New Mexico: State of spooks

The sun burns bright red in September as it sets. New Mexico is known for its natural beauty but also for its supernatural happenings. Gabriela Campos/New Mexican file photo

What is it about New Mexico that attracts so many ghosts? Is it the state’s rich history of cultural diversity, political duplicity and violence that harks back to at least the days of the Spanish conquistadors? Or is it that our capital city is known for its spirituality, which naturally makes phantoms happy? Perhaps it’s the tradition of storytelling that began centuries ago when Native American and Spanish settlers alike sat around a fire on a cold autumn night and told tales of ancient myths and superstitions.

With Halloween looming just around the corner (Tuesday, Oct. 31, in case you forgot), Generation Next decided to do a little investigating into the spectral side of Santa Fe and the surrounding regions.

Josefita’s ghost



The Luna-Otero Mansion and Restaurant in Los Lunas is still home to Josefita Manderfield Otero, a former interior decorator, lady of the house and resident ghost.

Josefita, commonly referred to as “Pepe” by family and friends, was the daughter of William R. Manderfield, founder of The Santa Fe New Mexican, and daughter-in-law to Solomon Luna, a wealthy and politically involved man with no direct heirs to benefit from the powerful Luna-Otero alliance. It was he who passed ownership of the mansion to his nephew Eduardo Otero. Upkeep of the grand adobe building fell to Josefita. She was widely reported to be a loving and detail-oriented housemistress, responsible for many improvements to the mansion and grounds over her lifetime. She passed away in 1951 in California — a long way from her beloved home.

But clearly she felt her work on the mansion was incomplete, because she returned after her death. Reports of Josefita’s ghost began to emerge in the 1970s, when renovations started on the Luna-Otero Mansion. Often seen relaxing in a rocking chair on the upper stairwell or moving up and down the staircase in period clothing, she has also been known to frequent the former second-floor bedrooms and the attic storeroom. Witnesses say she never sticks around for long; upon being noticed, she purportedly gets up and calmly vanishes. It has been suggested that other spirits also haunt the building, including the ghost of a former servant. The Luna-Otero Mansion now functions as a restaurant, so if you pop by to eat, keep an eye or two open for Josefita.

St. James Hotel in Cimarron

With hundreds of bullet holes reportedly riddling its ceiling at one time in history, The St. James Hotel, initially called The Lambert Inn, is the site of an estimated 26 murders. It was completed and commissioned in 1872 by famed architect Henry Lambert and became such a well-known place for violence that the locals would always ask, “Who died at Lamberts last night?” According to legend, famed Wild West celebrities such as Annie Oakley, Jessie James and Billy the Kid graced the hotel with their presence. Because the peak of the hotel’s business was during the height of the Santa Fe Trail, after it died out, so did the hotel. But it has bounced back as a tourist destination in large part because of its past and its ghost — or ghosts, including that of a gambler supposedly shot just outside Room 18 (which is now closed to the public for fear of ghastly happenings). The hotel acknowledges this paranormal activity and warns on its website, “Although we encourage learning about the paranormal, No Ouija Boards Allowed. Ouija Boards are a potentially dangerous tool for inviting unpredictable spirits.” Visit www.exstjames.com for more information.

Drury Inn, Santa Fe

Many Santa Feans are familiar with the facade of the haunted hospital that later recently became a modern hotel catering to locals and tourists — the Drury Plaza Hotel, formally St. Vincent Sanitorium. Prior to that, it served as a hospital for the Sisters of Charity, among other purposes. The hospital staff, according to New Mexico Ghost Stories by Antonio Garcez, vowed that they would never go into the basement, even if they were offered money. But they were happy to send clueless nurses who were new to the job down there on some inane errand just to see them get spooked. People who have visited the basement talk about seeing objects fly off shelves, being shoved and hearing unrecognizable noises. Some claim to have seen ghostly shadows moving about. The basement was said to contain a furnace that was used to burn bodies and amputated body parts, which could definitely be the source of the bad energy contained in the room. Whether any current hotel guests have complained of unexplained activity in the night is unclear. But come Halloween, who knows?

