The High Street Speakeasy sits on the southeast corner of 39th Avenue and High Street, wedged between Five Points and I-70. From the outside, it looks like less than nothing -- exactly as a good speakeasy should. Inside, the guzzlery recalls the days when a shrill and righteous few decried the evils of drink: Prohibition. But for John Wallace, the bottles of once-forbidden spirits that line his bar are just complements to the ghostlier ones occupying his second floor.
Wallace signed the deed to the 1889 building the day after Halloween last year, but it wasn't until February -- amid a flurry of renovations -- that he experienced his first of many unnatural encounters.
"I heard whistling, and it seemed like it was emanating from inside the building somewhere," recalls the 39-year-old entrepreneur. "And it was spooky, because I was here by myself. So I went outside and walked around the whole perimeter, and there was nobody around."
So he got back to work: Opening night was only two months away. The ghosts could whistle all they wanted, but Wallace had booths to add, brick to expose and original but drab olive-green tin ceilings to paint candy-apple red. He had a jukebox to pack with the nostalgic sounds of Cab Calloway, Louis Prima, Glenn Miller and other big-band legends. Most important, this son of Denver's bar culture (Wallace's dad owned Dirty John's, at Evans and Zuni, for years, and Wallace himself had managed William's Tavern) had to perfect his version of the Tom Collins, which he claims tastes "like the sun just came up in your mouth." And then, in early April, he opened his friendly, TV-free neighborhood joint where guys and dolls can drop by to work on their indoor tans, snub the Eighteenth Amendment and maybe even experience something supernatural.
"You know that little window above the front door?" Wallace asks. "It never happens when you're looking straight up there, but at a peripheral vision, a lot of people have thought that they've seen movement up there. But as soon as you look, it's nothing."
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The building, which has been a bar by various names since 1902, boasts a blood-soaked history in addition to its many half-seen specters. A bullet hole two stools down from the end of the bar bears witness to the Speakeasy's violent forefathers. More recently, a love-related shooting -- depicted on America's Most Wanted -- left a corpse in the building's entryway. "It shouldn't be a mystery to anybody that many people have died over 115 years here," Wallace says. "My God, just think about what might have gone on here during the Depression. I know that it's been a brothel; God knows what else. And the pressure on people to make money in those days? It's not that hard for me to think that some of the deaths weren't meant to happen and that some ghosts are still angry. In a way, I'm still a little bit skeptical, because I haven't had a big apparition talk to me yet."
2 a.m.: Downstairs, the dying strains of Billie Holiday's "My Man" fade into the night. Equipped with a mini-cassette recorder, three ninety-minute tapes, a disposable flash camera, a box of candles, a lighter, flashlight and fresh batteries, I leave the bar -- where a few comrades are still downing liquid courage -- to climb the 21 narrow stairs to the second floor. I'm greeted by a dusty stretch of hallway that connects four dirty corner units, a central furnace room and two rusted-out communal bathrooms. Altogether, this floor holds sixteen rooms and three times as many doorways, but what the space lacks in feng shui it more than makes up for in creepiness. Torn-out carpet reveals scraps of yellowing '20s-era Denver Posts, when true-crime stories and "agony" columns ruled the press. Ornately patterned wallpaper and worn linoleum peel from age and water damage. Boarded windows keep the air dead and still.
Xena, the Australian shepherd that I've borrowed for the evening, seems much more at ease with the prospect of spending the night here than I am. After lighting three candles, I load the recorder and, along with my new canine acquaintance, start making the rounds.
2:06: Xena sniffs her way down the hall and hesitates before entering the Blood Room, so named because of the dark patch of brown droplets at roughly stomach-level that stain the yellow, flower-patterned wallpaper. The area right next to the spots appears to have been scrubbed with bleach. Xena spends at least five minutes absorbed in the smell of the baseboards directly below the stains.
The filthy adjoining kitchen has been stripped of stove and sink and is empty save for three long-stemmed cocktail glasses and the near-skeletal remains of a bird.
I am not the first to spend the night in these inhospitable confines. On several occasions, a former Speakeasy bartender, who goes only by Kalib, used this place as his sleeping nest. Part of last winter's renovation crew, the wiry fourth-generation Washington logger found himself too exhausted to drive home and would opt to roll out a sleeping bag in the small, carpeted room next to the stairs. My base camp.
