History isn't always easy to feel. It can be a dry and boring recitation of dates and facts. But throw a ghost in the mix, and a connection is built. Spirits—and stories about seeing them—allow the past to creep into the present, making us think the dead may still be with us.
In Santa Fe, the apparitions wander our arroyos, resorts and galleries.
It seems every conversation about hauntings in our adobe town finds its way to a single marker in the cemetery of Santa Fe’s spectral tradition: Peter Sinclaire. He’s a local ghost tour guide and history buff who’s been leading his guests to spooky spots in the downtown area since the early ’90s.
As an ancient city with a violent history in its past, Santa Fe is rich with material for Sinclaire’s paranormal pantomimes. “I have about 30 different ghost encounters within three or four blocks of the Plaza that I’ve heard about over the last 26 years,” he says.
Sinclaire begins his walking tours at the La Fonda on Fridays at 6 pm, and at the Hotel St. Francis on Saturdays at 5:45 pm (reservations are required for all tours). Lean and clad in a denim-on-denim ensembles, Sinclaire enunciates each detail in his lengthy stories; he’s emphatic and has some theatrical moves thrown in. Ever-chatting as he walks groups from one location to the next, Sinclaire’s love of history—and Santa Fe—bleeds through. He includes details about individual ghosts shared through the years by hotel and restaurant employees, old friends or past tour-goers.
This year marked my first stroll with Sinclaire; but growing up here, I heard tons of ghosts stories from camp counselors, teachers and parents aiming to spark my interest in history, or ward me off a dangerous area. While they describe the lives of depressed young wives, abused children and forlorn soldiers, they’re really stories about the past in the City Different.
These ghoulish tales become urban legends that stick around for generations, and that’s a phenomenon in itself—that some events are so tragic, or terrifying, they become part of a town’s psyche.
After a grisly murder, neighbors of the slain family tell their friends, and those friends tell their families—and the news ripples out into the community, becoming legend. When children are killed by their own mother, a cautionary tale is told for generations in the horror’s wake. Or when a formerly handsome young soldier—who’s already survived, and lost, so much—takes his own life in a recovery suite, people hear the sound of his limp feet thumping against the window like zombie pendulum decades later.
The heaviness that remains after things happen; things that seem like they shouldn’t, that they couldn’t, allows ghosts to linger. This is a collection of these eerie narratives and how they persist in a world of skeptics. Why do we tell ghost stories, even if we don’t believe them?
The Young Bride
When it comes to apparitions in Santa Fe, Julia Staab has reigned a hundred years as queen. Julia was shipped to New Mexico in her teens after marrying an older man she hardly knew, Abraham Staab, in an arranged Christmas Day ceremony in their shared hometown of Lügde, Germany. Abraham owned the estate that now comprises La Posada de Santa Fe.
Pre-wedding, Julia had a reputation as being “emotional,” and relocating to the dusty, outlaw-packed Wild West from her posh life in Europe wasn’t exactly what she had in mind. She didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture and immediately started having babies. Some died in childhood.
Rumors abound about Abraham Staab and the way he treated his young, fragile wife, and each paints the rich man as abusive. Some say he was the source of her torment; others that he chained his crazed partner to the radiator in a second-floor suite; and others still that he killed her in a fit of rage.
Other theories hold that Julia took her own life.
Whatever the cause of her demise, Julia died young, even for the time period. After many trips to “spas” in her home country, a hysterectomy and countless other attempts to aid her spirits and health, Julia Staab died in 1896 at the age of 52.
Today, many believe her ghost haunts the grounds of La Posada as a translucent white figure descending the main staircase from time to time. Julia remains ever-present in her suite, the reports go. Some say she moves chairs, dims lights, opens and shuts cabinet doors, and makes the chandeliers swing with paranormal drafts. It is, after all, Julia’s house—and maybe she’s just trying to keep up her duties as hostess, apres-death.
Hannah Nordhaus, Julia Staab’s great-great-granddaughter and author of a book about her ancestor, American Ghost, imagines what the move from Germany was like for Julia.
“She’s sort of plopped down there [in New Mexico], has a bunch of kids and we’re not sure whether it was post- partum depression or something else,” she says in an interview from her home in Boulder, Colorado. “But her health, mental and physical, suffered after having all these kids.”
While Nordhaus and her family always knew about her pioneer ancestors who lived in Santa Fe, they didn’t hear about Julia’s ghost until the late ’70s.
“And as time went on, it morphed into this story about this very downtrodden, abused woman who was kept down by her husband and locked up in her room and lost children,” Nordhaus tells SFR. “The first articles about it appeared in the late ’70s in the Santa Fe Reporter.”
Sinclaire says his tours always include La Posada, not only because Julia’s ghost is renowned, but also “because that is an active ghost, and I get new stories to tell.”
Nordhaus stayed in Julia’s suite at La Posada, hoping to encounter the spirit herself.
“I was up and down all night, barely slept. And then in the morning I woke up and saw some lights, and I wasn’t sure if it was sort of me in a dream-state just really, really wanting to experience something,” she says, “or I did experience something.”
