Past Lives

Home, Sweet Haunt

The bloodcurdling past and spirited present of a grand old Georgetown Victorian.

By Nena Peltin December 18, 2008 Published in the October 2008 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Curt Doughty

BY 1902, PETER GESSNER had made a bundle running booze, girls, and card games at the Central Tavern, his popular Pioneer Square joint. He celebrated by building a Queen Anne–style mansion for his young wife Lizzie in Georgetown, Seattle’s rollicking sin city. The Castle, as it later came to be known, was the gem of the neighborhood, an eruption of gables, bays, and dormers topped by a round turret, with soaring ceilings, nine bedrooms, and a wraparound porch. But before it was finished, Gessner’s wife took up with the manager of a chicken farm they owned, Seattle’s police shut down his gambling tables, and Gessner moved his business to his now-empty Georgetown love nest. The estranged Mrs. Gessner was meanwhile laid up with what the press called a “surgical operation,” a common euphemism for abortion. Afterward she convalesced at the chicken farm.

In July 1903 Gessner was found dead in a second-floor bedroom, his lips and tongue scorched by carbolic acid. Most newspaper reports described him as a lovelorn suicide, but one noted “suspicious circumstances,” and friends suspected foul play. But the coroner finally decided against an inquest, and Lizzie Gessner and her chicken farmer married and moved into the mansion her first husband had built.

The Castle later became a gentlemen’s club, speakeasy, brothel, and boardinghouse for Boeing workers. For years it sat vacant; brambles grew into its siding. Residents and neighbors murmured about strange apparitions. Ray McWade and Petter Pettersen, who lived there in the 1970s, found a tiny room that had been completely walled off, with an unnaturally frigid “cold spot.” McWade regularly heard what sounded like vicious brawls upstairs. Late one night a guest looking for a snack wondered aloud where the bread might be; a loaf rolled down the counter from the pantry. McWade and Pettersen repeatedly saw the ghost of an elderly woman with coal-black eyes and a long white dress, clutching her throat with one hand and striking out with the other. A portrait of a sinister-looking man—her murderer, presumably—floated behind her. Pettersen painted the ghost’s likeness; an elderly woman stopped by and said it looked just like her great-aunt Sarah, who met a bad end there.

Two spooky compilations, Ghosts of Seattle and the “Georgetown Haunted History Tour,” identify the Castle’s lady shade as, variously, Peter Gessner’s daughter-in-law Sarah or a prostitute named Mary Christian. They report that Sarah/Mary had a child, but the father killed it, buried it under the front steps, and locked her in the turret, where she went mad. One morning Pettersen found a dead cat on those same steps and threw it away; the next morning it was back.

Perhaps Peter Gessner himself still haunts his mansion, bemoaning his fate there. Or maybe the spirit of a pauper cremated at the nearby King County Hospital and Poor Farm followed its superintendent, Willis Corson, when he retired to the Castle. Some Georgetowners believe the ghosts of crash victims from nearby Boeing Field roam the neighborhood. Chief Seattle himself reportedly warned of “the shadowy returning spirits” of his Duwamish people; Georgetown sits on their ancient burial grounds, dug up when the river that bears their name was rerouted. It’s a rich field for ghost stories, and the Castle is its ectoplasmic epicenter.

Lynda Bazan and her son Micah Schlede knew all that four years ago, when they bought the moldering Castle. They put up with inquiring journalists and rubberneckers peering in the windows, and even let three paranormal investigative teams spend the night. Sometimes they felt sudden chills and heard banging on doors and heavy footfalls. One houseguest complained he’d been pushed down the stairs at 1am and refused to sleep there again.

Bazan and Schlede pushed ahead with repairs anyway, restoring the Castle to its former glory and planting a lush garden around it. Other visitors may marvel, but ghost hunters will have to look elsewhere; Bazan says things have quieted down. “I think the spirits are appeased. I think they’re pleased with all the work we’ve done.”