The Ghosts of the Menger Hotel
Over the last century-and-a-half the Menger Hotel, located on the Alamo Plaza in San Antonio, Texas, has been the scene of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders recruitment, a devastating fire, and a host of other strange happenings.
History of the Menger
This hotel—which once known as the “Finest Hotel West of the Mississippi” has also earned the accolade of “Most Haunted Hotel in Texas.” Aside from the fact it was built a mere 23 years following the famous battle where 189 defenders, by official account, perished in the fight for Texas independence from Mexico, the hotel also plays host to 32 spirits by the hotel’s count.
William and Mary Menger opened the Menger hotel in 1859 in San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza. The plans for the hotel arose through the popularity of William Menger’s brewery.
Menger had emigrated from Germany to America in 1847. Menger settled in San Antonio and resumed his previous trade as a cooper and brewer. With his German roots Menger brought beer to San Antonio. He opened the Menger Brewery in 1855 on the battle-grounds of the Alamo (now known as the Alamo Plaza).
In 1858 the Mengers hired an architect, John M. Fries, who would complete the two-story fifty-room hotel. Up until this point most businesses in San Antonio were boarding houses and there were few breweries. The Menger hotel opened in February 1859 and became an overnight success.
Over the years, the Menger became the home during the Civil War for soldiers when the war began to heat up in Texas. It is known that famous Army men such as Sam Houston, the commanding general for Texas independence, and Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederate forces, stayed as guests in the hotel.
Not so many years later, William Menger passed away at the hotel in March 1871. Despite Menger’s death, Mary refused to give up, and right after her husband’s passing, she was quick to put in an ad at the local paper. In the notice she assured locals that William’s death “would cause no change in affairs” with the brewery or hotel.
The Menger sold in 1881 for $118,500 ($2.8 million today), to the original contractor of the Menger, Major J.H. Kampmann, who also purchased all of the interior furnishings for another $8,500 ($203,000 today).
Under Kampmann’s management, a new bar was installed and it became one of the most elegant of its day. It was a near-identical image to the bar at the House of Lords Club in London. It was equipped with a beautiful cherry-wood bar, matching cherry-wood ceiling and French mirrors.
The Menger Hotel continued to be the Place to go and stay.
On October 15, 1924 a devastating fire gutted the hotel beginning with a kitchen fire. But it was not the 101 guests staying at the Menger who were actually hurt. Instead, the injuries came when the fire steam engine came rumbling down the road.
The steamer, heading to the fire at the Menger Hotel, rammed into an oncoming streetcar, injuring the two firemen, A.J. Ashbruck and W.R. Boyd, who were operating the vehicle, and three people on the streetcar. One of the firemen was found “unconscious under the wreckage,” though there’s no mention of his death in the records.
The Express recorded that “Rarely have the firemen had to do battle with a more stubborn or spectacular fire.” The flames allegedly enveloped the entire block, but at the Menger the original section of the hotel was thankfully spared from any heavy damage.
It was only after the fire raged for forty-five minutes, the Houston Post wrote, that “the flames, which at first threatens the entire building, were brought under control. The lighting plant was put out of commission and guests are forced to grope their way to the exits in darkness.”
The hotel was remodeled and eventually, over the years, the Menger Hotel persisted to be one of the most beautiful places to stay in all of Texas. And as The Finest Hotel West of the Mississippi, it has welcomed some incredibly famous guests in the last century-and-a-half.
Actors such as Sarah Bernhard and Lillie Langtree; political men like Ulysses S. Grant; and authors such as William Sydney Porter, Sidney Lanier and Oscar Wilde have all stayed at the Menger, some more frequently than others. (Royalty and eleven Presidents have also called this historic hotel their home away from home a time or two).
Perhaps one of the most famous of all of the Menger’s guests would happen to be a guy named Bill.
In the early 1900s, a fair performer did the utterly unthinkable: he departed the Menger without paying his bill. You’ve got to wonder how desperate he was to avoid the payment because he just so happened to leave his 750-pound bull alligator behind.
As opposed to evicting the poor gator off hotel grounds, management decided to name him “Bill,” and they allowed him free reign of the atrium. Sometimes, if he was nice, they even brought in other alligators so that Bill could have some friends around.
The Ghosts of the Menger
There’s a bit of a dispute on how many ghosts still haunt the halls of this historic hotel—some put the number of specters at thirty-two, others claim that the number might be closer to forty-five.
Guests have reported countless paranormal phenomena, including everything from witnessing beds actually levitate off the floor to hearing strange rapping noises and even seeing nearly translucent faces appear beside their own while looking into the mirror. The scent of cigar smoke is inhaled in the hotel’s non-smoking rooms, and heavy doors are known to open with no source to have actually pushed them ajar.
Unlike many other haunted locations across the country, the Menger’s ghosts aren’t shy in the slightest. If you choose to stay the night at the Menger, all that can be advised “prepare yourself.”
Teddy Roosevelt was a huge fan of the Menger Hotel, so much so that he visited on three different occurrences. Even so, his first visit is certainly his most memorable, for it was in 1898 that Teddy arrived in San Antonio with his infamous Rough Riders.
There was not a single doubt that the recruits were a mix-matched lot. While some were Teddy’s classmates from Harvard, others were Native Americans, Texas cowboys, rangers and random folk who’d enlisted to fight in the Spanish American War. They’d appropriately earned their nickname after a Washington, D.C. correspondent called them a “rough riding outfit.”
It seems that even though over a century has passed since, many of the Rough Riders still like to camp out at the Menger. Even more, the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most frequently seen ghosts at the Menger.
