Galveston history becomes ghostly enterprise

Amy Scozzeri and Dash Bearsley, of Ghost Tours of Galveston, pose at a restaurant in Galveston, Texas, they claim is haunted. The two have taken thousands of tourists for a two-hour walking tour of the Strand District's spookiest places.
Amy Scozzeri and Dash Bearsley, of Ghost Tours of Galveston, pose at a restaurant in Galveston, Texas, they claim is haunted. The two have taken thousands of tourists for a two-hour walking tour of the Strand District's spookiest places.Carlos Javier Sanchez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve Havlock thought he was alone.

He'd shut Luigi's Ristorante Italiano for the night, the other employees had left and he was doing some final cleanup.

Then he heard a woman's voice, calling "Steve! Steve!"

"It was very clear," Havlock, 50, said. "The voice was in the distance, but very clear. And it was certainly my name."

No one was visible.

He'd heard the stories about a ghost that inhabits the restaurant's building on The Strand, the main street in Galveston's old historic district.

"I was skeptical," Havlock said of his experience about eight months ago. "I don't know that it freaked me out, but it was a little unnerving. I thought maybe I was imagining this."

But when the restaurant owner's 3-year-old grandson recently talked about speaking to "the lady upstairs" — and no one inhabits the second floor — and when a stunned customer earlier this month insisted they captured an unexplained image of a woman on their camera, Havlock was sold.

"I'm a believer now," he said. "I was always open-minded, but it certainly convinced me."

Havlock's experience was just another work day for Dash Beardsley and partner Amy Scozzari. They operate Ghosts Tours of Galveston and have taken thousands of tourists for a two-hour walking tour of the Strand's spookiest places.

Galveston had been Texas' largest city and most important port until the 1900 storm destroyed it, killing an estimated 6,000 people and ultimately leading to the growth of Houston, about 50 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. But even before the defining storm, famed French-born pirate Jean Laffite had used Galveston in the early 1800s as the base for his smuggling. The island also was captured by the Union in the Civil War and retaken by the Confederates.

"Fires, hurricanes, plagues of yellow fever," Beardsley said. "There's been unnecessary death here for a long time and any time there's a death that's sudden and not expected, there's almost always some kind of haunting."

Like the more than century-old former infirmary where people say they see folks appearing in the windows on the empty second floor.

Or the ghost of slain police officer Daniel Brister outside a former bank building where he was gunned down in 1920.

"The other night, with a large crowd in front of me, he pinched me on my backside," Scozzari, 27, said. "I told the crowd: 'I think Daniel is here. Daniel is getting fresh with me.'

"It's just another part of every day. I just accept it. I'm pretty normal, just like everyone else. If you get too serious about this, it can get overwhelming."

Beardsley created the tour about seven years ago. He'd heard the story of Betty Brown haunting her old house, Ashton Villa, the family mansion that survived the great 1900 Galveston hurricane and wanted to learn more about her.

"People had said they'd seen her," Beardsley said. "Before I knew it, I had about 20 stories. I was doing it for fun. Then I thought nobody's telling these stories."

He distributed some flyers announcing his tour and the business — now year-round — has grown from there.

"I was learning as I went along," he said. "I've always felt I was drawn to Galveston."

At the former infirmary that's one of the tour stops, it's said the ghosts of Civil War victims have been seen in the windows.

Another stop is the Tremont House Hotel, which incorporates another old hotel, the Belmont, that shared the site. A salesman staying there in 1872 was shot and killed and robbed of his gambling winnings in his fourth-floor room. His ghost is said to frequent the place, wandering the halls, creaking the elevator and shifting glasses in the bar.

"I stay here every time I come to Galveston," Dusty Milanes, 50, of Bryan, said. She's yet to see a ghost, or evidence of one, but says she's heard other hotel guests talking about the stories.

"Who knows?" she said.

"I've tried to make it relevant, to do as close to the truth as I could," Beardsley said. "I wanted to tell the truth about a lot of these stories and the history, mystery and legend. For everything I show on the tour, we have proof to back it up and don't make it up. We don't want to just rip people off."

Scozzari signed on about 2 1/2 years ago, convinced she wanted to get involved after taking the tour as a customer.

"I tell people very much in the beginning, we leave it up to you whether to believe in ghosts," Scozzari said. "We're not here to make up your minds. We're here to offer a glimpse into Galveston's past."

Havlock's unseen caller, the ghost at Luigi's, is believed to be Sara, her last name lost in records destroyed in the 1900 storm. She's said to have survived the hurricane, riding it out as the tidal surge reached the second floor and trying to pull storm victims up the black iron stairs. She succumbed to disease in the aftermath.

"She seems to me like a very sweet soul, a very nice person that had way too much on her plate at the time," Beardsley said.

Havlock agreed.

"You get a sense it was a benevolent spirit," he said, describing what he heard. "It was not at all threatening."