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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's haunted harbour history

Local historian and owner of Ghostly Walks, John Adams, shares his favourite ghost story straight from the buildings of Victoria.

By Jackie Lamport
October 30, 2023
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's haunted harbour history

Local historian and owner of Ghostly Walks, John Adams, shares his favourite ghost story straight from the buildings of Victoria.

By Jackie Lamport
Oct 30, 2023
The Empress Hotel, one of Victoria's most notoriously haunted locations. Photo: James MacDonald
The Empress Hotel, one of Victoria's most notoriously haunted locations. Photo: James MacDonald
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's haunted harbour history

Local historian and owner of Ghostly Walks, John Adams, shares his favourite ghost story straight from the buildings of Victoria.

By Jackie Lamport
October 30, 2023
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Victoria's haunted harbour history
The Empress Hotel, one of Victoria's most notoriously haunted locations. Photo: James MacDonald

Listen to the audio version of this interview here.

The season for ghost stories and spooky adventures is here, but it can also be all year round if you want. That's what Ghostly Walks in Victoria offers. They're the people to talk to if you want to hear the spine chilling stories hidden in the streets of the city as we already know this weekend is Halloween and Victoria is not so surprisingly a great place to have some spooky fun. Lush with old buildings, hidden alleys and creepy stories, there's almost no better place to be this weekend. So to celebrate the season, we decided to hear some of the stories from the Ghostly Walks tour guide. Today we welcome John Adams, a local historian and the founder and owner of discover the past. He runs many of Victoria's historical walking tours, as well as ghostly walks. He joins us now. John, welcome to the show.

John Adams

Hi, it's nice to be here.

Jackie Lamport

Thank you for coming. Okay, so let's just start with a quick explanation of what Ghostly Walks is for somebody who may not know.

John

Ghostly Walks began 21 years ago and we tell ghost stories while we're walking mostly through downtown Victoria, but sometimes in the historic neighborhoods as well. They're very popular we do them all year. We do history tours as well. So we say we do history tours by day and ghostly walks by night and as you can imagine, this is a very popular time of year.

Jackie

Yes, I was gonna say Halloween is probably your busy season but you do ghost walks throughout the entire year?

John

We do. We started when we started 21 years ago. We thought we would do them just in the summer, but very quickly the demand was so big. We branched out into the shoulder season and now year round. So every day, or every night, right from the beginning of May till Halloween, and then Friday, Saturdays, and Sundays right through the winter or on demand we do private tours as well for clubs and groups, for many different kinds of groups want to tour right through the year. 

Jackie

Yeah, I would actually think that the fall winter season here is a little bit more spooky and sets the tone than a nice amount, right?

John

Well, I think you're right. We know that ghosts are here all the time, even in the daytime, but there's nothing more atmospheric than a dark night when there's a slight mist or there's a full moon setting behind the clouds. That really sets the tone. But to be honest, the ghosts are here all the time.

Jackie

Yeah. Have you personally ever done any tours in other cities?

John

Oh sure. I do. It's kind of like a busman's holiday when I travel. I take walking tours everywhere. And bus tours as well for that matter. So yes, I've taken ghost tours in many different cities, a dozen cities at least or more.

Jackie

Okay, because I wanted to follow up that by saying Victoria really seems like a great city to do this. And you have the atmosphere, the buildings, the history, has anything come to compare to Victoria, would you say?

John

Well, I think some of the tours are really, really good and some of them are not so good. I think probably one of the most atmospheric places that I have done tours in is Edinburgh. They claim to be the most haunted city in Europe, and I probably imagine they probably are right up there. Another city was York in England. Yeah, in North America. I think probably one of the best cities that I was in for a ghost tour was the French Quarter in New Orleans. And it just happened to be a very, very dark night when there was a thunder and lightning storm. It was just perfect. It couldn't have been a better backdrop for the ghost stories.

Jackie

I just read a book set in New Orleans and it seems like a great place for that specifically so that sounds wonderful. And before we get into Victoria and Victoria's haunted stories that you want to say: Do you believe in ghosts?

John

I do now. I think if you asked me a long time ago when I was a kid, I probably would have said no I don't believe in ghosts, there's no such thing. Of course I was trying to be rational and cool and scientific and who knows. I probably really did believe in ghosts, but gradually certainly in the past. I don't know what happened in the last 30-40 years. I've changed my mind and now I do believe in ghosts. Yes, for sure—do you?

Jackie

I don't know. Maybe I'm in that young part of it still, but I feel like part of me thinks there's probably something that we can't explain quite yet. But maybe one day we will be able to explain. So I mean, if you told people we had cell phones 100 years ago, they think that was magic, right?

John

I know. But to be honest, I'm sure there are many people out there that will be listening who don't believe in ghosts. The proportion in Canada is about 50/50—50% of people do believe in ghosts and 50% of people are not quite sure, they're on the fence, or they definitely don't believe in ghosts. They're some on each extreme and really believe in some really don't believe and they're probably more in the middle but it works out to about 50/50. But to be honest, you don't really need to believe in ghosts to enjoy a good ghost story. You don't need to be an expert or to enjoy an Agatha Christie novel. You don't need to really believe in ghosts to to enjoy a good ghost story. 

Jackie

Yeah, personally I love entertaining all of that kind of stuff. So as much as I can be a skeptic, I love the stories so I will very much enjoy you telling them. Have you ever personally seen anything spooky that maybe made you a believer?

John

People of course always ask Do you believe in ghosts and have you had a ghostly encounter? And I have to admit that even though I said when I was younger, I didn't believe in ghosts. I think that's what my parents told me to believe. But I did have some experiences as a kid that looking back had to be ghosts. And just one small example and I don't know exactly how old I was, but asking my parents and my older brother, I must have been two and a half, maybe maybe three of the very most. And a relative is coming to visit and I had to sleep in my brother's room in a small bed on the other side of his room.

One night I woke up and there was the face of a man right beside me on the wall. And he was staring at me. I was wide awake, I know that and this was only this about the very early 1950s—we did not have a television. In fact, I'm not even sure I knew what a television was at the time. But it was almost like a television screen right there on my wall. And there he was.

And I called up my brother 'Hey, well, who is this guy?' And my brother said, 'Oh, don't tell him mum and dad. They don't like to hear about him.' Now, this is vivid in my mind. And my brother and I—we get along really, really well. I don't see him that often, he died a couple of years ago. But before he died I had a chance to ask him if he remembered this. Well, he didn't actually remember me seeing the ghost in his room, but he definitely remembered seeing it himself. And of course I was this little toddler and I blabbed to my parents and my parents said 'Oh don't be so silly. There's no such thing as a ghost.' And to be honest, I don't know whether they were just trying to calm me down, or whether they truly did not believe in ghosts themselves. I think afterwards I found out they did.

But I had a few episodes like that when I was growing up. And what else could that be? Maybe a vivid imagination. Maybe it was a dream. But I know it wasn't. And there have been some other incidents like that as well. But to be honest, although I have seen, smelled, felt and heard ghosts, and they are the basic ways that we know that ghosts manifest themselves, probably in my own personal experiences would not really amount to very much if I were trying to develop a whole tour or stories around those experiences, so I rely primarily on other people's experiences.

Jackie

Okay. Why do you think Victoria is so haunted?

John

Oh, every city is haunted. And, of course, in the ghost business, we try to claim that we are the most haunted. People say 'oh in North America?' No. But certainly in the Pacific Northwest, in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon there are lots and lots of ghost stories, but there is no city with more ghost stories than Victoria. But if you go to some other places, they will say that they're the most haunted in their part. It's just part of the hype really.

But it is definitely the case that Victoria has more of these stories and it's not really that we have more ghosts, because everybody who has ever lived and died becomes a ghost, or at least they are eligible to become a ghost. We've had people living here of course for a very long time. And I think when people are telling ghost stories these days, especially around Halloween it's the stories that are from the more recent past. And we tend to forget the fact that there are lots of Indigenous ghosts here as well. We all know that for thousands of years, the Songhees, the Esquimalt, other Indigenous people were living here, and there are ghosts from those people as well. And of course they still live here.

