An October 2008 trip
to Pensacola by Wildcat Dianne
Quote: Halloween in historical Pensacola isn't all trick or treating. For Mom and me, it was a guided tour of several of the city's historic buildings and their haunted pasts. I think I hear Vincent Price laughing in the background!
On Church Street across the street from the Pensacola Historical Society lies the ruins of what was Andrew Jackson's Headquarters. Right now just the basement and part of the foundation can be seen in a fenced-off area, but plans are underway to renovate the place into its early 19th Century glory. It was in this building that General Jackson conducted military business in regards to taking Florida away from the Spanish and when Spain finally surrendered Florida to the USA, the papers officially making Florida part of the USA were signed here.
Andrew Jackson had many properties throughout Pensacola and one of his homes was located on Palafox Street but was destroyed by fire. Eventually Abbott's, a clothing store, was built in its place, and its 1950's architecture is a dominant part of Pensacola's history and culture today.
Around the time of World War I, Pensacola was a port of call for many sailors for sailors and soldiers getting ready to go to war or were on leave. Being the South, it was also a hotbed of racism and segregation and vigilante justice was common for crimes against the hard-working populace.
Around 1918, a woman who lived near Bayou Texar around 9th Street was doing her housework when a homeless African-American man came to her door for food. He waited for the woman to open her door and then proceeded to attack her with a knife stabbing her many times. The woman managed to survive the attack long enough to crawl all the way to the railroad tracks where someone found her crying for help. She died enroute to the hospital, and the man who stabbed her was immediately arrested and taken to the Pensacola Jail.
A white woman being stabbed to death by a black man enraged many Pensacolans, and many residents wanted this man dead before he could go on trial. The Pensacola Police sensed this tension and immediately doubled the guards and policemen at the station while this man was in custody there. They wanted him to have a fair trial and then be executed, but a small group of vigilantes had other ideas.
One night the mob assembled in front of the Pensacola Jail screaming for the killer's head and tried to barge in the front door but were held back by the police, but the police didn't know that some other vigilantes had broken into the back of the jail and gotten to the killer's cell killing a couple of policemen in the processs. They dragged the killer from his cell and dragged him outside and across the street to Chisley Park where they had set up a gallows at one of the trees that lined the park. The killer was strung up and used as a living pinata as he slowly strangled to death with the noose around his neck. When the killer was autopsied after the lynching, over 500 stab wounds were found on his body.
Today, a statue and obelisk of Andrew Jackson sits in Chisley Park along with many benches. It has been said that the ghost of the killer wanders around the park.
THE ESCAMBIA COUNTY TAX COLLECTOR'S OFFICE
Right next to the Escambia County Courthouse is the Escambia County Tax Collector's Office. This old Victorian relic was built in 1894 and once housed a bank for most of the 20th Century. The bank was run by a gentleman named Mr. R who had complete control of the daily goings on of the bank and its clients. Mr. R was the only one who counted the tellers' money tills and had complete say in who would get loans. Many of the tellers prefered to count their own tills, but Mr. R had control of that and the tellers accepted this.
Mr. R was the bank manager for a long time and died in 1984. A year later, a customer came into the bank for a loan and filled out the application needed for the loan and would be notified if his loan application was accepted or not. It is said that when the time came to review the customer's loan, a huge gust of wind came and blew the papers around. It turned out this customer was a bad credit risk and his loan application was turned down. The bank employees felt that the spirit of Mr. R was in the building and was still reading loan applications and said that this customer was a credit risk and showed his disapproval by blowing his application around the bank offices.
After Mr. R's death, many tellers at the bank would complain about their tills being counted and moved around and thought Mr. R was still counting tills. Eventually the bank closed down and became the Escambia County Tax Collector's Office and continues to be today. Inside one can see the beautiful Victorian architecture and huge stained glass windows that are located high above the main room.
THE ESCAMBIA COUNTY BOARD OF ELECTIONS BUILDING
Next door to the Tax Collector's Office is the Escambia County Board of Elections Building. Today it houses the building where most of us citizens of Escambia County cast our early votes for President and other political goings on in the area. But in the early 20th Century, the building housed a fine men's clothing store run by a man named Mr. White, who was beloved by his five employees and the city of Pensacola.
