By Jeff Belanger
Captain Tony’s Saloon in Key West, Florida, is one happening place. The buildings walls have seen both literary and rock royalty pass through. Ernest Hemmingway frequented the bar while he lived in Key West, and Tennessee Williams and Shel Silverstein were both known to throw back a few at the saloon. Jimmy Buffett began his singing career on the bar’s stage, and legends like Bob Dylan still show up for impromptu performances. It’s the history above all else that draws so many spirits (living, dead, and the kind you drink) to this haunted hot spot – a history laced with lynching’s, accidents, and murder.
Built in 1851, 428 Greene Street was originally home to two businesses operating under one roof: an icehouse stocked by ships sailing down the East Coast, and the city morgue. In 1865, a massive hurricane hit the Florida Keys, and the sea surged fifteen to twenty feet, smashing almost everything in the way. The building at 428 Greene Street took the hurricane’s hit on the chin, sending doors, inventory, and fresh corpses drifting into the murky aftermath.
“All of the bodies were missing after the hurricane hit, except one,” said Joe Faber, the current owner of Captain Tony’s Saloon. “According to some old Conchs that I spoke with when researching the history, they found one body that was near the outside of the building, which is now the inside of the building where the pool room is. They never found the others, so what the Bahamian people did is decide to make that an unofficial grave site. They buried the body they found, built a wall around the area, and put bottles full of holy water in the wall.”
The Greene Street building has weathered many storms since then, and at different times has housed a wireless telegraph station, cigar factory, bordello, and speakeasy. The place went legit as prohibition ended, and the building entered its final incarnation as the saloon so many locals and tourists have come to love today.
Captain Tony’s pub expanded throughout the twentieth century. Besides building around the hanging tree, owners expanded the saloon to include a billiards room, building over and around the wall containing holy water. In the 1980s, while taking up the old plywood flooring, the bones from between eight and fifteen bodies were discovered. A skeletal reminder of the find hangs behind the bar today. Also unearthed was the grave marker of a young woman named Elvira, which is now exposed in the cement next to a pool table.
There’s a tree growing through the roof of the building with bras and other miscellany hanging from it. Eighteen people were hanged from it during the 1800s, all but one of them for piracy. The one exception? In the latter half of the nineteenth century, a local woman brutally murdered her husband and two sons. She chopped their bodies into pieces and set the bloody chunks out in the backyard for the animals to dispose of. A neighbor caught a glimpse of the scene and called others over to investigate. They saw the carnage, and then found the exhausted murderess inside her home wearing a blue dress covered in blood. The crowd turned lynch mob and dragged her to the hanging tree for some instant justice.
Today the legendary “Lady in Blue” is Captain Tony’s best-known haunting. People spot a bluish blur passing through the room, or maybe see the apparition out of the corner of their eyes. Some have even claimed to photograph her. But the specter in blue isn’t alone; there are others.
Joe Faber first came to Captain Tony’s Saloon in 1976 when he was in college. He heard about some of the ghosts from Captain Tony Tarracino himself, and although there are variations on the bathroom story, the gist of the legend dates back to the building’s early days as a saloon. For instance, according to Faber, a woman brought her young child into the speakeasy, where she found her husband drinking and carousing. The mother snapped. “She killed her child in the bathroom, which is a pretty hairy thing, and she took the kid’s body out under a blanket,” Faber said.
In January of 2005, one of Captain Tony’s female patrons had an eerie experience in the lady’s restroom that left her rattled.
“I tried to go in the first stall, but it was locked. I figured someone was in there that I didn’t notice, but then I heard the outside door close. Just before we left, I went in again. I again went for the first stall – the back one gave me the chills and eerie feeling – and realized it was locked from the inside. While in the back stall, I again heard the outside door close and I looked around the corner. No one walked in. I was feeling strange but continued what I was doing when, all of a sudden, I heard that first stall door slam. I jumped out of the back stall and saw that no one was there, and that the first stall was still locked from the inside. I ran out and never looked back.”
Joe Faber considers himself a skeptic. He’s neither seen the Lady in Blue nor sensed a presence in the women’s restroom. But he has had two experiences in the bar he can’t explain: voices that seemed to offer a kind of warning of events to come.
“About eight or nine years ago, I’m in the bar alone at about four o’clock in the morning,” Faber said. “I was sitting there doing paperwork, and someone . . . called me. All I heard was, ‘Hey, Joe.’ I thought that was pretty odd, so I got up to look around to see who was looking for me. I walked out of the back of the bar, and the back doors were wide open. I had just been out there maybe half an hour earlier.”
Faber described the back lot of the bar as being completely fenced in; there was no way someone could have come in or gone out that way. He figured that if the disembodied voice had any supernatural meaning, it was simply to lock the doors.
“I didn’t think much of that voice until several years later,” he said. “I was sitting at the bar at the end of the night doing paperwork, and I hear that same voice again, but this time it says, ‘Don’t leave.’ Now I’ve got the chills. I got up, and I ran to the back to see if the doors were open. I checked, and everything was locked down. So then I checked the entire building, because I’m thinking this may be a warning that there’s going to be a fire or something, but nothing was wrong.”
Finding nothing amiss, Faber went home. A few hours later, his phone rang. “I get a phone call about six o’clock in the morning from the police saying that a girl, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, committed suicide in front of the bar. Apparently the girl called her mother from her cell phone, said that she had just taken some pills to kill herself, and that she was in front of a yellow building that she thought was a bar, under a green awning. Her mother called the Key West police, who went from bar to bar and found the girl in front of Captain Tony’s, dead. Had I stayed at the bar that night, maybe I would have found the girl and been able to help her.
“Now, do I know what the hell that is? Absolutely not. But I do know that I’ve been there twenty years, I’ve heard it twice, and it was meaningful both times. Everybody can speak about the Lady in Blue, the bathroom, and things like that, but I means nothing to me until I actively see it or hear it. But from what I’ve experienced, and the stories I’ve heard, I know something’s going on.”
Considering that a number of people were executed on the hanging tree, and lives were lost here by the storm surge, in addition to the other deaths that took place in and around the property, maybe something or someone is still around.
Captain Tony’s Saloon, 428 Greene Street, Key West, Florida 33040