I slip inside the front door of the Menger Hotel, unaware of its history and hauntings, for now. I just want to get away from the dusty Texas heat. A trickle of sweat slides down to the small of my back as I am transported to another era, with Victorian-style furniture and old jazz music playing. Two elderly women make their way around the expansive lobby, admiring the period furniture and the pictures of famous guests and Texas elite who have visited the hotel over the years. “Oh, I wish we were staying here,” one of the women says. Like me, they are not guests of the hotel but tourists who have wandered in off the crowded street. Her friend shakes her white-haired head emphatically. “Not me. This place is haunted.” The first woman flashes a wicked, age-defying grin. “I might find a boyfriend.”
Sprawling across what were once the battlefields of the Alamo, the Menger Hotel has been hosting guests since 1859, just twenty-three years after the fall of that cradle of Texas liberty. A brewery turned boarding house, expanded over the years to the block-long hotel it is today, the Menger is a historical fixture in San Antonio. I later learn that, according to many legends, not all of its guests are living. Known as the most haunted hotel in Texas, and frequently topping travel lists as one of the most haunted hotels in the United States, the stately Menger attracts tourists interested in both its history and its resident ghosts. Everyone who has been here, it seems, has a ghost story to tell.
I wander away to explore the common areas of the oldest part of the hotel. I ignore a strange feeling of discomfort and tightness gathering in my chest as I take pictures of Grecian columns, floral wallpaper and a creepy gargoyle inlay on a narrow secretary’s desk. I make my way from the populated lobby to the quiet second floor and then the third floor, which is undergoing renovations. I am the only one here, looking over the newly painted scroll-work banister to the ornately tiled ground floor below, and yet I feel like I’m being watched. The hair prickles on the back of my neck and I try to shake it off as the response of an over-active imagination, but I still head back downstairs quickly, careful on the well-worn treads of the stairs. It’s a beautiful hotel and the staff I encounter are as lovely, as are the guests in the lobby, but I have a strong desire to get back outside into the Texas sunshine and away from that disconcerting feeling of being watched from the shadowed corners.
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Legend puts the total ghost count of the Menger at 32, but that number is disputed by the public relations manager and keeper of the ghost stories, Ernesto Malacara, when I interview him a month later. “32? Who said 32?” I tell him I’ve read several histories of the hotel that reference 32 ghosts and I can hear his impatience. “I don’t know. No one knows. There are many stories, there’s no way to know for sure.” He has been working at the hotel since 1977 and is the kind of fellow you’d like to kick back with over a drink at the Menger Hotel Bar. He makes a point of interviewing any guest who believes they’ve had an encounter with a ghost, and he has kept in touch with several guests over the years.
Malacara’s fondness for the hotel and both its living and ghostly guests resonates in his voice. “The Menger Hotel has served thirteen presidents, either before, during or after their time in office,” he says proudly, launching into an oft-told monologue on the history of the hotel. “Babe Ruth stayed here, and Mae West, as well as many famous actors and writers over the years. People come to the Menger from all over the world. Some of them have been coming longer than I have been here.”
I ask the 78-year-old about the ghost stories, expecting him to downplay the hotel’s haunted reputation or suggest it’s all in good fun but shouldn’t be taken seriously. Instead, he is happy to share stories of his own experiences, and those that guests have related to him over his thirty-eight years here. “My first experience was a ringing bell,” he says, with enough of a pause to suggest he has told this story hundreds of times. “But it wasn’t connected to anything. This bell would ring and ring, so I asked someone about it and he said, ‘Oh, that’s just Teddy calling his Rough Riders.’ And that was the start for me.”
He is referring to Teddy Roosevelt, who used the Menger Hotel Bar as a base to recruit his Rough Riders for the Spanish-American War. Since he first heard that ringing bell, Malacara’s list of encounters has grown over the years, both personal ones and through interviews with guests and other employees. If he can’t be sure how many ghosts might haunt the Menger it isn’t because his memory isn’t sharp and precise, it’s because there have been so many different sightings and experiences. From lights that flash in dark rooms to skeletal hands that reach out to touch guests in their beds, to maids in old-fashioned dresses and young ghost-children who like to tickle the feet of guests, the stories go on and on.
