The Spirits Move Them : In Capistrano, Ghost Stories Are the Talk of the Town

History lives in San Juan Capistrano. And so do the spirits.

This is no big deal, nothing to get up and ring the mission bells about, although that sometimes happens too. On its own.

People around town seem to like it that way. They talk about it, trading personal stories and passing on others that they have heard. They are bemused, quizzical and intrigued. It’s all so rather matter of fact.

Of course, not everybody believes. They say that nothing otherworldly has happened to them.


Yet there is still time, perhaps in this life. Or the one beyond.

Paul Arbiso is the official patriarch of San Juan, 96 years old. He is one legend around here that lives in the flesh and blood. Until earlier this year, he tended the rose garden on the mission grounds. He still rings the mission bells when the swallows come home on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, and when a parishioner dies.

(For a man, it’s two pulls of the rope for each year of his life. For a woman, it’s three. A child’s death is signaled by the chiming of the smaller bells.)

Such are the traditions of which San Juan is made. And Paul, for one, sees that they are passed down and handled with care.


Which is why he has stories to tell. He swears that he doesn’t make them up.

“The ghost I seen, I was going home,” Paul says. “I was about 17, or 16. I been out playing cards with my friends at another adobe. It was just getting dark. This was a long, long time ago. Then right in front of the abode where we was living, I see a man stand up in the dark. He was wearing something white in front. Then he just disappeared.

“So the next day, I told my aunt about him. She said, ‘Well, you ain’t the only one who seen him.’ So he had been around.”

The house where Paul was living was known as the Canedo Adobe, at the crossing of what was once Eastern and North-South highways. There’s a Texaco station there today, just off the I-5, the start of the Ortega Highway just across the road.

Paul’s premiere ghost story has changed a little with this telling, however. When he told it on Dec. 30, 1975, as recorded in the archives of the oral history program at Cal State Fullerton, the ghost had no head.

Local Pamela Gibson, author of “Ghosts and Legends of San Juan Capistrano,” says the decapitation was attributed to the Manilas, bandits who raided town in 1857, killing anybody who got in their way. And there is another story about one of the mission priests called out to bless the body of a headless man in the hills.

The head was never found.

“There’s something else that I’ve never told before,” Paul tells me a bit later on. “When I was a kid, I seen my mother. I was in the house, walking around, and there she was. I seen her. Then I told my grandmother. I think she just wanted us to see her.”


Paul says both his parents died when he was young.

He says his mother was very much alive, however, one day when he was inside the mission with her and one of her friends.

“I was about 8 or 7 or 6,” Paul says. “And they each had me by one hand. And we was inside the mission, and there was a man--he had a guitar!--and he was sitting there. He was playing the guitar, but he didn’t make any noise. The other lady said ‘Look! Look!’ And the man run way and disappeared.

“We went around to see if we could find him, but he wasn’t there. All the doors were locked. He just disappeared.”

So I had come for one ghost story and instead, I got three. Does Paul have any more?

“No, I haven’t seen anymore,” he says. “I guess it was enough. And you know, in those days, you tell anybody, they don’t believe you.”

Except times have changed.

Stephen Rios, attorney at law, lives in the Rios Adobe, which has been owned and occupied by his family since 1794. It is the oldest adobe house in the state. Rios’ four children are the ninth generation to live there.


There are spirits in the house, Rios says. At least three.

“These are Rios spirits. We hear their footsteps. We hear them moving around.”

Rios describes the phenomena as spiritual--"not some anti-Christian thing"--part of his family’s sacred past.

Denise Caras, a newcomer to the Los Rios district, lives with her husband and her two daughters in Chief Lobo’s house just down the street.

“We have a slight wall knocker,” she says. “That’s about all. It’s like somebody is inside the wall, knocking. I’d be willing to believe it’s a ghost. As long as it doesn’t scare me or bother me, that’s fine. That’s part of the reason we moved to this area. It’s a little spiritual.”

Which, for the skittish, can nearly send them out of their skin.

Gil Jones, not quite sure what to make of any spiritual goings on, says that when he was restoring his place--the Oliveres Home--12 years ago, one electrician quit on the spot. He said there was a spirit inside--it chilled him good--and that he wouldn’t go back in.

Rusty, the family Irish setter, refused to go inside the house that day as well. The next day the dog was fine. (Although now Rusty is dead.)

Sue DiMaio, who has been in business in San Juan for 40 years, says there is definitely something going on at her Indian art gallery, Galeria Capistrano, the majestic house that Judge Richard Egan built in 1883. The gallery opened only last month and the electrical wiring is brand new.

Yet the lights seem to respond to some other control.

They turn on in the middle of the night, they flicker, they grow dim. The electrician has been out several times to take a look. He can never find anything wrong.

Other visitors to the gallery say that they have felt something warm, a presence, something good. One says she heard what sounded like music and people dancing around.

“I don’t think it is a sinister spirit at all,” Sue DiMaio says. “Judge Egan had a club, called the Tansy Club, and we know they collected Indian artifacts. So maybe it’s just Judge Egan telling us that he is happy with us.”

Of course, as plenty of locals have pointed out, when you’re dealing with things Indians, it’s a whole other realm.

Bill Ortega, owner of the Trading Post--where disembodied footsteps clomp up and down the stairs, objects are mysteriously moved and voices are heard--mentions the Hopi Kachina dolls.

“There’s always weird things going on with them,” he says. “It’s like they have wars, at night. You’ll come in and they’ll be tipped over, moved. This has happened several times. My uncle, in his store, he had the Kachinas in a glass display case and when he came in the morning, it was so bad that some of them actually had chips out of them.”

So who’s pulling legs? Don’t ask me. Maybe all, maybe none, of the above. I’m just the messenger here, reporting that nobody’s nose grew when I talked to them, nobody smirked. Nobody seemed like a kook.

And I heard too many strange stories--George, the cigar-smoking ghost at the old Forster Mansion, books dropping off shelves at the Green Door, heavy glass objects moved by themselves at the Crystal Orchid--to sum up here.

Oh, and then there was Mrs. Marena Brown, proprietress of Spanish Treasures, housed in the Manuel Garcia Adobe, historic site number 23.

“I’ve been here 36 years,” Mrs. Brown says. “There’s absolutely nothing! They are just making up stories.”

But they say. . . .

“No, dear, there is absolutely nothing! And I’ve spent some nights here and there wasn’t a peep. People just want to hear something spooky.”

Then Mrs. Brown laughs good and hard. She says that she doesn’t believe in ghosts one wit, although the devil is something else. And, for the record or otherwise, Mrs. Brown refuses to reveal her age.

“Everybody’s dying to know how old I am!” she says.

So there you have it. Just another unsolved mystery of old San Juan.

Dianne Klein’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.