Victoria, B.C.: City of spirits
Posted on Saturday, July 17 @ 11:52:03 EST by ghostgeek
In most cities, it’s easy to forget that there are two populations: one living and one dead. Not so in Victoria, British Columbia.
Down at the tidy harbor on a warm August evening, there was lots of evidence of the lively side of the city. Crowds of tourists watched an acrobatic break dancer while nearby a bag-piper bleated like a wounded sheep. In the harbor itself, the final heats of the weekend’s dragon-boat races were playing out. Flowers bloomed in profusion from every patch of open ground. The living, breathing side of Victoria, the lovely provincial capital that occupies the tip of Vancouver Island, was all around me.
As dusk gathered though, so did the gloom. The Fairmont Empress Hotel — a massive brick monolith that looms over the harbor — started to look a little sinister. Across the street, I found John Adams patiently waiting for anyone who wanted to encounter Victoria’s other population, the ones whose moments in the summer sun have long since passed. Tall, bearded, and all in black from felt hat to umbrella, he was somber as a shadow. He has taken on the role as a spokesman for the city’s ghosts, and he’s down at the harbor every night during the summer, just in case anyone wants to hear what they have to say.
“I’m not sure why there are so many ghosts in Victoria, but it is the most-haunted city in British Columbia,” he said, opening another walking tour of the Old Town’s spirits. “There are several theories, but people have been buried here for at least 6,000 years, beginning with the Lekwammen people. They buried their dead right here under rock cairns or put their bodies in canoes up in trees.”
Adams explained that he is a history instructor at the University of Victoria and that he’s an avid collector of ghost stories. He takes no position on whether ghosts are real, but said many of his stories come from first-hand accounts in the present day, and that he has no doubt that his sources really experienced what they describe.
The big-headed ghost
We started the tour in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel. “The Empress opened in 1908, and it has probably been haunted from the beginning.”
Adams said that he had worked at the Empress as a college student in the ’60s and had heard stories of ghost sightings then, but that he’d heard them more recently, too.
“About three years ago a couple celebrating their wedding anniversary were staying at the Empress. They went out to dinner and got back late. They were looking at the old photos in the lower lobby and there was no one else around for at least 10 minutes. They started up the stairway and heard footsteps — someone right behind them. They stopped at the landing, and the person behind them didn’t pass. At the second landing, they turned around to confront this person, and he suddenly vanished. They described him as a tall, thin man with a mustache in a frock coat.
“I knew right away who it was: Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the architect of the Empress and the Parliament building. He was and is the most famous architect in B.C., and he was also famous for his ego.”
Adams said that Rattenbury’s ghost has been seen in the Empress many times, and that his life had ended in scandal and tragedy. Still living in Victoria in the 1920s, Rattenbury divorced his first wife, Florrie, and married a much younger woman named Alma.
“She was thought to be a fast woman at that time,” Adams said. “She drank and smoked and some people said she did drugs. The gossip in Victoria was relentless and cruel.”
To escape their infamy, the couple moved to Bournemouth, England. Trouble was close behind.
Rattenbury took to drinking heavily and Alma fell in love with their 18-year-old chauffeur. The chauffeur (or Alma, possibly) used a wooden mallet to brain Rattenbury one night as he was sitting in front of the fireplace. The trial in England was a sensation. The chauffeur was sentenced to hang. Distraught, Alma committed suicide by stabbing herself in the heart.
“Rattenbury and Alma are buried in unmarked graves in Bournemouth,” Adams said. “But ghosts are not limited by geography. If they have a reason to be somewhere, they’ll go. Rattenbury’s ghost is frequently seen in the…