"I woke up -- it was probably four o'clock -- to the sound of somebody crying," he recalls. "I was like, 'Jesus, somebody got in the building, some chick derelict,' 'cause it was obviously female. It seemed like it was in the next room. And I go into that room, and it seemed like it was the bathroom. So I go into the bathroom, and it seemed like it was across the hall. It seemed like it was always in the next room. I chased whatever this was all around upstairs until it got in that back room. And I'm yelling my head off: 'Hello! Hello! Are you okay? Private property! I'm comin' in!'
"And I go in, shining my light around, thinking I'd find some woman crying," he continues, "and I got a bad feeling. It was like an atmospheric change in pressure. Like when your ears pop. It was like being wrapped up in something bad -- like a bad blanket around you. I was freezing cold, and the sweat started pouring out of me. I was only in there four or five seconds. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. And I went haulin' ass out of there pretty quick. I haven't been back in that room since."
2:14: The only sound is the whistle-charged clatter of the Union Pacific half a mile north.
Compare that to Kalib's descriptions of his nine months bunking with banshees: "It was very auditory. You hear crying, you hear drunken laughing, you hear piano music, low murmuring. Loud noises. Doors slamming. Sometimes it'd get so dang loud that it would wake me up. I'd have to holler at 'em. And they'd pipe down for five or ten minutes. And then they'd crank right up again. It happens in the daytime, too. Not just the nighttime."
2:23: I give the other disgusting kitchen area, the one next to the room with an allegedly haunted bathtub, my own little nickname: the Headache Room. Its greasy walls and ceiling are copper-colored, and there's a definite queasiness in the air. This is the most physical reaction I've had during seven visits to the Speakeasy. I wash down two ibuprofens with a slug of Pabst.
2:26: Sitting alone in the Blue Chair Room, I'm fairly bored. Where's Don Knotts when you need him? Or the Cowardly Lion? Or Full Moon Explorations, the paranormal-investigation team that's been casing the High Street Speakeasy for the past eight weeks?
"We have a few members who key more toward the psychic part," says Full Moon co-manager Michelle Mayer, referring to the group's two mediums. "But for the most part, we're really trying to scientifically document that there's something going on."
So far, the Full Mooners' hardest evidence is hundreds of digital images of orbs floating both inside and outside the building. Resembling the bubbles that kids blow from soapy water, the spheres aren't discernable to the naked eye, but in photographs, some are as clear as the nose on Lawrence Welk's face.
The team's Web site says these non-Earthbound life forces come in as many stunning colors and shades as the rainbow, including light blue (tranquility), dark blue (high developed sense of survival instinct), pink (affinity and fondness), red (sign of physical pain) and white (a high-frequency energy associated with protection). When photographed, the orbs also appear to be quite mobile.
"I think a lot are just passing through," says Full Moon member Elizabeth Red Elk. "They bar-hop."
"I really believe that a ghost can haunt more than one place," Mayer adds. "I would hope that in the afterlife, if you had several places that you really feel tied to, that you could get to them all."
In addition to visual evidence, the ghost hunters have collected electronic voiceprints, or EVPs. Among fourteen eerie audio clips gathered at the Speakeasy are male and female voices that the investigators claim to be otherworldly. Universally confirming what is being said in the unknown tongue, however, is as sketchy as playing a Beatles album backward -- and just as freaky.
"Only once did I hear it when it was actually happening," Mayer says. "The rest of the time we review the tape later, and suddenly there it is."
Apparently recorded at a lower frequency than the human ear can detect, the EVPs range from dates (a whispered "1925") to names ("Michael" and "White Man") to short but complete sentences: "I love you." "Help me." "I scrubbed it." "Come on, they're waiting." Hardly a Hamlet soliloquy, the all-time chattiest voiceprint is something the group believes to be a male saying "My name is Timmy, and I was shot in the tummy."
While the audio invites differing interpretations, the group's more physical encounters are even harder to explain.
"I was going up the stairs," Mayer recalls. "Something tossed a piece of plaster from above and hit me in the head. We had a good laugh about it, but we tried for a good ten minutes to figure out where it came from, and it didn't match any of the spots." Later, she felt a thumb and three fingers "grab the heck out of" her arm.
