This town sure as hell isn’t what it used to be.
For starters, the moral capital of the West used to be filled with men who would shoot one another over card games and floozies—at least, that’s how history remembers it, and that’s why a crew of local ghost hunters and I were hanging around the Fort Douglas Military Museum late on a Wednesday night.
We were looking for ghosts. Correction: old-timey, prostitutin’, gamblin’, whiskey-drinkin’, murderous military ghosts!
Now part of the University of Utah campus, Fort Douglas was established in 1862 for two primary reasons: Washington needed to keep the mail route open to the West and, more importantly, the bureaucrats wanted to keep a close eye on those multiple-wives-havin’ Mormons.
What’s left of the fort’s barracks are two partially remodeled structures, now used as the fort’s main museum buildings and called simply Building 31 and Building 32. In the interest of increasing our chances of paranormal findings, ghost hunters Helmey Kramer, Jennifer Doane and Jason Magers and I concentrated our efforts on these two locations.
The following story is based on actual events.
Museum curator Beau Burgess gave us a brief tour of the complex. Besides the many military-related pieces, the museum is filled with all types of bizarre little knick-knacks: a World War I horse gas mask, the boots Saddam Hussein was wearing when he was captured and—my personal favorite—a weird little bronze Hitler head that Burgess claims might have been the same one that opened the secret fireplace door in Indian Jones & the Last Crusade.
Eventually, Burgess led us into a small storage room below Building 32, a spot referred to by Fort Douglas museum staff as the card room.
“I’m not particularly sure what this space was originally used for, but it’s rumored that people would gamble, drink and smoke cigars in here, and it’s pretty much the same [now]—minus some wiring and infrastructure updates,” Burgess said.
The card room was the main reason we were at Fort Douglas. The rest of the building was remodeled, but this particular space remained mostly untouched, besides new lighting that let us see the crumbling brick walls and the old wooden beams that lined the low-hanging ceiling. It also smelled like a grandpa’s basement office.
I know this doesn’t sound very scary, but apparently, this room has the most reported cases of paranormal activity.
“Some people have told stories of smelling cigar smoke in here, or seeing smoke coming out of the doorway. I haven’t seen anything, personally,” Burgess said.
While standing in the card room, we hatched a plan for the evening and figured that the best way to cover as much ground as possible was to spend half the time in Building 31 and half in 32, while leaving recording equipment in whatever building we weren’t in.
“There are no rules with this stuff; anyone who says otherwise has watched too many TV shows,” said Helmey Kramer, a cast member of Biography’s weekend ghost show Haunted Encounters. Kramer is sort of the unofficial leader of this ghost group. He’s a salt & pepper-haired über-man—think George Clooney in cargo pants, driving a Jeep Rubicon while discussing the pros and cons of ghost-centric condenser mics.
“Contrary to popular belief, you get better stuff when the lights are on; it’s more visual. I’m using an HD cam and I’m running motion-detection technology, so I’m just gonna set it up here and if anything moves, or there’s a deviation, it’ll pick it up,” Kramer said while rubbing his goatee.
As for the other two ghost hunters, there’s Jason Magers—a commercial pilot built like a linebacker, who seems to be doing this for the personal thrill of being spooked by scary ghosts—and Jennifer Doane, an insurance-appeals analyst by day and a ghost- hunting history buff on the weekends. Her phone is filled with PDFs of newspaper clippings about old murders and suicides.
“Gambling was a really bad problem at Fort Douglas—so bad that they were discussing getting rid of the fort because the soldiers were causing so many problems for the locals,” Doane said. “Quite a few guys were killed over card games here.”
It’s Doane’s history-first approach to ghost hunting that initially piqued my interest to do this story. The way these three see it, the more they know about a specific location and the people who occupied that space, the better are their odds of picking up something paranormal.
“We don’t do, like, the typical ‘Who is here with us?’ method; we try to have it be more organic and have conversations that would involve the people that might have been here,” Doane said.
“Look, we operate under the basic assumption that ghosts are people that were once alive,” Kramer said. “So, our conversations will revolve around the kinds of things that mattered to them. I mean, if you’re walking by and you hear someone talk about something that interests you, you’re more likely to say your two cents. We get much better results doing that.”
Though they work together often, Kramer, Doane and Magers actively avoid the term “team.” Doane used to run one of the many local ghost-investigation groups; Kramer and Magers were both on her squad.
“There’s more drama in the paranormal community than you can imagine—people being jealous, all kinds of crazy stuff,” Doane said.
“Yeah, we’re not really a team,” Kramer interjected as he finished setting up the motion detector, “because teams are tools with matching T-shirts and all that. We’re just explorers that like to go out and do this stuff.”