Almost always, he’s seen—or heard—at the Bar. When staff close up at night, they’ve seen a man appear by the bar. His nearly translucent figure never moves, never shifts; nevertheless, staff have reported feeling as though they are being watched at all times.
Sometimes, however, the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt is much more vocal. Seated at the bar, he’s been known to holler out at the workers, easily coercing them into conversation. On the rare occurrences when staff have actually approached the very-real looking apparition, he is said to start with his recruiting tactics as though trying to rope them into joining the Rough Riders!
Sallie White: the Ghost of a Chambermaid
Sallie White was one the Menger Hotel’s most beloved staff members during the late nineteenth century. She was the good sort, the sort of person who took pleasure in completing her daily duties as a chambermaid.
Though at work Sallie was all smiles, the same couldn’t be said for her life at home. Her common-law husband, Harry Wheeler, was the jealous sort and stories circulated the hotel that Wheeler was always jealous of any attention given to his wife. His jealousy sparked endless arguments, some of them even transpiring at Sallie’s place of work, the Menger.
On March 28th of 1876, Harry Wheeler’s jealousy would take a deadly turn.
On the evening before, one of Harry and Sallie’s rows had escalated quickly. Wheeler wheeled around on Sallie, closing in on her. So furious, he threatened to kill her. Panic kicked up Sallie’s steps as she ran from her husband to the local police station. She begged the officers to help her; they agreed, allowing her to stay at the courthouse for the remainder of the night. An investigation of Wheeler himself and their house showed no signs of any weapons, leaving the officers without any sort of leverage to arrest Harry Wheeler and stick him in jail.
Early the next morning, Sallie returned to her house to gather some items before heading to work at the Menger.
Harry Wheeler had been waiting for her, and he’d been waiting with a fully loaded pistol.
Sallie ran. Bursting out of their shared home, she ran down the street, hoping, praying, to close the two-block gap to the Menger Hotel where she could find safety. But Wheeler followed his wife. He followed her down those two-blocks, and when he caught up, he closed his hand around her throat and unloaded the six-shooter.
Sallie White died two days later one of the third level floors of the original part of the hotel. Harry Wheeler never was arrested for the murder of his common law wife. Where he went after the shooting, no one is quite certain. Mary Menger and the other management at the hotel had loved poor Sallie White so much, however, that they decided to fund Sallie’s funeral costs.
Today, Sallie White’s ghost is still seen frequently throughout the hotel, but most especially on the third floor where she passed over a hundred years ago. It seems that even in death, Sallie enjoys her work at the Menger for she is most commonly seen clutching an armful of towels or sheets to her chest.
Another notable ghost of the Menger Hotel is Captain Richard King.King would go on to be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the nineteenth century, in all of America.
He founded a steamboat company, and actually worked as a blockade runner during the Civil War. After visiting Texas for the first time, King decided to buy land in Corpus Christi. There, he opened King Ranch, which would end up growing to a monstrous one million acres.
He developed a love and appreciation for the Menger Hotel during his trips to San Antonio for business. He stayed so often, actually, that the hotel bestowed upon him his own private suite on the second floor. When King grew deathly sick with stomach cancer at the end of his life, he actually requested to be brought to his private suite where he passed away on April 14, 1885.
His funeral was held downstairs in the Menger’s lobby and it is said that the celebration was the largest funeral procession seen in quite some time in San Antonio.
Turns out that much like Sallie White, Captain Richard King was not about to let death be the reason he was seated from the Menger. Since the time of his passing, his ghost has been spotted at the Menger, most especially in his old private suite.
Today, the suite is known as the King Ranch Suite, and you too can stay there on your next trip to San Antonio. (If you’ve got the guts, of course, since the bed in the suite is the same bed that King himself died upon in 1885).
Guests have reported all sorts of paranormal phenomena in the Suite, especially the sense of being watched. One woman sleeping awoke, only to glance at the foot of the bed and see an apparition of Captain King watching her.
Others have claimed to hear heavy footfalls padding about the room, in addition to hearing the shutters on the windows open and close by an unseen force. Captain King’s apparition has been spotted roaming the hallways on the second floor and disappearing through doorways.
Violence at the Menger
In 1890, an Austin Insurance Agent showed up at the Menger. Entering the barroom—where Teddy Roosevelt’s ghost has since been seen—H.H. Childers strode up to the bar, removed his six-shooter from its holster. He raised his arm, aimed, fired, and killed Jim Draper, a San Antonio hack driver. At trial, Childers was sentenced to twenty-five years, but on his appeal the case was reversed and he was allowed a bond.
What motivation Childers had for the murder is completely lost to history, at least it fails to be documented in the newspapers.
Later, in 1903, a mail and key clerk was visiting San Antonio. Originally he’d hailed from Kentucky, but at only twenty-six years of age, was quite ill. He’d been told that San Antonio might offer him just what he needed, and the clerk made the move.
The clerk did not get better. The sickness must have been so bad that, seeing no other recourse, the clerk went to his room on the night of Monday, September 7, 1903; he took a knife and “committed suicide by cutting his throat.”
At the Menger Hotel, it seems that deaths by murder and suicide have only increased the paranormal activity. Unsuspecting guests have reported seeing the ghosts of these unfortunate souls “replay the last moments of their lives before startled onlookers.”
It seems that the tragedy that these people suffered in life have continued even in death as their spirits haunt the Menger.
Staff and management alike have had their own countless paranormal experiences, so much so that when men like Ernesto Malacara sit down to tell ghost stories crowds gather to listen.
In 1980, the Menger was awarded a state historic marker in 1980; in 1989, it received one of the highest praises for being a historical hotel by being listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation.