The Most Terrifying Haunted Places in San Francisco
From haunted mansions to Alcatraz legends, SF has plenty of ghostly tales.
San Francisco came of age as a fairly lawless city, so it’s no surprise that, despite its relatively short history, it’s had its fair share of murders and tragedies. And what do murders and tragedies provide if not the perfect justification for a restless spirit to hang around and lash out in spine-chilling ways, like opening and closing doors, banging on walls, or lingering in the fog, too tormented to try to find peace elsewhere? From haunted mansions (truly, the Disney ride has nothing on SF) to the legacy of Alcatraz to mysterious phenomena that belie logical explanation, San Francisco is filled with spooky spots that go bump in the night. You ain’t afraid of no ghost? Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we?
Donaldina Cameron House
Like many stories of haunted places, this one is full of tragedy from start to end, though not without some hope and heart. Originally known as the Presbyterian Mission House, this was the place Donaldina Cameron, a 19-year-old woman from New Zealand, came to help young Chinese girls and women who had come to the United States to either join their actual families or with forged papers in hand that said they were already members of families (the only way they were legally allowed into the country), but were instead sold into slavery or forced into prostitution, living a brutal existence and usually dying within five years. The Presbyterian Mission was committed to rescuing these girls, and it is believed that Cameron, also known as the “Angry Angel of Chinatown,” was able to help more than 3,000 Chinese girls and women escape over the course of her career. The building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake (Cameron risked her life to save the logbook that proved the women could stay with her from the fires) but was rebuilt—this time with the purpose of the mission in mind, including secret passageways and sealed doorways so the girls could safely hide from brothel owners, slave traders, and the local police. The basement was specifically designed to ensure very few people knew about it—there was no entry into it from the house, only from an underground passageway that led to the street. Unfortunately, when a fire broke out years later, an unknown number of Chinese girls and women hiding in that basement were unable to escape and died. People claim to have seen white figures in the background of photos and feel the spirits of those who died. Today, the Cameron House serves the needs of low-income and immigrant youth and families in San Francisco and is always looking for volunteers. Just don’t try to get into the basement; it has been sealed shut.
1000 Lombard Street
At the foot of actually-not-the-most-crooked-street-in-San-Francisco (but certainly, the most frequently visited by tourists) sits an ornate home that once belonged to jet-setter, socialite, and revered hostess Pat Montandon. Everything was fine until she hosted a party and hired astrologists, palm readers, tarot card experts, and crystal ball gazers to entertain her guests. Allegedly one tarot card reader did not get the drink he was promised in a timely manner, at which point he laid a curse upon Montadon and her home, swearing she would never have any happy moments in that house again. After that, the house had a perpetual chill no matter what temperature the thermometer was set to, doors were locked from the inside, blood-like stains grew on the ceilings, and it was burglarized. Her dog, Doug, began acting strangely, barking in the middle of the night and scratching and gnawing at his fur. Montandon was also attacked by a man while on a date. He attempted to kidnap her, but she managed to escape. The biggest tragedy, however, happened when Montandon was out of town and her dear friend, Mary Louise Ward, was staying at her house. A fire broke out, and when the fire department arrived, the front door and the door to the primary bedroom were locked. When they finally opened the door, Mary Louise was found face down dead on the bed. But it wasn’t from the flames or even smoke inhalation. In fact, they were never able to determine the cause, only saying that it likely happened before the fire even started.
The Whittier Mansion
William Franklin Whittier, a railroad magnate, built this 30-room mansion in 1894 as a gift to his wife, who was never able to live in it as she died in a carriage accident before it was completed. He died in the home years later of natural causes, and his son Billy, known for being lazy and very into partying, sold it in the 1930s to the German Reich. It operated as the German Consulate from 1938 to 1941, when it is alleged that it housed German spies. It was seized by the U.S. in 1941, used by the California Historical Society as their headquarters for a short time, and is now a private residence once again. And though one doesn’t necessarily need to begrudge anyone who wants to live in a home with over 30 rooms, just in case one does, they can take satisfaction in knowing that the home has been said to be haunted by all sorts of ghosts. Some say it’s the German spies. Some say it is Billy who haunts the wine cellar, hoping to get his hands on just one more bottle of wine, and perhaps saddest of all, some say they have seen a shadowy figure who is thought to be the ghost of William Whittier, still waiting for his wife to join him in the house she was never able to call home.
Sutter and Octavia Street
This 1889 Victorian mansion was first constructed as Miss Mary Lake’s School for Young Ladies, a finishing school run by Mary Lake, a schoolteacher and the mistress of Senator James G. Fair, who built it in part so that his daughters could move to San Francisco to be close to him, but also because it was the schoolteacher’s biggest dream. Mary Lake loved her job and taking care of her charges, so she was devastated when it closed in 1896 because of financial difficulties. So devastated that she returned to the building after her death in 1904. The building changed ownership many times over the next 75 years before becoming the Queen Anne Hotel in 1980.