The ghosts are still with us. So there's been a long history of people living here and dying here. And inevitably that will help create basically from what we draw from the ghost stories. The energy however, is retained better in certain situations.

And so, we often suggest that if people are troubled by a ghost, a very simple almost home remedy exorcism is to put out a dish of salt. This dry salt—course is better, but any kind of salt will do—it often does dispel negative energy. Give it a try sometime if you think that you've got a problematic ghost. There's no point trying to get rid of nice ghosts and there are lots of them. But if something is causing a problem try salt.

If you mix the salt and water in large quantities, like we have in the world's oceans, then you're going to add that you're going to create a conductor and attract the energy and of course Victoria, being on an island, is surrounded by the stuff. And in Victoria especially, we have all these little bays and nooks and crannies, the Gorge for example, Portage Inlet, Esquimalt Harbour all of these places, Saanich Inlet, bring the water so close to all parts of Victoria, we are surrounded by it here. So that's one reason.

Another one is the bedrock. And not all cities have the very dense bedrock, the basalt and other things that underlie Victoria. It looms up Mount Tolmie, Mount Douglas or PKOLS, Moss Rock—all of these places are outcroppings of rock, but it's under every part of the city, along the shoreline and you don't dig very far before you find it. And if you go to England or other haunted places, and you come to haunted buildings, of which there are many, they'll tell you it's the thick stone walls of the old castles at the stately homes that hold the energy.

And sure we've got some old stone buildings and even castles in Victoria. They are haunted for the most part, but it's the bedrock under the city that really holds it the most. And one more thing the distant hills and mountains, the Sooke hills, the Olympic range and all the other ranges of mountains at a distance around Victoria, physically help hold the energy in. Not forever but it does help, and so these are a few of the reasons, really physical reasons, why the energy stays in such a concentrated form here for such a long time.

Jackie

Well, let's talk about the stories that are hidden throughout Victoria. When we spoke on the phone earlier you had mentioned your favorite and then has to do with a famed architect. Can you tell me about that story?

John

Francis Rattenbury, a very well known architect or at least he became well known, the one who designed the parliament building—his first major commission—then the Empress Hotel that came along shortly afterwards and so many other buildings, became the most famous architect in British Columbia. There was no doubt about it. He unfortunately was an egotist. He was full of himself. He was arrogant—unbearable in some ways. And he wanted recognition constantly in his life. And well he got it because his buildings were so iconic here in Victoria. But in his personal life, he was not such a nice man.

He was not very kind to his first wife, Florrie. It was known that he had had a number of affairs and finally, he met up with a woman by the name of Alma, who was half his age, and eventually, he forced Florrie out of their home. Alma was there. Florrie filed for divorce and he married Alma. This was scandalous. This was back in the 1920s and in Victorian high society you either hid that sort of thing completely or you did not do it. Anyway, he and Alma were ostracized. But when Florrie died rather soon afterwards, that was it. The people blamed Rattenbury, and it was possibly true the worry had brought on an illness.

So to escape the gossip, Rattenbury and Alma decided to move to England. That's where Rattenbury was from. They would start a new life in a small town on the south coast called Bournemouth. But Rattenbury craved recognition his whole life—he had retired by now—so he was getting no recognition from his fine buildings that he was building there. And when you move to a new place you could only get along so long by saying 'I was the most famous architect where I came from.' It begins to wear out after a while. And so he became very depressed.

He began to drink too heavily. And Alma, who really was at that time only 35, needed more excitement in her life. And so she found their young chauffeur, a very handsome boy by the name of George, would fill in. And well, George and Alma began an affair, and it seems quite likely that the old man found out about it. And one night George found him sleeping in his chair—Rattenbury was in the library and their home beside the fire, snoozing away, and George crept in with a croquet mallet. And the old fellow pretty soon was lying on the floor. George had bludgeoned Rattenbury's skull, and Rattenbury didn't die immediately, but very soon afterwards, and Alma who wasn't in the room at the time came running in and it was a great commotion. The neighbors heard the noise. They contacted the police. It was mayhem. But in the end, Alma confessed and said she had done it—to protect George, of course.

