Memphis may be one of the most haunted cities in America, according to local paranormal investigator Stephen Guenther.
That fact is hard to quantify. Savannah, Georgia, St. Augustine, Florida, and New Orleans also make that claim.
But Guenther makes a pretty good case for Memphis, home to a string of deadly events including the Battle of Memphis and countless Civil War deaths, the Sultana disaster (still the biggest maritime disaster in American history), the yellow fever epidemic, and "a number of grisly, historical murders."
"I think it's one of the most haunted cities just because of how much different activity we've had here, from disasters to epidemics to just your usual human drama," Guenther said.
Guenther is a founder of the MidSouth Paranormal Society (MPS), which investigates hauntings all over the Mid-South in homes, businesses, cemeteries, schools, and more. Guenther and MPS cofounder Tanya Vandesteeg also founded the tour company Historical Haunts.
This year the company started a new tour, a haunted pub crawl in the South Main Arts District. I tagged along with Guenther last Friday afternoon, but before we got to the pubs, we began at the Woodruff-Fontaine House, a sort of home base for the MPS.
A.J. Northrop, a Woodruff-Fontaine House board member and member of the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, said he has a long relationship with Elliott Fontaine, who died at age 34 of Spanish flu but whose spirit allegedly lives on inside the house.
"He electrocutes me, shoves me, pinches me, breathes heavily at me," Northtrop said. "It's not always one specific thing, but it's just that there's always someone here."
Later, Guenther and I hit South Main. As I stand near the register of IONS Geek Gallery, Guenther tells of the grisly 1918 murder of Memphis police officer Edward Broadfoot inside the building.
"Do you know on what spot he was killed?" I ask.
"Well, you're standing on it," Guenther said.
In the basement, folding chairs circle a table that holds a number of ghost-hunting devices and a photo of officer Broadfoot. Guenther's pub crawl groups fill the chairs as he tries to make contact with the murdered officer. "We did get the little bell to ring once," Guenther said.
Down the street, Harry Zepatos told Guenther and me that he'd never seen any ghosts inside his Arcade Restaurant, but others have.
"My wife, Karen, has seen my grandfather in here before," Zepatos said. "Also, this head of security guy — nice people, good wife, normal people — he saw him, too, during [River Arts Festival] four or five years ago. We were closed, and he saw him through the window."
No ghost tour of Memphis is complete without a visit to Earnestine & Hazel's, so we stop in there. Bartender and manager Karen Brownlee said she's seen a woman (who she thought might have been Earnestine) at the end of the downstairs hallway. The bar lights have flickered when patrons made fun of ghosts. The locked-up piano has played by itself upstairs. Though she was alone, someone nudged her shoulder as she stood at the jukebox one night.
"I used to be [afraid], but now I feel like whatever's in here will take care of me," Brownlee said.
The haunted pub crawls begin on South Main on most Wednesdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m. However, this Friday, Guenther and his team will lead ghost tours at the Woodruff-Fontaine House during its annual fund-raiser called Haunted Happenings.