If anything, a hotel is a perfect fit for Mary Lake, a friendly spirit who enjoys looking after the guests. She is most frequently spotted or felt in room 410, which once was her office, and is always eager to lend a helping hand. She is said to have unpacked suitcases, tidied up, and even tucked the covers around people as they slept.
The year was 1933. Hewlett Tarr was working as a ticket-taker at the Curran and his wedding day was just a few weeks away. Life was good. It wasn’t as good for Eddie Anderson, however, who had a girlfriend who wanted to see “Show Boat” at the Curran, something Eddie couldn’t afford. Not wanting to let his girl down, Eddie showed up at the box office, pulled out a gun, and demanded a pair of tickets. He claims he didn’t want to shoot anyone, but the gun got stuck between the window rails and went off, killing Hewett and sending his body falling back down a flight of stairs. Eddie was sent to San Quentin and hanged, but Hewlett remains at the theatre. Next time you go to a show there, look at the mirror in the entryway. Instead of your reflection, you just may see a handsome man in 1930s attire with a perplexed and crestfallen look on his face.
Golden Gate Park
This man-made lake has been a tranquil refuge for park-goers since it was constructed in 1893—well, most park-goers, anyway. Just not the White Lady who has been haunting it for over 100 years. The tale goes like this: a young mother was walking around the lake, pushing her baby in a stroller when she decided to sit on a bench and rest. She started chatting with another lady, and when she looked up, the stroller was gone. She spent the rest of the day in a panic, asking everyone, “Have you seen my baby?” but no one had. That is because the stroller had rolled away and into the lake. When she finally realized that might be the case, she walked into the lake herself and was never seen again. Well, never seen alive again. She now haunts the lake on foggy nights, dressed in white from head-to-toe, and has even been known to approach strangers asking if they’ve seen her baby.
Lower Pac Heights
It’s said that Mary Ellen Pleasant, the “Mother of Human Rights in California,” first African-American self-made millionaire, and a general badass, haunts the six eucalyptus trees she planted at 1661 Octavia St (the site of a 30-room mansion she built with her business partner, banker Thomas Bell). She worked as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in New England, but when it became too dangerous, she knew she had to leave. Realizing there was an opportunity to make money cooking and providing lodging for men seeking fortune during the Gold Rush, she moved to San Francisco, where she made wise investments based on conversations she overheard wealthy men having while she served them meals.
She established boarding houses, laundries, and restaurants, while also helping former enslaved people with transportation, housing, jobs, and legal battles. The papers wrote salacious and untrue things about her, but she never let it deter her from fighting for equality.
Her finances were completely entangled with those of her long-time partner Thomas Bell, and when he toppled over a banister in their home and fell to his death in 1892, she lost most of her estate, and his wife ordered her out of the home. She died in poverty in 1904. The mansion was demolished in the 1920s, but six eucalyptus trees she planted remain in what is now known as Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park, the smallest park in San Francisco and a place she still frequents. The site is known to spook dogs, send chills down people’s spines, and, if you visit at night, don’t be scared if a nut hits you in the head. That’s just Mary Ellen Pleasant having a bit of fun.
Rich, lazy, and unambitious George Atherton (the town of Atherton was named after his father) was a bit of an embarrassment to his mother, who built the mansion at 1990 California St in 1881 after his father died. George and his wife, Gertrude Franklin, lived in the mansion where he was alleged to have suffered bouts of cruelty and humiliation at the hands of both women, who were known to be quite domineering. In an attempt to escape their clutches, George Atherton set sail for Chile with his naval officer cousin. He was not even halfway there when his kidneys failed, and he died. The sailors stuffed his body into a barrel of rum to preserve it (throwing him overboard wasn’t an option since he was so wealthy) and sent it back to the mansion.
That is allegedly when the incessant knocking on the walls and the opening and closing of doors began. His mother moved out, but voices in the night, cold winds blowing through the house, and other hauntings were too much for a string of new owners. Finally, in 1923, Carrie Rousseau purchased the house and learned to live with George’s ghosts. Well, kind of. She and her 50 cats lived only in the ballroom until she died in 1974. The mansion was transformed into an apartment building, but even today, there are tenants who hear the knocking and feel the cold wind created by a man who was so miserable there but also refuses to leave.
Pacific Heights to Nob Hill
In 1876, Flora Sommerton, an 18-year-old member of one of Nob Hill’s wealthy families, was told by her parents that she was due to marry a significantly older man whom she did not love. The engagement party was quite the affair, and “everyone” who was “anyone” was invited. But right before her father made the official announcement, a combination of fear, anger, and guts ignited a fire in Flora and she fled the party wearing her elaborate and flowing beaded gown, never to be seen again.
Flora’s parents and husband-to-be expended all of their resources searching for her but to no avail. She was a metaphorical ghost until 50 years later when her body was found in a boarding house in Butte, Montana, in 1926. That is the night she was spotted for the first time, walking down the middle of California Street in tears wearing the same dress from her engagement party. Keep an eye out on foggy nights, and you might see her too.
