A spirited stroll
Carson City Ghost Walks bring local haunts alive
It’s still hot and sunny in the late evening in downtown Carson City. But as the group of us make our way west uphill on West Robinson Street, with its stately old mansions and mature trees, the cacophony of sounds from the Brew Fest at McFadden Plaza, an outdoor concert at Brewery Arts Center, and a variety of backyard and sidewalk gatherings fades away behind us.
Our climb up the hill is steady and requires our concentration. The only sounds are the trees rustling in the breeze, our trudging footsteps and reverential murmurs among our group. The sunlight fights its way through the thick canopy of leaves overhead, but darkness encroaches. Here, in the oldest part of one of the West’s most notorious haunted places, it’s easy—and fun— to let our imaginations run wild. That’s what Mary Bennett, a.k.a. Madame Curry, is hoping for.
History comes alive
Bennett, producing artistic director of Reno’s Brüka Theatre, has played the role of Madame Curry, the leader of the Carson City Ghost Walk, for almost 10 years. Dressed in a black satin gown over a corset and hoopskirt, Madame Curry, wife of Carson City founder Abraham Curry, takes participants on a 90-minute stroll past some of Carson City’s earliest haunts while she spins yarns—some educational, some bizarre and some downright spooky—about life in the mid- to-late 1800s during the capital city’s infancy.
Now in their 27th season, the ghost walks, Bennett explains, were the brainchild of Mary Walker, former Carson City finance and redevelopment director, who visited Boston and walked the Freedom Trail. Inspired by that walking tour of historic Colonial places, led by tour guides in period costumes, Walker returned to Carson City and proposed a similar, Wild West-themed tour of historic sites in Carson City, which turned into the 2.5-mile “Blue Line” Kit Carson Trail. The idea was a hit, and, before long, themed historic tours, including daytime ghost walks, were drawing participants from around Northern Nevada.
A reporter at the time, Bennett walked the trail and wrote about the experience. Walker and Candy Duncan, who was at the time executive director of the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, knew Bennett as both a journalist and an actress with a penchant for history, and they approached her about becoming creative director for the ghost walks. Bennett eagerly agreed, and she began developing themes, writing scripts and hiring actors to play some of the characters described on the walks—living and dead.
“Almost 10 years ago, the city made the decision not to run them anymore, and because I’d done it and loved it, I approached my daughter Bailey about us running it privately,” Bennett says. “We’d utilize Brüka for actors and some of the resources like props and costuming, and Bailey said yes, so we took it on and expanded into doing evening tours.”
Now a family business that involves Bennett’s four children and her grandchildren, Carson City Ghost Walk also relies on a cohort of volunteers from area schools and community members, as well as members of the Brüka family, all working together to support what Bennett calls “a heart passion.”
The ghost walk is an ever-evolving tour that takes participants past historic sites and homes, including the Governor’s Mansion, Bliss Mansion, Ferris Mansion and Rinckel Mansion. Summer evening walks, which take place on about three Saturdays a month between Memorial Day weekend and October, are narrative and feature character-driven stories. Come October, the spookiest time of year, the walks ramp up to feature themes, tours inside homes and dramatized stories.
“I’ll populate the walk with actors and characters that come from a story to link throughout the tour,” Bennett explains. “Sometimes we’ll do two tours, one longer one with up to five houses that we can go inside, thanks to their kind residents, and then we’ll do a smaller tour that’s shorter, for people who aren’t able to walk as far, and is more family-oriented, with a bit more of an old-fashioned trick-or-treat element, but I still bring in the history.”
Bennett says the goal, really, is to get people excited about history. “Overall, we try to get people to understand the intention of Abraham Curry, how he wanted all the houses in Carson City to be built with the doors facing the capitol, in order to create this sense of community, and how that has really remained. I like to enhance and tell those stories,” she said.
Madame Curry and her Spirit Wranglers—Bailey and her three young children, who all bring up the rear of the tour and treat participants to drinks and conversation—impart fascinating stories of the intriguing and so-crazy-they-must-be-true original residents of Carson City, from visionary Curry himself to George Ferris, Jr., inventor of the Ferris Wheel; to Orion Clemens, first and only territorial secretary of Nevada and brother of author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain); to Major William Matthew Ormsby, who was killed leading a vigilante force against Paiute Indians in the Pyramid Lake War; to Alfred Chartz, a local attorney convicted of murder whose house is the stuff of nightmares; and many more.
“It truly is 27 years’ worth of story gathering,” Bennett says about the origins of the wealth of information and storytelling. “A lot of it is from the library. I used to go do a summer trip every year and spend a full day at the Nevada State Library, looking through old newspapers—old copies of the Nevada Appeal and Territorial Enterprise. I also use books found at the Nevada State Museum and the Visitors Center. I’m constantly picking up new books. I try to read as much as I can so I have a base of history, but also, depending on the group or day, the ability to keep it fresh and tie in new information.”
Woven into the historic anecdotes are numerous tales of ghost sightings and unexplained encounters, which Madame Curry relates with relish and which are enough, on this breezy, darkening summer evening, to raise the hairs on the back of my neck and cause my 10-year-old daughter to snuggle up next to me as she listens and whisper in my ear, “Is that real?”
Well, is it? Bennett says many of the ghost stories come from residents who have stayed or lived there, and others come from peculiar encounters she herself had while working at the Rinckel Mansion, which is now home to the Nevada Press Association, or when she lived in an apartment near the Washoe Club in Virginia City.
One of Bennett’s favorite things about the walks is afterward, when she bids her guests goodnight and they linger to relate their own stories of mysterious happenings.
“I think we’ve all had things that feel like coincidences, or like someone’s trying to remind us that they’re there,” she reflects. “It’s the senses being awakened. Maybe pictures are falling down, or there’s a smell. A spirit won’t tap us on the shoulder and say, ’Hey, I want to talk to you,’ but we have those reminders, that energy around us. … I think it’s up to the individual person to determine what that is. So it’s really important at the ghost walks for us to share memories and think about experiences—not to create bizarre illusions, but to open people’s hearts and minds.”