The Ghost of Christmas Past

Charles Dickens Might Like the Story of Spooks at The Biltmore Hotel

You would think that ghost stories would pertain strictly to the month of October. But thanks to Charles Dickens (and that Andy Williams song) they’re also a part of Christmas tradition. Or at least they used to be. Christmas takes place around the same time as the Winter Solstice, which was celebrated by pagans. One pagan practice was the telling of ghost stories in the winter when nights are longer and darker, thus setting the scene for spooky tales. Pagans also believed that the dead could cross over more easily into the living world during the Winter Solstice. 

Christmas ghost stories became commonplace once again with Dickens. Starting with “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, he released ghost stories every year at Christmas time. So, in honor of that tradition, we’ve got a little scary story of our own this holiday season. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t watch horror films based on true stories, you might not want to keep reading. 

The Biltmore’s Residents

Let me start by saying that I believe in ghosts. Maybe it’s because I grew up believing that my childhood home on Long Island was haunted. He was friendly though – more like Casper than the twins in “The Shining” – and would do things like turning on the lights in a room when you had your hands full. So, naturally, I wanted to spend the night at the Biltmore Hotel. And not just in any room. I wanted to stay in the infamous 13th floor tower suite – a.k.a. the Everglades Suite –known to be the postmortem home of the ghost of Thomas “Fatty” Walsh, a gangster, who was gunned down in that very room 91 years ago. There is still the bullet hole notched in the massive fireplace in the main room of the suite, nicknamed the Al Capone Suite after one of Fatty’s gangster friends.

But Fatty isn’t the only ghost associated with Coral Gables’ oldest hotel. The Biltmore is famously haunted. During World War II, the federal government turned the hotel into a 1,200-bed military hospital. After the war, it was used as a veterans’ hospital. In the 1950s, it became the campus for the University of Miami’s medical school until they built their own building. The hospital closed during the following decade, and the Biltmore was abandoned.

In my book, soldiers dying at the Biltmore is reason enough for the property to be haunted. While the hotel was vacant, people who were around the building claimed they saw windows open and close, and lights go on and off, despite the electricity being shut off. They also heard music.

The Ghost of Christmas Past
The Biltmore Hotel from the golf course.

Other spirit stories about the Biltmore include the sighting of a ghostly couple, seen waltzing in one of the ballrooms before vanishing into thin air. Another one describes the entity of a woman wandering the grounds looking for her child. No one knows the original tale; one account tells of a young mother who fell to her death while trying to save her son, who had climbed up on the balcony railing of their tower suite. Another says that she was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant while walking with her child on the property many decades ago. 

There are so many ghost stories about the Biltmore, in fact, that the hotel had its very own storyteller for 10 years. Starting in 1994, Linda Spitzer would tell ghost stories in the lobby. Though she did her own research, staff would also inform her of strange occurrences, and guests would sometimes recount their own experiences – like lamps that were humanly impossible to reach being unplugged or the corner of a bed sinking down as if someone were sitting on it. Maybe the hotel was fated to be haunted, as the groundbreaking took place on Friday, March 13 in 1925.

The Gangster Ghost

While many may scoff at the Biltmore’s haunted history, one ghost that everyone agrees on is that of “Fatty” Walsh, the New York mobster who was fatally shot in the Everglades Suite. The room was used as a speakeasy and casino, which Fatty ran with fellow gangsters Edward Wilson and Arthur Clark. One night in March of 1929, Fatty and Wilson got into an argument – most likely over a gambling debt – and Wilson shot Fatty, who died right in front of the suite’s grand fireplace.

This was where we set our bags down on the night we stayed, right where Fatty’s body once lay. To get here, we had to have a key card. Since the Everglades Suite is the entire 13th floor of the Biltmore’s tower, the only people with access are staff and guests who are checked into that room. Unless Fatty personally invites you up, that is. 

As one story goes, a couple was staying on the fourth floor of the hotel. They pushed the “4” button in the elevator, but were brought to floor 13 instead. The elevator doors remained open, so the woman stepped out. Suddenly, the doors shut behind her, returning her husband to the hotel lobby. He told the staff what had happened and they all went up to the 13th floor where the wife was terrified. She said she had heard footsteps, heard talking and laughing and smelled cigar smoke. And this is not the only tale of a pretty woman being brought via elevator to the 13th floor. 

The slaying of Thomas “Fatty” Walsh made local and national news.

Rooming with Fatty Walsh

Well, since we were already staying in Fatty’s suite, we weren’t magically summoned there via elevator. Or maybe my friend and I just weren’t his type. No offense taken, Fatty. But we didn’t need a creepy welcoming from our ghastly host to be spooked. We were more or less on edge the entire time. Maybe we’re biased, having volunteered to stay in a renowned haunted hotel room. Or maybe it was the steep and creaky staircase to the second floor where there were doors at the end of every hallway, which were either locked or opened to a dark, empty room. Suffice it to say we closed the door to the upstairs entirely. 