On her way out, Nordhaus told a front desk clerk about the illumination she had seen that morning. The clerk had already heard about Julia once that day: Another guest saw something similar in a nearby room a few hours before.
“I don’t know if it confirmed, but it made me question my experience a little less,” Nordhaus says. “I may have completely discarded it if I hadn’t had that confirmation that someone else had seen the same thing.”
A story like Julia’s magnetizes, tapping familiar human themes: A young, beautiful, sad woman makes for waify imagery and recollects heroine, save-me plotlines. Nordhaus says the sightings help push Julia’s story along through the years, reviving it when the memory has faded.
But there’s something else.
“Julia’s story in particular was so sad, and so reflective of her era, so I think people feel very attached to her and find her story really interesting,” her relative says. “It’s really the experience of a 19th-century woman in frontier Santa Fe. It was a real rough-and-tumble town and this sort of already refined woman plopped down there with her health and emotional problems I think really captured people’s attention.”
The Neglected Son
The tall, pitched-roof building on the corner Grant Avenue and Johnson Street stands out in the city’s largely adobe landscape. The anomalous structure looks like it could house a spider-web-ridden attic. Inside, the old wood floors creak as you shift your weight, and the corners angle sharply into the corridors, so you can’t see around them.
When you picture haunted mansion clip art, you see this house.
Then there’s the basement: massive, dark, and damp. It’s just too short to stand in, so you’re hunched as you explore it through claustrophobia and strained vision. The lack of light, and the the weight of the three-story building above sitting on you is so intense, it’s almost hard to breathe.
In the early 1900s, the Victorian house is said to have been home to a young couple and their sickly son. The wheelchair-bound boy lived in a room on the second floor, and he accidentally tumbled down the staircase more than once. The husband died, and when the wife remarried, it was to an unkind man who may have beaten the boy, worsening his ailments.
When death came for the boy—no one is quite sure at what age—the mother and her new husband moved. But even as the house sat empty, Santa Feans reported banging noises, moaning sounds and lights flickering in the boy’s old room.
Dates of occupancy records obtained by the Andrew Smith Gallery, which now occupies the building, state that the corner lot sold for $10 in 1902, but it does not state the name of the purchaser. In 1906 the house resold to Ada Peacock Moore, who owned it for 34 years and raised three children there.
Two years before Mrs. Peacock’s purchase, her husband succumbed to tuberculosis. So, perhaps this tale has roots in the Peacock family, or maybe it sprung from the family living in the house before.
From 1982 to 2006, the Grant Street house was a bed and breakfast. During that time, the supernatural, somewhat macabre reports continued, including the frequent smell of rotting meat and blasts of freezing air that would kill house plants. But in 2007, the Andrew Smith Gallery took over and Liz Kay, a gallery writer and salesperson for over 30 years, tells SFR they haven’t had one strange experience since.
So what perpetuates this tale? In this case, it may be the building itself.
“In the basement, there is this ancient boiler. And this boiler gives off these groans and popping sounds,” Kay says. “It has its own life and energy you can hear when we turn on the heat in the winter.”
Whether the human-like sounds puffing up from the basement are coming from the boiler or a waylaid spirit stuck between two worlds, Kay believes the internet has helped fuel speculation around the latter.
“People, as soon as they go online and click on Santa Fe history, they’re going to find some reference about the ghosts of Santa Fe,” she says. “And that’s going to lead them right here to this building.”
The Weeping Woman
Filicide may be the darkest of all forms of murder. And when a mother kills her children, it is not soon forgotten.
There are varying versions of the story of La Llorona, who forever wanders the Santa Fe River, crying out for the children she drowned in it. Her story is most often told to children, especially those who grow up near arroyos where flash floods fill dry beds with roaring walls of water in an instant.
Sinclaire’s version of this ubiquitous ghost tale largely mirrors the one I heard as a child:
In the 1700s, when Santa Fe belonged to Spain and Burro Alley was dirt, a girl named Maria called this place home. She was strikingly gorgeous, stirring jealousy in the rest of the city’s women. As such, Maria had no girlfriends. All the men were too enamored to approach her, so she was single, and her best friend was her grandmother.
One night, Maria dreamt of her future husband: Tall and handsome, with dark ringlets of hair. They fell in love, married and moved to a house by the Santa Fe River. They had one child, then another, and they were happy. Maria woke in the morning and ran to tell her grandmother about the wonderful dream.
Maria’s grandmother listened, then said: “Maria, Maria, Maria. You speak of love. It’s not how a man looks—sparkling eyes, handsome. It’s what is he like—kind, gentle. Is he loving? Would be make a good father? These are the kinds of things you must look for in a man or I fear you’ll have trouble,” says Sinclaire.
Maria didn’t listen. And when a handsome soldier named Gregorio rode into town—tall, with dark ringlets—her dream seemed more like a premonition. She played hard-to-get, which ol’ Gregorio fell for, and he wrote her love songs and played them at her window at night
Two babies and a few years later, after moving to a house near the river, as Sinclaire says, “Gregorio starts to spend more time at the office. He’s out late at night with ‘friends,’ who aren’t all of the male disposition, if you catch my drift.” Maria grew angry, they argued, and Gregorio left.
