Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (2016)
Among the great tall tales of the Wild American West is that of Bella Rawhide and Timber Kate, two prostitutes who worked the brothels of Reno, Nevada, in the late nineteenth century, when money and lives ran fast and dried up quickly. Bella was blond-haired and blue-eyed, buxom and sweet, known for a routine she performed called “Eve’s Leaves”: she would appear onstage wearing nothing but gilt fig leaves; a patron could remove a leaf for a pinch of gold dust, and the man who removed the last leaf could take her off to bed. Timber was tall, muscular, brusque, known as much for her wild haymakers that could knock a man flat as for her talents in bed. The two were always together and claimed to be sisters, though this was a cover for their romantic relationship. In advance of their shows, Timber would plaster the town with posters advertising their act, and in the boom-and-bust towns of the West, both women got rich.
Then a deadbeat grifter named Tug Daniels came to town. Daniels had heard of Bella and Timber’s success and set out to use them for all he could get. He seduced Bella first, but soon both women had fallen madly in love with him, and in jealousy they turned on each other. Rather than deal with Timber, Daniels ran away with Bella to nearby Carson City, where he pimped her out in a brothel on North Quincy Street called the Beehive. While Bella continued to rake it in, Timber fell into a depression and hard times. She tried dressing as a man and performing as a weight lifter, but this routine flopped.
After a few years Daniels stole everything Bella had saved and skipped town. Bella was heartbroken and despondent—until, that is, Timber showed up in Carson City and the two reconciled. They continued working the Beehive, and though they were back together again, Timber became increasingly worried that Bella might leave her once more. Then Tug Daniels reappeared.
Seeing the man who’d humiliated her and absconded with her love, Timber set out for revenge. The two squared off in the Beehive’s parlor. Timber let loose with one of her trademark haymakers, only to have Daniels sidestep it neatly, produce a knife, and gut her savagely. As Timber Kate lay dying, Daniels fled out a back window. Not long after, Bella Rawhide killed herself by drinking a dose of cleaning fluid.
None of this story is rooted in any real fact, and even the carefully placed details that seem so specific lead only to dead ends; for one, there is no North Quincy Street in Carson City. And yet for much of the early twentieth century, people in northern Nevada claimed to see mysterious posters still advertising Timber Kate and Bella Rawhide. Those who tried to remove the posters would be met by a ghostly haymaker from the spirit of Timber Kate. Others claimed to see Timber’s dying, ragged form straggling down moonlit streets, clawing at her stomach where Daniels had fatally cut her open. Bella, for her part, still haunts the building of her once-famous brothel, the Beehive—even if no one knows where it actually stood.
Kate and Bella are far from the only brothel workers who’ve entered the annals of hauntings in this country. The Red Onion Saloon of Skagway, Alaska, is haunted by a woman from its heyday in the late 1800s, a Lydia, about whom nothing is known but who announces her presence through the scent of strong perfume. The Dumas Brothel of Butte, Montana, claims similar spirits; reports include mirrors falling from the wall, beds that shake by themselves, and visitors touched by ghostly fingers. The Hotel Lincoln in Manns Choice, Pennsylvania, now stands as an antiques store, but ghosts of ill repute still wander its halls, disturbing tchotchkes and trinkets. And of course there is New Orleans, home to so many reputedly haunted brothels that one company gives a tour specifically devoted to them.
Why do brothels and their employees loom so large in collections of ghost stories? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that a brothel is a secret place: mostly illegal and under the radar, its goings-on are, for the most part, hidden, and often even its location is a mystery, passed through word of mouths that have long since quieted. Any old grand house, any long-standing bar in a former boomtown, seems a likely candidate as a onetime brothel; they seem to hide in plain sight, no different from any standard hotel, bar, or mansion. The haunted building in Richmond on East Cary Street is assumed to be a brothel, but ghost hunters attribute this to rumor rather than any kind of established record. Brothels—despite being real, functioning businesses—belong to a special subterranean oral tradition, one that’s highly ephemeral.
The picture of the Wild West whorehouse is one associated not just with illicit sex but also with violence: saloon brawls, depravity and revenge, disfiguring attacks (such as the one that drives the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven), rape and murder. Outside the reach of polite society, the brothel would seem to be a magnet for the kind of intense, violent human experience that often becomes the fodder for ghost stories and hauntings.