We can’t blame the guy for wanting to spend his afterlife here: The place is absolutely gorgeous. The massive main area has two couches, two chairs, a coffee table, a dining room table, a wooden desk if you need to answer emails during your vacation and, finally, a grand piano. The master bedroom and bathroom are in the two back corners with a long closet and vanity area connecting them. There’s a second bathroom at the bottom of the stairs and another bedroom on the second floor.

The staircase to the second floor of the Everglades Suite.

The high ceiling in the main room alone is a work of art. Supported by decorated beams, the painted ceiling looks more like that of a European castle than a Florida hotel. There are balconies on either side of the main room: One with a view of downtown Coral Gables and Brickell, and the other looking over the golf course. And the stone fireplace, where Fatty took his last breaths, is stunning. 

The main area of the 13th floor suite is massive, with two couches, a dining room,
a grand piano and ample room for ghosts. 

Night Chills

After searching the massive suite for any paranormal activity, we headed to the pool for some non-spooky lounging. Once back in the room to get ready for dinner at Fontana, we were relieved to find that none of our belongings had been moved, no hard-to-reach lamps unplugged or closed doors reopened. The more time we spent in the Al Capone Suite, the more confidence we gained. The key is to never be in a room by yourself, even if this means setting up camp in the bathroom while you take turns showering. However, once we got back from dinner it was officially nighttime and any false sense of bravery that we had garnered when the sun was up had vanished. We were watching Netflix in the main room and I was fully expecting the lights to turn off or the closed door to the second floor to open. But nothing happened. Maybe he’s media shy, I thought.

The first spooking came a little after midnight. We were ready to go to bed and had shut both doors to the master bedroom: The one that led to the closet/bathroom and the one that led to the main living area. Upon reopening the door to the living room, the other one creaked open on its own. Was it Fatty?

Okay, so it turns out that it hadn’t been fully closed, and opening one door changed the air pressure in the room, causing the other one to open. I was relieved that Fatty wasn’t trying to tuck us into bed, but slightly disappointed that my jerk reaction was to scream and jump under the covers. We finally went to sleep, with the lights on of course, convincing ourselves that all the bumps in the night were just typical sounds that any 95-year-old building would make. 

Daytime Frights

It was morning time! Ghosts don’t come out in the daylight, right? Wrong. We made it through the night, we were getting ready for breakfast at The 19th Hole and our spirits – no pun intended – were high, until they weren’t. I was at the his-and-her bathroom sink, looking over the golf course and sunny South Florida morning when I heard it: A clicking/tapping sound. I checked both sinks, the shower, the tub, even the toilet to make sure there was no running water. None of the faucets were on, so I shrugged it off and headed for the walk-in closet. I still heard the sound. I half-heartedly told myself that it was the plumbing or the 14th floor, but I had the distinct feeling that something – or someone – was following me. 

After our stay, I came across a feature in the Sun Sentinel entitled “Phantoms of the Biltmore.” It was published in October of 1986, when the hotel was still closed for renovations. The author, Richard Winer, and fellow writer Nancy Osborn were permitted to conduct a séance in the hotel, recruiting a team of mediums from a spiritual group called the Arthur Ford Academy. According to the article, the five mediums were not informed of the location of the séance and they were brought to the Biltmore in a van. 

They were brought to every floor, including what used to be the morgue and autopsy areas of the former hospital and medical school. Winer stated that nothing significant happened until the group reached the 13th floor, more specifically, the upstairs. (I’m really glad we shut the door to the second floor now). “Both of these floors emanate with energy,” said one of the mediums. 

They began their séance in the suite and, once entranced, another one of the mediums said, “I hear the tapping of a cane – a cane like maybe a blind man.” I got full body chills after reading that line. That’s exactly what the noise sounded like, a cane tapping on the tile floor. This “blind man” apparently wanted to accompany me during my morning routine. Also, before we left the suite, I noticed the curtains of the windows to one of the balconies. One of the rods that you use to pull back the curtain was swinging on its own. 

The 13th floor tower suite where the brutal murder of Thomas “Fatty” Walsh
took place in 1929. 

Farewell, Fatty

After an incredible breakfast at The 19th Hole (highly recommend the breakfast wrap), we went back to our humble haunted abode to pack our bags and make coffee to-go in the kitchenette. Nothing further spooky happened as we said goodbye to 13th floor. 

Like I said, we are full believers in ghosts, so we had no doubt that everything we heard or saw was the work of Fatty or one of his paranormal pals. Of course, skeptics will come up with any other reason as to why we heard or saw certain things. Sure, maybe the air conditioning was moving only one of the drapery pull rods, even though they were so close together that any breeze would surely affect both of them. Maybe the building is just old and happens to make very specific tapping noises that follow you throughout the room. Or maybe not.