Monday, October 6, 2014

The Arbonas of Pensacola and the Skeleton in the Cellar

As we approach Halloween, a ghost story seems appropriate.  This one involves a family named Arbona that ran a saloon in Pensacola, Florida, for thirty five years.   When the premises, shown here, later were being expanded, the skeleton of a man was found in the excavation.  Evidence indicated he had been stabbed in the chest.  Since then, the Arbona Building widely has been considered haunted.
Certainly the founder of the family,  Eugenio Arbona has fallen under suspicion as knowing something about the bones and how they got there.  Born in 1931 in Palma Mallorca, Spain, he emigrated to the United States while still in his twenties and settled in Mobile, Alabama, working as a bartender.  Eugenio and a friend subsequently were convicted of murdering a local cigar making named Encino Hernandez and sentenced to the Alabama prison in Watumpka, shown below.  When the Civil War broke out in 1961, the government released him after serving only ten years of his sentence, possibly expecting him to join the Confederate Army.
Instead, Arbona moved to Georgia.  There he met his future wife,  Fannie (Frances) Trice.  She came from a long established Southern family.  Eight years younger than Eugenio, Fannie was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson  and Susan McDonald Trice.  Following their marriage, the newlyweds left Georgia and moved to Watumpka where Eugenio, apparently ignoring his earlier incarceration there, sought out business contacts.  It was in Watumpka that their eldest son, Joseph, was born in 1867.
Perhaps sensing better business opportunities in Pensacola, in 1869 Eugenio moved his growing family to Pensacola, shown above as it looked in the 1880s.  That city in Florida’s Panhandle was experiencing something of a economic boom as its port access to Gulf of Mexico ship traffic and railroads led to a rapidly increasing population.  Saloons were numerous and Eugenio likely found work in one.  The Arbonas moved into a home at 115 Zaragoza Street.  When it burned in 1884, the family escaped harm and Eugenio immediately rebuilt it on the same site.  Did that work give him an opportunity to stash a cadaver in the cellar?

The rebuilt Arbona Building, as it was now called, was designed to be occupied by a saloon on the first floor and Eugenio, Fannie and by now five children, lived on the second floor.  They called their drinking establishment "The Gulf Saloon."  In addition, the Arbonas likely were blending and compounding whiskey and selling it at wholesale as well as serving it over the bar.  A two toned stoneware jug bearing Eugenio’s name, dates from this time.
After two years running a saloon, the Arbonas divorced.  Had Fannie became aware of the skeleton underneath their feet?  Or had Eugenio’s reputed bad temper proved too much?  He is said to have tried on several occasions to have one of his children arrested.  After the split Eugenio determined to go back to Spain and signed the business over to his wife.  Fannie proved to have a singular ability to run the establishment.  The Gulf Saloon became even more popular because she had the foresight to purchase refrigeration equipment that made it possible for her to serve the only really cold beer in Pensacola.

Fannie was assisted by her oldest son, Joseph, who also demonstrated ability as a saloonkeeper.  After an absence of several years, however, Eugenio suddenly reappeared in Pensacola.  He demanded that the family sign the property back over to him.  But Fannie, Joseph, and other family members refused.  The father returned to Spain where, on July 15, 1890, he committed suicide.
As his mother aged, Joseph took over increasing responsibilities for the business, expanding into tobacco products and advertising and distributing nationally known products like Duffy’s Malt Whiskey.  Joseph also married.  His wife was Margaret.  The 1900 U.S. Census found them living in Pensacola, wedded three years.  Meanwhile Mother Fannie was keeping an eye on the premises, living upstairs until her death. In 1920 with the coming of National Prohibition, after a business life of 35 years under the Arbonas, the doors of the Gulf Saloon were shut.  
Joseph was forced to find a new occupation and, as many ex-whiskey men did, opened an automotive business.  The 1920 census found him still in Pensacola, living as a widower with five children, ranging in age from thirteen to one year old.  Following Repeal in 1934, Joseph and family members continued running a drinking establishment at the Zaragoza address.  Fannie Arbona died in 1935 and was buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola.  Her son Joseph followed in 1951.  The gravestones of both Arbonas are shown here, memorializing individuals who overcame a hot tempered, and possibly dangerous, husband and father to give Pensacola a storied saloon.

Here is where the ghost story begins. In 1991 the Pensacola Historical Museum was moved to the Arbona Building.  That is when spooky things began to be noticed.  Museum volunteers have reported many paranormal experiences.  According to a book called “Pensacola Haunted,”  objects in one location in the museum in the evening were found in a different location the next morning.  Cigar smoke was smelled at times although smoking is forbidden.  Noises frequently were heard after hours on the second floor where the Arbonas lived.  Visitors have run down from the second floor in fright because of a strong feeling they were not alone. The elevator has been known to move between floors on its own.  In 2008 a young woman was touring the museum room shown at left when she felt a sharp tug on her shoulder.  She thought it was her boyfriend, but when she quickly turned to complain, not a soul was standing there.  

In 2008 the Atlantic Paranormal Society came to Pensacola to film an episode of “Ghost Hunters” in the museum.  Members of the filming group were standing at the front desk talking about Eugenio and analyzing his shady past.  As recounted:  “Suddenly, everyone present heard three rapping sounds coming from the back of the building.  They were the only ones in the Arbona Building at the time.  They concluded that someone did not want Mr. Arbona’s name slurred in his own house.”

My own speculation differs from the conclusions of the  Atlantic Paranormal Society.  If anyone was rapping, it more likely was the spirit of the skeleton found in the foundation of the Arbona Building.  My guess is the ghost was signaling:  “Just set me free and I will be avenged on my killer.”  Would the target be Eugenio Arbona?  Only the ghost would know for sure. 
Notes: “Haunted Pensacola” is by Alan Brown, and part of a series called “Haunted America.”  It was published by The History Press of Charleston, S.C., in 2010. Not only is the book the source of much of the information in this post and the photo of the museum room, the book is an interesting and sometimes spooky read.  The Arbona jug shown above recently sold at auction for just over $1,400.  Maybe, sometimes, crime does pay.


  1. I enjoyed reading your blog post about the Arbona family and the Arbona House in Pensacola. Joe Arbona is my great grandfather. I never met him because we moved shortly after I was born. In the 50s we returned to Pensacola. I knew Marguerite, Lena, and Aurora and a few other family members. Again, I enjoyed your post and sent it to the other Arbona family members, Mark Arbona, Donald Arbona, Jayne (Arbona) Hough and Steve Arbona.

  2. Thank you for sharing your family story. Joe Arbona was a fascinating person. I am also very appreciative of your great grandmother. She surely was a woman of strength and spirit at a time when women were uncommon in business, esp. the saloon trade. Jack

  3. My great grandmother died giving birth to Lena. (The other daughters were Marguerite and Aurora.) Afterwards, my great grandfather had little to do with raising the family. An aunt, I only know her as Cocoo, actually raised the family. I met Cocoo when I was kid and she was humorous and fun to be around.

  4. Jack, I have a blog: There is a password protected blog entitled Family. The password is arbona if you'd like to see the photos.They show my father, also named Joe, his wife Helen, and his 5 kids,

    1. Thanks, Joe. I would be delighted to see the subsequent generations of Arbonas. All the best. Jack

  5. My dad’s stepfather was Henry “Watsy” Arbona. He took his name that’s why mymaiden name is Arbona. My dad was very close to Watsy his stepdad. He remembers the people you mention.