FEATURE: Teton Shadows

By on October 27, 2015

Tales from some of Jackson Hole’s ‘haunted’ haunts.

151028CoverFeat-1Aspen Hill Cemetery, Jackson, WY – It was 1 a.m. when Jennifer James and I climbed the tiered cemetery walkway. We were making our way at a steady pace, using her headlamp to read the names on tombstones.

As we stopped over maybe the ninth grave, we heard a twig snap behind the tombstone, then the shuffling of footsteps. We froze, our bodies still as trees, but for the wavering of indecision in our brains. My nerves shocked awake. I was so aware I could hear blades of grass bending.

“Did you hear that?” James whispered after a moment.

I laughed a brassy laugh that was meant to communicate the nonchalance I could not force myself to feel. “Yeah,” I whispered with a shrug of my shoulders. I had been looking into ghost stories in Jackson Hole for the past week or so. Flashes of each tale began to spiral in my mind, but when nothing else happened, my shoulders relaxed, the throbbing in my ears subsided and we made motion to continue.

Then my arm jutted out, frantically pointing at the grave. “That! That noise! That’s what I heard!” I whisper-shouted as the footsteps rustled again.

We both stepped closer, leaning toward the stone.

Silence met us again, but I refused to move on. In a bid to support my corporeal beliefs, I decided to act braver than I felt and made motion to get a look behind the tombstone. With the two steps to the right I took, whatever was lurking behind the headstone took two steps to the left, just out of sight. I repeated the process, moving to the left this time, and the creature mimicked me, moving the same number of steps to the right. This went on two more times before I glanced at James, trying to swallow every sense inside that screamed, “Leave it! You don’t need to know! Let it be!” But with characteristic stubbornness, I took a flying leap behind the grave – throwing back the branches that incased the headstone –  only to be met by perfect emptiness. There was nothing there.

That night James and I slept under the cloudy, crescent sky, buried in fallen leaves beside the bodies of pioneers. After tamping down our fears, we settled into comfortable conversation and left ghostly fears to another time, and maybe more importantly, another place.

Spirits of the Wort

During the Halloween season, paranormal stories are always on the tips of people’s tongues, and Jackson has no shortage of them. Perhaps one of Jackson’s most famous ghost stories revolves around The Wort Hotel.

The Wort is the infamous site of the double homicide of the McAuliffe sisters. On the night of Aug. 5, 1964, 19-year-old transient dishwasher Andrew Pixley snuck into the girls’ second story room, breaking a screen to gain access to where the 8- and 12-year-old girls slept.

The sisters’ father, Judge Robert McAuliffe, appeared on the scene to find the drunken, prostrate form of Pixley on the floor not far from the girls’ beds. Pixley would only say “I didn’t do it” over and over when questioned by the police.

Horror-struck, the traumatized McAuliffe took in the sight of the bodies of his two beloved daughters still lying in their beds – one bludgeoned to death and the other brutally strangled.

The judge apprehended Pixley, pinning him to the ground until the police arrived. Police Officer James Jensen heard Mrs. McAuliffe’s screams, which quickly drew him to the room where he found the judge still holding Pixley hostage. “My God, he’s killed my babies,” McAuliffe reportedly cried.

Pixley is the youngest person to face the death sentence in Wyoming. He was sent to the gas chambers at age 22 and is said to have laughed when the judge handed down his sentence.

There is perhaps little wonder then that the staff at The Wort have reported strange happenings since then.

According to Wort staffers, there have been times people have heard the cries of little girls echoing from behind the front desk. There have even been instances when, according to certain Wort employees, guests have complained that children should not be allowed to wander the halls late at night during times when no young guests were staying at the hotel.

Lorili Teti, who works at The Wort part-time, is also a tour guide for Jackson Hole Ghost Tours, an outfit in operation from June to September. While the hotel does not like a lot of publicity surrounding the macabre occurrences, Teti believes that on occasion, staff members may have quit over the haunted, storied nature of the building.

