An evening visit to Salt Lake City Hall looking for paranormal phenomena resulted in utterly unexpected occurrences.
No, not a definitive discovery of a ghost. (More on that later.) Instead, the discovery that a lot of the people who work there aren't surprised to meet ghost hunters in the building.
A typical exchange between staffers and us untrained ghost hunters went something like this:
"What are you doing?"
"Um, looking for ghosts."
"Oh, you should come and check my office."
Of course, not all city employees believe in ghosts, but there are many people who work at City Hall who haven't altogether ruled out the possibility that the historic building sometimes feels haunted.
Including first-term City Councilman Kyle LaMalfa. "I've been here late at night working, and I've felt like something was there," he said. "It's a puff of cold air. It's a creepy feeling. You don't want to hang out in a couple of places."
Scary stories for a scary season • And the historic City-County Building, circa 1894, is just one of many allegedly haunted sites in Salt Lake City. This isn't exactly New Orleans, where there's a ghost or two around every corner, but Utah's capital city has its share of local legends. And while we know there are dozens of ghost stories in Ogden, Park City and other parts of the state, for this Halloween-season story we chose to focus just on Salt Lake City haunts.
So many ghost stories, so short a season for ghost tours, says Paul Wheeler, president of Grimm Ghost Tours which actually conducts tours year-round. His favorites include tales about hauntings at the Rio Grande depot, Fort Douglas on the University of Utah campus, and downtown's Shilo Inn.
Theories as to why abound paranormal vortexes, tragic events such as unexpected deaths, or disturbing American Indian graves, as happened at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Human remains that were part of the collection of the Utah Museum of Natural History were relocated in 2008 to a mass grave at the cemetery, where there's a tombstone that reads, "Here lie the ancestors of the Zuni people, may they rest in peace."
Some of the ghost stories are urban legends, which have circulated for decades, such as tales about the Purple Lady who allegedly haunts the Rio Grande Depot. The Rio Grande Cafe even boasts of her presence, with a life-size doll dressed in purple and wrapped in a taco suspended from the restaurant ceiling which, according to those who claim to have seen the ghost, isn't the strangest thing in the building.
On the other hand, while it's been more than three decades since a mother threw her children off the 11th floor of the Shilo Inn and then jumped to her own death in 1978, the hotel general manager's tone turned icy when I asked about it. She couldn't have said "no" any faster when asked if she wanted to talk about the event or the ghosts who reportedly inhabit the building.
Who really believes in ghosts, anyway? • What's truly amazing about the stories of ghostly happenings is that they come from our neighbors. Government employees. The folks we say hello to at the grocery store. Intelligent, believable people who have had experiences they can't altogether explain.
Like Blair Fuller, the administrative and fiscal manager of the Salt Lake County Center for the Arts, who has had multiple experiences at the Capitol Theatre. "I can't even begin to tell you how many people have shared their own experiences with me," he said.
Repeated incidents have the tendency to turn doubters into believers. Wheeler had heard the stories his Grimm Tour guides tell, but was "really skeptical" until he joined in paranormal investigations. "And then I saw some of the stuff that happened."
During tours, people have claimed they were pulled at, pinched and poked at various sites. At a private home Wheeler's team was investigating, a toy flew across the room and hit Wheeler in the back of the head while the other people in the room stood looking on, slack-jawed.
It's the matter-of-fact nature of the witnesses that's the most striking when you're reporting on ghost-hunting.
Who is haunting City Hall? • Bill Zamora, a security guard at City Hall, is convinced that there are a number of ghosts there. Including the ghost of former Salt Lake City Mayor George Montgomery Scott although others have speculated the ghost is Scott's successor, Mayor Robert Newton Baskin. Portraits of both mayors hang in the third-floor hall of the building, along with paintings of all the other mayors.
"No, it doesn't look anything like [Baskin]," Zamora said, referencing a photo taken by a former security guard of an apparition that floated "knee-high off the floor" in an office off the city-council chambers on the third floor.
