(Originally published on Oct. 25, 1992) They were alone, the three of them - the San Francisco couple and the housekeeper - sitting on the darkened fourth-floor landing at the Red Castle Inn in Nevada City.
As the clock neared midnight, the housekeeper began to tell the story of Laura Jean:
It seems the Williams family, prominent gold rush-era pioneers and Nevada City boosters, had hired this young woman to look after their 11 children. Though unsophisticated, Laura Jean was a conscientious and nurturing nanny who loved to read stories to her charges.
One night, quite unexpectedly, she contracted a high fever and died.
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And that was her room, less than 10 feet from where the chatting trio sat.
As they stared at the bedroom doorway, the door to Laura Jean's reading room on the empty floor below slammed shut.
"We conveniently changed the subject after that," said Michael Krajac, whose retelling of the experience can raise goose bumps even on a sunny afternoon.
But he was hooked. Krajac and his wife, Carol Pitts, never miss a chance to stay at the red-brick Gothic Revival inn that overlooks the town, hoping for another encounter with the unquiet but benevolent spirit of Laura Jean.
For those who share their idea of a good time, the area between wine country and gold country abounds with ghosts, from the harmless to the hair-raising.
Some of the phantoms inhabit private homes, but luckily a good number of them stay at inns, restaurants or bars, and a few even seem to enjoy mixing with the living public.
Laura Jean seems to think the paying guests who sleep in the beds at the Red Castle are the Williams children, said innkeeper Mary Louise Weaver. She feels responsible for them, so she tucks them in, smooths their foreheads and sits on the edge of their beds.
She's not always visible, Weaver said, and in fact seems to be getting weaker.
"She's not appearing as a whole person anymore," Weaver said. Her last whole-body appearance was at a 1991 Christmas party; the guest who saw her described her as "a lady in gray."
On another occasion, Laura Jean kept a woman guest in the reading room awake for the duration of her vacation by reading to her and playing with the children in what used to be their toy area down the hall.
The woman wasn't particularly bothered, Weaver said, though she had to go home to get some rest.
In addition to pampering the guests, Laura Jean feels she's in charge of the house. If a piece of furniture is in the way, she moves it. If Weaver or her husband, Conley, replaces it, she moves it again. She opens drawers and hides Weaver's glasses.
"She has an attitude," Weaver said, laughing.
Weaver had to put her foot down once, though. Laura Jean would open the drawer of an antique marble-topped cabinet in the narrow hall on the way from the kitchen to the dining room. Weaver, carrying heavy trays of food and not expecting the drawer to be open, would smack into it, bruising herself and nearly dropping the dinners. She and Conley has a serious chat with Laura Jean and the drawer has stayed closed since.
The Weavers are willing to reciprocate, however. A few years ago, Laura Jean said (through a psychic) that she'd like a rocker in "her" room, the one on the third floor where she used to read to the children. The Weavers obliged. Down the hill from the Red Castle is a restaurant - now called the Creekside Inn - where, not so long ago, patrons could look into California's past.
Back in the '70s, then-owners Jack Beggs and Jack Wentz bought a mirror to spruce up the place.
"It was a huge mirror with a gold frame," said Wentz, "13 feet high it stood. When you looked in it, sometimes you could see reflections of people in 1849 dress."
Was the place haunted by ghosts who liked to admire themselves? Or did the spirits come with the mirror itself?
Wentz isn't sure. "I guess it could have been the mirror," he said. "They seemed to be attracted to the mirror."
The restaurateurs later sold it, though, and its current whereabouts is a mystery.
A few miles down Highway 49 from Nevada City is the Vineyard House in Coloma, home to some haunts that could make your skin crawl; a place with a scandalous past.
Step into Room 5, which is empty and looks ordinary enough. But a Sacramento couple in the room next door heard such terrifying screams that they checked out in the middle of the night and rushed home, stopping only long enough to call the police and report a murder.
Another guest checked in, walked into her room (not No. 5 this time) and immediately checked out. She told owners Cindy and Paul Savage as she rushed through the inn's front door that something in the room just felt "weird."
Ghosts have been known to hide guests' underwear, and the housekeeper refuses to go either in the attic or the basement, where Robert Chalmers, one of the gold rush-era elite, reportedly was chained after he went mad.
Across the street in the pioneer cemetery, a woman in maroon beckons to passers-by.
Cindy Savage knows all the stories and loves to recount the spooky history of the house. But the place was becoming a real magnet for mediums, so she had to make some rules: No smoking and no calling in spirits.
The last time the spirit-callers came, things got a little strange, she said. The group included one of the dining room waitresses and a medium who was going to "exorcise" a room.
"They "lost' the exorcism, whatever that means," Savage said. "So the waitress headed home by herself. When she walked in, her son wanted to know, "Who's that lady with you?' "
But the Savages also use the other-worldly rumors to their benefit. For instance, another medium, there for a session in the haunted basement turned bar, went to the men's room.
"The door had a funny way of closing," Savage said. "It would be kind of slow, like it was sticking, then slam shut."