With everything set up in the card room, we moved back to Building 31 to hang out in the naval room and, hopefully, have a real-time conversation with a ghost. This particular space is filled with mostly World War II Pacific Theater artifacts and photos, and is themed so that you feel like you’re inside a ship.
“So, what do you guys think we’re gonna find tonight?” I asked.
“I think it’s definitely going to be a soldier … I think our odds are good to come across a ghost from the early 1900s; prior to 1915, there’s been a ton of suicides and murders here. I can’t say if they were in this building, but the odds are good,” Doane said.
She sat on the floor, holding a video camera trained on Kramer, who positioned himself by the door, holding a microphone and wearing a headset. Magers and I sat in opposite corners of the room. The idea was to have a discussion about the corruption and death at Fort Douglas in the hopes that it would invoke some ghostly conversation.
Doane continued scrolling through her phone. “So, Colonel Clem. He tried to bribe the secretary of war with a box of cigars and a hundred dollars. It says here he got pissed when they found out. They didn’t prosecute him, though, and they sent the money and the cigars to the war department, where they sat unclaimed.”
“Yeah, ‘unclaimed,’ ” remarked Magers.
“I wonder if any of the folks here know Colonel Clem? Or had any personal dealings with him?” Kramer asked no one in particular, then paused. “Shhh, did someone just speak?” he asked.
Everyone looked blankly at one another.
“Dude, I heard something,” Kramer said. He continued to press the subject of Clem. “I have a problem with people who are not good people. I think I would have struggled with this Colonel Clem guy.”
We sat in silence, wondering if Kramer would hear anything on the headset. Nothing.
“There was also Albert Hackett. He was shot and killed by another officer, a teamster named Silas Smith,” Doane said, staring at her phone.
“All right, let’s go quiet after this,” ordered Kramer. “I wonder who else was shot here?”
“Maybe your research was wrong, Jen. Maybe no one was shot here,” Kramer said, standing in a power stance.
“My research isn’t wrong,” Doane responded. “There was a guy who was shot and killed by his wife in 1897, and another guy named Joe Lunder, who was also shot and killed here.”
“I wonder if Joe is still hangin’ out?” Kramer said.
“Someone just make a sound?” Kramer asked. “I heard a female moan.”
Coincidently, the microphone was pointed directly at me, a guy who had previously eaten an entire enchilada-style beef burrito.
“I … honestly ... ate a whole bunch of Cafe Rio before coming here,” I confessed. “You’re probably picking up all sorts of horrible things from here,” I said, pointing to my stomach.
“Yeah, that’s awkward,” Doane said with a laugh.
Just then, we heard a loud boom from the other room.
Kramer’s left eyebrow took it up a notch. “What was that?!” he yelled.
We headed into the other room to discover Magers’ GoPro camera, which he’d suctioned to a display case, had fallen on the floor.
Everyone stood around the camera as if it were a crime scene. Magers remounted it while Kramer explained that ghosts will often mess with recording equipment. “You never know, it would be cool to go back and check to see if anything came into contact with it,” he said. “I’ve seen video of full arms smacking cameras.”
We walked back to the naval room and spent the next half-hour discussing the space-time continuum, why we don’t see cavemen ghosts, if cat ghosts exist and whether The Sixth Sense was a shitty movie.
Magers defended the film because of the “interesting twist” that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. I argued a better twist would have been if the kid was just a liar.
Ultimately, we agreed it was best to move back to the card room.
In order to get to there, you have to walk through a large room that used to be the buildings’ outdoor courtyard and now serves as a sort of open-area conference room. Though this space wasn’t particularly interesting, Kramer decided to set up a microphone there as well.
We then headed to the lower level of Building 32, which acts as a storage area for the museum. The main room in the basement is filled with gravestones removed from the cemetery just up the road. The gravestones, which were laid out on tarps, are mostly from the graves of the soldiers who once occupied Fort Douglas. The museum staff brought them inside because the graves were made from sandstone and the names were beginning to weather away.
While we looked over the names, Kramer explained where ghosts typically come from. “Disturbing gravestones, desecration of burial sites, things like that, seem to conjure up activity,” he said. Ghosts “also go back to spots that they felt safe, a place that was their escape. You also find ghosts in places where they spent a lot of time—routine locations.”
I pictured myself as a ghost, lying in bed, watching reruns of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on my iPad while drinking Ruffles crumbs straight from the bag. “That sounds nice,” I thought.
On the other side of the “gravestone zone” is the card room, which we piled back into for the last leg of the night. The strategy remained the same. Playing off the knowledge that this was once a room where gambling, drinking and whoring took place, Kramer set up his recorder and asked aloud, “Apparently, there were some shenanigans in this room. Does anyone have any cards?”