However, Mr. White saw the best in even the criminals of Pensacola and hired a man named William Williams, who had spent time in jail for drunkeness and theft. Suits and money kept disappearing from the store, and even with the other workers complaining to Mr. White about Mr. Williams being seen at some of the brothels and bars in Pensacola wearing about $175 in clothing at once, Mr. White refused to fire Mr. Williams. Finally one day Mr. Williams showed up at work one day really drunk and Mr. White was about to fire him. But Mr. Williams had a gun and shot his boss to death and when three other co-workers ran into the office to see what happened, Williams shot them, too. Two died instantly while one died at the hospital later. Williams was arrested and confessed to the murders of his boss and co-workers and apologized in tears when he sobered up. After a lengthy trial, Mr. Williams was convicted of the four murders and sentenced to life in prison where he died of old age. Stories go of William Williams' ghost lurking through the Board of Elections many nights.
Both the Escambia County Tax Collector's Office and the Board of Elections are open for business Monday-Friday from 8-5. If you want to check out the buildings during business hours, do so discreetly and not disturb the daily goings-on. Just look for the white building with the lion statue on the second floor and the black marble building next door.
Of course no big city is without its seedier side and red light districts, and Pensacola had a thriving Red Light District up until after World War II. From the Civil War up until during and shortly after World War II, Pensacola's Red Light District was located right off the pier on Palafox Street and went as far as the Escambia County Courthouse. Almost every building you see standing in Downtown Pensacola was either a bar or brothel and every night, these establishments were hopping with drunken soldiers and sailors looking for a good time with many of Pensacola's ladies of the evening.
BEDNAR HOUSE AND LAWFIRM
One of today's Pensacola lawyers has an office in what is now the Bednar Law Firm. Our guide Jim joked during several times how many of the former cathouses were now law firms. "What's the similarities there?" I joked to Mom about how both prositutes and lawyers suck the money out of you in a more colorful term. The Bednar House is a 19th Century house near Jackson's Restaurant that has been restored to its former VIctorian glory. But before it became a law firm, the Bednar House was one of Pensacola's famous brothels who employed many young women to entertain the troops.
One young lady was a 14-year-old girl who was sold to a madam by her parents when they couldn't afford to care for her. The girl went through some horrible abuses at the hands of her johns and when she couldn't take it any more, she committed suicide by slitting her wrists with a straight razor. Jim demonstrated this with a straight razor of his own complete with fake blood.
Decades later, Bednar House went through a huge renovation and restoration by its current owners and when the floors were stripped, a strange dark powdery substance was found on the foundations. The owner took some of the substance to a forensic pathologist, and the substance tested out to be blood. It was the blood of the young girl who committed suicide, and after the law firm opened, clients and lawyers who worked at Bednar said books had been moved and curtains were rustled and though the spirit of this girl still lived there.
During Pensacola's heyday as a party town and one big cathouse, the ladies of the evening and their johns were restricted to the small area from Palafox Street to Jefferson Street. The Courthouse is on Government Street, and the prostitutes were not allowed to past Government Street. So if they had to do any business at the post office that was in the courthouse or any other business on North Palafox, they would have to hire young boys to run their errands for them.
Just about every building was a brothel or bar on Palafox and one of the buildings the group stopped at houses a day care center today, but in the day, it was a brothel. Several other people rented the place out for business but would move out shortly after saying that things were being moved and doors were mysteriously opening and closed. When the daycare center opened, the complaints continued, but after repairmen and the city kept laughing and telling them about the ghosts, they finally accepted their guests for who they were.
ESCAMBIA COUNTY COURTHOUSE
During World War II, Pensacola's Red Light District began to fade when the military issued morals codes forbidding soldiers from frequenting the brothels of Pensacola, and eventually they went out of business. Today, many of the buildings house restaurants, clothing stores, and law firms. At night it is relatively safe to walk downtown Pensacola's streets to enjoy a night out on the town.
Our guide Jim guided us through one of the alleys going through downtown Pensacola near Jackson's Restaurant across from the Pensacola Little Theater. On this cool October night, the building glowed in a warm yellow light and looked peaceful and didn't look anything like the prison it once was.
