t explain it. I guess that’s just life in Galveston.”