The Lincoln House in Manns Choice is reported to be haunted by a woman who worked there, whose enraged husband shot her one night when he discovered that she wasn’t bringing in enough money. Then there is what came to be known as the Murder Bordello of Galena, Kansas, which in the 1890s was operated by a woman known both as Nancy Wilson and as Ma Staffleback, who was convicted, along with her husband and two sons, of murdering a miner named Frank Galbraith and were ultimately implicated in the murders of upward of thirty other men.
Brothels are liminal (from the Latin limins, “threshold”) places, borderland places where the traditional rules of a society are momentarily suspended. Both for good and for ill, the world of the brothel seems a world in extremis. And so perhaps no other business venture is so primed for ghost stories. The brothel, with its mix of tragedy and hiddenness, rowdy violence and erotic allure, seems the perfect place for spirits to take up residence.
In late November 2014 I was sent by a magazine to Reno to interview Lance Gilman, the owner of the most famous legal brothel in the country, the Mustang Ranch. I was there to profile him because of his role in securing a half-billion-dollar deal with the car company Tesla, which had just agreed to build a massive factory to make electric car batteries on Gilman’s industrial park outside Reno. For two days I spent time with Gilman and his employees, including several working girls and the Mustang’s madam, Tara Atkins. The photographer on assignment with me brought an SUV’s worth of equipment, and while he was setting up an elaborate shot featuring a number of the women, I stood idly chatting with Atkins, killing time. It was then that she mentioned that the Mustang Ranch was haunted.
Not just haunted but extremely haunted.
Brothels in rural Nevada have always been tolerated, and while not explicitly illegal, they sometimes ran the risk of being shut down as “public nuisances.” Joe Conforte, often described as the godfather of legalized prostitution in Nevada, bought the Mustang Ranch in 1967 from a competitor, and in 1971, after extensive lobbying and legal battles, he finally wrangled from Storey County the first legal brothel ordinance. From the beginning the allure of brothels for most counties was the licensing fees, but there were always the citizens who saw prostitution as a blight on the county. Alexa Albert, who lived at the Mustang Ranch for a month as a researcher and observer in 1993 (and who later wrote a book about her experiences), described the original brothel as “a seedy biker bar, minus only a pool table and a pinball machine.”
Just as with those Wild West saloons, trouble was at home in the Mustang Ranch. In 1976 professional heavyweight boxer Oscar Bonavena was killed in the parking lot. He had been brought in by Conforte to help publicize the ranch, but in short order he began an affair with Conforte’s wife, Sally. After being banished from the Mustang, he returned on May 22 and demanded to speak to Conforte. While arguing with the guards in the parking lot, Bonavena was shot in the heart; Conforte’s bodyguard, Willard Ross Brymer, later pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and spent fifteen months in prison.
Conforte managed to avoid any implication in Bonavena’s death, but he eventually ran afoul of the federal government, which charged him in 1980 with tax evasion. He fled to Brazil to escape extradition, and the Feds subsequently seized the ranch.
By that point Lance Gilman had purchased a monstrous business park on the edge of Reno, the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Storey County desperately needed the tax revenue that brothels brought in, and announced a plan to issue new brothel licenses. Realizing that another seedy, lawless brothel could damage the area’s reputation and his plan for attracting modern technology firms, Gilman went ahead and bought a license himself and opened the Wild Horse Ranch in 2002. A few years later the federal government auctioned off the Mustang Ranch—its name and copyright, its assets, and the building itself—on eBay. Again seeking to forestall unsavory competition, Gilman bought the Mustang with a winning bid of $145,100, eventually consolidating the two brothels under one name.
Moving the Mustang Ranch required more than just cutting it up and putting it on trucks; structured as a massive octagon, its frame was too wide and unwieldy to be moved into the narrow canyon where the Wild Horse was built, so Gilman’s team ultimately had to bring in much of the building via helicopter. It was reconstructed across the parking lot from the Wild Horse, and today the two buildings have an uneasy relationship.