Built in 1969 as the world headquarters of Bank of America, this Financial District building was the tallest building in San Francisco at the time. Shortly after its opening, reports of poltergeist activity happened throughout the building: cold spots moving from room to room, and files flying off shelves. An employee working late one night reported seeing his own phone move itself off the hook. The source of the hauntings is unknown, although some have theorized it’s the spirits of victims from the 1906 earthquake still trapped in the ground underneath the building. Others claim it’s the collective energy of so many men and women, controlling the world’s money and desperate for more. Bank of America moved to North Carolina after its 1998 merger with Nations Bank, and things have been relatively quiet at 555 California ever since. Although, what’s really scary is that it’s currently managed by Vornado Realty Trust with 30% owned by Donald Trump.
Senator David C. Broderick was an ambitious political climber and an outspoken abolitionist in the Democratic Party. His buddy, California Chief Justice David S. Terry (who was known for getting into fights and shanking people), on the other hand, was a staunch supporter of slavery and advocated for its extension into California. When Terry lost re-election in 1859, he blamed Broderick for engineering the loss and challenged him to a duel on the edge of Lake Merced with the idea that whoever was left standing would win the argument of whether or not California should have slavery.
Both pistols had hair triggers, but it was Broderick’s that discharged prior to the final count. He just had to stand there while Terry took an easy aim at him and fired, hitting his lung. Broderick was taken back to the home of his friend Leonidas Haskell, where he languished in pain for three days until he died.
This event became known as the “Last Duel in California,” and Broderick would become a martyr for the anti-slavery movement. After the Union army took over the surrounding area in 1863, many captains lived in the Haskell House. The families of these captains have claimed to see shadows move across rooms, lights flashing, and plants tipping over. One colonel even felt the presence of someone watching him whenever he took a shower, and a captain said that when he and his family joked about the presence of ghosts, fixtures and pictures began crashing to the ground. They stopped joking, and everything stayed put.
Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum
San Francisco has always had limited, and sought after, real estate. Back in the 1800s when people looked at a cemetery, they didn’t see resting places for loved ones -- they saw land to sell, and the potential for their own property values to go up. This led to the ending of new burials by 1900, and a slow, decades-long process of exhuming all the dead from SF’s 30 cemeteries, and sending them to their new resting place in Colma. (The only cemeteries that remain are the military and pet cemeteries in the Presidio, and the cemetery at Old Mission Dolores.)
However, this transition didn’t always go smoothly. While doing renovations in 1993, workers found 700 bodies buried underneath the Palace of the Legion of Honor, some still holding their rosaries. The whole area was once the Golden Gate Cemetery, a graveyard for poor and working class European and Chinese immigrants. The 700 that were found were moved to Skylawn Memorial Park in San Mateo County. But, experts say, there’s probably thousands more still under the museum.
The Embarcadero Waterfront
The captain of Norwegian sailing ship the Squando, which sailed through the Golden Gate in 1890, discovered that his wife was having an affair with the first mate. He was willing to forgive her in exchange for retribution. So, the captain’s wife got the first mate drunk one night, and as she held his hands behind his back, the captain burst through the door with an axe and cut the first mate’s head off. The body was floating in the bay the next day. The captain, his wife, and the head were nowhere to be found.
Mysteriously, the next three captains were murdered by the crew. The Squando was taken back to New Brunswick, where it was docked, but no guards would stay on it as they all claimed to see a bloody headless man roam the ship at night. The ship was eventually demolished for salvage. On moonless nights, when the fog hovers really low over the bay, you might see an old three-masted ship in the water sailing from point to point to point—almost as if it’s lost its heading.
No list of strange and spooky places of San Francisco would be complete without a visit to Alcatraz. It’s believed that the Miwok Indians may have used the isolated island for thousands of years as a place to gather bird’s eggs for food (alcatraz means pelican in old Spanish) and to banish members of their society. By 1859, the US government seized control of the island and used it to imprison 19 Hopi Indians who refused to give into aggressive government tactics to “Americanize.” In 1912 the US Army built a new prison on the island, and by 1934 the Fed took over and turned it into Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a prison designed to crush the souls of men. Both prisoners and guards suffered deep physical and psychological trauma while there.
Rufe McCain spent three years in a metal box in solitary confinement in cell 14D, also known as the Hole. When finally released, McCain stabbed another inmate to death. He was acquitted because of the irreparable psychological damage his imprisonment had done to him. The prison closed in 1963 and shortly after reopened as a US National Park. Every since, night guards have claimed to hear the sounds of items breaking, people running, and men screaming. If you’re given the opportunity to sit in 14D during a visit, in one corner of the cell you may be overcome with emotion as you feel an icy chill wash over your body, even in the summer months. Be careful but be gentle, it may be Rufe begging to be set free.
Daisy Barringer grew up in SF, and though she has never been approached by the White Lady, she is pretty sure she encountered Miss Mary Lake during a staycation at the delightful Queen Anne Hotel. Follow her on Instagram @daisysf, where she posts a lot of photos of the other kinds of spirits.