… And The Ghosts Come Out to Play

I’m standing on the porch outside the Benicia Visitor Center, the Depot, my hands shoved up into the sleeves of my coat. It isn’t really that cold, but out here on the strait, the breeze off the water is just chilly enough. Devin Sisk, our paranormal researcher, is preparing us to start off on our exploration of the mysterious, the paranormal and the unknown by… making us sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the tour group.


devin and ghostly friend

Devin Sisk greets a “ghostly” friend

devin with EMF meter

Explaining the K-II EMF Meter

There are about twenty-five of us this pleasant, clear, full-moon Friday night, at the Depot at the very end of First Street in California’s one-time capital of Benicia. For the rest of October, the Visitor Center transforms into the Haunted Depot, a kids’ haunted house, on Friday and Saturday nights and Halloween. The merchants on First Street are also competing in a scarecrow contest. The palm trees and other trees on the street are festooned with twinkle lights, but the moon is outshining them all.

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The waterfront

sailor jack scarecrow

Sailor Jack’s piratical scarecrow offering

We’re belting out “Happy Birthday.” Devin didn’t have to ask us twice, and we’re not quavering along under our breaths, either. This is that kind of a group.

Ghost-hunter gear.

Devin is highly amused that the Visitor Center is hosting a “haunted depot,” he says, “Because the depot… is haunted.”  He hands out our ghost-hunting tools, dowsing rods and K-II meters, designed to flicker or light up when the electrical energy in an area changes. K-II meters were not designed for ghost hunters. They were designed for construction workers.  Dowsing rods, of course, have been around since, well, forever. There is one other free tool, for those with smart phones who want to download it, he says, an app called Ghost Radar.

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Learning to dowse our sorrows

It was just one of life’s bonuses that the Friday my friend Lillian and I could make to the Ghost Walk happened to be the night of a full moon with a slight lunar eclipse, and gloriously, autumnally clear. It didn’t hurt, either, that we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Sailor Jack’s at a window table looking right out at the strait and the bridge, just after sunset, before meeting for the walk. I thought the Ghost Walk was going to be more of an historical tour with some spooky stories. Driving over I had said to Lillian, “What I’d really like to do is an investigation and get to use the electronic meters and things.”

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The bridge at sunset

And here I was, holding pair of dowsing rods that were swinging back and forth, crossing and opening wide, swinging in unison from side to side, never still.  I had started with a K-II, but the young woman in the family group next to me, who had the rods, muttered to her mom that she wanted the meter, so I traded. (Later I traded back with some other people and got a meter.)

Meet Bernard

Devin had us ask if there was a presence with us tonight, and those of us with rods immediately had them cross, the sign for yes. A few more Yes/No questions, and Devin started through the alphabet to determine our ghostly host’s name. He got a B, then worked us through to Bernard (who also went by Ben, a name several of us had guessed). While Devin was working the other side of the crowd, I asked, “Is your name Bill?” William is not a name that starts with B, but I thought I’d try it. The young woman next to me got a “hit” on her meter just as the tips of my rods crossed. I told Devin this and he said he would explain in a moment. Mainly he wanted to tell us about Bernard.

Bernard, he said, worked in the depot. He haunts it to this day; he is a trickster and a practical joker ghost who likes to turn out the lights and move things about. There are several other ghosts in the depot, Devin said; three hobos who frequent (inhabit? Haunt?) the basement, and a woman named Cyn, who was a prostitute at the Alamo House next door (now gone.) Devin thought one of the hobos might have gone by Bill, hence our “hit.”

To give some context to the recurring themes we would see during the evening, Devin explained that First Street/Main Street had been the waterfront area. (Duh.) There were many bars, and either fourteen or seventeen brothels. Please remember that there were brothels because this will be important later on.

America’s Shadow Side, In Two Parts

Devin works with his psychically sensitive wife, Vivian, and a paranormal researcher named Deb, who joined us. After we heard the story of Bernard, he led us out into the park area behind the depot. We had flashlights, but the full moon was so bright that I could see the ground easily. They had us form a large circle and Devin demonstrated some rod work. He came around the circle and asked us each to give him our impressions, in one or two words, of the earth, the land here. He got a wide range of answers; ranging from “Sadness,” (twice, he said,) “ships,” and so on. I got a sense of baskets and fish nets. Lillian felt a pain in her left side that went away quickly. It wasn’t a surprise to hear that this had been the site of a thriving Miwok village, and that it had been destroyed and the natives evacuated by the European-American settlers.

Devin said that there were lots of orphans in Benicia in the 19th century, and many of them made their way to the waterfront and tried to survive on the streets. Devin believes the picture of orphanages depicted in the documentary Children of the Grave; that many orphanages killed their charges wholesale in order to keep costs down and provide adequate food and bedding for the rest. This is a controversial theory and there are facts to support it, though certainly not across the board. The idea, though, that children would run away from a highly institutionalized environment and try to live on their own, particularly as family group, seems reasonable.

The Ghosts of Main Street

We left the field and walked along the promenade, where a bunch of surfers taking advantage of the full moon serenaded us with ghostly moanings.

Behind the Tannery Building, on the seaside walk that gives an unfettered view of the bridge, Devin introduced us to Irish John. Irish John was, Devin said politely, “kind of a scoundrel.” He was skilled in the art of the “Shanghai;” drugging young men who visited the bars or the brothels and selling them to ship’s captains who needed crews. Irish John was a staunch Catholic, who drowned (after being beaten and thrown overboard by a crew made up mostly of men he’d kidnapped). Irish John was never buried in hallowed ground and Devin thinks that’s part of why he still hangs out in this area, the old waterfront. Deb thinks that Irish John doesn’t want to cross over because he knows he’s going to hell.

