Terrified in Tacoma

// Real ghost hunters lead tours of Gritty City’s haunted history

Some people know some of the stories. Not everyone knows all of them. There are hundreds of tales after all.

Tacoma historians Charlie and Andrew Hansen have researched about 50 ghost sightings and paranormal experiences in downtown Tacoma, they only mention about 25 of them in their "Terrified in Tacoma" tour because they strive to weave Gritty City’s past with its haunted history by visiting the sites on their walking tour. Some of the great hauntings occur in the suburbs and residential neighborhoods.

The tours started slowly last October but are now picking up in popularity, thanks to a marketing and reservation partnership with Spooked in Seattle Ghost Tours. The man behind those tours, Ross Allison, is a Tacoma native and founder of AGHOST, the Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle Tacoma and author of a handful of books on all things ghostly. He runs the Pacific Northwest Paranormal Research Center and has been a guest on Sci-Fi’s “Ghost Hunters” television show and a host of other paranormal TV and radio programs. He is also working on a book with Teresa Nordheim, titled “Tacoma's Haunted History,” through Arcadia Publishing.

“Tacoma doesn’t get the attention it deserves,” Allison said of the walking tours. “It has a lot of great history. What we try to do is keep it real. It is run by real ghost hunters. A lot of these types of tours make up stuff to scare people. We don’t do that. We give the history and talk about what we have found in our investigations, so if you are not really into ghosts you are going to walk away with some history.”

The Hansens cover the better-known ghosts of downtown, including “Gus” in the Old City Hall, the sightings linked to Alexander Pantages and Klondike Kate in the Pantages theater, the Case of Allan Mason and his cursed mummy and the mysterious sinking of the Andelana. On Jan. 14, 1899, the chains to the ballast logs broke during a squall during the night. The ship capsized at the mouth of the Puyallup River. The master and crew of 18 drowned. Two divers also died while trying to recover the ship, making it Tacoma’s largest maritime disaster.

But the tours also cover the tale of Jack the Bear, who was the mascot of the Tacoma Hotel before he was accidentally shot by a Tacoma police officer while wandering downtown. The story of the Native American “sky stone” on what is now a pocket park along Pacific Avenue also gets a mention since it overlooks what had been called “the Harbor of Phantoms.”

Of course, the tour mentions the legend of the “Shanghai tunnels” running from the infamous Bodega Saloon, which is now Meconi’s, since every visitor on the tour asks about them.

But there are other stories as well.

“Even though I was born and raised here, there are a lot of things we are still finding out,” Charlie Hansen said.

Commencement Bay, for example, was the site of an incident in 1947 that first coined the phrase “UFO” and actually involved federal investigators – the original “Men in Black.” For folks not in the know about such matters, writer Steve Edmiston is producing a short film based on the story of the “Maury Island Incident” – taken directly from declassified FBI documents – of Harold Dahl’s June 21, 1947 UFO sighting. An investigation followed that resulted in a mysterious crash of a B-25 carrying evidence from the incident. The investigation went all the way to the FBI’s top desk, J. Edgar Hoover, who expressed personal interest in it.

While not ghostly enough for a tour, the UFO sighting also gets a mention along with the fact that Pierce County has the highest number of Bigfoot sighting claims in the state, which has the highest number of sightings in the nation. That fact makes it ground zero for those investigations as well.

One ghost story that few locals have heard of involves the case of Jake Bird, who could have been the most prolific serial killer in American history. Bird was sentenced to death in Tacoma for the axe murder of two women and cursed all those involved with his sentencing. And the curse came true.

The strange case of Jake Bird

Jake Bird, a 45-year-old transient, broke into the South 21st Street home of Bertha Kludt and her daughter, Beverly June Kludt, on Oct. 30, 1947. He reportedly only meant to rob them but ended up hacking them to death with an axe. Two police officers responding to the Hilltop home to investigate reports of screams saw Bird flee the scene.

Bird was quickly arrested and jailed in the cells of Old City Hall, where he confessed.

A three-day trial ended with convictions of first-degree murder. Bird was sentenced to death.

During his final remarks at the trial, he said, “All you guys who had anything to do with this case are going to die before I do.”

It became known as the “Jake Bird Hex.” He was right.

The defense attorney, jailer, judge, court reporter and police investigator died before the year was out. A sixth man, a Washington State Penitentiary guard assigned to death row named Arthur A. Steward, died of pneumonia two months before Bird’s execution.

While on Walla Walla’s death row, Bird confessed to killing more than 44 people during his hoboing around the country. He was hanged at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla on July 15, 1949.

The Kludt home is now vacant, although a neighborhood church has apparently bought the site.

More information:

Terrified in Tacoma tours are offered at 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. Reservations are booked by calling Spooked in Seattle (425) 954-7701.

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