A Walk with Louisville’s Ghosts

Bob "Mr. Ghost Walker" Parker has been leading ghost tours in downtown Louisville for 11 years.

Bob “Mr. Ghost Walker” Parker has been leading ghost tours in downtown Louisville for 11 years.

By STEVE KAUFMAN
Contributing Writer

James Graham Brown has been dead for 44 years, but he still prowls the halls of the Brown Hotel – accompanied by his little dog, Woozum, who died in 1967.

A woman plunged down the elevator shaft at the Seelbach Hotel in 1931. Jumped or pushed, she didn’t survive the fall. But she’s still up and about on the tenth floor most nights.

Barney was a projectionist at the Palace Theater in the 1930s who still reports for work from time to time – 80 years after he died in the projection room while showing one of his beloved movies.

Thomas Brennan smokes a cigar as he roams the rooms of his house on Fifth Street. Never mind that he died in 1914.

Ghost stories? Maybe. Does that make them untrue? Not at all, insists Bob Parker, aka The Ghost Walker.

Parker gets his “aka” not because he prowls with the undead of Louisville’s oldest, most mysterious buildings, but because of the walking ghost tours he conducts in town. Most weekend evenings from after Derby through Thanksgiving, when the weather’s fit, Parker gathers that night’s group of paranormal seekers for a tour of several downtown buildings. But don’t call them “haunted.” Parker says one of his tourists told him once, they’re “owned.” We’ll take a little mini-tour with him.

And it always starts in front of The Brown Hotel.

James Graham Brown’s apartment was on the 15th floor of the hotel. Since his death, the floor is almost entirely storage – crowded and dimly lit. But hotel employees have talked about sightings, sounds and the feel of a presence rustling about.

The hotel also has a 13th floor. An employee closing out the breakfast bar one morning saw a man standing in the room, dressed in all gray, staring out the window. She turned to pour a cup of coffee for him and when she turned back he was gone.

Hotel doormen have reported the front revolving door slowly turning with nobody coming in or going out.

Employees also report hearing the sound of a dog barking, though the hotel is not pet-friendly. The two – Brown and Woozum, man and dog – were never apart while alive. Apparently, they’re still inseparable.

“This hotel was Mr. Brown’s pride and joy,” says Walker. “Why would he want to give it up, just because he died?”

The Brennan house on Fifth Street, between Chestnut and Broadway, is one of the oldest remaining buildings of what was once a Millionaire’s Row in Louisville. An extravagant red-brick Italianate-style building with a gabled roof and set back off the street, behind an iron fence and a stand of old trees, it dates from 1868. The Brennan family bought it in 1884 and lived there for 93 years – until youngest son Napoleon Bruce Brennan died in 1977, at the age of 91. And as the last Brennan died, the doors were just closed, shades pulled and nothing was moved.

But still, decades later, tourists in the building can hear music playing, smell cigar smoke and see baby Napoleon’s cradle rock all by itself.

“After World War II, the city tried to buy up this entire neighborhood for redevelopment, under the law of eminent domain,” says Parker. “But the Brennans fought tooth and nail and eventually defeated the city. I always tell people, after fighting so hard to keep the house in the family, why would the family leave the house?”

The ghosts of celebrity guests like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Al Capone don’t prowl the Seelbach Hotel. But it’s “owned” nonetheless. There’s the lady in the blue dress who walks the 10th floor and can be heard knocking on doors or felt hovering in the elevator.

In 1931, she was waiting at the hotel to meet her husband when she heard he’d been killed in a traffic accident. Her body was found later that day at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

Ghosts have also been felt in the wine room of the hotel’s Oak Room restaurant and talking to the bartender in the Old Seelbach Bar. A doorman reported hearing a voice calling him on the 8th floor, “Hey, you, I’m talking to you,” but nobody was there. To this day, he doesn’t want to go up on the 8th floor.

Parker himself heard knocking on the door of his 10th floor Seelbach room one night, though nobody was on the other side. And he’s heard voices in his room in the middle of the night.

But he’s quick to point out that these are not bloody ghosts out to scare anyone or do anyone any harm. It’s certainly scary to see a curtain move when nobody’s there or to hear a voice but see nobody. But that’s not their intent. For the most part, he says, they tend to their business – whatever business a ghost has.

And they don’t function only at night, or during a full moon. “That’s a fiction,” Parker says. “These are not vampires or werewolves.”

There are few Louisvillians as plugged into the city’s netherworld as Mr. Ghost Walker. He knows where they live, how they behave and what drives their behavior. And he tells it all with great enthusiasm and attention to historical detail.

One thing’s for sure, Parker says: “It’s a scream!” By that, he means it’s fun and entertaining. He’s not out to give you nightmares – well, not entirely.

Parker’s services can be retained by calling him at 502.689.5117, sending an email to LouGhostWalks@aol.com or visiting www.LouisvilleGhostWalks.com. He charges $15 per person and the length of the term often depends on the energy and curiosity of his guests.

Photos by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Trbune