It feels like ghost hunting has never been more popular. Paranormal groups across the country report they’ve received an uptick in requests to investigate spiritual activity during the pandemic. That includes groups in Seattle, a city that sure seems to have a lot of ghosts for being less than 200 years old.
Ross Allison, the founder of Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma (AGHOST), told me ghost hunters are basically rockstars these days. He’s been a ghost hunter for decades, written multiple books on the subject, and started the Spooked in Seattle ghost tour. But the pandemic has caused a surge of interest in people looking to communicate with the unknown.
Where are Seattle’s ghosts? People claim to encounter the paranormal all over the city, but Allison said lots of Seattle’s ghosts dwell in local watering holes. We asked him to give us a tour so we could get in on the spirit hype while sipping spirits of our own.
Kells Irish Restaurant & Bar
📸: Adam Kubota
Post Alley’s Kells is super haunted. You probably know the story. The Butterworth Building, which houses Kells, used to be a morgue. Many of the victims of Dr. Linda Hazzard (known as the “Starvation Doctor”) passed through those walls. People have reported seeing the ghost of a little girl in a red dress in the bar. Things move on their own. It’s all sorts of well-documented creepiness.
AGHOST’s Allison told me he was one of the first people to investigate not only Kells but other bars and restaurants in the building, including a spot called Avenue One. He told me a story about a woman who saw a man from under the stall she was using in the women’s restroom. She asked him to leave. He didn’t. When she summoned her courage to leave her stall, the man wasn’t there. She didn’t hear him leave. A ghost! Renovations in the building swapped the men’s and women’s restrooms, Allison said.
Legend also says bars and restaurants had a notoriously hard time staying afloat in the Butterworth Building. After one or two years, businesses would fold. Allison blamed this high turnover on ghosts. (Seattle really is dying, huh?) Avenue One is now an office building. Do those workers feel otherworldly chills now and then?
109 Yesler Way
This Pioneer Square haunt is one of Seattle’s oldest bars. Merchant’s Cafe started out selling five-cent beers to miners before they headed to the brothel upstairs. Now, it’s riddled with ghosts. Allison said it’s been featured on When Ghosts Attack and twice on Dead Files. Allison also takes his Spooked in Seattle ghost tour here.
Most of the ghost activity happens in the basement where two children perished in a 1938 fire in the bar next door to Merchant’s Cafe. The kids likely died of smoke inhalation while their mothers worked in the brothel upstairs. Once on a Spooked in Seattle tour, Allison said a ghost slammed shut the door to the women’s restroom in the basement.
Grab a beer at Merchant’s and ask the bartender about the doll sitting behind the bar. A mysterious stranger dropped the doll off one day and said it was for “the little girl downstairs.” The bar kept the doll. Bar staff will close the bar with the doll in one place and find it across the bar when they open the next day. It tends to move. Or, maybe, something tends to move it.
Smith Tower Observatory Bar
506 Second Avenue
Smith Tower is notorious for many things—for instance, becoming the tallest building west of the Mississippi after its completion in 1914. (There are much taller buildings now, like the Space Needle.) Maybe you knew that. But did you know about the ghost who wanders around the tower’s observatory?
People have reported seeing the ghost of a woman in a white dress wandering the highest reaches of Smith Tower. Lore says that women in white are ghosts who died because of lost love. Allison doesn’t know who this woman is, but he thinks her presence may have something to do with one of the building’s relics on its 34th floor.
Besides the newish speakeasy at the observatory level on the 34th floor, there’s a peculiar chair called the “Wishing Chair,” which is rumored to be a gift to Smith Tower builder L.C. Smith from then-Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi. According to the myth, if a woman sits in the chair, she’ll be married within a year.
📸: Pine Box
Capitol Hill’s funeral home turned bar is probably a good place to start if you’re looking for ghosts. Before the Pine Box beer hall began pedaling craft brews and bar bites, it was the expansion building for E.R. Butterworth & Sons Family Funeral Business. The very same funeral home ran the building where spirit-riddled Kells lives.
Allison said “quite a few interesting things” have happened at the Pine Box, like flickering lights, glasses moving on their own—you know, typical spirit stuff. When he investigated the bar back when it was the Chapel Bar, Allison said he caught a ghostly male voice on tape (using EVP, electronic voice phenomenon) who said, “Who are you?”
Fun fact: The Pine Box’s bar and many of its tables are made of old coffin wood. A ceramic block marked 33 in between the bar’s draft screens was part of the funeral home’s urn storage.
College Inn Pub
4006 University Way NE
The College Inn Pub briefly shuttered its doors during the pandemic but has since been resurrected, which is something to celebrate. This beloved basement pub has been a University District staple since at least the ’70s—though there’s some debate on that.
One thing you can count on in the College Inn Pub, besides the smell of beer or tables full of stressed graduate students, is Howard the Ghost. The story goes that Howard was a sailor who was murdered when he stayed in the College Inn. His ghost now haunts the basement pub, mostly in the back room known as the “Snug Room.”
People see Howard out of the corner of their eye—just on the edge of perception—and when they turn around, they find no one there. Classic Howard. He tends to tickle the keys of the piano in the Snug Room. Usually, he’s a bit more active after hours.
The College Inn Pub has embraced Howard. Their email is “Howardtheghost@thecollegeinnpub.com,” and they even have a menu item named for him. Howard’s Special is a “bagel dog with a pint o’ Pabst” because “it may just come back to haunt you.“
Jules Maes Saloon
📸: Jules Maes Saloon
The Georgetown staple has been around since 1888 and calls itself the oldest bar in Seattle. If a Seattle bar has been around that long, it’s bound to have ghosts. Allison lamented to me how many haunted bars have disappeared. Gentrification, it seems, is not good for ghosts.
At Jules Maes Saloon, glasses have flown off the shelves, employees have felt people behind them who weren’t there, and things have gone missing. When Allison investigated, he and his team got some weird EMF (electromagnetic field) readings which seemed to respond to the questions Allison asked the spirit. His reader would blink once for yes and twice for no.
Pro tip: After a full night of ghost hunting, you’ll probably need to cool off with one of Jules Maes’ ice cream sundaes.
Hotel Sorrento’s Fireside Room
900 Madison St
“Their bar is supposedly haunted,” Allison told me, referring to Hotel Sorrento on First Hill. But, he admitted, “I haven’t investigated there.” The Sorrento first opened in 1909, so you can bet your ass it has some ghosts.
Apparently Alice and Gertrude made these weed brownies together. Alice can be seen in a white or black shroud wandering the hotel halls—especially near room 408—and making the lights flicker in the Dunbar Room. Nobody knows why she haunts the Sorrento since she probably never visited while she was alive and she died in Paris. Still, I choose to believe in a hotel haunted by a lesbian pothead ghost.