Tragically “Haunted”

October 12, 2010

Then called the Winecoff Hotel, it was the site of the most tragic hotel fire, not only in Atlanta but in all of U.S. history. Thus, it surely should be haunted—if, that is, ghosts are something more than figments of the romantic imagination. During the popular Dragon*Con festival in September of 2009 and 2010, I investigated ghost claims at the refurbished hotel, collecting published tales, taking photographs, interviewing the manager, and more.

An historical marker on the property relates the horrific story. Before dawn on December 7, 1946, the hotel was filled with 280 guests. At that time, the brick structure was believed to be fireproof but—lacking sprinklers, fire escapes, and even fire doors—it was actually a death trap, which claimed 119 lives. Although firemen from Atlanta and surrounding towns fought valiantly for some two and half hours, “their ladders reached only to the eighth floor, and their nets were not strong enough to withstand jumps of more than 70 feet.” Consequently the bodies of those who perished by jumping were scattered on the sidewalks and piled in the alley at the rear of the building. Within days, however, reports of the horror prompted enactment of fire-safety ordinances across the country, and today the shell of the building has been transformed into the modern, safety-conscious Ellis Hotel.

Authors of ghost books—typically a superstitious, mystery-mongering lot—are at pains to give the hotel sufficient ghostly tales to befit its tragic history. Reese Christian—whose book Ghosts of Atlanta (2008) bills her as an “elite psychic medium” and member of Ghost Hounds Paranormal Research Society—warms to the task. Although lacking specific sources, she touts such phenomena as workmen’s unaccountably moved tools, the sounds of noisy but empty hallways, and the repeated smell of smoke when there was no fire (pp. 51-57).

Such reports may be unexplained, but they are hardly unexplainable. Workmen may mislay tools, or fellow workers may play pranks on them; guests can hear noises from other floors; and smoke may be imagined or simply come from someone’s cigarette. Some ghostly experiences in hotels—including vivid apparitions—may stem from a guest’s “waking dream,” a state that occurs in the interface between wakefulness and sleep. (See my “Haunted Inns,” Skeptical Inquirer , September/October 2000.)

At the Ellis, as at many other allegedly haunted buildings, people outside sometimes imagine they can see ghostly faces in the windows (William N. Bender, Haunted Atlanta and Beyond , 2008, 131-134). When these are not actual faces—of guests or housekeepers—they may be nothing more than simulacra: These are the result of one’s ability to perceive images in random patterns (such as the play of light and shadow upon a window), like seeing pictures in clouds. I did some experimenting with my camera at the hotel and produced the “faces” shown in one window here.

The manager of the Ellis, Peter Minervini, very kindly took a few minutes to sit and talk with CFI Libraries director Timothy Binga and me when we lunched at the hotel on September 4, 2010. He said he had worked there about a year and had no ghost experiences. The only thing he mentioned was an odd odor, occasionally perceived in one room, that he did not attribute to anything otherworldly. He said he was himself a skeptic regarding ghosts. The year before, I was startled when a young woman with a tour company told me there were so few credible ghost accounts in Atlanta that they were changing the name of their “Ghosts and Legends Tour.” Will wonders never cease!