When it comes to ghosts, I am an open-minded skeptic. I don’t believe everything I hear, but I cannot deny my own experience. Years ago, I encountered the locally infamous Headless Nurse Medina when I worked in Barrack T-45 at the College of Santa Fe, the site of the former World War II-era Bruns Army Hospital. Early one morning I saw Medina, her dark hair streaming down her bloody back and nothing where her head should be, duck into the bathroom — supposedly the site of her murder. It wasn’t scary. I actually mistook her for my administrative assistant, possibly dressed in a red sweater and bent over at an alarming angle, until I realized I was alone in a locked building.
Anyway, I was all in to go on some ghost tours for a Halloween edition of my column. I set up tours with Peter Sinclaire (www.theoriginalsantafeghosttour.weebly.com) and Allan Pacheco (www.santafeghost andhistorytours.com), who have been giving tours since 1993 and 1986, respectively. Sinclaire’s tours leave from downtown hotels on Friday and Saturday evenings and can include as many as 15 to 30 people. Pacheco coordinates custom tours and can accommodate class-size groups, a gaggle of friends, or just a couple of curious locals like me and my husband. We met Pacheco on a Friday afternoon at the San Miguel Chapel (401 Old Santa Fe Trail), also known as the Oldest Church, which, according to oral history, was built around 1610.
Pacheco, born and raised in Santa Fe, is a professional ghost investigator. He has been interested in local history since childhood and has always felt connected to the supernatural. He speaks quickly, and I found myself awash in the history he riffed on, sometimes unsure of the line he was drawing between the living and the dead. He told us that East De Vargas Street, which borders the north wall of the chapel and runs east to Garcia Street and west to Don Gaspar Avenue, is a “ley line” — an underground energy line, like at Stonehenge — and that the area sees a tremendous amount of paranormal activity. When I entered the back room of what is known as the Oldest House, also located on East De Vargas (now a museum and curio shop), I immediately felt a push of cold against my triceps. This was not a draft of air from above, but what felt like icy hands propelling me away from where I stood. As I lurched forward, Pacheco was telling my husband about how people sometimes feel areas of cold in the house, so I told him what was happening to me. He became very excited and fished in his bag for his camera, but by the time he took my picture — hoping to see a disturbance in the image that was not apparent to the naked eye — the feeling had dulled. He asked me if it had been an evil presence, as others who have felt it have indicated, but I said no, it just seemed kind of aggressive.
Pacheco focused on historical deaths and which ghosts might be where without making absolute claims, since he believes encountering ghosts is one thing, while presuming to know precisely who they are and why they are there is quite another. He was careful not to discuss ghosts at much length while we were inside the San Miguel and Loretto chapels because he was raised Catholic and does not like to be sacrilegious. We visited a path that runs between El Castillo LifeCare Community and Garrett’s Desert Inn, connecting East De Vargas to East Alameda Street via Brother’s Lane Bridge. I had no trouble believing the path was haunted, though Pacheco said it used to be more haunted before several trees were cut down for an expansion of the retirement home. We sat along the Santa Fe River and listened to his theories about La Llorona, a legendary figure who he doubts is a ghost, because her weeping is heard throughout the Southwest, Southern California, and Mexico. “Ghosts don’t have that kind of range,” he said. “I think she’s a djinni, not a ghost.” A djinni, from the Muslim tradition, is a being created by God out of pure, smokeless fire.
The following evening, my friend Molly and I joined Sinclaire and a group of about 18 prospective ghost hunters in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. Sinclaire began the tour by asking who was a believer, who was a skeptic, and who was on the fence — we were fairly evenly split — and then passed around a tablet computer to show us an image of a ghost taken in a stairwell of the hotel in which we stood. He told us the story of the employee who took the picture and then we trooped outside to look at the window from the same vantage point. Truth be told, I was not convinced that I was seeing anything out of the ordinary. Molly shrugged and said she had trouble discerning spatial relationships. We headed to the Plaza for anecdotes about objects moving around in stores and a story about a woman who works at the Santa Fe Visitor Information Center. Sinclaire said she was visited by the spirit of a Native American woman while sitting on the bench around the obelisk; the Native woman knew about her medical travails and gave her soothing advice before walking her back to work and then disappearing. As we walked to the courtyard of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, several people whispered to each other about how much fun they were having and how creepy the stories were. The sun was setting pink against the church and it was a highly scenic moment.
Standing in the darkening churchyard, Sinclaire regaled us with tales of raucous ghosts at the old Grant Inn and visions of pooled blood on the floors of the old St. Vincent Hospital, now the site of the Drury Plaza Hotel at the corner of East Palace Avenue and Paseo de Peralta. Our final stop — which was also our final stop with Pacheco — was La Posada de Santa Fe, home of Julia Staab, Santa Fe’s most active ghost, known for flickering lights, playing with plumbing, and shoving guests out of bed. The concierge, Jack, who claims to have a relationship with Julia, told us dark rumors about her death, which might have been a suicide but, according to lore, could have been a murder. We then went inside and stood near the bathrooms as Sinclaire recounted several more sightings and experiences people have had with Julia, which include seeing her footprints on an expanse of clean snow outside the restaurant that bears her name. He passed around a few faded and blurry photographs that supposedly show her in the mirror of her bedroom — now rented to guests as a suite — but again, I wasn’t sure that I was seeing anything extrasensory.
Although Sinclaire is a charming and capable guide, I found Pacheco’s focus on deep history, rather than recounting the ghost sightings of others, more to my personal taste. Sinclaire makes no claims to be in touch with the other side, which may make it the safer of the two tours, particularly for those who prefer their ghosts wrapped in stories rather than grabbing them by the back of the arms. ◀