It’s fitting that Nevada is known as a particularly haunted region: The Silver State entered the Union on Halloween Day in 1864 and is home to hundreds of historic cemeteries, abandoned mines, ghost towns—and spooky stories.
“Even our governor’s mansion is haunted,” said Janice Oberding, author of more than 30 books about ghosts, haunted sites and history in Nevada and across the West.
Oberding, who has been called the “First Lady of Haunted Nevada,” said the area near the old courthouse on Virginia Street where the original bridge spanned the Truckee River in 1859 (the site of a lynching in 1891) is arguably the most haunted spot in Reno. The city also boasts old mansions and homes, cemeteries and sites where lurid crimes were committed—which now host their share of specters, she said.
Lake Tahoe, Carson City, Nevada’s rural areas and, of course, Virginia City, also have a plethora of paranormal tales. Some locations offer historical tours and ghost hunts, both in October and throughout the year.
“Ghosts thrive in Nevada,” Oberding said. “You don’t have to believe to take a tour; you can just enjoy the stories.”
Tales of visitations from beyond the grave go back to ancient times, but this county’s fascination with the spirit world accelerated after the Civil War, when virtually every family lost relatives on battlefields or from disease, said Carson City-based historian and author Ron James. In the 19th century, he said, people were more concerned about the recent dead than with exploring haunted places. Spiritualists attempted to summon the departed souls at séances, a popular pastime.
As new buildings aged, stories about haunting, usually by anonymous spirits, proliferated. “By the 20th century, every neighborhood had its haunted house,” James said. Places like Virginia City, where Victorian buildings have been preserved, became epicenters of the paranormal.
“There’s the apparition of the little crying girl seen in various places, and the parlor maid who appears in others,” James said. Some Virginia City specters are associated with disembodied voices or even smells. The scent of cigar smoke heralds the presence of William, a ghost who stalks the Gold Hill Hotel, and of John Piper, who is said to sit in on opening night performances at Piper’s Opera House.
No one can pinpoint how those tales originated, but some stories about Comstock spirits were created relatively recently. James cited the example of the Fourth Ward School, where the museum director playfully invented the tale of Suzette, the ghost of a little girl, as a Halloween story for young visitors. The name may come from a story published in 1994, about a female hitchhiker in 19th-century dress who asked to be dropped off at the school—and then vanished. These dual Suzettes, adult and child, are cemented into Comstock lore. They are entwined, yet distinct, James said. Other Comstock specters also share versions of stories and locations.
“In Virginia City, you can literally touch the past,” he said. “And that’s a great place for ghost stories and ghost-hunting. … It’s a lot of fun, obviously.”
‘Mischievous, not malicious’
Debbie Bender, who operates Bats in the Belfry, which offers ghost tours of Virginia City, noted that the town, with its Victorian buildings, mines and numerous cemeteries, “is considered one of the most haunted locations in the country.” The berg’s most haunted location, Bender said, is The Washoe Club, a saloon and hotel which also houses a “haunted museum.”
Paranormal experiences at The Washoe Club, she said, “run the gamut,” including full-body apparitions, objects that move by themselves, disembodied voices and other eerie experiences. Both that building and other Virginia City landmarks have been featured on Ghost Adventures and other cable TV programs. Some of the folks on Bender’s tours are veteran ghost hunters or true believers; others are there to see the historic sites and hear the stories.
“It’s so cool when people who are skeptical have an experience on the tour,” Bender said. “Some walk away as believers.”
Her advice for participants: “Come with an open mind, and take a lot of pictures. You never know when you are going to take a picture at just that right time and catch something really cool.”
Susan Bernard, who leads ghost walks at the old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, said the Civil War-era lockup is fertile ground for paranormal activities. Both daytime history tours and after-dark ghost walks are offered by the nonprofit Nevada State Prison Preservation Society, which is always looking for volunteers to help with the tours and maintenance of the building.
“At night, we do give people a little history, but we focus on the paranormal side of the prison,” said Bernard, whose interest in ghost-hunting goes back to 1985, and who founded the Shadow Seekers of Nevada ghost-hunting group in 2008. “We also have investigators who come to the prison and collect evidence (of haunting). We have had all kinds of stuff going on, including on video. We see and hear things a lot. …The old execution chamber is one of the highlights of the tour.”
Some tour participants have seen apparitions or heard disembodied voices, she said. Others have reported being touched when no one else is near. The prison spirits are more mischievous than malicious. “They seem to enjoy whispering, touching and interacting (with people),” she said.
In Carson City, the 29th annual Ghost Walk on Oct. 22, has tours leaving every 30 minutes, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those treks are led by “Madame Curry,” a spirit in Victorian costume who shares “firsthand knowledge” of the city’s haunted happenings. The tales include a bride who played hide-an-seek on her wedding day and vanished—but was found years later, rotting inside a trunk. The 1.5-mile walks, which include indoor tours and performances at some of the stops, begin at McFadden Square on Curry Street and wind through the city to the Mark Twain house, the Brewery Arts Center, the Nevada Governor’s Mansion and other historic sites.
Tours, walks and séances can provide a pathway to the paranormal, but sometimes folks meet ghosts in the course of their daily lives.
Dr. Jack Sutton, a Reno optometrist and host of the popular Nevada Backroads series on KTVN Channel 2 since 1984, had a brush with the supernatural while preparing a story about Virginia City’s Chollar Mansion. He and his wife, Jenny, were staying at the Victorian house when he got out of bed to visit the bathroom.
“At about 2 a.m., I saw a little girl in a white dress standing in the hallway,” Sutton recalled. “I called Jenny, and as we were looking at the girl, she just faded away. … When we asked (the management) about it, we were told it was a girl who died of cholera” in the 1800s.
“So that’s my ghost story.”
Where to gather ghouls
Carson City Ghost Walk tickets for Saturday, Oct. 22, tours can be purchased at Purplepass online or by calling 775-348-6279. Details: Carsoncityghostwalk.com
Bats in the Belfry offers guided ghost tours through historic Virginia City, from April through October. Details: www.virginiacityghosttours.com or by calling 775-815-1050.
Nevada State Prison ghost walk and day tour information can be found at nevadastateprison.org/tours and at www.facebook.com/nspparanormal.
Truckee Meadows Community College/EPIC offers many classes related to the paranormal throughout the year, including “The Ghosts of Virginia City,” on Oct. 15, taught by Janice Oberding. Details at 775-829-9010 and www.TMCC.edu/epic.