"We've all felt different things," she adds. "Lots of violent deaths and despair, which is consistent with what kind of place it was. I don't consider myself psychic, but I believe there was definitely a shooting or a stabbing in the chest or throat area. Three of us went through one night, and we'd walk through this one room, and every time, we'd react with some coughing or some pain all in the same exact area."
2:47: Things are finally picking up. Xena lets out a soft bark in the Blood Room.
"She's very selective when she vocalizes like that," says her master, who's come upstairs to check on her. "This is a dog that very rarely ever barks. She's really discriminating. But on the other hand, maybe one of the bar owner's dogs came up here and took a piss against that wall. That would explain it, too, you know."
3:07: Wallace and two women come upstairs to say good night. We form an impromptu circle in the library. "If there is a spirit in this room, we call it," one of the women says drunkenly. "If there is a friendly spirit."
"Or Timmy, or Tammy, or White Man," I add.
"If White Man, Timmy or Tammy or anybody else has anything to say, they can use any of us as a vessel if they wanted to."
Nothing happens. Maybe we should have held hands.
Or maybe only the girls should have performed the ritual. While Mayer and the Full Mooners have determined that between four and six people is the ideal number to evoke ghostly activity here, the High Street spirits much prefer women.
"Either they're prostitutes who have scorn for men, or old johns who like women," Mayer says. "I would say they want to interact and have a good time. They seem to have fun making themselves known, clinking glasses, banging around. It's nothing threatening in any manner. Obviously they want interaction, because they have a lot of fun with us when we're there. And obviously they're having a lot of fun with Sharon."
Sharon Guisinger is a feisty, raven-haired barkeep who is quick with an insult and pours a lethal car bomb. A staffer since the Speakeasy's inception, the nursing student and single mother has had more than her fill of the ghosties -- but hasn't found a way to eighty-six them. "They like to play with me," she says. "I was behind the bar at closing time last week, and my pantyhose were snapped. There was nothing back there for it to snag on. And there were no runs."
During her evenings in the bar, she's had plenty of time to think ghostly thoughts. "To me, there's pockets," she says. "You can be in one room, move out of a cold spot, and it's almost like a steam room. It's not like it's hot, but it's like you can't breathe. Whenever I go up there, I feel like there's water running down my back -- like I've gotten out of the shower. I'm thinking of buying a locket and putting white sage in it to wear around my neck. I have no choice but to believe."
Particularly after a recent run-in with a ghost while in the women's first-floor bathroom. "I wouldn't say it sat on me, but there was a weird pressure," she remembers. "It was hard to get up. There was weight. It was sticky. Not sopping wet, but it was moist. Humid. I can't say, exactly. It felt human. It was definitely female. It said '1925. Tammy.' It said it a couple times. '1925. Tammy.'
"The more we go upstairs, the more we fuck with them, they retaliate. I'm done. I hate this. My feet won't ever hit those stairs again. I want that door nailed shut."
3:35: Surprisingly, Guisinger, who's finished her side work, comes upstairs. It's not long before her skin starts to crawl.
"Right now there's no safe place," she says in a quivering, rapid-fire sequence, her eyes dilated with terror. "You can't just back into a corner and feel like there's nothing behind you, know what I'm saying? I'm against the wall, but I still feel like there's something there."
We retreat with Xena to the carpeted, candle-lit comfort of base camp.
4:05: Everyone finally says goodnight and leaves the building. Even Xena has had enough, and I hear the sound of her toenails as she descends the wooden stairs to curl up by the jukebox. Now, how to qualify this newfound fear of being alone? It's far worse than any time that I think I've lost my keys or wallet, but it's not as bad as rappelling off an overhang in the wind. It's more enduring than the sensation preceding a car accident, but it's better than getting robbed at machete point by kids in a coffee plantation. I wonder if it's enough to send Marilyn Manson crying for his mommy. I blow out all the candles and wait. Maybe the orbs need total darkness before they come out to play.
4:07: It's pitch black in the Blue Chair Room. Trains. A distant car alarm.
4:25: More monotony in the Bucket Room. I've had more terrifying bed spins at home.
4:35: Finally! A banging in the Headache Room.
4:40: Seated in a chair in the bathroom connected to the Headache Room, snapping photos in the dark, I'm growing impatient. This is the spot where Red Elk claims to have caught a glimpse of a female arm hanging over the tub, her wrist slit. But tonight there's no body. No blood. No nothing. C'mon, saloon girls: It's bloomer time!