When he came out, he excitedly told the others he had definitely felt a "presence."
"We knew about the door, but we never told him," Savage said.
Savage and her family - husband Paul, son Tommy, daughter Linsey and two cats - have lived in the inn since May and haven't seen, heard, felt or otherwise noticed anything unbelievable.
"And I think we're normal," she said.
Then again, they had their pastor bless the house before they moved in.Across the state, an older ghost with a better disposition hangs out at the Valley of the Moon Saloon near Sonoma.
Owner Carolina Ceelan said he - it's definitely a man and probably a Native American - has been in the building since it was built more than 100 years ago.
He's naughty, she said, and has a sense of humor. He touches people (once even patting her on the behind), knocks the records out of their slots in the jukebox and mixes the bills in the cash register.
The ghost also makes himself at home in the occupied three-bedroom apartment upstairs. Once, he handed a previous tenant the soap in the shower. Another family used to set a place for him at the table.
One of the three men who currently live there told Ceelan he gets a strange feeling sometimes when he gets up during the night to go to the bathroom. "Like there's someone in the bed with him, and it's not a woman," Ceelan said.
The latest incident happened just a few weeks ago. Ceelan and a friend, Bill (who won't give his last name "because people would think I'm crazy"), were playing dominoes after the bar closed.
"I was kidding around and told her the ghost touched me," Bill said.
A half-hour later, it did.
He felt one finger, near the middle of his back - Bill demonstrated - almost like someone trying to get by in a crowded room.
"It was spooky," said Bill, now a believer.
The ghost even has been photographed, according to Ceelan. One picture is the 25th print on a roll of 24 exposures. It's of a place Ceelan doesn't recognize. In the other, a smoky-white "thing" hovers over a table at a party. The man at the table, who was alone when the photo was snapped, doesn't smoke, Ceelan said.
Sometimes the ghost's sense of fun gets him in trouble, like the time he set off the burglar alarm. Ceelan had to lecture him: "Don't ever do that again!" He hasn't.
Another barfly occupies Soracco's Newcastle Restaurant and Saloon in Newcastle.
His name is Gary, he's in his 20s and "he must have been done in here or something," said owner Gus Soracco.
Neither Soracco nor bartender Marcello Nolivo has ever seen Gary, though sometimes when Soracco is closing for the night, "I feel he is behind me."
Gary's favorite activity used to be pushing the glasses off the shelves behind the bar. He was always careful, Soracco, and nothing ever broke. Then he'd do the same to the wine bottles.
His other trick, Nolivo said, is to turn the lights on in the locked basement.
"It's kind of spooky," he said, "when you turned the lights off and you know no one's been in there, and then they're on."
For the most part - the screamers in Room 5 at the Vineyard House excepted the spirits and their human cohabitants seem to have learned to get along.
Laura Jean, at the Red Castle, even told the psychic that she approved of the present owners, Mary Louise Weaver said.
And Weaver likes Laura Jean's presence.
"It's comfortable," she said about living with a ghost.
"When I think of how many hands have touched the handrail . . . it's a connection with history."
Where to find Gold Country ghosts
The only tools an amateur ghost hunter needs are a sense of adventure and a hefty grain of salt. So go to it:
Sacramento Theater Company: The best known of the theatrical haunts is "Pinky," so called because he's, well, sort of pink, according to the people who've seen him; 1419 H. St., Sacramento; 446-7501.
Spirits have also - allegedly - been spotted on Sailor Bar in the American River and along Prospector Road between Georgetown and Lotus.
Nevada County Historical Museum: Beside a miner named Carrigan in an 1880 photograph is a pale image of a boy of about 12. "I'm sure it's a double exposure," said a museum worker.
Chinese spirits in an altar display also (through a medium) said they tripped pagans who got too close; 214 Main St., Nevada City, (916) 265-5468
Sutter Creek Inn: A friendly ghost told owner Jane Way, "I will protect your inn." Way believes it may be the spirit of state Sen. Edward Convers Voorhies, a late-1800s politician. The inn apparently has another spirit as well, one who doesn't like cats or garlic; 75 Main St., Sutter Creek; (209) 267-5606.
The Vineyard House: Possibly the most spook-infested place in the region. Ghosts do everything from hiding guests' underwear, to screaming in the middle of the night. Corner of Highway 49 and Coldstream Road, Coloma; (916) 622-2217.
Valley of the Moon Saloon: Records pop out of their slots in the juke box, and $5 bills mysteriously get mixed with $10s in the unopened register. The ghost likes hanging around the friendly neighborhood bar that features 13 kinds of draft beer; 17154 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma; (707) 996-4003.
Red Castle Inn: Laura Jean the ghost makes sure the guests are tucked in; 109 Prospect St., Nevada City; (916) 265-5135.
* Soracco's Newcastle Restaurant and Saloon: Gary the ghost hasn't been around much lately, but maybe he'll make his presence felt again; 525 Main St., Newcastle; (916) 663-4954.