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BOO! : Curious Old George Is Just One of Several Spirits That Go Bump in the Night at Houses in the County

Times Staff Writer

George is a curious sort. He has been hanging around the old Forster Mansion in San Juan Capistrano for years. He always wears the same plaid shirt, khaki pants and leather hat and leaves a strong odor of cigar smoke in his wake.

He doesn’t work and never talks to anyone--not in the conventional sense. But when George wants to get somebody’s attention, he has been known to rattle windows. And sometimes, he just appears.

George is the resident ghost of the 78-year-old house on Ortega Highway.

He is just one of several spirits that have been seen or felt hanging around homes, buildings and assorted structures in Orange County, sending chills up the spines of some of the living or drawing amused stares from the cynics. Some of the ghosts are the stuff of legends handed down over the decades and bear remarkable similarity to ghosts in other parts of the country. And many are associated with structures in and around San Juan Capistrano, which is more than 200 years old.

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Among all the haunted structures in the county, however, the Forster mansion probably has the most persistent ghost.

The house, considered one of the best examples of Mission Revival architecture and bearing historical landmark status, was built in 1910 by Frank Forster, a descendant of the founding family of large landowners and horse breeders in San Juan Capistrano.

The 5,000-square-foot house, on a 1.8-acre knoll about a quarter-mile east of Interstate 5 and just off Ortega Highway, was later bought by an eccentric farmer who allowed dogs and cats to freely roam the premises. By the time interior designer Martha Gresham bid for the house in 1984, its tattered curtains and peeling paint prompted local schoolchildren to dub it “the haunted house.”

Gresham saw not a run-down building but a jewel in the rough. She paid $650,000 for the place and proceeded to invest $450,000 into remodeling the two-story, 16-room house into clusters of studios for interior designers. Woodwork was stripped of old paint, floors were sanded and polished, and the walls in some rooms were covered in expensive cloth.

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One day, while workmen were tearing into an upstairs wall, they found an old, fossilized cigar butt lodged into the wood. It was as if someone had put it there on purpose, possibly a humorous calling card from a workman of an earlier decade?

Amused, Gresham put the odd token into a small box and placed it in her car’s glove compartment. She then temporarily forgot about it. That evening, while driving home, Gresham’s car stopped dead cold, seemingly for no reason. She couldn’t even get the lights to turn on. But before the tow truck hauled the car off to the garage, Gresham retrieved her valuables, including the cigar, and waited at home for a report from the mechanic.

He called several hours later, perplexed. The mechanic said that the car had started right up for him and that he could find nothing wrong with it.

From that moment on, Gresham said, she began to experience strange occurrences--sudden chilly spots in the house, little shoves going down the stairs, the security alarm system going off at all hours with no evidence of a trespasser, and the strong smell of cigar smoke, especially in the room where the cigar butt was found.

Then Gresham and some of her colleagues began to see the spirit she would come to refer to as George. And he always looked the same: about 40, with a mustache and chubby cheeks, wearing khaki pants, a plaid shirt and a leather hat.

Gresham said one of her strangest experiences with George occurred when Mrs. Lucana Forster Isch, a descendant of the Forster family, died in 1985. The house has a clear view of the old San Juan cemetery, and Mrs. Isch’s funeral procession passed by the house on its way to the burial grounds. As Gresham went from room to room that day, the windows started rattling violently, as if shaken by an earthquake. Gresham said she was so shaken that she closed the house for the day.

Gresham does not appear to be the type of person who is prone to fantasy. She is a successful, no-nonsense person, on a tight schedule and wastes no time getting to the point. Sitting in her lush office on the second floor in the full light of an autumn morning, she emphasized that she has never dabbled in the occult nor has she played with Tarot cards or Ouija boards. And she certainly understands people who discount her experiences as mere ghost stories; before they started happening to her, Gresham said, she herself would have thought the whole thing silly.

“I certainly understand. How do you explain that kind of experience?” she said.

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When she started seeing the ghost, Gresham said, she tried to track down his origin, but with no luck. Eventually she consulted a psychic, who determined that George had probably helped build the mansion and was especially proud of his work; he loved the house and has attached himself to Gresham, who also has a great appreciation for the structure.