Taking a decidedly inappropriate cue from a pair of seasoned ghost hunters recently featured on Art Bell's Coast to Coast, I stretch out in the bathtub -- a fit snug as a coffin -- and wait for Tammy. Or Timmy. Or Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke. Zilch. Afterward, it seems only right to light a candle by way of apology.
A recent bar patron wasn't so considerate. "I've noticed pretty dramatic temperature changes up there before," says the 35-year-old veteran of both Desert Shield and Desert Storm who wished to remain anonymous. "I don't necessarily recall any that night. I guess that's why I was a little bit disappointed. If there was any taunting, it was probably because of that. I don't think we were out of control or belligerent. We weren't tiptoeing through sacred grounds, that type of courtesy.
"I'd had a few to drink, but I was a million miles from black-out drunk. And I was a million miles away from taking a wrong step on a staircase and not knowing it." He pauses. "I kind of had the sensation that I'd been shoved. It wasn't a hard or malicious shove. But I don't remember anybody being immediately behind me. I think I was on the second or third step coming down, and for like a split second, I would say, the staircase disappeared. Either the stairs disappeared or I was pushed.
"Three days later, when I got the X-ray done," he continues, "the orthopedic surgeon told me that the only way I could have generated that kind of fracture is if I would've fallen off a ladder or stepped off some scaffolding. He actually doubted that I'd fallen down the stairs. I have no bruises, no scratches, no scrapes, no nothin'. It's pretty difficult to explain.
"I would say something was trying to get a point across," the biker concludes. "The abbreviated version I tell people is that I danced with the stairs and lost."
5:07: Upon closer inspection, the Headache Room is an intense, coagulated, red-flecked mess of a place. If that stuff on the walls is grease, then why is so much of it red? A shotgun in the mouth?
5:12: I can't keep my eyes open another minute. Even carpeted, the floor is hard as hell. Thank God for pillows. I'm out like a light when the second audiotape ends.
7:34: I'm awakened by a noise. Thankfully, it's not ghost woman weeping, but the sound of a truck outside. There's no way that three beers could have produced this kind of hangover. There's dust in my nostrils, and I feel terrible. But it's good to see natural light seeping into the space. I make a final sweep, pack up, wake Xena and leave.
Listening to my tapes proves even scarier than making them. The three hours of mostly uneventful audio include long gaps of silence interspersed with my own abrupt declarations of time and space. But toward the middle of the second tape, a few unsettling moments reveal themselves.
At roughly 3:45 a.m. I snapped a photo in the bathroom. The simple click of a disposable camera seems to be followed by the sound of a gunshot in the adjoining Headache Room. Five minutes later, when four of us and the dog are sitting in base camp discussing candlelight as an antidote to dark forces, a mocking female laugh suddenly materializes. Assorted electromagnetic bursts of static leap out here and there. But the most distressing sequence occurs shortly after everyone has said their goodnights. At about 4:20, when I was alone in the Bucket Room, there's a low, ominous growling that's definitely not from my stomach -- or Xena. It lasts approximately three minutes. Not audible in real time, played back on tape it scares me to the liver.
The whole thing freaks Wallace out, too. "Before two weeks ago, I could've laughed it all off," he admits. "I thought, 'Let's milk this for all it's worth.' I was kind of excited, you know. Because we're brand-new and we need business.
"But now I'm kind of scared for people's safety. We're gonna really scale back on taking people up there."
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In the Western History/Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library, the earliest city directory that includes 3862 High Street is from 1893, and it lists the occupants as John Deike, shoemaker; Anthony McGinnis, saloon owner; and Miss Linda Struble, clerk. Next door, in what's now a vacant lot, there was a building with seven residents, including a machinist, a car inspector, a painter and a switchman -- but no Timmy, Tammy or White Man is listed.
John Gahan, a plasterer, bought the building in 1902 and began operating the GM & TF Saloon, which stayed in the family as a billiards hall, then a restaurant and even a seven-unit apartment building, until Jerry Benavidez bought 3862 High Street in 1963 and turned it into Louie's Bar. In 1981 it became Marco's. Twenty years later, Wallace bought the soon-to-be Speakeasy.
Nowhere in the past 110 years of 3862 High Street's existence has there been a listing -- of either an owner or a tenant -- for anyone named Michael, White Man, Timmy or Tammy.
Not to burst anyone's bubble.