Spooked in Chico

Local author investigates history behind hauntings

Jodi Foster unravels some of Chico’s darker historical tales.

Jodi Foster unravels some of Chico’s darker historical tales.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Let’s party:
Haunted Chico's hosting a steampunk-themed Halloween party at 1078 Gallery this Saturday (Oct. 31) at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $12, or $7.50 for a mini tour based on the haunting of Riley Strahl. Live music, belly dancing and other entertainment.

Some people say that the ghost of a woman wanders through the trees at Annie’s Glen. Furniture inside the Old Municipal Building is known to move on its own. Noises alarm employees at the Upper Crust Bakery & Eatery late at night. And a man dressed in 19th century garb can be seen in a house on the corner of Fourth and Flume streets.

It may be that the Upper Crust is inhabited by the ghost of Carleton Bruce, the only Chico police officer to be killed in the line of duty. He was shot inside what was then Joe’s Tamale Parlor in 1938. And it’s possible that the residents of a house at Fourth and Flume streets are sometimes visited by the ghost of Riley Strahl, a popular teamster in the 1880s who met an early death by way of poison in that very house.

These are just a few of the ghost stories that haunt us here in Chico, and they represent a small sample of the tales Jodi Foster has been listening to for the past four years, since she published her first book, Forgotten Burial. That told the story of Foster’s own haunting by the ghost of a woman she believes was kidnapped and murdered nearly 40 years ago by Cameron Hooker, known for keeping a girl as a sex slave under his bed in Red Bluff for seven years. The body of Marie Elizabeth Spannhake, who last lived in the north Chico apartment where Foster was haunted, has never been found.

“For the past few years, since the book came out, people have contacted me and I’ve accumulated a pile of stories about Chico,” Foster said during a recent interview. For those who believe in psychics and mediums, Foster is considered a “sensitive,” which means she can sense—and sometimes see—things from the spiritual world. “What’s been really interesting is people who didn’t know each other but lived [or worked] in the same place had similar haunted stories.”

For the past four years, Foster has been compiling those stories and researching some for possible inclusion in a second book, this one about Chico hauntings. The research has been grueling, she said. “I’d start with old title searches, and then when I had some names I’d bring them over to Special Collections [at Meriam Library] and look for coroner’s inquests.” From there, she could search old newspapers for stories about the events and piece the mystery together. “It’s time-consuming, but I think it’s fun—it’s like finding hidden treasure.”

In addition to a book, Foster is also taking the stories she’s uncovered and turning them into what she hopes will become a series of Haunted Chico tours. She’s already launched a website (hauntedchico .com) and a Facebook group (facebook .com/historichauntedchico) that, as of press time, had more than 1,700 members. On Halloween, she and her cohorts—there are about 10 people in all working on the project—will hold their launch party at 1078 Gallery. There, she’ll tell the story of Riley Strahl’s demise, complete with her take on why his spirit might be restless.

So, what did happen with Riley Strahl? What led him to be poisoned? According to Foster, back in the early 1880s, Strahl was a teamster in Butte County who worked the lumber flumes. Around the same time, a young woman by the name of Molly White moved to Chico to live with her aunt and start a life for herself. Times were hard, and shortly after getting a job as a “waiter girl” in a restaurant in the Junction area—that large intersection that now houses the Winchester Goose and Herreid Music—she began selling her body to local men.

“Riley Strahl was one of Molly’s special customers,” Foster said, “and he fell in love with Molly.”

Apparently she returned that love and resolved to quit the life of prostitution and return to “civilized” society. So, she went to the local Methodist church, where the women embraced her desire to reform. When Strahl proposed marriage, White agreed and a date was set for July 1883. A wedding was planned, but at the last second, Strahl sent word that he was stuck at work, so it was postponed. That was the first time White was jilted, and after the second, she vowed it would not happen again.

“By the third time, Molly realized that Riley probably wasn’t going to show up,” Foster said. “A few days before the wedding date, Riley was in town and Molly invited him to her new residence at Fourth and Flume.”

White had been living at a boarding house owned by the Goddard family, Foster said, and she and Strahl sat on the front porch and talked into the wee morning hours. They shared a flask of pink wine. Around 1:30 a.m., Strahl began screaming in pain and shortly thereafter collapsed in the foyer, dead from being poisoned.

Did White poison Strahl or was it somebody else? Could it have been an accident? In the interest of not spoiling a great local mystery, the CN&R’s account will end here. Rest assured, Foster delves deep into the coroner’s inquest, which included testimony from White and other witnesses. The church ladies come back into the picture; there’s the strange disappearance of Strahl’s stomach contents; and a verdict that’s perplexing indeed.

Strahl’s body is buried at the Chico Cemetery. Foster speculates that one of the reasons for his spirit’s unrest could be the fact that his headstone is missing. A visit confirmed the lack of a marker, though Clark Masters, who leads historical tours of the cemetery, said that given the fact that Strahl is buried with no family, he wouldn’t be surprised if he never had a headstone at all.

“I’m not here to convince people of spooks,” Foster said. “These are more than just ghost stories—they’re memories, they’re the folklore of our city. And they’re a cool way to get people interested in this really rich wild west history we have here.”