But the McAuliffe girls are not the only ghosts thought to haunt The Wort. Teti has had a personal encounter with the friendly spirit the staff calls Engineer Bob.

Maintenance staffers at The Wort describe Bob as a very helpful ghost. “Whenever there is a curious plumbing problem and the maintenance men can’t find it, and they’ve called in experts and they can’t find it either, Bob will lead them to the problem,” Teti explained. “He’ll signal them to follow him from the end of a hallway, and then he’ll disappear, and appear again at the end of another hallway, and then when he doesn’t appear again, that’s where they find the leak.”

As a member of Jackson Hole Ghost Tours, Teti is a researcher and historian who likes to corroborate stories as well as she can before she incorporates them into her tour. For her, there just wasn’t enough reliable information about Bob. She seriously questioned whether or not Bob actually existed. One day on one of her tours she stopped in front of the Silver Dollar Bar to begin the tale of Bob. In the midst of voicing her suspicions, she was surprised to be interrupted by a couple coming out of the bar. They asked her an obvious question about the location of a landmark in town that any of the staff easily could have answered, she said. She then asked the couple why they had chosen to ask her the question. The woman replied that Bob had sent them to her for the answer.

Teti assumed the staff was playing a trick on her and proceeded to interrogate one of the waitresses. The waitress vehemently denied any trick, but admitted that the couple had been acting strange. “When they first sat down, the couple ordered two drinks,” the waitress reported, “but when I came around to see if they wanted anything else, they ordered three drinks. I couldn’t figure out who the third drink was for.”

Teti believes that some ghosts haunt places just to be remembered. Spirits like Bob are afraid of drifting into forgotten corners of history where their significance will fade, so they make themselves known to the living, she said.

‘It sounded like an
old-timey saloon’

Coincidentally, The Wort is not the only place in Jackson purportedly haunted by a ghost named Bob. The iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar also has a gentleman by that same name that is said to appear on occasion.

During prohibition there were underground tunnels that connected The Wort and the Million Dollar Cowboy for smuggling purposes, and even though the tunnels have since been sealed, the two buildings have a very intertwined history.

151028CoverFeat-2_origJosh Roche has been a barkeep at the Million Dollar Cowboy, where the ashes of a certain Mr. Bob Whitaker are stored in a Jack Daniels bottle in the front office. Roche thinks the ghost, who is said to observe the proceedings at the bar from time to time might very well be Whitaker. While Roche and the rest of the bartenders at the Cowboy have not seen this particular ghost for a few years, Roche said that there was a time they would sometimes glimpse a dusty old cowboy still dressed in his “off the range” attire in the reflections of the mirrors that line the walls of the bar.

Roche thinks it is possible the ghost of Whitaker is the reason there are bullet holes in the walls of the Cowboy. He likes to tell a story of a security guard who patrolled the bar in the late 1950s. “The night security guard was walking around the building, and he caught a glimpse of something I guess he thought was a man, so he pulled his gun out and began firing,” he said. “Now there are bullet holes in the walls. One hit the back bar, and you can still kind of see it. …That security guard thought he saw someone, and there was no one there. It could have been our cowboy.”

Other bartenders at the Cowboy insist that Roche is telling the truth. Chad Taylor worked at the bar for eight years where, he said, being there alone – day or night – could be a nerve-wracking event.

When Taylor was bar backing, he often found himself in the basement retrieving liquor to stock the bar upstairs before it opened. The liquor room is beneath the pool tables.

“Sometimes you’d go downstairs to retrieve the liquor, and then suddenly above you it’d sound like 20 or 30 people would be upstairs playing pool,” Taylor said. “It’d sound like an old-timey saloon, so you’d rush upstairs to see if the bartender up there needed any help, and there wouldn’t be anyone there. The place would be completely empty.”