The layout of the Wild Horse is straightforward. One walks in first to a bar (technically, it’s an entirely separate business that has nothing to do with the brothel, since one can’t sell liquor on the premises of a brothel in Nevada). Walking through a back door reveals a plush room made up to look like a high-end hunting lodge, with a perpetually roaring fire, overstuffed leather couches, (barely) tasteful nude paintings, and a wall of taxidermy. Under the watchful eye of a moose, a bison, and a bevy of elk are a high-tech security operation, a clinic, and a well-stocked kitchen. The only element not in keeping with this hunting lodge aesthetic is the mirrored wall, used for “lineups,” in which all the women working at the moment are summoned to line up so the customer can select a favorite.
The lighting throughout is subdued but clear; there are no dingy corners, no dark passageways. There are smells of recirculated air and baby oil, which no doubt mask a number of other odors, and while it may be a stretch to call the place “cozy,” it’s certainly pleasant enough. It’s laid out symmetrically: from the lodgelike parlor, two wings, which hold the individual bedrooms, extend out to either side; in the back is the pool, flanked by two smaller wings with “party rooms.”
The original Mustang Ranch building, set at a slightly lower grade, has none of this openness. One enters into a dark, neon-lit bar, with jarring neoclassical columns wound with fake ivy. From there, hallways branch off in different directions, leading down corridors that fade into darkness.
From the outside you can guess at a vaguely octagonal shape, but what’s not evident (the entire building is ringed with hedges) is that from this central octagon radiate five hallways of uneven length. “It’s an octopus of a building,” Gilman told me, and an aerial view confirms this, with its tentacles spreading out in all directions into the Nevada scrub.
If anything, the Mustang is slightly smaller than the Wild Horse, but it feels like it goes on forever. As with the Winchester Mystery House, the building distorts one’s sense of space, inviting mystery and ambiguity. It’s not intentional that the overall shape is masked, but the resulting effect is the same: entering the building, one more or less succumbs to it.
Atkins has been the Mustang Ranch’s madam for a few years; its ghosts have been around much longer. In 2013 investigators from the reality show Ghost Adventures came to the Mustang to check out these spirits, bringing with them a bevy of equipment and machismo. During the show, Atkins took them to the original Mustang building and told them that many women refused to go down “B” hall in particular, where they reported being held down by an unseen force, after which they occasionally discovered bruises they could not explain. Women who spent time in Room B1, she said, were prone to wild mood swings. Nor was this restricted to the working girls; housekeepers reported having their hair pulled by invisible hands. At one point the ranch called in a shaman of some kind to purge the building of evil spirits.
The ghost of Oscar Bonavena, naturally, roams the premises, too, though he was shot in the parking lot at the Mustang’s original location. One housekeeper told the Ghost Adventures crew of a man she’d seen standing outside the building in a white shirt; when she was shown a picture of Bonavena, she affirmed that it was him.
I tend not to put too much stock in reality shows like this. Any paranormal activity on Ghost Adventures, or any of the many similar shows, inevitably is presented via highly selective and suggestive editing; re-creations tend toward melodrama and often are presented to the viewer as fact. As most viewers know by now, reality television is anything but real, and this is no less true of supposed paranormal encounters.
But that afternoon, standing with Atkins while we waited for the photo shoot to finish, I heard the story of one girl we’ll call Jean, to whom a spirit seemed to have attached itself. Not malevolent but certainly omnipresent, the ghost knocked over trinkets on a dresser and moved objects around. When the ranch brought out a psychic as part of the Ghost Adventures shoot, Jean asked about her personal spirit and was told that it had a name: Baby.
“Baby apparently likes water,” Atkins relayed to me, and so at some point Jean placed a small fountain in her room, which appears to have quieted the ghost. We talked about other hauntings, and I suggested that usually hauntings were tied to the land as much as the building, and that one would assume that once the Mustang was transplanted from its earlier location, the reports of ghosts might have subsided. But Atkins says that the paranormal activity has, if anything, increased since the ranch was moved to its new site. Whatever is causing the paranormal activity here, it’s in the bones of the house.
I listened politely until, almost as if on cue, Jean walked by. Atkins grabbed her by what little clothing she was wearing and said, “Hey, go get your videos—the ones with the ghost.” Caught a little off guard, Jean nonetheless complied, returned a few minutes later with her phone, and proceeded to show me two videos.
