The soul in Suite 100: A ghost story

  • Julia Staab, who died in her Santa Fe home in 1896.Some say her ghost still haunts the place.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The Staab home, built in Santa Fe in 1882.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • Julia and Abraham Staab.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The original door to the Staab house, with its carved entry bearing Abraham Staab's initials, in the La Posada de Santa Fe.

    La Posada de Santa Fe
  • Julia Staab's bedchamber, where she spent the last days of her life, and where she died, is now Suite 100 in the hotel.

    Hannah Nordhaus
  • The Staab family plot in the Fairview Cemetery now sits, weedy and pest-infested, amid the bustle of Santa Fe.

    Hannah Nordhaus

I am from, as they say, an "old" New Mexico Anglo family. I did not grow up in New Mexico, but have always thought myself from there -- tied to the place by blood and property and predilection, and by the way the smell of sagebrush and cast of light remind me that I am home each time I cross the state line. My great-great-great-great-uncle, Solomon Spiegelberg, first came to the area in 1846, a German-Jewish wagon-peddler who sold goods to the conquering American troops. My great-great-grandfather, Abraham Staab, followed his uncle to Santa Fe in 1858 and set up a wholesale dry goods business, selling grain and uniforms to the Army and supplies to local residents. In 1882, he built a graceful French Second Empire Style home on Palace Avenue, just a few blocks off Santa Fe's main plaza. It was a brick structure in a city of mud and straw, with a green mansard roof and a widow's walk ridged with elaborate ornamental ironwork. Inside were high ceilings and mahogany woodwork, ornate brass chandeliers and plaster moldings, gilt floor-length mirrors and furnishings imported from New York and Germany. Three stories tall, it dwarfed the other buildings in town.

Abraham built that grand home for his bride, my great-great-grandmother Julia, who had grown up wealthy in Germany and expected such things. She was a slight woman, under five feet, delicate as a sparrow, with dark brown ringlets massed above her head, her eyes just a tad too close together. She raised seven children in the house, and buried an infant. Local histories report that after the baby's death, Julia stayed in her room for two weeks, not eating or sleeping, and that when she emerged, her dark hair had gone completely white. She never quite recovered from the loss, rarely leaving her room, and she died there in 1896 at the age of 52. The home is now a local landmark, a swank hotel called "La Posada" -- Spanish for "resting place" -- with hot tubs and spa treatments. But local legend says that Julia has not exactly found a place to rest there -- that, in fact, she has never given up residence. My great-great-grandmother is the hotel ghost.

The first reported sighting came in 1979, when an employee cleaning late at night looked up to see a translucent woman with white upswept hair and a black Victorian dress standing near a fireplace. A security guard saw the same woman wandering a hallway some time later. He took off running. And then strange things began to happen throughout the old house. Gas fireplaces turned off and on, and off and on again. The brass chandeliers in the bar and living room revolved of their own accord. Vases of flowers moved to new locations. Julia's old bedchamber, two rooms at the top of the stairs with period furniture and unnerving lace curtains, now dubbed Suite 100, was reputed to be a particular locus of "ghostly activity" -- gauzy faces in mirrors, dancing "orbs," toilets that flushed on their own.

As word spread of Julia's reappearance in her old home, my great-great-grandmother –– a woman who, by all accounts, had been quite proper and reserved during her lifetime –– morphed into something of a local celebrity. She starred in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, and also Weird Travels; there are web pages devoted to her, passages in books about ghosts, even a novel based on her story. And so my great-great-grandmother, whom of course I never knew, is no longer my family's property. She now belongs to everyone -- a local legend, a curiosity.

This is not entirely objectionable to those of us who are related to her. It links us, conspicuously, to New Mexico's past. And it is fun to have a spirit in the family. My great-aunt Lizzie, who was the repository of family history until her death in 1982, was particularly keen on the ghost stories. She even spent a night in the room at La Posada, and reported seeing a rocking chair sway back and forth for no earthly reason. The rest of us stayed at the hotel from time to time, but never in Julia's actual bedroom. There were times, after a night of carousing with cousins at the plush Victorian bar below, when we convinced the hotel staff to let us visit the room. It had high ceilings and four arched windows. We'd lounge in the armchairs and the rocker and loll on the bed, calling for Julia as one would beckon a kitty -- dripping with condescension. Much like your average kitty, she refused to oblige.

Last spring, I decided to try again. I'm not sure why I felt compelled to know her at this moment in my life. Perhaps it was because, as I grew older, and had children of my own (though not nearly as many as Julia did) and began to contemplate mortality and bloodlines and loss, I wanted to know where -- and who -- I came from. So I made a trip to Santa Fe, to my family home where I have never lived, in search of a foremother whom I had never known. I booked a room -- her room -- at La Posada, and went in search of my family's Western beginnings.

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