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Monday, June 25, 2007 - Page updated at 09:38 AM

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Ghost stories haunt Pike Place Market

Seattle Times staff

You are never alone at Pike Place Market. Even when you are by yourself.

Karen McAleese swears to it. On All Saints' Day a couple of years ago, she is certain she saw someone — something? — amble out of the kitchen at Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub, her family's place. "He was a tall man who looked like he was part black, with a suit jacket on," McAleese says in her thick Irish accent. "He had very thin hands. He walked to the end of the bar and just kind of faded."

It scared the bejeebers out of her.

Nina Menon doubts no more. The co-owner of Bead Zone in the Market's DownUnder was in her shop having a rather agitated phone conversation when strands of red beads hanging on a wall hook came crashing to the floor.

"I was a healthy skeptic, but seeing was believing," Menon says. "There was no way these beads could have just slid off."

When people say Pike Place Market is full of spirit, they have no earthly idea how true that may be. We mere mortals may not be the only ones lurking in the Market's nooks and crannies.

Take Frank, a tall and elderly ghost who supposedly introduces himself by name outside the bathrooms at Alibi Room, a club off Post Alley.

Or that time an overwhelming scent of old-lady perfume filled the back office of the Market Theatre, sending an employee — alone inside — fleeing out the front door.

Believe yet? No?

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Then gather 'round and settle in for a Pike Place Market ghost story — the scariest, creepiest and most bloodcurdlingest of them all.

Mwahahaha!

We like to call it:

PHANTOMS OF THE MORTUARY

Edgar R. Butterworth, a collector of buffalo bones, first tended to the dead while owning a small furniture store in Centralia. During a diphtheria epidemic, he added a line of ready-made coffins.

The former Centralia mayor and state legislator moved to Seattle in 1892 and bought out a downtown undertaking business.

As Seattle grew, so did his business. In need of a bigger facility, he commissioned the building of a three-story brick structure at 1921 First Ave.

Beautifully appointed in stained mahogany, art glass, ornamental plaster and specially designed brass and bronze hardware, the building opened in 1903 — four years before Pike Place Market started two blocks away.

E.R. Butterworth and Sons was a center of mourning in Seattle. Bodies of the rich and poor, entrepreneurs and laborers, old and young passed through the long, narrow building. In 1923, Butterworth moved his mortuary business to Capitol Hill, having outgrown the First Avenue space.

Other businesses have moved in since then, including Kells, the Irish pub that for the past quarter-century has operated successfully in the basement, its entrance reached from Post Alley, not First.

Patrick McAleese, 36, the 6-foot-6 Irishman who owns Kells, says the business occupies the former embalming room and crematorium (which may explain the bone-thin ghost that sister Karen reports seeing at the bar).

When Patrick was a teenager and his parents owned Kells, a wall mirror in the back bar — which was closed at the time — fell to the floor and shattered into pieces. ("But in a neat little pile," Karen McAleese adds.)

When the family ran back to see what happened, a single candle on the bar was inexplicably burning.

"You think someone must be pulling your leg," Patrick says. "But then you don't see anyone."

The "haunted booth"

The corpse count continued at 1921 First Ave. long after the mortuary moved out.

The First Avenue-level space (the old chapel and mortuary office) has seen its share of short-lived business ventures.

Inside the space today are the ruins of the last, Starlite Lounge — booth benches upholstered in black with white starburst patterns; a giant painting of Sammy, Dino and Frank behind the bar; three bottles of dry sherry left behind for ... who exactly?

This would be a better ghost story if hauntings were responsible for the demise of those businesses. But that would be a major stretch.

"They didn't have an effect on our business except we had Halloween parties every year," says Arnie Millan, owner of Avenue One, a restaurant that lasted from 1997 to 2002.

But Avenue One also had spooky events that were not planned — and not easily explained, Millan says:

Two wine bottles flying off the rack, narrowly missing a manager's head. A long-missing vase inexplicably placed on a window table that had just been set; a diner who fled after he was sure he saw an old woman hugging a shawl disappear into a wall.

Scott and Sue Craig owned Café Sophie, a restaurant and club at 1921 First Ave. until 1997. Scott says the couple never witnessed a fully formed ghost, "but I have no doubt our place had some sort of spiritual vibration."

After loyal customers insisted they "felt something" whenever they ate at a specific table, the Craigs branded it the "haunted booth." One night, diners in the booth taunted the ghosts to show themselves.

A huge chunk of ceiling plaster fell to the floor about five feet from their table. "It turns out there was a problem with the ceiling," Scott Craig says.

But that doesn't explain Sue Craig's story of once seeing a pair of shoes in a bathroom stall vanish into thin air.

A shaman once counted 19 fully formed ghosts inside the old mortuary, says Mercedes Yaeger, who leads ghost tours of the Market. Some ghosts that have been seen appear emaciated, and Yaeger has a theory:

A Seattle doctor treated patients by trying to starve illness out of them with tomato broth and three enemas a day. It didn't work, and those gaunt bodies eventually passed through the mortuary.

Yaeger says mortuary ghosts have been various races. The building sits on an old Suquamish Indian burial ground, she says. And she believes other ghosts are former laborers, including Chinese and African Americans, upset at never receiving credit for their contributions in helping build Seattle.

"There are some pissed-off ghosts in there," Yaeger says. "There is no closure for them."

A selling point?

The McAleese family has run a successful business in the former embalming area and crematorium below 1921 First Ave., so why not try to make a go of it upstairs where the funerals actually took place?

Undeterred by ghosts, Patrick McAleese and his mother, Ethna, bought 1921 First Ave. in September 2005 and plan to open a non-Irish-themed restaurant there.

Patrick is restoring the interior of the old chapel to its former, uh, glory.

"I'd never ignore the past of this place," says Patrick, who will ask a priest friend, Father Tony, to bless the place before he opens later this summer.

"It will be dead space until then," sister Karen jokes.

As part of the restoration, Patrick has opened up a walled-off balcony that he plans to turn into a private dining area for bigger parties. Yaeger believes the balcony was where mourning families sat during funerals.

The chapel also has a second balcony where Yaeger believes the minister presided. Beneath that balcony, she says, the embalmed corpse, dressed well, would have been seated in a chair instead of lying in a casket. That chair would have been located in what is now a corridor separating the kitchen from the bathrooms — the very place, Yaeger says, where most ghosts have been seen.

Yaeger is skeptical that any business can truly thrive inside 1921 First Ave. but says there may be a way.

"These ghosts want to be heard, so [the McAleeses] should make the hauntings a selling point," she says. "People need to know the history. They need to promote the crazy activity that has happened there. The hokier, the better."

Her suggestion: Turn it into a goth nightclub and call it "The Mortuary."

Mwahahaha! That's a scary thought.

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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