This is the next installment of my constantly growing list of locations that I consider must-visit locations that every paranormal enthusiast, investigator, explorer, or adventurer needs to see before they die. A (before I kick the) bucket list. See the full list here.
One time I was SO CLOSE! Good friend and Fantastic Story Society co-host, Max Timm & I were legend tripping though wine country, our focus mostly on the Napa Rebobs between wine tastings, and on our way back to LA we stumbled across the legend of a school fire in Port Costa (video link) that may have resulted in some restless spirits. More research since that time though has revealed that the particular story is likely an urban legend. However, if there was a deadly port Costa school fire in the 1960s, please do drop me a line!
It was years later that I was reading an amazing book that the town of Port Costa, CA came up again. It was amazing as this little town boasts a population of just 190 people. The book mentioned the Burlington Hotel and more recent research connects the Burlington Hotel to a piece of folklore on the Lady in Red. This is a woman who may have worked as a prostitute in an old mining town (though Porta Costa is a wheat farming and railroad town located on the original transcontinental railroad line, also located on a waterway between Stockton and San Francisco, I assume it’s got a link to shipping as well) and died via murder in a crime of passion. She’s always associated with historic places within old mining towns. Wikipedia has a list of locations from coast to coast where a specter fitting this description is seen. From a paranormal theory perspective, maybe this style of crime leads to a red apparition. We always wonder why most spirits are misty white, while others look normal (people not even knowing they’re seeing a ghost until the person vanishes), while others still, like the ghost of a stuntman at the Oban Hotel on Hollywood Blvd look bronze in color. Or maybe the lady in red was a popular piece of folklore that dates back to the mining era of the mid to late 1800s.
I’m intentionally burying the lead here as this next story is a theory, but oh so enticing! I wanna dive into this fully. The book the theory appears in is “Bloodstains” by Jeff Mudgett, who is the great great grandson of Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as HH Holmes, America’s first and possibly more prolific serial killer. I would love to write at length about Holmes, but the definitive work just can’t be beat: “Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.
As “Bloodstains” describes, Mudgett, not knowing his family’s history, inherited some items from his grandfather. Among these items were writings from serial killer HH Holmes himself (the claim was later supported by handwriting analysis). Among many curious things (really, the book is amazing) is a map of Port Costa with seemingly random locations circled.
The Port Costa map was a curiosity for a while as Mudgett researched his great great grandfathers exploits, all tied to the Midwest or a little further east. Most of his ‘work’ happened during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where he murdered unknown numbers of tourists who traveled from all over the world to attend the fair, spending their final night in the hotel of horrors he had custom built. He had an industrial grade furnace in the basement, which was likely used to incinerate the bodies.
When Holmes was on the run, he traveled east after murdering his business partner and abducting three of his children, killing two in Toronto and one in Indianapolis. He was eventually apprehended in Boston. Then tried, executed and buried in Pennsylvania.
So, how does the Burlington Hotel in Port Costa, CA fit in with HH Holmes? Continuing to research his family history, Mudgett found that one of Holmes’s wives was buried in a Port Costa cemetery (note below on who this could be). Visiting the gravesite, Mudgett looked up and it seemed he was looking back in time as he spied Homes’s notorious “Murder Castle,” standing in the distance, but very much in the real, present day world, right in front of him. It is the Burlington Hotel. Was this hotel, built in 1883, a full decade before Chicago’s World Fair a proof of concept of sorts before deploying his full plan in Chicago? That’s what Mudgett theorizes. According to “Bloodstains” as well, there was a notable uptick in missing persons reports between the opening of the hotel and the time Holmes established himself in Chicago.
So, how similar are these two buildings from the outside?
The images you see above are of our respective buildings. Sadly, I could not get images that match the correct sides as all of the pictures I could find of the murder castle are taken from one direction and the matching side of the Burlington Hotel is totally hidden by trees. However, there’s still a lot that we can see that matches. The buildings are three stories in height. Each have sets of three 2-story tall turret or bay windows overhanging the sidewalks by about two feet. The ground floor entry of each building concaves inwards, leaving the corner two-story turret to act as a sort of overhang, supported by a single, sturdy beam (better view of this feature to the right). The ground floor appears to have big ceilings and are primarily huge windows to let in natural light and to allow for window displays for street-level shops.
