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15 Feb 2013


Monster Hunt: Using a Cheap iPhone App to Search for a Ghost

Katie Heaney goes looking for the dead in Minnesota's (possibly haunted) St. James Hotel


babies ghosts Wisconsin St. James Hotel Red Wing paranormal Clara Lillyblad
Creepy babies. Photo: Katie Heaney

If Clara’s trying to tell us something, she is not especially well spoken, and possibly a little crazy.

Construction on the St. James Hotel was delayed twice, but it’s the second time that counts: it was then that the Red Wing, Minnesota hotel’s 11 builders—businessmen who pooled $60,000 to construct the building in 1875, largely to accommodate the frontier town’s rail- and river-trade traffic—were made aware of a Sioux burial ground beneath the plot. Presumably, in part, to avoid scaring away the guests before there even were any, building ceased until the remains could be moved. (It seems to me that forcing the dead to relocate is more likely to irritate them into haunting than simply letting them be, but it’s much too late to argue about how to handle what the men found.)

In that way, the St. James Hotel fulfills the two most basic requirements for a modern-day haunting: proximity to a Native American burial ground, and construction in a year that would someday sound very old.

The hotel was sold to a young man named Charles Lillyblad just after the turn of the century, a few years before he’d meet and marry a waitress named Clara who worked in the building’s restaurant. Charles died in 1931, and Clara ran the St. James until she passed in 1972. It was her husband who purchased it, but the hotel was Clara’s—for her renowned cooking and her affable, generous spirit, the St. James was frequently called “Clara’s Place” by people in town.

When guests and employees talk about seeing a ghost here, it’s usually hers. They see her sitting in the chairs in their rooms. One poor man left the hotel at 2:00 a.m. one night after reporting seeing her floating above his bed. (What was she wearing, I wonder? In If Walls Could Talk: A Story of the Old St. James, Clara is described as a “snazzy” dresser. I suppose it isn’t fair to expect the guest to have noticed.) Others have reported meeting ghostly resistance upon trying to move her favorite dining room table—anal-retentiveness even in the afterlife being something I can pretty easily imagine as a future problem of my own.

Clara has now been the star of the St. James for over 80 years. When Rylee and I book a night in the hotel, it’s her who we’ll be looking for.

WHEN SCOTT, THE HOTEL’S patient and good-humored rooms manager, describes Clara and the establishment’s history to us, I find myself inexplicably disappointed by how lovely she sounds, as if the only worthy ghost is a bitter one—as though seeing the ghost of a formerly adored person would be any less terrifying than seeing one who in life was despised, one whose death was much darker. So when Scott goes on to say that other guests and housekeepers report seeing (and hearing) the ghost of a little girl who, years and years ago, fell into the hotel’s basement well and drowned, I feel a small thrill. Which is obviously terrible. It’s just that little-girl ghosts (the laughing! The hair bows! The singing!) are the spookiest kind there is. They are the real deal.

Scott tells us these stories with the help of a three-ring binder of documents—witness accounts, results of previous investigations—he put together for guests interested in the St. James’ haunted history. Scott is my favorite kind of self-proclaimed skeptic, which is to say he really isn’t one. I’ve met so many people who label themselves this way, who also, as though they see no contradiction, fervently watch Ghost Hunters marathons and refuse to linger in dark, drafty spaces. When Scott says he doesn’t believe, I don’t believe him—especially when he produces a K-II meter just like the ones they use on TV.

We had planned to supplement our senses with a ghost-hunting app we downloaded onto our iPhones, but we take the proffered K-II for the night as well. While I wholeheartedly believe in spooks, I’m not sure I buy the idea that they can be evidenced by battery-operated tools (much less cell phones). Still, holding the K-II makes me feel official.

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