Before Now – The Ghost Rider of Golden Gate Park

Barron

George H. Barron. Photo: California Historical Society (detail)

Editor’s Note: The days leading up to Halloween often call to mind tales of the unexplained. But while the chill such stories bring may seem to come from somewhere other than our coastal fog, we all know such things couldn’t possibly be true. Could they? Imagine yourself walking alone on a misty night in Golden Gate Park, and come to your own conclusion.

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Written account by George Haviland Barron, former curator of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Found in his personal papers after his death on June 24, 1942:

August 12, 1912

I credit myself as a man of science. The tangible achievements formed by the ingenuous and rational minds of great men have punctuated my lifetime. Electric light, the telephone, motion picture cameras, airplanes…yes, even the heavens themselves have been trespassed upon and conquered by the patient application of science during my time on this earth.

While in the course of my duties at the museum I have had occasion to handle objects and reliquaries that the superstitious would quail from—Egyptian mummies, Assyrian funereal artifacts, even a purportedly cursed idol from an Etruscan tomb—and never have I been tempted to entertain the validity of any folk tale, pagan myth, or report of supernatural manifestation. The events of last Friday night, however, have quite frankly shaken my confidence in this regard.

I was reading in my residence behind the museum before turning in, as is my nightly custom. I will forestall here any assumption that my choice of material was fanciful enough to cause what I witnessed thereafter; to help prepare myself for sleep I always delve into the driest periodicals and journals of interest to my profession, and on this evening it was a report on the archaeometallurgy of copper antiquities—hardly fodder for a tale of the gothic.

As the hour approached midnight, I decided to take a turn on South Drive before retiring. I often test myself identifying astronomical phenomena, but had little hope to do so this night. The fog had crept in. Tendrils of sea mist had gripped the night tightly, muffling sight and sound. I reached the drive, which I might have missed if not for the feel of the macadam road under my feet, and in the gloom I instinctively moved toward the lonely street lamp that stands on that part of the road. How deathly quiet the park felt at the hour! Even the usual doleful moans of distant foghorns were strangely absent.

No more than a moment after noting the extreme silence, and just as I reached the street lamp, I heard the clattering of horses’ hooves approaching from the east. I turned. Out of the haze of fog yellowed by the wan reach of the lamplight there did burst a large black horse galloping at full speed.

In an instant the beast was passing my startled form, and on its back I was surprised to see a young woman wearing a straw hat. Her eyes were protruding, her mouth gaped open, and her general expression was one of strained agony and terror. They were past me in a blink. At the curve in the road west the fog swallowed up the horse and girl and the sound of their manic ride before I had even finished raising my arm to hail the rider.

The apparition had a profound impression on me. The twisted countenance of the young girl, the furious lather on the ink-black horse, and the strange commingling of the pair with the grasping fog had me quite agitated and concerned. I at once returned to the house and called the park police on the telephone. Officer Connolly, one of the oldest members of the force, was on duty and answered my call. I asked if he had seen a speeding horse and girl rider, and if any disturbance toward the park panhandle could explain their mad rush west. Connolly replied that he had seen no rider and that all was calm near the superintendent’s lodge and police station. He then paused a moment before asking, almost reluctantly, “Did the lass have on a straw hat or bonnet?”

As I had not mentioned the hat in my rush of explanation I now exclaimed, “Yes, she did. Then you have seen her! She seemed in much distress and I think you might send a man to check on her.”

The old officer sighed and said, “Not to worry, professor. I know what this is about. If you’re free in the morning, I’ll drop by when my shift ends to give you a report.”

We made arrangements to meet at seven the next morning, and I went to my bed, satisfactorily expecting that the poor girl would be found and sent safely back to her family.

The next morning Connolly arrived at the residence in one of the two new automobiles the park commission had recently purchased for the police. A younger officer was driving the machine, and old Connolly sat in the passenger seat, looking uneasy with the ride and the general state of society to allow such mechanized horrors. Nevertheless, his face became solicitous as he rose to meet me and asked, “Well, professor, are you up for a little ride in the Devil’s cabriolet?”

While I held none of Connolly’s obvious prejudice against motorized vehicles, I was puzzled by the offer. “Where are we going?”

“To the beach. That’s where your fair rider was heading last night.”

“Is she there now?”

Connolly shrugged. “I’m not sure if she’s anywhere right now.” He saw my confusion and gestured me in. “Have a seat, and I’ll tell you what I know on the way.”

The fog had a translucent glow now, and it thinned as we drove west. Connolly turned sideways in his seat to talk to me in the back, but took frequent glances forward to check on his driver’s attentiveness to the road.

“I heard about her before I saw her, probably in my first year. Supposedly it was Eamon O’Brien’s horse. He was one of the first park police. As the story goes, he was outside the Three Bells, that old roadhouse that was on the panhandle, a bit before midnight. A young woman comes out of the Bells flushed with wine, wearing a straw hat. She gives O’Brien a hard time, just for fun, banters with him, and asks to ride his fine horse a little way down the drive. The girl was young, and O’Brien was young himself, so he does the stupid thing and puts the girl up on the big black horse. No sooner was she in the saddle than the charger took the bit between his teeth and bolted westward. They looked the rest of the night for her, but didn’t find her until the next morning. At the beach.”

We were just passing the Murphy windmill and the fog gave up its hold on the earth, evaporating into bright sunshine at the beach. I shook my head at the old officer, who I knew had been in the park police for almost 30 years. “What do you mean, Connolly? You heard about this woman in your first year on the force? The girl I saw last night couldn’t have been older than 20.”

“Yes, that’s her,” Connolly said as we stopped on the Great Highway. He got out and walked to the concrete pile seawall near the Beach Chalet. I followed and looked out on the sandy shore where he pointed. “They found the girl and the horse, both drowned and washed up there on the ocean’s edge. Since then, she does the run every year, a bit before midnight.”

Below us, on the otherwise spotless sand, headed straight west into the fizzing surf, was a line of hoof prints.

(Inspired by a “true” ghost story reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, August 12, 1912.)

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Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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