Our next stop was the Tannery. The tannery is one of the few buildings on the street that wasn’t a brothel, but still, three “ladies of the evening” hang out there; Jocelyn and two others. I had a K-II meter by then, and as we walked into the Tannery it started flickering. It flickered repeatedly at the narrow area between the Pub and another restaurant, right where there are two steps down. Mine wasn’t the only one. Jocelyn and her two un-named friends are also trickster spirits, apparently; turning on the stove burners in the restaurant after it’s closed; changing the channel on the television in the pub when there’s a big game on. Jocelyn also has a flirtation with one of the guys who works in the tattoo parlor in the back.

the benicia cooking class

Maybe the “three ladies” were gleeful graduates of the cooking school

Farther back in the building, near that parlor, in a space that overlooks the water, Devin introduced us to Frannie, a little girl who is seven and a half. Frannie was a bit shy, but Devin did a trick where he left the room along with one of our group as a watchdog, and another volunteer from the group gave a tiny stuffed animal to a third group member to hide in a pocket. Devin came back into the room, and using the rods, dramatically found his way to the person with the toy. That was Frannie’s doing, he said. Both Deb and Vivian were in the room the entire time and so it is easy to see how this could be managed if it were a trick… and I didn’t care. It was still entertaining.

As we left, I stood for a few minutes on the second step and watched my meter flicker and flicker. Thank you, Jocelyn. Have a good night.

Devin made a big point of gathering all the meter-holders together at one point during the tour. Their lights were gleaming like crazy, not flickering and flashing, holding steady. “Now look down,” he said, pointing, and they were all standing on the access cover for a PG&E underground service tunnel. “When the light stays steady and it doesn’t spike,” he said, “You’re probably getting a reading from a power supply.”

Other ghosts we heard about and interacted with:

  • Ginny, a madam, and Rosie, a frisky working girl. (Yes, you are beginning to see the pattern of the female spirits we encountered. Not a single ghostly schoolmarm or postmistress in the bunch.)

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Devin encourages Rosie to choose a date for the evening

  • A girl who Devin was contractually prohibited from naming, but which someone’s Ghost Radar named Jen, who was killed in the Union Hotel. She was seventeen, on a business trip with her father. She left dinner early and went up to her room. Her father’s business partner, who was drunk, went into her room and tried to rape her. She fought him off and he killed her, then tried to make it look like an accident by throwing her down the back stairs. The Union Hotel, by the way, Devin says, “Is not haunted,” according to the same contractual agreement.

“The Union Hotel is not haunted,” he said to us. “Repeat after me. The Union Hotel is…”

“A brothel!” shouted the man next to me.

  • The Five; five youngsters who died in close proximity, time-wise, of a fever.
  • Carl; the friendly, mercenary ghost who hangs out at Sailor Jack’s. Carl has to be coaxed to visit; Vivian poured him a shot of whiskey and left him a cigar as an enticement.

enticing carl

Let’s invite Carl to come visit

Since, back at Washington House (which used to be… a brothel!) Devin had embarrassed four of the men in our group, chosen at random, by asking Rosie which one of them she fancied, he now had to do a similar thing to the women. Four of the women in our group came and stood on the staircase, and Carl chose one. When another woman, prompted by Devin, called out, “Carl, honey, what about me?” the rods carefully, one after the other, chose each of the women.

“He’s greedy,” someone said from the audience. (My comment to Deb, “I hope Carl has a lot of money. Her response, “Oh, yes, he tells us he was quite well off.”)

“He’s not greedy!” Devin said. “He’s being a gentleman. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!”

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Carl’s Choice

Tricks? Or Treats?

This tour is a boatload of fun for believers and skeptics alike. I can certainly see how Devin took the measure of our group; having us sing “Happy Birthday” told him a lot about us immediately. K-II meters measure electrical impulses only; those impulses could come from a ghost, or from a ceiling fan, or from a cell phone. Certainly anyone who’s ever studied a “cold read” can recognize some of the techniques at use here.

lillian EMF meter

Lillian with the K-II

On the other hand, those techniques would work well with an entity who no longer shares physical form with us, and may be in a different time or on a different plane. And electrical impulses could come from a ceiling fan, or from residual energy from a life force. What’s interesting about the spirits we met is that some of them didn’t die violent deaths (or we don’t know how they died). Maybe Jocelyn and her posse just like folks, and still want to hang out where there’s good beer, good food, laughter and company.

I’m an agnostic on this subject. My husband saw a ghost once, and he’s pretty reliable, so I put that in the “Evidence” column. I don’t see any reason why there wouldn’t be ghosts. I don’t have to believe that every flicker of an EMF meter is ghost either though.

Whether they are real ghosts, or Devin, Vivian and Deb merely believe they are, or even if the three are pure performers who have created characters out of whole cloth, they show an affection and respect for the spiritual characters that pleased me. They weren’t snarky.

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Was I persuaded from my wishy-washy position? Not at all. Regardless of whether I believed everyone of Devin’s scenarios, I enjoyed every single second.

There is an age cutoff of ten for this tour; mostly because it is long (ours lasted nearly three hours) and younger children would probably get tired and might be disruptive. Children eleven to sixteen must have an adult with them. As you gathered (seventeen brothels) a lot of the stories and experiences are bawdy, or deal with sexual material.  Most of the stories are light-hearted, and none was graphic.

There were a couple of skeptics in our group and they weren’t afraid to speak up, but they were funny skeptics and just added to the experience. This is far from your average walking-tour of a section of an historic city. Its interactive, it’s funny, it’s thought-provoking. Believe or scoff, but be prepared to have a great time.

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