In all the times she has seen George, Gresham said, she has never felt frightened. And lately, she has been hearing from George more often. She figures that it is because she is in the process of selling the house to a bed-and-breakfast concern and he doesn’t want her to leave. “I feel a real presence,” she said matter-of-factly, surveying the room.

It was not a dark and stormy night when Jon Jahr had a chance meeting with George. It was, in fact, a very hot Saturday afternoon in July when Jahr, an interior designer who was working alone in the mansion that day, walked out of his basement office to get materials he had left on a desk on the top floor. As he reached the top of the staircase, he suddenly stopped. The air had turned so cold, Jahr said, it was as if he had walked into a refrigerator. The cold spot was right next to the room where George is seen most often.

The experience was more exhilarating than chilling, Jahr said. And the next time Jahr encountered the ghost, it was downright amusing.

The grounds were being used for a private garden party. The guests were less than appreciative of the home and more interested in partying, Jahr said. Suddenly the sprinklers turned on. Jahr tried to turn them off, but he couldn’t. He tried to override the automatic system. No luck. The party was abruptly ended, Jahr said.

Some people would prefer that their houses not be included in ghostly tales and simply don’t want to discuss ghostly sightings, real or imagined.

The Newland House in Huntington Beach is home to the city’s historical society. A group of psychics came to the house a few years ago and “experienced something,” a member of the society said. But no one else has, nor does the society think the house, built in 1898, is haunted. “It’s not the image we want to portray,” she said.

And, there’s the Stanley House, built in 1892 and today home to the Garden Grove Historical Society. A group of psychics toured that house once, and as one of them walked up the stairs, he claimed to have received a sharp kick in back of the knees.

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The Garden Grove society, however, discounts any ghostly tales associated with the structure. And a member there said sternly, “We don’t care to be known as a haunted house.”

Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano probably has more ghosts than any other community in the county (see accompanying story by Patrick Mott), and no one has chronicled their comings and goings better than Pamela Hallan-Gibson, a fourth-generation resident of San Juan. Hallan-Gibson, assistant city manager of La Palma, has written several books on local history, including one on the ghosts and legends of San Juan.

“It’s easy to scoff at people like this,” Hallan-Gibson said of individuals who recount sightings or experiences with ghosts and spirits. “But when rational people who you’ve known for a long time . . . say, ‘Yes, I’ve seen these things,’ then it’s hard for me to say, ‘No, it can’t happen, it’s not real.’ ”

Consider, for instance, the old Albert Pryor house on Los Rios, which today serves as the O’Neill Museum in the historical district of old San Juan. Its former owner often used to be seen rocking on the front porch when the house was about 100 yards across the railroad tracks from its present site, Hallan-Gibson said.

The house was built around 1880 by a local saloon keeper, who was brutally murdered. Pryor bought the house from his widow and lived in it until his death. For years, the house stood abandoned and covered with weeds, partly because locals were frightened of the nighttime tales of footsteps and crying, Hallan-Gibson said. But the noises and sightings stopped after the house was moved to its present site.

The Montanez Adobe, built in 1794, was occupied during the late 1800s by Polonia Montanez, who was in charge of teaching catechism to children during the period when there was no priest at the mission. Polonia, who also served as the village midwife, converted the north end of her porch into a small chapel, where she would celebrate religious holidays and perform wakes.

The last person to live in the adobe taught college botany during the 1970s, and she would tell friends about waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of people walking and chanting, as if they were holding a wake. The voices sounded like those of children.

The teacher also used to see a small light glowing in a corner of one of the adobe’s rooms. The light would build up, then disappear. The phenomenon was all the more strange because there were no windows in this particular room.

Accounts of glowing lights are common in folk tales of the Mexican Southwest, Hallan-Gibson said. They usually refer to buried treasure. And in the case of the Montanez adobe, this one proved to be at least half-true.

When the adobe was being restored a few years ago, the contractor called Hallan-Gibson, who then worked for the historical society, asking her to “come right away.” When she arrived, the contractor showed her a leather pouch he had dug up in the corner of one of the rooms. Inside was a handful of jewelry. Buried treasure it was not--the booty turned out to be inexpensive costume jewelry, she said.

Hallan-Gibson tempers her stories with the caveat that what she is discussing is “not history. It’s oral tradition. It’s valuable in its place. And I don’t take it seriously--except when I’m out in the dark.”


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