What’s different? Building material, for one. The Port Costa location seems to be a wooden building whereas the Chicago structure is made of brick, which could be a simple necessity of Chicago winters. Also, the Port Costa building has angled edges as opposed to the more rounded brick curves, which is a function of the material as well.
The big difference is that while (using the street names as reference, check out the Murder Castle building layout as drawn by the Chicago Tribune to the left), the 63rd Street-Chicago side matches the parking-Port Costa side exactly, but the Wallace Street-Chicago side is probably twice as long as the Canyon Lake Dr-Port Costa side. Otherwise, the only difference I can see from the photos is the paint job.
If the Port Costa building was essentially the rough draft, I think it only makes sense that he’d go bigger and better once he got to Chicago.
Also, it should be noted that once Holmes was on the run from Chicago, he started construction of a new building in Forth Worth, Texas at the corner of 2nd & Commerce Streets, which was never finished. So, we do have precedent that he would go to another town to possibly set up shop all over again. It will be interesting to see if any sort of blue prints were ever filed with the city of Fort Worth, which could show us if he planned to use the same design as his Chicago building. Proving that wouldn’t be ‘proof’ that the Port Costa building was also his, but it would make the theory even more plausible.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that for all I know, this is how most hotels built in the late 1800s looked. Perhaps now that I’ve written this article, I’ll see this style everywhere.
Years ago I reached out to either the local historical society or perhaps the owners themselves as they were looking to turn renovations of the historic site into a community activity. I wish I had the flexibility to donate my time to working on (and exploring) the location, but alas, I was not. Fortunately, they did complete their renovations and the location opened for business once more.
So much research to do here!
- I’d love to see Jeff Mudgett’s map, possibly marked up by HH Holmes himself, to see if we can connect any historical crimes/disappearances to circled locations.
- In person, I’d like to search the locations marked on the map to see if we can find any artifacts there that would connect to the late 1800s.
- I’d love to do a standard paranormal investigation of the hotel itself, looking to make contact with any number of spirits said to haunt here, from the “Lady in Red” to other long deceased local spirits. Naturally, I’ll have some EVP questions relating to HH Holmes too, just in case.
- The big investigation will involve talking to hotel owners about anything ‘odd’ that may have been discovered during renovations. Secret passageways, hidden rooms, etc. The types of construction that lead to Chicago’s murder castle to gain its reputation.
- I’d also like to talk to the local historical society to see if any names associated with the original building of the hotel match any of the known names that HH Holmes used throughout history. The man had a lot of aliases.
- Is it true that there were a number of disappearances in this area in the 1880s? I’d like to prove or disprove that, likely with the help of the local historical society.
- Does Holmes actually have a link to someone buried in a cemetery nearby? Attempting to do my own research, I cannot find the burial location for Georgiana Yoke, who was one of Holmes’s five wives. I do, however, see that she did pass away in Los Angeles in 1945, so I know she was in California. It’s very odd to me that there are no burial records to be found. Also, one of Holmes’s daughters, Lucy Theodate Holmes Moss (mother was Holmes’s second wife, Myrta Belknap Holmes) lived in Los Angeles and is buried in Santa Monica’s Woodlawn Cemetery, so we do have evidence of multiple members of his family heading west.
…and for something completely different:
Family Search listing for Gerogiana Yoke: https://ancestors.familysearch.org/en/M7B4-QRM/georgiana-d-yoke-1869-1945
Atlas Obscura article on HH Holmes’s unmarked grave: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-unmarked-grave-of-hh-holmes-yeadon-pennsylvania
Atlas Obscura article on the Burlington Hotel: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-burlington-hotel-port-costa-california
A Patch.com look at the Burlington: https://patch.com/california/martinez/burlington-hotel-haunted-or-not