Ghost Lusters: Denver’s Haunted Capitol Hill
“There is probably a no more evil, haunted and mischievous structure existing in this town,” Goodstein says. “Virtually from the time it opened in 1894, strange things have happened in this building.”
Apparitions abound at the Capitol, Goodstein advises. Some, for example, have seen ectoplasmic prospectors standing by Capitol downspouts during rainstorms, panning for flakes from the building’s golden dome. Inside, late-working legislators sometimes glimpse an elderly matron staring at them with absolute contempt, her vehement visage undetected by unelected companions. Most frightful of all, says Goodstein, are the floating heads.
It began in the 1860s when Felipe Espinosa and a cousin committed acts of murder and mayhem in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. One intended victim, territorial governor John Evans, reacted by placing a bounty on the banditos’ heads. Mountain man Tom Tobin, apparently taking the offer literally, delivered the pair’s severed noggins to Evans personally. The grateful governor preserved the heads in alcohol-filled specimen jars. Eventually, the Colorado Historical Society took possession of the pickled pates, which they soon lost in the catacomb-like maze of tunnels that lies beneath the capitol. The corpseless craniums have never resurfaced.
“When conditions at the Capitol get intense, people down in the tunnels will get an eerie feeling that something is looking over their shoulder,” Goodstein says. “Sometimes both shoulders.”
Goodstein, a Brillo-bearded Ph.D., doesn’t take himself too seriously, and listeners are left to separate facts from farce. While the Denver native has taught serious history at Metro State and written at least nine books about the city’s past, he has also taught Denver and Colorado Free University classes on less-staid topics such as “The Pedestrian as a Hunted Animal.” The walking tour business, he claims, came as an accident.
“One beautiful evening, I decided to go for a stroll. I was walking down Colfax backward, wildly waving my arms and talking to myself. People started following me around. On that basis, I figured I might as well give walking tours.”
Rather than espouse sanitized, Chamber-of-Commerce versions of Denver’s past, Goodstein focuses on scandals and the scandalous. Fortunately, parents of the pre-teens with us realize his sometimes seamy topics might warrant PG-13 ratings.
We stop at Grant Street and East Colfax Avenue, where a peeling Hotel Newhouse sign juts from a three-story brick building. This, Goodstein tells us, is the haunt of a young, vivacious ghost named Deborah. Often clad in short shorts and skimpy top, the alluring waif of a wraith loves to lure men to her room. The would-be Lotharios later awaken in a parking lot or back alley, discovering that both Deborah and their wallets have disappeared into the ether.
At the Denver City and County Building on Bannock Street, Goodstein tells the tale of George, a mischievous ghost who breaks into offices where he shuffles papers and moves files. If there is something present that shouldn’t be, he will remove it. Some, Goodstein claims, think the specter is the spirit of George Begole, the city’s penny-pinching mayor from the early ’30s. This skinflint was allegedly so tight, he chastised employees for having too many paperclips in their possession.
Not all of Capitol Hill’s ghouls and goblins bear only two legs. According to Goodstein, there is at least one four-hoofed phantasm chewing its cud on Capitol Hill.
It lives in the block bounded by Broadway and Lincoln Street and East 16th and Colfax avenues, which was once owned by Walter Scott Cheesman. The tycoon came to Denver in 1861 to open an apothecary and wound up possessing railroads, banks, mines and utilities. Like most men of means, he hated paying taxes.
Cheesman wanted this downtown parcel to remain vacant so nothing would block the view from his front porch across the street. To avoid paying prime property taxes, the Mile High millionaire had the block assessed as undeveloped agricultural grazing land. To prove he wasn’t cheating the public, he put a cow on it.
“People are convinced the ghost of the bovine is still present,” says Goodstein. “Folks waiting for a bus at Colfax and Broadway after midnight sometimes suddenly smell barnyard odors and hear mournful mooing.”
We troop north across Colfax, admiring Goodstein’s spooky ability to see walk/don’t walk signs change while looking in the opposite direction. Striding backward, the man never misses a word.
At the Wells Fargo Bank’s “Cash Register” building at East 17th Avenue and Lincoln Street, Goodstein relates how workers have felt ghostly sways, seen lights unaccountably flicker and discovered locks suddenly springing open. More haunted happenings occur at the former El Jebel Shrine building at East 18th Avenue and Sherman Street, where janitors and night watchmen feel fez-wearing Shriners staring from the walls.
Across the street at East 18th Avenue and Grant Street rises the Warwick Hotel. In the late 1960s, the local Playboy Club occupied the building’s penthouse floor. One of its bunnies died in a drug deal gone wrong, and Goodstein claims that today’s penthouse guests sometimes glimpse the specter of the irate playmate out looking for revenge.
Nearby, between Grant and Logan streets on East 18th Avenue stands the Cooper Flats condominiums where in the late ’60s, a young couple from Louisiana resided. Goodstein tells how one September evening the drug-loving husband ingested four times the normal dose of LSD. When his psychedelic flight eventually landed, the man found his innocent spouse dead in the bed, five bullet holes piercing her back. The wraith of the murdered wife apparently still occupies the renovated condominiums.
“The Rocky Mountain News did a very nice feature on one of my books, and they needed a picture of me,” explains Goodstein. “The photographer told me he lived in Cooper Flats, so I told him the story about the homicide.
“‘Maybe that explains it, the photographer said.’ As long as he did his darkroom duties at the News office, his pictures turned out fine. When he tried to process pictures at Cooper Flats, there’d be strange blemishes on the images. Even after going digital, he got the same bizarre blotches.”
We pass Temple Emanuel at East 16th Avenue and Pearl Street, which is probably haunted by a rabbi who hated dancing. At the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on East Colfax Avenue at Logan Street, a ghost named Clarence purportedly shows up at the most solemn of services and occasions. The Shuey building south of Colfax on Pennsylvania Street, once Denver’s bastion of liberal organizations, may now be haunted by hippie hobgoblins wearing earthly flowers in their ethereal hair. Across the street, Goodstein claims a chilling presence in an 1870-vintage office dwelling drove Wellington Webb and the Colorado Black Chamber of Commerce to find a new headquarters.
On East 14th Avenue between Pennsylvania and Logan streets, we stop outside the Acacia Apartments. Built in 1922, the brick complex first served as an elite residential hotel often used by legislators. One of them, an elected sin-fighter from Mancos, rented apartment 111. On a surprise visit to Denver, the man’s missus discovered the moralist had a mistress.
Irate, the woman gave her cheating hubby a choice – leave the legislature or be exposed as a fraud. When the man dutifully dumped his paramour and returned home, the jilted girlfriend became distraught, filled the room’s bathtub with water and slit her wrists.
“Ever since then, residents of unit 111 will hear the tub gurgling late at night,” claims Goodstein. “For years people got a special break on the rent for sharing the apartment with a ghost.”
Continuing up Logan Street past East 13th Avenue, we pass the Denver Women’s Press Club, which occupies a friendly-looking brick home once owned by artist George Elbert Burr. Naturally, the structure is haunted, but in a nice way.
“People go in and feel this very warm, encouraging spirit,” explains Goodstein. “A member will have terrible writer’s block. She’ll go in and let the spirit of inspiration take charge. Suddenly she’s winning awards.”
I suspect this information comes secondhand to Goodstein. I doubt this arm-flailing, backward-walking, nonstop-talking source of haunted history and humor has ever suffered from writer’s block.
If You Go
Contact Leonard Leonard and Associates (303-333-1095, www.leonardleonard.com/neighborhoods/walkingtours.shtml) for information about Goodstein’s upcoming tours. The Capitol Hill Ghost Walk costs $15 per person.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.