By Nada Chatwell
Ask a ghost, “Are you of this world?” If you get an answer, you’ll know if it’s a real ghost or if it’s someone playing a prank on you. That’s how our docent, Lorie Porter, from the San Juan Historical Society, began our Ghost Tour on Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano. Over two dozen DPHS members and guests were provided a special tour on Thursday, October 25th. Lorie provided us with the following facts and folklore about the happenings in and around Los Rios Street, the oldest residential street in California.
The O’Neill Historical Museum is an 1870’s Victorian, located on Los Rios Street adjacent to Zoomer’s Petting Zoo. (In 1976 it was relocated to Los Rios from behind the El Adobe Restaurant.) It was here that our group began the evening’s spooky fun. The O’Neill Museum is also known as the former home of the Garcia and Pryor families. It was built for Jose Dolores Garcia as a four room structure without a kitchen or a bathroom. The cooking was done outdoors. In the 1920’s a kitchen was added but for fire safety the cooking was still done outside the main house. In 1896, Jose Dolores Garcia, a saloon owner, was murdered outside his saloon which still stands on Camino Capistrano. The murder is presumed to have occurred because someone wanted his land but he would not sell.
The next owner, Albert Pryor, bought the house in 1903. The Pryors would have their morning tea on the front porch and Albert spent many hours watching the children and trains from his rocking chair. It is said that Albert has been seen rocking on the porch wearing a gray shawl over his shoulders. The house sat vacant for many years because it was thought to be haunted. No one would buy the house because of strange noises coming from inside. Even transients have refused to occupy it. It was moved to its present location and the noises have ceased.
The next story was based on the Mexican folklore about La Llorona. Michele Kelly tells the tale of a beautiful young prostitute who drowned her children in the nearby Trabuco Creek. Her cries, screeches and sobs can be heard at night when the wind blows. It is said that she walks the river bed looking for children so she can pay penance. Old-timers warned, “Don’t go out when La Llorona is out.” Upon hearing this tale, on nights when the wind would howl, young mothers too frightened to sleep would cling to their children. In the mornings, they would be relieved to find their babies still tucked in their arms. Many children growing up in this area would not go anywhere near the riverbed at night.
Lorie led us to another docent at his post in front of the Rios home. Dave Davidson explained that the Rios family had the adobe built in 1791. A descendent, Steve Rios, lives in the home today and he is the tenth generation. One evening when Steve was about 10 – 12 years old, he and his dad were alone in the house, preparing for a hunting excursion the next day. Later that evening, when Steve was trying to sleep, he heard the back door open and footsteps follow. He jolted up and called out to his dad. As young Steve ran downstairs, he heard the footsteps retreat and the back door close. His dad grabbed a hunting rifle and joined Steve at the rear door. The windows and doors were still locked from the inside and they found nothing. They learned that the footsteps most likely belonged to the ghost of bandit, Joaquin Murrieta. In years past, the Rios’s family had given Joaquin shelter. At that time the family had kept a ladder nearby and a bed in the attic for Joaquin. Because they were sympathetic to his cause he always left a gold coin. He was supposedly robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. They believe he is a friendly ghost and is a protector of the house.
More popular legends followed . . . Several stories about the White Lady have surfaced through the years. She often appears near the 200 year old pepper tree. According to one legend, if you see a cone of light in her presence, wait until she leaves, then mark the location. The next day, you’ll find gold.
The White Lady has also been seen at the Ortega graveyard off Ortega highway, behind the old Shell station. She is said to have long black hair, wears a white dress, and doesn’t have any visible feet. The old-timers who’ve seen her commented, “Don’t worry . . . she won’t hurt you.”
Next, we visited the two-room, modestly furnished Montañez adobe that was built about 1794. Except for the linseed oil that was worked into the floor to keep the dust down, the building is original. We were told that Dona Polonia Montañez took it upon herself to provide a Christian education to the neighborhood children when there was no resident priest at the Mission. She was known to use a cattle prod to poke the children if they weren’t paying attention to their lessons. She was an herbalist who grew her own plants and a midwife.
Because of a severe drought, times were difficult for the Los Rios community. To bring rain to the town, Dona Polonia and the children began praying and chanting as they trekked along on their long journeys. After three days of prayer vigils and chants, it began to rain. Today locals claim that light can be seen under the door of the Montañez adobe where the children said their prayers and chanting can be heard.
