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What are the most haunted places in Texas?

San Antonio's Menger Hotel is considered a hot spot for hauntings.
Kathleen Creedon
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio's Menger Hotel is considered a hot spot for hauntings.

October is more than halfway over, which means spooky season is in full swing. You can find a haunted house or pumpkin patch in just about every city in Texas, but what about real hauntings in the Lone Star State?

From abandoned hospitals to historic hotels, Texas has its fair share of haunted locations. Kristina Downs, director of the Texas Folklore Society and an assistant professor at Tarleton State University, joined the Standard to tell listeners about the most spine-chilling sites. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: When someone asks you about top haunted locations in Texas, what sites come to mind?

Kristina Downs: One that definitely comes to mind is the Menger Hotel, which is in San Antonio. It’s right downtown near the Alamo. It opened in 1859 and had a colorful history, and that’s led to some colorful hauntings.

What’s so spooky about it? It looks grand and beautiful. 

It is absolutely beautiful. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War, which would have led to a lot of deaths there. There was also a fire there in 1924, which didn’t result in any fatalities, but added to the traumatic history.

There was a chambermaid named Sallie White who was murdered in the lobby of the hotel by her husband. According to the story, she actually ran to the hotel trying to get away from him, and he shot her in the lobby. The owner of the hotel paid for her funeral. Maybe that shows what a devoted employee she was, because she still is seen in the hotel folding laundry, carrying linens around – still very much acting as she would have as a chambermaid.

The Menger Hotel in 1865.
Ted Ernst, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Wikimedia Commons
The Menger Hotel in 1865.

What other stories have you heard from the Menger? 

The famous Texas figure, Richard King, of the King Ranch, also died there in 1885. He’s still seen around the hotel. Apparently, it was his favorite hotel. He asked to be taken there as he knew he was at the end of his life.

Teddy Roosevelt also hangs out at the Menger Hotel in the bar. He apparently went there to recruit for the Rough Riders and will still strike up conversations with people in the hotel bar, trying to recruit them to join the Rough Riders.

Those are great stories. Hit us with some more of these haunted tales.

Close to where I am in Erath County, we have McDow Hole, which is connected with Green Creek as a deep water hole. There’s a lot of different stories about pioneer families being murdered there.

There was one woman in particular, Jenny Papworth, whose murder was never solved. In fact her body was never found – nor was that of her infant child. Her spirit is said to appear beside the train tracks near the hole. When the railroad was more active, she would be seen standing by the railroad holding her baby.

These things take on a life of their own, don’t they?

They absolutely do.

Why do you think that is? Is Texas unique in any way, or is this universal – the phenomenon of ghosts lingering long after their human personages are gone? 

I don’t think we’re unique. You have those stories everywhere, but they say everything is bigger in Texas. I think that definitely applies to our ghost stories.

Texans are also storytellers by nature. You know, we love to share stories. I think that leads also to these stories spreading and being told. The more they spread, the more they can get embellished or start to take on new characteristics.

A lot of listeners are in the mood to get spooked. Do you have another one that you can share with us?

In Mineral Wells, there’s Hill House, which claims to be the most haunted house in Texas. It was a brothel and a bootlegging operation back when Mineral Wells was at its height. There’s been several deaths on the property, and you can actually go there and do ghost hunting. You can book a tour.

People get scratched. They hear voices. There’s videos you can find online of doors unlocking by themselves, banging noises, any of those kinds of things.

There’s got to be some truth underlying this somewhere, right? It’s not as if people are making these stories up. There must have been some noise, some visual indication that led people to think that they were seeing some paranormal phenomenon, no?

I absolutely think that there’s a truth to these stories, you know? I’ve had some spooky experiences myself in pretty mundane locations. But I think that sometimes when you’re looking for things, you might be more likely to notice them. It’s not even necessarily that you’re imagining things – maybe these things are happening all the time, and we are more likely to notice it if we know that it’s a place that’s haunted.

These older houses… Sure, they can have creaks and things like that that just happen in older buildings. But I think sometimes there are things that we don’t understand yet.

As director of the Texas Folklore Society, how do you interpret some of these ghost stories on a personal level? Do you tend to think of them as fiction or do you tend to put a little bit more fact into the scale?

Something one of my folklore professors once told me is that there’s truth in all stories. So, I don’t think my job as a folklorist is to try to figure out, ‘okay, is this paranormal?’ but to figure out why people are telling these stories. What can I learn about people, about their community, from listening to the stories they tell? What can those tell me about their beliefs?

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Why do you think that we are so interested in these kinds of spooky stories? 

You know, they do surveys every so often that show that, even as we’re very scientifically educated as a society, about three quarters of Americans still believe in some kind of supernatural thing. I think we can get a little bit removed from that sense of wonder in our everyday lives, because everything is so rational.

There’s nothing wrong with that; I fully believe in science and rationality. Sometimes, we need something that’s a little bit more, something that goes beyond that – that sense of wonder. I think the scary stories give us some of that. There’s a thrill to hearing a story that makes your spine shiver and your hair stand on end, which I think we all enjoy.

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