The evening began innocently enough.
After arriving in Galveston, Texas, my travel companion and I were sipping gin gimlets at dusk inside the Hotel Galvez, a turn-of-the-century beauty built on the Gulf of Mexico's edge. The grand hall — the pinnacle of the island city's glamorous old architecture — buzzed with imbibers clinking glasses, chattering among tall limestone columns, arched windows, and intricate tiled floors.
A stop in Galveston seemed the perfect finale to our weeks-long road trip across Texas.
But our weekend took a surprising turn when I left the table in search of a restroom.
I descended a stairwell, entered a dimly lit corridor, and was met by one of the eeriest feelings of my life. I felt followed — then surrounded.
Sure someone was on my heels, I whirled around, fists clenched, only to stare into thin air.
The feeling chased me until I returned to the grand hall, hurriedly. That's when I remembered Ghosts of Galveston, a book I had eyed in a boutique earlier in the day.
"Are there really ghosts in this town?" I asked our waitress.
She lifted an eyebrow.
"Oh, yes," she replied. "Everywhere."
What followed, over icy libations, was a tidal wave of spookiness: She told tales of glasses spontaneously broken, toilet paper rolls spinning uncontrollably, and faces in the corners of empty rooms.
Hotel Galvez opened in 1911 as the town was being rebuilt from the devastating 1900 hurricane that killed thousands. A candy and toy store that once sat on the Galvez site was destroyed. In the basement, near the restroom, our waitress told us, hotel guests and workers have often heard kids playing ball and laughing — or felt the curious young spirits trailing them.
I gulped. But there was more. In the 1950s, a hotel guest hanged herself in her room after believing her lover had been lost at sea. Tragically, two days later, he returned.
Then there were the photos on the waitress' phone. A face pressed against a shower curtain. A man in the mirror. A shadowy figure, captured by a 9-year-old.
"Well," I said, "I'm glad we're not staying here."
Back at our hotel, the Tremont House — another historic relic — we grabbed water to take upstairs and told the lobby bartender of our enlightenment that the Hotel Galvez, Tremont's sister hotel, was severely haunted.
"Well, yeah," she said blankly. "The whole town is."
"But not here, right?" I asked.
"Yes," she said. "Here, too."
She explained, to our dread. Unlike the Hotel Galvez, Tremont House isn't known as a haunted destination, but three ghosts allegedly wander the premises regularly, including a former Civil War soldier who supposedly drank himself to death and a little boy named Jimmy, who was killed by a car while playing outside. The tall palm trees that fill the enclosed courtyard sway excessively when the ghosts come and go, she said.
Specific rooms — on our floor, incidentally — get the bulk of the action. Doors opening and slamming on their own. Hair dryers unplugged but suddenly blowing air.
"They won't hurt you," she said as we blinked.
We realized then that this cute and quirky city we'd joked was a ghost town during this off-peak time of year (we visited in May) was actually a town full of ghosts.
That night, I barely slept, staring into the crevices of the dark room, then pinching my eyes shut, afraid of seeing something I'd be unable to forget.
The hotel's old bones didn't do much to ease my mind.
Although renovated with marble-topped vanities, tall ceilings, and glistening wooden floors, the walls of the Tremont House still creak. Whenever we shut the bathroom door, an anxious, perpetual shuddering would ensue.
But when clearheaded morning logic set in the next day, we started to wonder if it was all a grand scheme — the hotel industry seizing on folklore and perpetuating it.
Galveston's heyday began in the late 1800s, when it was one of the richest cities in America. After the 1900 hurricane, the city charged back into prominence in unlikely fashion: under the three-decade-long mob leadership of the legendary Maceo brothers, who later played a major role in developing the Las Vegas Strip. The "free state of Galveston" had been Las Vegas-like before the actual Vegas had ever come to be.
Since those so-called glory days, though, Galveston had endured more hurricane damage and the weathering of time. A dated city under the shadow of oil rigs just didn't have the same draw it once did. Perhaps all of this ghost talk was part of an impressive new tourism campaign?
During breakfast at the counter of an off-the-beaten path nook called Sonny's Place, we asked the 89-year-old proprietor if he had any ghost stories.
"No," he said, "no ghosts," dismissing the topic quickly.
Along the Strand, the name given to the town's historic core, we talked to everyone we met, from the Old Strand Emporium, a general store featuring an ice cream shop, to La King's Confectionery, a candy shop with wooden floors and exposed brick walls. In a contemporary section of town, we looked for clues in clothing boutiques and hipster coffee shops.
After lunch — a feast of crawfish and whole crabs at Benno's on the Beach — we checked out a handful of antiques shops and chatted with the cashiers. One chuckled at our unearthly query.
"There's been a lot of talk about that," she said. "But I haven't seen anything."
Elsewhere, though, the theme was pretty steadily reinforced.
Handprints on the vanity
Between strolls along the city's dramatic sea wall and down the pleasure pier, where we played the midway and downed sugary slushies, we learned more about Galveston's calamitous past. The 1900 storm had killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people.
Afterward, bodies lined the streets. As many as 4,000 were burned on the beach, the smell drifting all the way to Houston 50 miles away, according to stories. As for the remainder, the mayor instructed the islanders to "bury them where you find them."
"So they're under every block," said Blake, a tour guide who gave us a horse-carriage ride through palm-lined neighborhoods replete with Victorian mansions. "When they do roadwork, they're always pulling up a femur or something."
In a city that has been dealt more than its fair share of pain, the sad stories run deep. Perhaps none is more crushing than the tale of the St. Mary's orphanage. During the 1900 storm, the nuns tied groups of children together with clotheslines and fastened the lines to themselves in an effort to keep track of the 90 kids. It proved a fateful strategy. When the building collapsed, the nuns were sucked into the powerful water surge. Only two children survived.
Today, a Walmart occupies the spot.
"People who work there will come in in the morning and there will be bicycles in the grocery section, Barbie dolls opened and played with," Blake said. "They can't get anybody to work there."
Back at the Tremont House, the eeriness persisted. Each night, something would rouse me from sleep at exactly 4 a.m. I'd stay awake then until it was time to get up, pierced by the thought that something — or someone — was near. Once I thought I felt something brush against my arm, then my face. My travel companion had similar experiences.
Were they with us? Or had we just become brainwashed with the thought?
We told the Tremont House bartender about our shuddering bathroom door. She smiled.
"That's a new one," she said.
She encouraged us to take photos around the hotel. Unseen spirits sometimes show up in photos, she said.
The night before we left, I took a handful of snaps. By the bar. In the elevators. In the corners of the rooms. And in the mirror in our shuddering-door bathroom.
As we drove away from the city, I studied them.
Everything appeared normal. No shadowy figures. No faces in the shower curtain. No man in the mirror.
Had I made that handprint above the vanity?
I zoomed again and took another look. The finger marks spread wide as if someone had held up a hand to stop something. I didn't remember touching the mirror in this way.
I put my phone away, but the thought persisted. The tingles had returned.
Surely it was one of our hands. Whose else could it have been?