La Posada de Santa Fe

She is probably the most famous ghost in Santa Fe: Julia Staab, once the lady of the old Staab House, now a wispy figure seen floating about the hotel’s halls and rooms. They say she was so fond of her beautiful home that she never bothered to leave. Julia Shuster, as she was born, and her husband, Abraham Staab, both hailed from the same small German village of Lügde. They emigrated to Santa Fe in 1865, where six years earlier Abraham and his brother had opened a dry-goods store on the Plaza. The Staabs soon amassed a fortune from Abraham’s work as a contractor for the U.S. Army — so much so that in 1882 Abraham completed construction on a three-story brick Victorian mansion for his wife and their six children on Palace Avenue. Julia adored her gorgeous home, with its stunning third-floor ballroom, and the Staab House quickly became a major social center for Santa Fe’s elite.

Tragedy, however, was soon to strike. The stories vary, but some say Julia suffered greatly in the wake of the death of one of her children in infancy. Perhaps depression played a role in her confinement to a second-story room in the house until 1896, when she died. In the 1930s, the new owners converted the grounds into a Pueblo Revival-style hotel by building a series of adobe casitas around the existing Staab House. They renamed it La Posada, Spanish for “resting place,” although the previous inhabitant seemed anything but restful. Accounts of a ghostly presence began to occur as early as that time period, as both construction workers and hotel employees reported seeing a translucent version of Julia on the property. Glasses toppled from shelves for no reason, and waitresses reported that their trays were pushed from their hands by an invisible specter. Anecdotes of sightings continued well into the 1990s, when a detailed revamping of the building occurred once again and the volume of Julia sightings trickled down. Or some say. Guests at La Posada are still welcome to test this for themselves by spending a night in Julia’s room or even by booking the “Julia Staab American Ghost Package,” which includes accommodations for two nights, drinks at the namesake bar where hopefully glasses won’t suddenly come crashing down, and a copy of American Ghost, A Family’s Haunted Past in the Desert Southwest, an account of the family’s ghostly history written by Julia’s great-great granddaughter Hannah Nordhaus. A student film crew from Desert Academy recently braved the hotel’s resident spirit one autumn night to film a reality show about her.

The KiMo Theater

Let’s face it: Once the final curtain falls and the actors change into their street clothes and leave, theaters become very creepy places at night. The KiMo Theater in downtown Albuquerque has allegedly been occupied since 1951 by the roguish ghost of “Little Bobby,” a 6-year-old boy killed on location when the water heater in the front lobby exploded. That’s the way the story goes, anyway.

The theater — built in the unique “Pueblo Deco” style — opened in 1927 and served as a picture parlor and venue for numerous vaudeville acts. The KiMo existed largely without incident until Aug. 1, 1951, when Little Bobby was sitting in the balcony, awaiting an Abbott and Costello comedy. A loud noise frightened him out of his seat and into the lobby, where, just as he arrived, the basement boiler exploded, killing him in the blast and injuring seven others. Since then, the impish ghost of a small boy wearing a striped shirt and blue jeans has frequently been seen playing on the lobby staircase. An unseen presence also has reportedly caused mischief for numerous performers at the KiMo by tripping them or causing dropped lines, lighting mishaps and forgotten props.

Mind you, some investigative skeptics who acknowledge Bobby’s death in the theater decades ago maintain there is no evidence to prove he’s still hanging around. But ever the superstitious type, resident theatrical casts at the KiMo have taken to hanging a line of doughnuts on the water pipe backstage to appease the spirit of Little Bobby. Since the ghost seems to be mollified by sweet treats, a Halloween visit to the theater with an offering of Halloween candy for Little Bobby may be just the thing this October.

Acacia Burnham is a senior at New Mexico School for the Arts. Contact her at burnham.acacia@nmschoolforthearts.org.

Diego Guerrero is a senior at Los Alamos High School. Contact him at diego.guerrero@studentlaschools.net.

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