Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Haunted Houses of Whiskey Men

Foreword:  Over the years I have profiled three pre-Prohibition whiskey men whose saloons in our time have achieved the reputation of being haunted.  According to the stories circulated, ghosts are regularly sensed or heard, if not seen, in those former drinking establishments, some incidents solemnly attested to by psychics and “licensed” ghost chasers.

The first paranormal venue is “The Bird Cage,” a variety theater and saloon in Tombstone,  Arizona.   Constructed of adobe over wood, the place was founded by Joe Bignon, an actor, dancer and “impresario” who operated a number of music hall saloons before settling down in Tombstone with his wife, Matilda Quigley.  She was a six foot tall, 230 pound dancer whom Joe called “Big Minnie.  She is said to have “dazzled” audiences by prancing around the stage in pink tights.  She doubled as a bouncer.  Both are shown here. 

In reality what Canadian Joe and Big Minnie were running, in addition to a theater and saloon, was a bordello.  A $25 Bird Cage token exists, reputedly from this era, that guarantees:  “Square and Honest Gambling, The Best Liquors and Wine, Always Many Lovely Fancy Women,  Acclaimed the Best Sporting House in the Southwest.”  The flip side of the coin promises that it is “Good in Trade Toward All Favors of the House.  Our Fancy Women Will Fulfill Any Wish.”  It is signed by Joe.

Because of changing economic times, Joe and Big Minnie in 1892 pulled up stakes and moved to Pearce, Arizona, where a gold strike had occurred.  Under other ownership, The Bird Cage survived until National Prohibition and then was shut for a period.  As Tombstone evolved into a major tourist destination, mainly featuring the gunfight at the OK Corral, the theater-saloon was revived — but now reputed to hold ghostly inhabitants.   

Guests report seeing prostitutes in the bar, shown below, wearing elaborate dresses and cowboys who are glimpsed and then disappear.  One of the most famous is a “man in black” wearing heavy boots who is said to stomp back and forth on the stage.  At night sounds of laughter, yelling and music sometimes are heard from the saloon’s interior, shown here.  A psychic trying to enter the Bird Cage has reported being stabbed repeatedly in the chest by a ghost, causing her shortness of breath (nothing fatal).

These phenomena may have their explanation in Tombstone’s strong interest in the tourist trade.  The Bird Cage offers “Ghost Tours” daily starting at 6:15 p.m., tickets available at the box office.  The brochure suggests:  “Bring your camera and sense of adventure.”  The heritage of showman Joe Bignon lives on.

The Holyoke, Massachusetts, Tourist Bureau may be overlooking a prime opportunity by not exploiting the derelict building at 30 John Street, shown here.  Once it held a drinking establishment owned by Patrick “P. J.” Murray that opened about 1913.  Called the Murray Saloon, it was popularly known as the “Bud,” possibly because Murray was Holyoke’s first distributor of Budweiser beer and president of the Bud Wine Liquor Company.

Only after National Prohibition did Murray’s establishment merit attention as a potential hangout for ghosts.  He closed the first floor saloon, but a speakeasy, was stocked with Murray’s brands of liquor, including The Pee-Jay Rye Whiskey No. 6.  

This illegal drinking establishment was rigged with flashing lights to warn patrons of impending raids. There were escape routes through passageways behind fireplaces on each floor and apparently a tunnel leading from the basement of City Hall to Murray’s basement.  It is said that the mayor and police chief used to visit the speakeasy after hours using this tunnel.

The ghost of P.J. Murray is said to haunt the Bud. Ex-bartenders and regulars at the establishment talk of strange happenings over the years.  One patron reported encountering a ghost in the men’s restroom, a sighting written up in the Holyoke Transcript newspaper.  Others speculate that the ghost is Murray’s nephew, Joseph Murray,  who inherited the establishment.  The structure currently is on the local inventory of historic buildings and a candidate for rehabilitation and use.  Get busy Holyoke Tourist Bureau!

The final ghost story involves a family named Arbona that ran The Gulf Saloon in Pensacola, Florida, for thirty five years.   When the premises, shown left, 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. 

The family founder,  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 maker and sentenced to an Alabama prison.  When the Civil War broke out in 1961, Arbona was released after serving only ten years of his sentence, possibly on the expectation that he would join the Confederate Army.

Instead Arbona married, started a family, and moved to Pensacola, Florida, where he opened the Gulf Saloon.  Several years later he divorced and returned to Spain, leaving his ex-wife and an elder son to run the drinking establishment in what became known as the Arbona Building. 

When the Pensacola Historical Museum was moved to the Arbona Building in 1991, 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 had 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 below 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 Arbona and analyzing his criminal 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.”

Haunted?  Who can say authoritatively about any of these sites?  Although in each case the circumstances differ, these three former saloons have provided the venue for unexplained paranormal activities.  Perhaps even in the nether world, folks get thirsty for a shot of whiskey. 

Note:  Prior posts on this blog have featured longer descriptions of each of these whiskey men and their saloons:   Joe Bignon and the Bird Cage, January 8, 2014;  P. J. Murray and the Bud Saloon, September 7, 2017 (author, Ferdinand Meyer); and the Arbonas and the Gulf Saloon, October 6, 2014.

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