Jim then went on and told us the story of the Jail's most notorious prisoners, Jose. Jose and his brother immigrated to Pensacola from Spain in the early-20th Century and while the brother was a law-abiding citizen working in the docks while brother Jose raised hell in the Red Light District and spent a lot of time as a guest of the City of Pensacola for theivery and other misdemeanors. After serving time for his last theft, Jose was released from the jail and went back to his wicked ways, and this didn't go well with his brother who confronted Jose about his lifestyle. Jose didn't like being told what to do by his brother and took and ax and did what Jim described as, "the Lizzie Borden Act minus the 40 whacks," and killed his brother with a couple of well-aimed blows to his head and body.
Jose was immediately arrested by the Pensacola Police and held in the jail awaiting trial at the nearby courthouse. After a trial, Jose was convicted of his brother's murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Pensacola Jail. The sentence was carried out shortly afterwards, and Jim did a poor, but funny demonstration of the hanging with a piece of clothesline that he had in his jacket pocket.
Today, the old Jail houses the Pensacola Little Theater and puts on many plays and other events throughout the year, but the story goes that the ghost of the executed murderer Jose has been seen walking the catwalks of the theater and throughout the playhouse with a rope around his neck and curtains rustle on play nights. As Arte Johnson used to say on Laugh In, "Veeery Eenteresting!"
Mom made the reservations over the phone the week before we went on tour for the 7 p.m. Red Light Tour, and we were told by the lady over the phone we needed to be in front of the Pensacola Historical Society Building 10-15 minutes before the tour. Mom and I went out to an early dinner at Sam's Seafood and Steaks and arrived downtown by 6:15 which gave us plenty of time to walk around Downtown Pensacola and also tour the Pensacola Historical Society Building, which was open for everyone to tour free of charge that night. After walking a little bit of Downtown Pensacola, Mom and I went inside the Historical Society and toured around. There was an exhibition about the recent Hurricanes, Ivan, Arlene, and Dennis that savaged Pensacola and the Gulf in 2004 and 2005. There were several photos of many of Pensacola's neighborhoods and the destruction along with signs outside the houses saying "YOU LOOT, I SHOOT!" and other creative signs the folks made to prevent looting of their destroyed homes. Mom perused the many books up for sale in the Historical Society and I discovered some candy sticks for sale at the counter for 15 cents each or 7 for $1. I grabbed eight candies and paid the lady at the register who was dressed as a witch for the occasion, and she gave me a nice compliment on the poncho I had on that I had knit a couple of years ago.
The Pensacola Historical Society Building has an interesting history as well. It was built c. 1865 at the end of the Civil War and was owned by a Spanish family who had just immigrated to the USA from Spain. The family turned the first floor into a bar in order to make money, and they lived on the second floor. But years later, the family patriach and matriach did the inevitable for the late 19th Century, they divorced. The husband left the house and bought another building down the road and opened his own bar, but a few years later, he moved back to Spain and eventually committed suicide. The wife and her children, however, continued to run a successful bar and business until the mother passed away in the late 1920's at the age of 82. The building became part of the Historical part of Pensacola in the 1930's and continues today.
After Mom and I toured the Pensacola Historical Society, we headed right outside to our meeting place which was to the left of the building where a drawing of a lady of the evening was posted on a light post. This was an adults only tour, and a about a dozen other people were waiting for our tour to begin while a group of noisy Boy Scouts roughhoused at their meeting place across the road.
Finally at 7 p.m., our guide Jim showed up dressed up in a light blue striped seersucker sports coat and straw hat. He carried a cane and proceeded to pull out a long piece of paper with the rules and regulations of our tour. He made sure we could handle blood and other gory things and didn't smoke and immediately we knew this tour was going to be a hoot with Jim's sense of humor and manners.
Be sure to read all about the tour in other entries in this journal. If you are in Pensacola next Halloween, make sure you take a Haunted Tour of Pensacola. There are tours for adults only and ones for families. The tour costs for adults are $10 while the rugrats tour for $5.50. You can get tickets the night of the tour or to be safe, do what Mom and I did and made reservations early and over the phone with the Pensacola Historical Society at (850) 433-1559 Tuesday through Saturday.