Ghost tours are fast becoming one of my favorite evening activities in a new city. After going on a fantastic New Orleans ghost tour a few years ago, I decided that San Antonio would be another good city for exploring haunted sites. After all, wherever there is significant bloodshed, there tends to be ghosts–or at least ghost stories–and San Antonio is the site of one of the most tragic battles ever fought in the U.S.
I booked my tour with an outfit called Sisters Grimm, founded by sisters (though their last name is not Grimm—call it poetic license). They offer a combo dinner and walking tour as well as just a walking tour. I signed up just for the walk. The tour met in front of the Alamo at 8:30pm.
If you visit San Antonio, you really must visit the Alamo both during the day (when it’s open) and at night, when it’s at its most beautiful. Nighttime had a completely different feel than daytime. The street in front was closed to traffic, and just around the corner were horses and carriages decorated in twinkling lights, waiting to transport tourists around the city. A handful of tourists were scattered about, but everyone was speaking in hushed tones. The Alamo somehow feels more sacred at night. For a good reason—it’s still a burial ground for many of the men who died defending it. Which made it an appropriate place to start a ghost tour of San Antonio.
To set the mood, tour guides Lauren (one of the two sisters of Sisters Grimm) and her husband James carried old-fashioned lanterns and were dressed in period costumes: Lauren wore a shawl and a long, flowing skirt, while James wore a dark suit, bolero tie and brimmed hat. When they arrived and gathered us around for the tour, they introduced us to their dog, Obi, who they were training to be more social. Obi was very shy, but James and Lauren were friendly and engaging. They took turns talking at each site we visited over the course of the next hour and a half.
From the Alamo, we moved across the street to the Emily Morgan Hotel, which is in a beautiful flatiron building. It used to be a hospital, psychiatric ward and morgue—which makes it prime real estate for ghostly encounters. From there, we backtracked past the Alamo to the historic Menger Hotel—where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders and where chambermaid Sallie White was murdered by her husband. Guests still see Sallie roaming the halls carrying towels from room to room.
During the tour we hiked all over downtown San Antonio, to famous sites like San Fernando Cathedral, the Spanish Governor’s Palace, the Casino Club building, and the site of the former county jail. At each location, James and Lauren told stories of ghostly sightings and the legends behind them. They encouraged us to take pictures to see if we could capture any ghostly apparitions. Most people seemed eager to try. I didn’t bother.
It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts. I’ve certainly had some spooky encounters in my lifetime that I couldn’t otherwise explain. It’s just that I doubt ghosts show themselves on a nightly basis like trained seals to entertain out-of-town visitors on ghost tours. If I were a ghost, I certainly wouldn’t.
I think I enjoyed our stop at San Fernando Cathedral the most. It was lit up with spotlights like the Alamo, and far more beautiful at night than in the harsh light of day. People were buried in the walls of the church, James and Lauren told us, which makes it an active spot for ghost sightings. We gathered toward the back corner of the church wall, where the most sightings have taken place. A couple of people on the tour thought they caught something on their cameras here. Everyone crowded around to take a look. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I was too busy admiring the moon above the cathedral.
You might be wondering at this point why I was even there if I wasn’t going to “play along” and look for ghosts. I wasn’t there to play ghosthunter, nor was I there to be scared. No, I love ghost tours for two primary reasons:
1) They help me to get the lay of the land by providing a good overview of a new city; and
2) I get a sense of a city’s history and culture by listening to its ghost stories.
So while I found the stories that James and Lauren told us fascinating, I didn’t find them scary at all. Until, that is, we reached the site of the former Bexar County jail. That was, by far, the spookiest spot on the tour. (Today, it’s a Holiday Inn Express. Make of that what you will.)
Here, we learned that death row prisoners weren’t hanged outside in a public square, like you see in old Westerns on TV. In San Antonio, they were hanged inside the jail, falling through a trap door from one floor to another. The other prisoners on death row had to watch, knowing that their turn was coming.
It was at this point that James and Lauren offered to split the group during the walk back to the Alamo. They had one last story to tell, but it was a gruesome tale, and not for the faint of heart. They wanted to offer people the chance to opt out. James would hang back and tell the story, while Lauren walked on ahead with anyone who didn’t want to hear it.
This seemed like a wise decision, since there was a family on the tour with a young boy. Yet, wouldn’t you know it, that family decided they wanted to hear the story, even though it meant the little boy would, too. (WTF, parents—seriously?)
The story was grisly. It was about a mentally disturbed man who wound up on death row because he killed a boy in a fit of rage, complete with all the gory details about how he mutilated the boy’s body (and I do mean all the gory details). For the first time during the tour, I shivered, and not because the night was cold. It was one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever heard. I was grateful that we passed by my hotel on the way back to the Alamo, so I could peel off from the group and go straight inside; if I’d had to walk back to my hotel alone—in the dark–after hearing that story, I would have been spooked all the way.
If you’re a solo traveler looking for a fun nighttime activity during your travels that doesn’t involve drinking in a bar, try a ghost tour instead. If you do believe in ghosts, you will have fun seeing if you can spot any spectral activity at haunted sites. If you don’t believe in ghosts, you can still learn a lot about a place—its history, its culture, its beliefs–by listening to its ghost stories. And it’s a good opportunity to socialize for a little while. Just ask Obi. He was doing great by the end of the night.
What You Need to Know About Sisters Grimm:
- You can book your tour in advance at their website.
- Sisters Grimm offers two nightly ghost tours. One is the walk I went on (which cost $15), while the other also includes dinner at the Menger Hotel ($54.95).
- Wear comfortable shoes; there is a lot of walking involved.
- Bring your camera; they encourage photography.