One spring day about a year after leaving, as the river roared (because, as Sinclaire pointed out, there was no reservoir at that time) Gregorio returned. But he did so with another woman. She was rich and rode in an expensive carriage. After assuring his wife he would return for their children and care for them with his new rich wife, whom he truly loved, he left.
In a frantic mania, thinking she couldn’t bear to lose her small children, she threw them into the raging river.
Sinclaire says she chased after them, realizing what she’d done. But she tripped over the roots of a cottonwood tree, smashed her head on a rock, and died on the spot. The priest at San Miguel Mission believed Maria had been an unfit mother; he refused her burial in the church. She was buried by the river she haunts to this day.
La Llorona screams for her children and weeps by the river. It is said she appears wrapped in a dark shawl, mostly to children or husbands out after dark. On approach, she reveals her face, which is no longer beautiful, but a decaying skull.
I have to admit, it’s a bit hard not to be shaken by the sound the wind makes, running through plants near Alto Street and under bridges along East Alameda; the whistling gusts can sound an awful lot like crying.
There’s a purpose behind this story: keeping children away from danger. Fear won’t fail where a parent’s warning will, and while our river doesn’t run like it used to, it’s no place for playtime because La Llorona may be looking for her children, and take you instead.
The High Roller
La Fonda on the Plaza has always been the inn at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1850, it was the prime place to stop, and one day a traveling gun salesman rode into town. His saddle bags were packed with cash from commissions he’d collected while selling guns around territorial New Mexico. He paid $1.50 for a room at La Fonda.
After a long, hard ride, the salesman wanted a drink. He headed for the bar and noticed, in the corner, a poker game in progress. Feeling good—and rich—he decided to join in the action.
Now, the dealer had seen this salesman when he arrived with his fat sacks of cash, and he decided to play a game of his own.
He let the salesman win the first hand, but not another after, and he was broke before he knew it. With enough to bet one last hand, the salesman went all in, and lost everything—his entire commission, and the company’s share to boot.
Ruined, the salesman ran from the bar to the courtyard and promptly he threw himself down an open well, where he died.
Today, that well sits in the center of La Plazuela restaurant inside La Fonda. The gun salesman, as the tale goes, hangs around it from time to time, wandering through the restaurant.
“I used to hear from the waitresses. It would happen at breakfast almost always,” says Sinclaire. “Guests would say, ‘A white shadowy figure came from near the kitchen and disappeared near the well.’ It’s like the salesman is reliving it, again and again.”
The notoriety of La Fonda plays a part in this tale. Everyone knows the place is full of history, so it’s easy to imagine more than one ghost floating through the saltillo tile hallways. In fact, there are several sightings that spawn from this hotel, and Sinclaire knows them all.
This story, much like that of La Llorona, is a cautionary tale: Don’t make a gamble with someone else’s money, or you’ll end up over your head.
The Haunted Barracks
The college campus, home to the Santa Fe University of Art and Design through spring 2018, has more than academic institutions in its past. It was the Bruns Army Hospital during World War II and the site of army barracks, some of which burned earlier this year in a fire.
In the late ’90s, when I was in elementary school, I went to day camp during the summers at Driscoll Fitness Center on what was then the College of Santa Fe campus. The councilors loved to torture us campers with stories about the ghosts that haunted the barracks.
One narrative focused on a 1940s nurse who was said to have been attacked by a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder. Murdered in the tragic event, the nurse’s soul was doomed to forever wander the halls, and the counselors reported seeing her floating down the cafeteria hallways in her white nurse’s uniform, still streaked in blood.
Caitlyn Fitzgerald, campmate and best friend since those summer days, has a thing for scary stories and horror, so she never forgot the details.
“I remember walking in a line to the cafeteria, and the hallways were carpeted and gross, and smelly,” she says. “There were florescent lights blinking overhead, it was a really creepy vibe.”
The counselors told kids they would hear rapping at the top of a window pane in one specific room of the barracks, even on still evenings. They said the room was formerly home to a recovering WWII soldier who, disfigured and depressed, hung himself outside the window. The sound “was supposedly his feet still rapping on the window outside the dormitory room,” says Fitzgerald.
Another consistent kernel at the heart of these legends? Fear. Fitzgerald sums up the collective fascination: “It’s fun to be scared.”
And you don’t have to believe something to fear it.
As an instinct, fear sits with us differently than other emotions. Get scared somewhere, and you may feel echoes of that initial terror in the chilling place for years. The room where a sickly child was abused, riverbanks where a mother drowned her children and charred army barracks are the kinds of places where you get scared, because you know what’s happened there, and you fear whatever may linger from it.
You’ll always think of Julia Staab when you pass La Posada, or the greedy gun salesman when you dine near that well. Santa Fe is a place that revels in its historical wealth and the oldest parts of town abide by strict design codes to maintain a bygone adobe look. So it seems only right that we retell the stories that mark our town’s past, decorating them with ghosts that never die.