Among the Menger Hotel’s many guests include attendees of an annual romance writers convention known as Wild Wicked Weekend. Several conference-goers have stories of their own about paranormal encounters at the hotel. Though most of them are quick to point out they can’t be sure that something ghostly is going on, the number of first- and second-hand stories suggest more than the quirks of an old hotel. Sidney Bristol is a skeptic, but something odd happened to her and her roommates earlier this year. “From seven p.m. until the next morning, none of our electrical outlets would work. We laughed it off as ghosts, but it was the kind of event that would need a lot of investigation to prove or disprove as supernatural.”
Author Cassandra Carr also had an electrical experience during her stay for the same conference. “The lights went out while I was in the shower and it lasted for about fifteen seconds. I was sure it was one of my roommates, but they both denied it and I believe them. They’re good friends and wouldn’t do that to me.” She jokes that it was the Menger ghosts making their presence known. Of course, an aging electrical system could be to blame for both Bristol and Carr’s incidents, but Sandy Sullivan’s experiences at the conference two years ago are a little harder to explain. “I was alone and heard moaning in my room. It sounded like a man and it only lasted a few seconds. And while visiting another attendee’s room, we noticed a sudden heavy smell of cigar smoke.”
The most frequently sighted ghost is that of Sallie White, a young maid who was shot by her jealous husband and languished in the hotel for two days before she died, but many of the stories have a decidedly masculine presence. Malacara is delighted to tell the tale of a presumably male ghost he calls “Frisky” because “he can’t keep his hands off the women,” Malacara says. “Especially the redheads.”
Malacara tells me of the time he was interviewing a young woman about her ghostly encounter at the hotel and watched her hair, drawn up in a ponytail, suddenly stand straight up behind her. “She was used to ghosts,” he says. “She lived in a haunted house. And while I’m interviewing her, she just said to the ghost holding her hair, ‘Would you leave me alone? I’m trying to have a conversation.’ And her hair fell back down.”
If this all seems too much to believe — perhaps a hotel playing on its haunted reputation to gain business — Malacara will emphatically tell you that’s impossible. He relates the story of an attorney from New York who, during her visit to the hotel, saw a man in her room wearing old-fashioned garb including a puffy-sleeved shirt, tight trousers and tall boots. “She wasn’t the type to make up a story like that,” he says, then adds, more thoughtful than defensive, “There are too many people, too many stories over the years. They couldn’t all be lying…that’s impossible.”
It’s easy to believe him. There are so many different stories from ghost hunters and skeptics alike, and almost as many photographs of shadowy silhouettes and bright orbs and human-shaped smudges. Caraline Funari is a nursing student at Victoria College in Texas and is emphatic that she didn’t believe in ghosts until she visited the Menger Hotel for her sister’s birthday celebration last year. “I took several pictures of the hotel on my iPad to show my boyfriend,” she says. “Going through my pictures later, I noticed two images I took while I was standing on the ground floor, taking pictures of the balcony on the second floor. In the second picture, taken immediately after the first one, it looks like there are people standing on the second floor and I know there wasn’t anyone there.” You’d think such a creepy experience would scare her off, but like many other guests who have had paranormal encounters, Caraline is going back again this year and she can’t wait.
As the keeper of the hotel’s ghost stories, Malacara has heard it all — and he seems quite sincere in his belief in ghosts. “I always tell people, especially the kids who want to hear the ghost stories, ‘there is nothing here that will hurt you.’” He chuckles. “But sometimes they still scare me. I was standing on the third floor the other day, looking at a photograph outside one of the suites and I got the darnedest feeling someone was standing in back of me. I turned around and there was nothing there. I got scared, even after 78 years, and got out of there.”
Even at his age Ernesto Malacara shows no sign of slowing down or passing on the title of keeper of the ghost stories. He says he has retired friends who tell him it’s good for the first three months and then they run out of things to do, so he’s in no hurry to stop working. “I find it neat to get up in the morning and talk to nice people,” Malacara says as we finish our chat. I don’t ask him if he means the living or the dead. When I ask how many first-hand encounters he’s had with ghosts, he can’t put a number on it. “It happens all the time, all the time,” he says. “It’s not just seeing ghosts. It’s like that day on the third floor — a feeling; it’s sensing things or seeing something in your peripheral vision but when you look, it’s not there. You know what I mean?”
I flash back to my own experience on the third floor, staring down the long deserted hallway of guest rooms — a gauntlet I had no desire to walk — surrounded by sunshine and empty space and the smell of old hotel and new paint and feeling as if someone else was there, watching me from the shadows. I know exactly what he means.
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