There’s nothing ominous about the house that sits at 1990 California Street, overlooking the intersection of California and Octavia. In fact, it’s got a sunny disposition, with a bright yellow coat of paint and blue accents. So, it came as a surprise to find out the house is haunted.
When I think of haunted houses, images come to mind of dark, mysterious homes with peeling paint and shutters akimbo. You know the ones. Each neighborhood has one. The place that everyone talks about, where old Mrs. So-and-So died with her 50 cats.
One of the ghosts of the Atherton House centers around such a character. In 1923, Carrie Rousseau, a single woman, bought the house, which was in disrepair at the time, and converted it into multiple apartments. Taking unit 13 for herself, Ms. Rousseau reserved the adjoining apartment for her 50 cats. When she died in 1974, at the age of 93, her cats stood in attendance.
However, there were accounts of paranormal activity while Carrie Rousseau was still alive. Several tenants reported instances of rushing winds, when there were no windows open, and others were awakened by knocks on doors in the middle of the night. One tenant fled his tower apartment upon seeing an apparition floating through his room. After learning about the tragic history of the original owners, the tenants assumed they were being haunted by the spirit of George Atherton.
In the late 1880’s, Dominga Atherton, following the death of her oppressive husband, moved her ineffectual son, George, and scandalous daughter-in-law, Gertrude, into San Francisco from their farmhouse down on the peninsula. Both women ran the roost. Dominga, an immigrant from Chile, had a fiery disposition. Gertrude was uncommonly independent for women of the time, bringing scandal to the family by writing racy novels. And then there was George, who “barely had initiative to tie his own shoes.”
One night, the family hosted a dinner for visiting Chilean sailors. Over the course of the evening, the sailors encouraged George to join them on their journey back home, an offer he eagerly accepted. But the next morning, he began to doubt his decision, until Gertrude stepped in—wanting her husband off her coattails for several months—and goaded George into going, telling him that the respectable thing for him to do would be to stay in San Francisco and find a job. George practically fled to the ship, but mere days into the trip, he died from kidney failure. His body was returned to the Atherton home, pickled in a barrel of rum. When the butler pried open the barrel, he said, “I know he’ll haunt me for the rest of my days.”
But decades later, when famed psychic, Sylvia Brown, held a session in the Atherton House, she only sensed three female spirits, who “just don’t like men.” “One keeps saying, ‘This is my dwelling,’” she said. With no proclaimed knowledge of the previous owners, Brown went on to describe these spirits using details that fit Dominga, Gertrude, and Carrie. Right before ending her session, Brown felt a male presence, a pale and frail spirit. Poor George is ineffectual even in death.
This story got me wondering about other homes in San Francisco. Many of them are old. Most of them are well-maintained. How many of them have equally haunting histories? If I did some digging around about my own home, an old Victorian, what kind of sordid past would I dig up? Maybe it’s best if I just leave those ghosts alone.