Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Biltmore’s Mobster Ghost

The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables Florida is one of America’s most posh hotels. During the Roaring 20s John Bowman of the Bowman-Biltmore Hotel Corp. along with the founding father of Coral Gables, George Merrick had this hotel built. Their goal was to provide a “grand” resort for the rich and famous.

These two men succeeded because the Biltmore quickly became the place to stay in the 1920s and 30s. Hollywood stars, royalty from Europe, political greats all stayed at the Biltmore. * The construction cost 10 million and the Biltmore was the tallest building in Florida at that time. It is a beautiful building--fashioned after the Giralda Tower in Spain.

Many were drawn to the Biltmore for its gala balls and fabulous golf course. Others enjoyed the many popular big bands and jazz groups that performed at the hotel. Another leading attraction was its aquatic shows that took place in its “grand pool. “ ** Johnny Weissmuller before becoming famous for his Tarzan role, worked at the hotel and broke a world record in this pool.

At the beginning of World War ll the Biltmore was converted into a military hospital. Much of the hotel’s charm and beauty were lost at this time.*** After the war the building was used as a Veteran’s hospital.

In 1968 the University of Miami’s School of Medicine used the historic hotel. It is said cadavers were kept in the building that were used in the gross anatomy classes. This history plus the fact that there over 100 deaths in the building while it was used as a hospital is the reason why most people feel the hotel is haunted.

In 1973 the city of Coral Gables acquired the Biltmore. The building stood empty for ten years while the future of the building was argued over. In 1983 restoration began on the old hotel. After 55 million dollars and three years the Biltmore Hotel reopened in 1987 restored to its original beauty. ****

During the ten years it lay empty many witnesses on the adjoining golf course reported very strange activity. Strains of music and crashing sounds were heard originating from the hotel. Hundreds of witnesses reported seeing eerie lights in the building despite the fact the building's electricity was turned off. 

One incident that occurred in 1979 highlights this activity. Both Coral Gable and Miami police officers entered the building determined to capture what they felt must be trespassers.

13th Floor Suite
Several officers witnessed windows opening and closing on the top floor. They also heard the sound of glass breaking. They saw dark figures running down the hallways. 

But to their frustration they found no one in the building so they brought in two police dogs to sniff out the interlopers. But their handlers were surprised when these dogs once in the building started to shy. Their tails between their legs one managed to break free and then ran out of the building. 

As mentioned above many feel there are ghosts who still reside at the Biltmore Hotel. The Biltmore today openly acknowledges their presence and the hotel offers ghost tours. For this post I will share the story of the Biltmore’s most notorious ghost--Thomas “Fatty” Walsh.

Walsh is the 3rd from the left
Credit: Library of Congress
Walsh was a New York mobster who in 1929 ran an illegal speakeasy and Casino on the Biltmore’s 13th floor. He always had a cigar in his mouth and a beautiful lady on his arm. 

He made a lot of enemies during his time at the Biltmore and he was shot in the head and killed. It is not certain who killed him for his murder was swept under the carpet quickly. His patrons were the hotel’s rich and powerful and no one wanted it known they were associated with Walsh.

The 13th floor suite where Walsh was murdered is one of the most active areas in the hotel. Lights turn on and off on this floor and doors open and shut on their own without any known cause. The television in this tower suite also often malfunctions.

It appears Walsh, just as in life still likes the pretty ladies. His haunting involves one of the hotel’s elevators. Many witnesses over the years have reported they entered this elevator and hit their floor’s button but the elevator proceeded to ignore this and instead took them directly to the 13th floor. They all report that the doors opened to this floor’s suite and then just stayed open. This even happens when this elevator is keyed for the privacy of the person or person’s staying on the 13th floor.

This unusual malfunction only occurs when pretty ladies are in the elevator. Greg Jenkins in his book entitled, Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore shares the story of one young couple that stayed at the Biltmore. They decided to explore the hotel. They entered the elevator that goes to the 13th floor suite. They hit the forth floor button but the elevator passed this floor and took them to the top floor.

The doors opened and stayed open so the wife stepped off the elevator curious about what was going on. Before her husband could follow the doors to the elevator shut. He immediately tried to reopen them but the elevator headed down. He hit the 12th, 11th and 10th floor buttons in an attempt to return to the 13th floor but the elevator did not stop until it reached the lobby. During this time the lights in this elevator flickered on and off repeatedly.

Frightened now, the husband tried to go back up by pressing the 13th floor button but the elevator didn’t budge. He asked a bellhop for assistance and they both went up to the 13th floor. As the doors opened his wife rushed into his arms in a panic. She told both men that the suite had been ice cold and that a strong smell of cigar smoke was in the air. She heard voices talking but no other people were in the suite with her. She had sensed that as she moved around the suite someone was following her.

The bellhop shared Walsh’s story with this couple. They did no further exploring of the hotel.

* Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, the Vanderbilt’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt all were guests. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor also stayed at the Biltmore. Just to name a few. In more recent years former President Bill Clinton has stayed at the Biltmore. He plays golf on the Biltmore's championship course.

** This pool is still the largest in the continental United States. The hotel’s aquatic shows, which included diving exhibitions and synchronized swimming literally kept the hotel afloat during the Great Depression. No pun intended.

*** Its marble floors were covered over in military grey linoleum and many of its windows were sealed up during this time.

**** The Biltmore Hotel is a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

The following is a brief Travel Channel video that shows the Biltmore Hotel, its pool and the suite that Walsh haunts.

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