The first video she shot for her husband; when she’s at the Mustang, she’s separated from him for weeks, and so she sends him videos from time to time. In this one she dances seductively, apparently unaware of the small ball of light—maybe an inch in diameter—that seems to be floating behind her head. The orb dances throughout the frame, out of sync with her, sometimes flitting across her face, while she carries on. At one point it disappears, then, a few seconds later, it rushes back into the frame, seems to careen straight for her head, and, at the moment it makes “contact,” she topples over rather comically.
The second video is shot from her bed, as though she’s just woken up. A slightly shaky hand holds the camera toward the window, where Venetian blinds half block the morning sun. Then the camera pans upward, and emblazoned on the ceiling appears to be the number 13. On the video it’s clear as day: a white-blue light projected on the ceiling of the room. When she first showed the video to her coworkers, they all tried to figure out what the “13” could possibly mean and what its significance was, until Atkins noticed how close together the 1 and 3 were and suggested that instead of a “13,” perhaps it was a “B.”
“B” as in “Baby.”
The Mustang doesn’t hide from its heritage, but neither does it revel in the lawless days of Joe Conforte. There is a suite named after him (including framed newspaper clippings of the murder trial), but the overall vibe is one of a high-end (if sometimes gaudy) hotel with unusually high security.
When Gilman got into the brothel business, together with his partner, Susan Austin, their goal was to remake legal prostitution as a luxury commodity. No more trailers, no underhanded financial deals—everything strictly by the book. Here the women are classed as independent contractors and paid by check, and there are extensive and constant health checks, redundant security features, and personal security.
They may be selling liminality, but it feels very much like business as usual. No sense of tragedy clings to the women who work here; the Mustang has an extensive waiting list of women looking for work, and Gilman and Atkins say they turn away nine out of ten applicants. It’s a good, high-paying job, and the women are treated well; a fair number of the Mustang’s independent contractors started at other legal brothels in Nevada but quickly applied at the Mustang because its reputation is so much better.
This doesn’t mean the work itself is, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. After I’d spent two days talking to the women at the Mustang Ranch, it became abundantly clear to me how psychologically demanding the work was. In addition to the sex itself, the role of the sex worker has a complicated emotional and intellectual component. To the extent that these women are selling sex as a luxury product, their job involves not just creating a fantasy but being able to read their client: his needs, fears, desires, things he’s ashamed of, things he’s unable to say, the parts of himself he hasn’t worked through. At one point, musing on the emotional labor involved in working at a brothel, I suggested that perhaps 90 percent of the job was psychological.
“No,” Gilman corrected me, “more like 100 percent.” The women I interviewed agreed completely. “This is the epitome of caregiving,” Gilman said.
At one point in our conversation about hauntings, Atkins mentioned to me that the women who are most likely to see ghosts at the Mustang are the most psychologically taxed and worn out, her most nervous and high-strung girls. I thought of the complaints surrounding Room B1, and in particular reports of wild mood swings from women who’d spent too much time there. But when I pointed out that there might be an obvious corollary here, that the sightings may be more a manifestation of burnout and emotional exhaustion, Atkins immediately rejected the idea. After all, she told me, she sees them, too.
In the architecture of the traditional brothel, form will mirror function. In a place designed to be liminal, outside the law, where power relationships are upturned, the building itself will be secretive, strange, distorted. A nameless mansion, a secluded château, an unmarked basement entrance, a distant shack at the edge of civilization—such places play to our sense of mystery, of the wonders of the invisible world, which include not only sex but ghosts, too. The ghosts at the Mustang Ranch may have less to do with the things we traditionally associate with brothels—lawlessness, violence, secrecy—and more to do with the fact that, as a place of business, it’s simply a highly stressful place to work.
I still can’t shake those two videos. Assuming, of course, that they weren’t digital manipulations (and why would they be?), my best guess is that the “B” shining on the ceiling was somehow reflected off the Venetian blinds—a piece of shiny metal hardware that somehow caught the light in a strange way. The orb knocking her over I assume to be just some kind of visual noise in the recording, which happened to coincidentally line up with her losing her balance. But I’ll be the first to admit that there are days I don’t feel particularly confident about these rationalizations. Of all the places I have visited in search of spirits, the place where a psychological explanation seemed most likely also happened to be the place where I found the strongest evidence of the paranormal.