Burnley Ghost and Other Seattle Apparitions

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 1/01/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 2023
See Additional Media

In his famous, possibly apocryphal, speech of 1854, Chief Seattle is said to have warned his new neighbors that "the dead are not altogether powerless." There have been numerous reports of ghosts and other supernatural manifestations ever since. Among the most famous are a ghost that once haunted the Burnley School of Professional Art on Capitol Hill, the troubled spirits of the Rev. Daniel Bagley and his wife, and a mischievous stowaway aboard the University of Washington's former Showboat Theater. (Stephen King fans please note that the Rimbauer family, Joyce Reardon, and the Rose Red mansion are completely fictional and have no basis in actual Seattle history.)

Footsteps Upon the Stairs

The Burnley School of Professional Art was founded by Edwin and Elise Burnley in 1946. They started teaching graphic design and illustration classes in the former Booth Building at 905 E Pine Street and expanded into a full curriculum of what used to be called commercial art. The school was purchased in 1960 by Jess Cauthorn and has since been absorbed by the Art Institute of Seattle, now located on Elliott Avenue.

In the 1960s, students and staff began reporting strange nocturnal events: doors opening by themselves, sounds of disembodied footsteps, phones dialed by unseen fingers, coffee percolating without human assistance (before Mr. Coffee!). People would arrive in the morning to find furniture mysteriously rearranged or stacked during the previous night, when the school was supposedly empty and locked. Speculation over the cause focused on the story that a high school student had years earlier fallen to his death on the school's steep rear stairway. There is no documentary evidence of such an incident, but most witnesses believe the apparition to be a young male.

A Dark and Stormy Night

A Seattle medium attempted to contact the spirit during several seances in the mid-1960s. One such session was interrupted by a loud crash in an upstairs bathroom, where investigators found a broken window and a huge rock far too heavy to have been thrown from the alley below. "Automatic writing" (letters supposedly written by a medium under guidance from a spirit) led them to the school's basement and a hole into which the rock fit perfectly. Further excavation unearthed the skeleton of a small animal but no other clues. Later missives from beyond made special but cryptic references to the spirit's left shoelace. This writer attended a follow-up seance on a truly dark and stormy night in 1968. Nothing terribly supernatural occurred, but it turned out that the left shoelace of every male attendee had broken that day. I've worn loafers ever since.


There have been no reports of the Burnley ghost since the school relocated in 1986. The Showboat Theater ghost has also moved on (or sunk). This spirit once haunted the backstage and dressing rooms of the University of Washington's former Showboat Theater, a converted barge moored on Portage Bay until its removal in 1997. Some speculated that it was the departed Glenn Hughes, former head of the Drama School, but one would expect him to haunt the famous Penthouse Theater that made his reputation.

Local movie houses have had their share of post-death residents also. A beautiful yet translucent woman supposedly wanders the lobby and stairwells of the Harvard Exit. Some have seen her crying. At The Neptune, unexplained cold spots and the smell of tobacco with no visible sign of smoke have caused some to name this unseen visitor, "The Smoking Ghost."

The shades of pioneer preacher and educator the Rev. Daniel Bagley and his wife Susannah reportedly have been seen in the parsonage of the Capitol Hill Methodist Church. One former resident claimed to have seen Susannah in a diaphanous flowing gown, surrounded by a bluish light. When she asked, "How do I get out?" he pointed to the door, but she serenely floated out the upstairs window instead.

Returning Hosts

Other local ghosts include "Howard," a delightful old codger in a khaki trench coat who knocks back ethereal beers at the University District's College Inn Pub; "Sarah," the spiritual survivor of a deadly lover's triangle in a former Georgetown bordello; odd apparitions in Belltown's Butterworth Building – previously a mortuary; and miscellaneous sprites and spooks inhabiting the Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and Seattle's other older nooks and crannies. Perhaps Chief Seattle was right when he told settlers to beware, for "at night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land."


The Seattle Times, November 30, 1965, October 30, 1983, and October 29, 1990; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 29, 1970; "Holy Terror" The Seattle Times, October 29, 1986, p. G1; "Seattle Spirits" The Seattle Weekly, October 28, 1987, pp. 32-39; "Seeking the Urban Ghost" The Seattle Weekly, October 31, 1990, pp. 49-51; Michael Norman and Beth Scott, Haunted America (New York: TOR Books, 1994).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You