One of the Grimm Ghost Tour's guides got a start during a City Hall tour when he and his group "saw what they thought was a bearded man in pioneer clothes looking out one of the windows," Wheeler said. "It kind of shook him up a little bit."
Zamora himself has experienced a weird moaning just inches from his ear when he was on the fifth floor. Once, he and a new guard he was training were in a second-floor men's room when "all of a sudden I hear a bang and something slid over to the other side of the wall."
The trainee appeared white as a sheet, as he told Zamora: " 'You won't believe this, but the paper-towel dispenser came off the wall, hit the floor and slid over to the other side of the room.' I said, 'Nah.' But [when] I went in there, sure enough, it was on the other side."
That turned out to be the trainee's last day on the job. "He never came back," Zamora said with a laugh.
Depending on whom you ask, City Hall houses five, maybe six ghosts. Some think they've seen the ghosts of two children killed when they fell down garbage chutes since replaced by elevators during construction, as well as their heartbroken mother.
There's that former mayor and a judge. (Although those two may be one and the same.) And, perhaps, a dog, beaten to death on the premises more than a century ago.
"People have heard an animal growl while they're in the building," Zamora said. "And a lot of people have heard children laughing and playing but you turn the corner and no one's there."
Capturing ghostly coincidences • While some folks, like that security guard trainee, can't wait to get away from the building, there are plenty of others who want to make contact with whoever or whatever might be haunting the place.
Tim Shirley and his 4 Element Paranormal Investigations team have been there twice in mid-July and late September, when Salt Lake Tribune staffers accompanied them and they were excited about the readings they got during the September trip. "It was a lot more active than the last time we were there," Shirley said. "Definitely."
The investigators came equipped with plenty of belief and a variety of electronic gadgets, along with some less high-tech gear. Ali Orton, who was there to observe that night, watched as team member Lindsay Urry used a rubber ball to try to tempt the child ghosts to engage.
"It rolled to a complete stop, then rolled back toward us," Orton said. "It was definitely weird."
Not only did investigators capture what they believe are electronic voice phenomena or EVPs, as trained paranormal investigators might say but Urry is certain she saw an apparition in the tunnel that runs under 200 East the tunnel that was used to transport prisoners, including serial killer Ted Bundy, from the old jail on the east side of that street to what used to be the building's courtrooms. "It moved right in front of me," she said.
While the children, the mayor and the dog are thought to occupy the above-ground portion of the structure, the paranormal investigators were eager to check out that tunnel. On this night in September, witnesses described hearing the sound of keys jingling in there and none of the humans in the group were jingling keys. The investigators got some fuzzy pictures of what may or may not be an apparition, while "a lot of photos we took were whited out for no good reason," Shirley said.
And when Tribune digital-content manager Scott Sherman was viewing the pictures and video he shot on our visit to City Hall, there were a couple of oddities. He caught on video what appeared to be the reflection of a person in a fifth-floor office-door window where no such reflection should be. And he took a still photo that appears to show a ghostly figure inside Room 406 the very room a staffer had suggested should be checked out because she had seen weird shadows inside.
And just one more incident to add to the paranormal aura that surrounds Salt Lake City Hall.
Ghost stories for fun and profit
Grimm Ghost Tours • Offers two tours one of "old town" Salt Lake City (from downtown to the cemetery) and the other featuring sites on the "outer reaches" of the city.
Tickets • $26 for adults; $15 for children 5-12 (discounts available); 801-508-4746; grimmghosttours.com.
Salt Lake City Ghost Tours • Offers walking and bus tours in Salt Lake City. Regularly scheduled tours run through early November; tours are available by appointment year-round.
Tickets • $12-$18; 801-533-3500; storytours.com
I Do you know of ghost stories or urban legends outside Salt Lake City that we might include in future stories? If so, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: "ghost stories."