The Manrow House is a Haunted residence in San Francisco known as the “House of the Demons.” The house’s spectacular and unusual activity in the mid-19th century was widely reported in California news media.
The Manrow House was named after the man who built it in 1851, J. P. Manrow, a civil engineer for the New York railways who came to California and made his wealth in real estate. The small Swiss-style house was located at 1908 Chestnut Street at the northeast corner of Chesnut and Larkin Streets. The site, on the northern edge of Russian Hill, had a commanding view of San Francisco Bay. The grounds included a stable and garden and were surrounded by a high fence for privacy.
Manrow enjoyed a good reputation as a smart businessman with a Scientific bent. Handsome and distinguished, he was often seen about the peninsula riding with his wife and bloodhounds. He was named judgeadvocate of the local vigilance committee, a group of private citizens who served as vigilantes to protect the public against crime. The committee forced criminals out of town and even hanged some accused murderers.
The Manrow House survived the great fire of 1906. In 1927, it was demolished to make way for a 13-story co-op apartment building at 1090 Chestnut Street. A 19-story high-rise was built at 1080 Chestnut in 1961.
From the beginning, the Manrow House seemed to be plagued with a negative, malign presence. The haunting activity was first reported in 1856 by Manrow, who was then around 40 years of age, to two of his close friends: William H. Rhodes, who wrote under the pen name Caxton, and Almarin Brooks Paul, who published the True Californian daily newspaper with Rhodes and Washington Bartlett (who later became governor of California). Spiritualism had recently become popular, and Manrow evidently knew enough about it to identify some of the similar phenonema happening at his home—rappings, Apparitions, Table-Tilting, and so on. There were also Poltergeist activities. For example, Mrs. Manrow bought a feathered bonnet and laid it on the piano. She turned away, and when she turned back a moment later, she saw that all the feathers had been plucked out of the bonnet. In another instance, she found that salt had been emptied into the sugar bowl.
Manrow told Rhodes and Paul that some malicious spirit seemed to be playing these and other tricks at the house, even in broad daylight. The men suggested investigating by forming a circle for a Séance, to which Manrow agreed. The first circle took place on the night of September 19, 1856. The three men were joined by Mrs. Manrow, her sister, and her daughter.
As soon as the six formed their circle in the library, violent phenomena started up. Knocks resounded throughout the room and the table levitated about a foot off the floor and floated for a few moments. Furniture cushions and books flew about the room; one book struck Mrs. Manrow on the head. Paul picked it up and placed it on the table, whereupon it opened of its own accord. He closed it and it opened by itself again. The place in the book, which was about travel, had a quotation from the Bible, “Cannot ye discern the signs of the times?” In addition, everyone in the circle experienced unseen hands pinching them, pulling their hair, and punching them. The doorbell rang and rang.
Manrow suggested out loud that the spirits wake up a black servant who was sleeping in the stable. No sooner had he spoken this than the servant came rushing out of the stable shrieking in terror. The group could see him out the window, running down the walk toward the house. He broke into the kitchen. Then the group saw a grotesque apparition form outside in front of them. Rhodes gave a colorful description to the Sacramento Union newspaper, published on October 21, 1856:
This terrible apparition was the most frightful figure that ever the human eye beheld. Language is utterly inadequate to describe it. There it reclined in the clear moonlight, silent, still, and sublime in its horrible deformity. If all the fi ends in hell had combined their features into one masterpiece of ugliness and revolting hideousness of countenance, they could not have produce a face so full of horrors. It was blacker than the blackest midnight that ever frowned in starless gloom over the storm-swept ocean.
Over its head and body it had spread a mantle of the most stainless white. It looked like a robe of new fallen snow covering the blackened remains of a confl agration. It seemed as though personified sin had snatched the garment of a seraph as he floated by, and spread it over its thunder-scarred and hell-scorched form. Its face was turned toward us in profile, and I saw upon its features an expression of cruelty and revenge, darkened by the frown of everlasting despair. Hope never sat there.
After staring in horror at the “goblin,” everyone in the group except Paul rushed out of the room. The library erupted in activity. Chairs, tables, rugs, and pokers danced about and flew through the air. Rhodes was struck on the head by a cushion, and one of the women was struck on the head by a flying chair cover that released a huge cloud of blinding dust. Rhodes went to the front door, but found the gate torn open and laid as a barricade across the threshold. The group then tried to exit through the kitchen at the rear of the house, even though that is where the apparition appeared. But when they opened that door, they found that the hideous form had vanished.
The group then decided to summon up “spirits of the beautiful and good” to counteract and dispel the “goblin.” They returned to the Séance table in the library.
Immediately benevolent spirits manifested: they felt cool hands touching them, gently stroking their hair and faces. Paul said he could see spirit hands fl itting among them. Rhodes then perceived them as well, for about five or six minutes. He said there were about a dozen of them, and they looked as real as flesh and Blood. According to Rhodes, the good spirits seemed to be trying to make amends for the preceding frightful events. Manrow, who was at the time suffering from a severe cold and toothache, asked for relief. Spirits hands caressed his jaw until his pain went away. The pleasant phenomena continued until the group reluctantly ended their session around 1 A.M.
They met for a second circle the next evening. Different spirits appeared, visible outside in the bright moonlight. First the ghostly form of a girl about age 10 to 12 came to the library window. The figure was stooped and fl itted back and forth. Then another figure appeared, so close to the window that Mrs. Manrow screamed. The figure was human in form, tall and thin, and “resembled a shadow more than substance.” (See Shadow People.) It came inside the house, passing through the wall. It disappeared and reappeared several times, always passing in and out of the solid house wall.
During the appearances, Paul was repeatedly upset out of his chair in a remote corner of the room, as though pushed out by invisible hands. The group asked for a Demonstration, that Paul be lifted up and tossed onto the Séance table. This was done immediately. Paul said that he felt first grasped by the collar of his coat, then lifted up off the floor and hurled forward onto the table. He was not hurt.
The group ended its second circle again around 1 A.M.
They reconvened for a third and final Séance on another night. After a few minutes of stillness and silence, violent activity erupted. Rolled-up maps and world globes were thrown from bookcases; the globe rolled around the floor. One globe increased in speed and crashed into a window, breaking the glass. The group asked to see the forms of the spirits responsible for the activity. At once a form like a WILL-O’-THE-WISP appeared outside the library window. It looked like a globe of wavy light and did not cast a SHADOW. It moved back and forth and changed shape into an oblong and irregular blob. As it withdrew from the window, Paul said he could see it clearly, and it changed into the shape of a newly dug grave and lay upon the ground, glowing with a pale light. Then it changed into a thin line and gradually melted away.
After the Séances, poltergeist activity continued in the house for several months. No cause was ever determined. There are no records of paranormal activity by other owners of the house.
- Richards, Rand, ed. Haunted San Francisco: Ghost Stories from the City’s Past. San Francisco: Heritage House Publishers, 2004.