In the 1970’s, a botanist student, Barbie, cared for the adobe. She complained, “I’ve lived here for four years and have never seen the White Lady!” After staying up late studying for finals, she fell asleep. Later, she awoke to a smiling apparition of the White Lady without any visible feet. The tired student pleaded, “I’ve got finals tomorrow, please come back.” Barbie fell back to sleep and never saw the White Lady again.
Next, Lorie ushered us to the Ramos house docent Ron Lance. (The Ramos House Café is located next to the house.) The docent, recalling a story from the past, described how an owner had hired a carpenter to do work at the residence. After the first day of the project, the carpenter piled his tools in the room. When he returned the next morning, the tools were scattered about. When he inquired about the mess, the owner said, “Strange things happen.” At the end of the next day, the carpenter stacked his tools and placed them in a back room and swept up. The same thing happened again. When he returned in the morning, his tools and boxes of nails were emptied and strewn about. When he spoke with the owner, the carpenter was finally given a history of the back room: the owner’s grandmother had died there. She had told the family that she never wanted to leave the room. He added that the back bedroom is always 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the house. On the third work day, the same thing had happened — the carpenter’s tools were again strewn about the back room.
When he opened the door to the attic, a white thing swept downward and out through the closed door.
He never went back.
We didn’t examine the grandmother’s cold bedroom, but we were able to climb down irregular, narrow steps that led to a crawlspace below the main bedroom. The room has been converted to a band rehearsal room and wine cellar.
Lorie led us to another docent, Wendy. Wendy was a former stewardess and had purchased a home in San Juan Capistrano that was convenient for her work commute. Every time she returned from business travel, she discovered that while she was away, her personal belongings had been rummaged through. Late one evening while her boyfriend was watching TV, Wendy was cleaning up after dinner. A female in a white swirling dress appeared. The apparition vanished before Wendy could see her clearly, but remnants remained — a clear wet substance was located on the floor, next to the bed.
At another time, during the holidays, the Christmas tree had been pushed over and a clear, wet substance was on the ornaments and gifts. Eventually, Wendy named the ghost, Gloria.
Once, Wendy had placed a packed suitcase in the middle of the bed. She returned only to find the bed covers removed, yet the suitcase remained in the middle of the unmade bed. After this latest incident, Wendy contacted a ghost removal service. A séance was conducted and Gloria was exorcised from the house.
Wendy later learned that a neighbor had called the fire department demanding, “Get that thing out of my house!” The fire department responded, “Don’t worry; it’s only the White Lady.” Ghosts seem to leave one house only to haunt another.
We also heard several Mission stories . . .
A headless monk roams the halls of the Mission; his face is never seen. He wears a hooded robe. The space where his face should be is always turned away from view.
A headless soldier, possibly, Bouchard the Pirate, from the 1800’s, has also been observed at the Mission. While in Northern California, the living Bouchard, robbed for his homeland in South America. He thought he’d find similar riches in Southern California, but couldn’t find anything, except for two cannons on the cliffs, food and wine. The inhabitants had escaped with their valuables through two tunnels below the Mission. When Bouchard entered the Mission, he was beheaded.
In about 1820 – 1830, a young woman, Matilda, was doing laundry for the priest at the Mission. She decided to continue working and not to go to mass. While conducting the service, the priest saw Matilda outside the church through a window and wondered why she didn’t come in. Later, he asked Matilda in person, “Why didn’t you come to mass?”
She replied, “I was doing laundry. I wasn’t anywhere near the Mission.”
It happened again. Matilda was finishing her work at the priest’s residence, yet the priest and several witnesses saw her outside the Mission while he was conducting mass. Later, the priest again asked, “Why didn’t you come to mass?”
She replied, “I was doing laundry and couldn’t make it.” And stressed, she wasn’t anywhere near the Mission. Three weeks later, Matilda was dead. The church bells rang, but the bell ringer wasn’t there and the rope to the bells was tied off so they couldn’t swing.
The final story dealt with Magdalena, who fell in love with a local Indian. Because of class distinctions, her parents forbade the relationship and forced Magdalena to do penance. As she walked with a candle from the back of the Mission building toward the front, the 1812 earthquake struck and the great stone church fell killing 40 people including Magdalena. Since that time, a light appears at the window in the old Mission. It’s Magdalena. She’s still doing penance.
Remember, when you’re in the Los Rios neighborhood and see a ghost, ask “Are you of this world?”
And, be sure to let us know the answer . . .