Roche has had this same experience several times. He said that in an instant the whole place would go from completely silent to stomping feet and the sounds of billiard games, and as with Taylor, when he rushed upstairs there wouldn’t be a soul in the place.

“It’s a spooky old building,” Roche said. “I had to lock the place up on Friday and Saturday nights, and I’d get the heebie-jeebies.”

Friendly theatre ghosts

While there are no stories of any Bobs making their way to the Jackson Hole Playhouse, it is probably one of the best-known haunted buildings in Jackson. Steve Badgett is the operations manager for the playhouse, where he has worked for 20 seasons. He knows of at least two ghosts that staff members have reported seeing frequently.

“[The playhouse is] a very unique building,” Badgett said. “We just celebrated our 100th year of the building’s existence, but it’s been many different things over the years. It was a hotel, post office, bowling alley, livery and then a live theater since the mid 1940s.”

The context of the building’s many different faces throughout history frames the stories behind its ghostly activity.

“There have been a number of instances of tragedy that have taken place here over the years,” Badgett said. “When this was a post office there was a robbery, and a worker at the post office was shot and killed.” Badgett describes the concessions area as the place where the old post office counter used to be. “And then there was a fire that burned down part of the building. A 5-year-old little girl named Edwina was killed during that fire. Those are the two ‘spirits’ that have been seen by people who work here or have visited, but mostly by the people who work here.”

151028CoverFeat-3_origEdwina is the subject of Badgett’s first anecdote, as he begins his stories about staff interactions with the paranormal in the old building. “There was a little girl one of our producers saw,” Badgett explained. “She was playing with this ribbon on stage. She was dressed in old clothes and playing with the ribbon, and when the producer approached to ask if she needed help, the little girl disappeared. We think it was Edwina.”

Badgett does not only have secondhand ghost stories to share; he has personally seen the ghost of a man in an old black top hat. “We think he might be Edwina’s father,” Badgett said. Badgett used to live in the housing quarters above the theater, and when he walked into his room he saw someone who had wandered into the wrong area of the building, but when he approached him, the man disappeared.

“I’ve never felt scared by these spirits,” Badgett said.

Badgett remembers when a television show visited the playhouse to test the old building for paranormal activity. According to the experts, the playhouse is a vortex of paranormal activity but none of the ghosts are malicious.

Badgett agrees with the expert assessment. He says he has never been afraid to work at the theater, because he believes the ghosts have no reason to do harm to the building’s earthly occupants. As Badgett sees it, the staff helps sustain the ghosts’ home by keeping the playhouse in business.

151028CoverFeat-4_origStaying warm

Even in the Aspen Hill Cemetery, where this reporter spent one spooky night, nothing seemed overtly disturbed or restless. Teti believes that in cases of the pioneer cemetery it is unlikely that there are any restless spirits, because all of the graves are properly marked and well cared for. If anything, there may be places in town that are haunted due to burial issues the people of the valley have faced during Jackson’s harsh winters.

In the early 1900s, when the ground was frozen and covered in layers of snow, breaking the earth to bury a body on frigid Snow King Mountain was impossible. In instances like those, according to Teti, there were times when someone would die in the winter, and the family would simply wrap up the body – in something as unromantic as a carpet – and store it until spring. Sometimes the place they would store it would be in an old attic “where it would be semi-taken care of until they could properly bury them,” Teti explained. “Some people say because of that there are a lot of lost spirits. When the spring comes, you’d be able smell the body. I can totally imagine because of that a lot of spirits would get confused,” she said.

Whether or not ghosts have found their way into the corners of historic Jackson Hole, the tales surrounding this old cowboy town leave a wake of possibility for those open to embracing the seemingly impossible. Whether it’s a child ghost that likes to take in the shows at the old playhouse, or a drink someone pours out as they sit down with the ashes of old Bob Whitaker, it is the history of the place that keeps these stories – and maybe even the ghosts themselves – alive. PJH

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