Well, there was a trial in the Old Bailey Courthouse in London. It was a very famous trial. They didn't really have headlines and English newspapers in those days, but it certainly made the top stories and people lined up to get inside the courtroom. But in the end, they realized that Alma was fibbing. And they let her off and convicted George of murder. He was going to be hanged.

Well, Alma, who had been trying to keep all of this sort of affair quiet and partly because of this, they buried Rattenbury in an unmarked grave in Bournemouth so that he wouldn't attract any attention. Well, she'd lost her husband. Now George was going to be hanged and she couldn't live without them. And so she stood on a bridge with a pair of scissors, and plunged the scissors into her heart. It took three attempts to actually kill herself. She fell into the water and that was the end of Alma, who was buried close to her husband.

Talk about publicity. There's certainly publicity about this all over the place. And many people believe that by committing suicide, Alma basically was confessing and saying she really had done it. Anyway, in the end, George was not hanged. He was given a life sentence, but let out during World War Two—all of this was happening in the 1930s—he was let out in World War Two. He fought in the services and well, he died not that long ago.

But Rattenbury, lay in his unmarked, lonely grave and Bournemouth all these years. And ghosts have the same needs they had when they were alive. So somebody like Rattenbury, who craved recognition, and is getting none of it in his lonely grave. Nobody even knows who he is there. Well, he has come back to Victoria. And this is one of the things that is really important to understand about ghosts. They don't just stay in the place where they died or the place where they lived. They may well, if they have a reason, move around. And sometimes they will move long distances. In Rattenbury's case from England to here. And he haunts the buildings that will give him what he wants. His famous buildings, such as the parliament buildings and the Empress Hotel.

Although he isn't trying to scare people, he just wants people to notice him and possibly even to recognize him. When people see him and when they see him, they usually see him as the young handsome man that he was when he first began his career. In a frock coat, the sort of suit coat a man would wear in the late 1800s. They see him and they're startled. I think perhaps, at first, it might be an actor, especially in the parliament buildings where during the summer, they hire actors. They're called the parliamentary players and usually there's one young man who portrays Rattenbury and he has been mistaken for the ghosts of Rattenbury many, many times but he knows that he wasn't in the place where they had seen him.

So people see him, they get frightened, they look back, and the apparition has gone. And although he's not trying to scare people, you'll probably move away fairly quickly because this is not what many people want to see. So yes, the ghost of Rattenbury is one of my favourites. I used to work as a student many years ago, 55 years ago, a summer student at the Empress Hotel. And that was probably where I began my latter day conversion to believing in ghosts because there were lots of stories there, and definitely the ghost of Rattenbury is among many ghosts at the Empress.

Jackie

So Victoria has a lot of these kinds of stories and you share them on the walks?

John

That's right, we've collected over the years, at least 500 stories. Wow. Some of them are little tiny things we get people telling us their stories all the time. They felt something, they've seen something out of the corner of their eye or is a full story that people have been able to document over a period of time. So we have hundreds of these stories and what we discovered is that a little story collected might be added to another little story collected later on. And with some background research, pretty soon, the little stories begin to develop into much bigger, broader stories.

So yes, we've got stories from every part of the city. And we often ask people: 'do you live in a haunted house if you live in Victoria?' And the people might say, 'Oh, no, no, I don't know about a haunted house.' Or quite often they'll say 'we do live in a haunted house.' But if you don't, the chances are you just haven't lived there long enough. Or your neighbor's house is haunted, or the neighborhood down the street is haunted because every part of the city is haunted. So we have collected stories big and small from all over the place.

Jackie

Okay, and for people who might not, you know, see ghost stories as the thing, you also do the regular Discover The Past tours. And those are just regular historical stories throughout the city. Right?

John

That's true. So I am a historian. And we really enjoy the research and the history. And we've discovered that, although occasionally the two combine in people's interests, there are people who are really interested in ghosts so they're never thinking of taking a history tour, and vice versa. There are people that would never want to take a ghost tour, but they love the history. And so yes, we do both history tours by day and ghostly walks by night.

Jackie

John, thank you so much for joining us and enjoy the rest of the spooky season.

John

Thank you Jackie. I really appreciate the call and we always enjoy telling stories, especially around this time of year.

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