The Driskill Hotel is an historic building in downtown Austin, Texas. Opened in 1886 by Civil War Colonel Jesse Driskill, the compulsive gambler promptly lost the hotel in a high-stakes poker game the following year. In 1890, Driskill died a broken man, and is believed to haunt the hotel to this day. It is said that he makes his presence known by the scent of his cigar smoke and the occasional appearance in a guest’s room, and especially to the ladies.
On a recent trip to Austin with my husband and fellow investigator Matthew Baxter, we visited the hotel to check out some of the folklore. We approached the concierge, Marcos, and asked him about hauntings in The Driskill. He was well prepared for the question, “Here’s a handout of our ghost stories!” Marcos has been a member of staff for the past two years but he hasn’t experienced any paranormal activity. However, he has heard stories from staff and visitors of a paranormal prankster that operates the elevators, moves furniture, pushes guests out of their beds, and hides their belongings. Marcos recently received a phone call from a former guest who said, “Two years ago I stayed at the hotel and I left an offering in my room. Has the activity stopped?” He had to inform her that, no, the claims haven’t ceased.
The landmark hotel has had a number of celebrity guests who report having brushes with ghosts. Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics once stayed at The Driskill during a tour. Undecided as to what to wear onstage that night, she laid out two dresses on the bed and took a shower. When she reemerged, the decision had been made for her as one of the dresses had been packed away. Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano also stayed at the hotel. Her song, “Ghost of a Texas Ladies’ Man” is supposedly about her encounter with the ghostly Colonel Driskill.
I saw a face in the shower door
A cowboy smile came and faded
I reached for my towel on the floor
I didn’t think it was exactly where I’d laid it
“You don’t scare me, you don’t scare me,” I said
To whatever it was floating in the air above my bed
He knew I’d understand
He was the ghost of a Texas ladies’ man
Room number 525 is rumored to be the most haunted in the building. This is supposedly the scene of two suicides that occurred twenty years apart to the day. Known as the “suicide brides”, both women committed suicide in the bathroom on their honeymoons, for reasons unknown. People claim to see apparitions in the room of a woman wearing a wedding dress, and to have problems with lights and faucets in the bathroom. It appears this is an urban legend, as there is no evidence for these deaths, and the details change across different versions of the story.
The most popular legend is that of four-year-old Samantha Houston, who was the daughter of a U.S. Senator. In 1887, the little girl chased a ball down the grand staircase when she tripped and fell to her death. As a tribute, the hotel owner commissioned a portrait of Samantha that still hangs on the wall of the fifth floor. The painting shows Samantha smiling sweetly as she holds a bunch of flowers and clutches a letter. Visitors claim to feel dizzy or nauseous when they look at the painting while some report feeling a strange sensation of being “lifted” off the ground. Others say Samantha tries to communicate through the painting, and that if you stare at her long enough, her expression changes. People believe they can hear her childish giggles throughout the halls of the hotel, and the sound of her ball bouncing down the stairs.
There are many simple and natural explanations for the paranormal claims. Most damning of all, it turns out that the “haunted painting” isn’t a portrait of Samantha Houston. This is a modern replica by Richard King of a work entitled “Love Letters’ by Charles Trevor Garland (1855-1906). Prints of the painting, mouse mats, and even cross stitch patterns of the image are available everywhere online. Amusingly, this is not the only ghost story attached to the painting. Another tale online tells that the image depicts a little girl who holds the flowers and letter for her father who was a soldier in the American Civil War. (Little does she know that her daddy was already dead!) However, Garland was a British artist, and he was only ten years old when the war ended anyway. “Love Letters” is in the style typical of Garland’s works, and he is well known for his portrayals of everyday scenes, usually involving children and their pets. There is no ghostly story behind the original artwork.
As usual, history spoils the hauntings.