“Does anyone have any whiskey?”
“How about any hookers?”
Kramer suddenly placed one hand on his headset. “Did someone just make a sound?”
I put my hand to my stomach. No grumbles.
“So apparently, hookers are where it’s at down here,” he continued.
“If you’re into hookers, maybe you should talk to Jen?” Kramer said.
“Great. That’s great.” Doane responded. “That never works.”
“Are you a hooker?” Kramer asked the prospective ghost.
“Well, they did sneak in a lot of hookers in here, and this would’ve been a great place,” Doane said.
“It sounds like I’m picking something up; it might be conversational,” Kramer said. He switched to a yell: “We can hear you, but you have to speak up!” He then pulled out a metallic Zippo lighter with a cool little skull on it. He lit it, set it on a shelf and said, “In case you need a light.”
Everyone in the room stared intently at the flame for a seemingly endless amount of time, hoping that we’d see a ghost roll up and light a stogie.
“Feel free,” he said. “I’ll share my fire.”
The flame remained still.
“I swear there’s a voice there,” Kramer said while staring down at his recorder. “I need instant gratification,” he said as he rewound the tape.
Everyone gathered around Kramer as he played back the faint, two-second blip through the tiny speaker on his recorder. The ghost hunters claimed to hear a distant female voice. But to me, it just sounded like crackles over a microphone.
Even though these three absolutely believe in the existence of ghosts, they understand that what they do will never be taken seriously.
“You can’t re-create a ghost experience in a lab, I get that,” Kramer said. “So, in that sense, ghost hunting is not a science and it never will be. But that doesn’t mean these strange things don’t occur and that they can’t be documented.” Doane, Magers and Kramer mentioned a few of the more memorable hauntings they’ve encountered over the years, like the time they heard an entire dinner party in the upstairs of a hotel only to discover that no one was in the building.
“You know, there’s people that are never going to believe, no matter what,” Doane said. “You could have a ghost walk right up to them and smack them in the face and they’re still not going to believe it.”
After sitting silently in the card room for what seemed like an hour, no contact with the outside world except Twitter, I secretly wished a ghost would backhand me across the face.
But it didn’t happen. We left Fort Douglas around 11 p.m. without coming in contact with anything remotely paranormal. I wasn’t disappointed, though; I knew that would be the case.
There’s something about sitting in a weird, dingy room under a Civil War-era fort, surrounded by people who really, truly believe in ghosts, that makes you want to believe in ghosts, but ghost-hunting is simply a fun way to learn about local history while occasionally whispering, “What the hell was that?!” To me, that makes it worthwhile work.
About a week later, I received an e-mail from Doane filled with a hefty collection of her Fort Douglas murder PDFs and some selected audio clips from our ghost hunt.
As I read over the newspaper clippings about Colonel Clem, Silas the teamster and various pissed-off prostitutes, I listened to Kramer’s recordings. Most of them echoed the clip we heard in the card room—mic muffles and dead air. However, one stood out. It came from the microphone Kramer had left in the enclosed courtyard area, a spot we hardly paid any attention to that evening. At three seconds into the clip, a very soft and breathy voice could be heard saying what sounded almost like “help now,” followed by a small clunk.
I called Kramer to get his analysis of the clip.
“When you look at it on a wave spectrum, you can see the break of a human-voice wave pattern. So, I feel pretty good about that one,” he said. “It’s almost like someone was reaching out for help. But it’s one of those things—you can hear the whisper, but I struggle to say what the voice was saying. It could be saying anything. It could have been an air duct, or a noise from outside, but sometimes, the paranormal stuff just makes more sense.”
To be fair, I have no idea. I’d like to believe it was a ghost soldier saying “help now” or “hell now” or “eyebrow.” But I guess there’s no way to know. My money is on Beau Burgess, the museum curator, tripping over a broom in the dark. That would be one hell of an M. Night Shyamalan twist.
Utah’s Top 10 Most Haunted Places
If you’re looking to catch a ghost, check out these notoriously spooky spots.
Union Station Museum,
2501 S. Wall Ave., Ogden
Rio Grande Train Station/Rio Grande Cafe, 300 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City
50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
This Is the Place Heritage Park,
2601 E. Sunnyside Ave., Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City & County Building,
451 S. State, Salt Lake City
Pioneer Village at Lagoon, 375 Lagoon Lane, Farmington
Skinwalker Ranch, Duchesne
The Great Saltair,
12408 W. Saltair Drive, Magna
340 W. South Temple
Memory Grove Park,
300 North Canyon Road