America was formed over time by a diverse group of people from all over the world, each with totally different cultures. That makes the US a mixing pot for strange stories, shocking pasts, and haunted places. The reality is, every city has some sort of history that most people wouldn’t know about if they weren’t born in that city.
That being said, not every place has a ghoulish past full of ghost stories and horror tales. Some were simply born from the bosom of corruption and war and years of conflict and strife. Other cities have dark secrets they’d rather their tourists not know about. This list goes over 10 cities with shocking pasts that people may or may not know about, giving some insight into how those cities were made into the well-known places they are today.
10) Chicago, Illinois
Chicago’s history might not be unknown to many, but it is still a shocking one. Thanks to its great fire, its violence, and its underground gangsters like Al Capone, Chicago has quite the nasty reputation. Along with the reputation comes the ghost stories. Gangsters liked to dump bodies into Lake Michigan and Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery. People claim the headstones at the cemetery move around at will, and that spirits of the dead walk around. One such story is about the “vanishing hitchhiker,” a blond woman named Mary, who was killed and reappears as a hitchhiker in a white dress that asks to be taken to Resurrection Cemetery, only to leave the car and disappear once arriving…
9) Las Vegas, Nevada
Before Sin City became the world-renowned destination for gambling, nightlife, and adult entertainment, it was first a Native American homeland. Mexicans named the area Las Vegas in the 1800s (vegas is Spanish for “meadows”) because of the green fields and artisan wells in the region. In 1855, Brigham Young sent 30 missionaries to convert the local Paiute Indian people to Mormonism, though his efforts were abandoned two years later.
Las Vegas was incorporated in 1911 as a stopover for western-bound pioneers. The 1931 legalization of gambling led to casinos that the city is now known for, but not until American organized crime leaders such as “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lanksy funded them. In the 1940s, an influx of Manhattan Project scientists arrived. The scientists would throw atomic test-watching parties for guests.
8) Washington, D.C.
The formerly named President’s Park, Lafayette Square is a very well-recognized landmark in American history, located just north of the White House. Originally planned as a quiet park for pleasure, the square comes from much darker beginnings. The area served as an encampment for American soldiers during the War of 1812, and has been the base for many political disputes and celebrations throughout the years. The square was landscaped in 1851 by Andrew Jackson Downing. In its 200+ year history, Lafayette Square has been used as a zoo, a graveyard, a racetrack, and a slave market, before becoming the picturesque park that it is today.
7) Key West, Florida
This seaport destination first began as a Spanish territory and fishing village way back in the 1500s. Originally called Cayo Hueso or “bone cay” in Spanish, the island was filled with the remains of earlier native inhabitants as a community graveyard.
In 1763 Great Britain took Florida, and then the Spaniards resumed control 20 years later, until the island was bought by the US in 1821 after sailor John Whitehead became stranded on the island after a shipwreck. Whitehead noted the area’s strategic naval location, and so Key West was bought by his friend, businessman John W. Simonton, for $2,000.
The city was a hub for pirates, slavers, and rumrunners, and, in 1860, became the wealthiest town per capita in the US because of its fishing, salt production, and salvaging industries. Ernest Hemingway wrote many works here, and his house is now a popular tourist attraction. Tennessee Williams was another notable resident in this Naval Air Station base.
6) San Francisco, California
San Francisco’s Chinatown has a brutal past. It is the oldest Chinatown in North America and has the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. It was established in 1848 as a center for the Gold Rush, and as an immigration hub for shop owners and labor workers on the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1849, the first Chinese prostitute in San Francisco, Ah Toy, was one of these immigrants. She created a successful peep show and imported girls from China that were as young as 11 years old to work for her.
Gambling houses, opium dens, slave trading and brothels were rampant in the 1870s, causing turf wars between the government and the overcrowded region. In 1900, a man was found dead of bubonic plague. Chinatown was quarantined and many of the wooden buildings were burned down to control the plague, with policemen stopping Asians from entering or leaving. The four year death toll killed a total of 113 people in a 10-block area. In 1906 the devastating earthquake leveled Chinatown (and most of San Francisco) to the ground.
5) Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is one of the oldest cities in the US. Charles Towne was founded in 1670, named after Charles II of England. From the get-go, the settlement was attacked from land and sea by Spain and France, with pirates and Native Americans resisting the settlement’s expansion. Charles Towne was the main dropoff point for Africans brought to the American colonies through the Middle Passage as slaves for sale.
Charles Towne became a focal battleground during the American Revolution, where Americans withheld several British attacks until 1780, when the Siege of Charles Towne became the greatest American defeat of the war. The British left in 1782, and the city was renamed Charleston in 1783.
Charleston seceded from the Union after Lincoln’s election in 1860, and when the Union-held Fort Sumter was surrendered, the Civil War officially began. Today, haunted Victorian houses line the downtown Battery area, with a plethora of ghost stories emanating from the place. One horror story involves the Boo Hag, a West African tale of a blood-red vampire wearing human skin as masks and feeding on its victims while they sleep.
4) Portland, Oregon
Before becoming the quintessential green, environmentally friendly city that it is known as, Portland was first inhabited by the Upper Chinook Indians for two centuries. Now, Portland has a reputation as one of the most haunted cities in the Pacific Northwest. The famed Pittock Mansion, built in 1914, is supposedly home to many apparitions and phantoms, as is the Baghdad movie theater and the Willamette river.
Still, the most unnerving story in Portland comes from the Shanghai Tunnels. Because the city was established as a shipping center and sailor port during the 1800s, and thanks to its labyrinthine underground tunnels, the scary practice of “shanghaiing” rose to fame, where unsuspecting men and women were kidnapped from hotels or bars or trap-doors in the ground, smuggled through the underground tunnels, and then shipped to the Orient, where they were forced into slave labor and prostitution.
3) Savannah, Georgia
Thanks to its cemeteries, gothic houses, moss-draped land and marshes, Savannah looks like the perfect place to have a haunted past. Savannah is home to people such as Jim Williams, the voodoo antiques dealer and oft-spotted ghost, and the famed bird-girl statue in the Bonaventure Cemetery, where ghost dogs are commonly spotted.
It was one of the few cities that escaped being burnt down in Sherman’s “March to the Sea” during the Civil War, so much of the antebellum architecture is ripe breeding grounds for ghost stories. Over the years the southern city has faced bloody battles, roaring fires, hurricanes, and yellow-fever epidemics. The city was literally built on its dead, with homes sitting on Native American and colonialist burial grounds. As in Portland, “Shanghaiing” was a common practice on drunk patrons via underground tunnels.
2) New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company, and quickly became an eclectic diversity of Americans, French, Creole, and Africans when it was sold by Napoleon to the US in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Because of its mix of cultures, New Orleans is home to many superstitions, stories, and paranormal tales.
The city is full of haunted mansions and taverns, and stories of cursed pirate ships and voodoo hexes. In early 1815, Andrew Jackson soundly defeated the British in the final campaign of the War of 1812, though the war had ended a month earlier but neither side knew it at the time. Ghosts from that era still haunt the French Quarter. Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” is buried in the French Quarter, and is among New Orleans’ most famous ghosts. With so much slavery and voodoo in its roots, and so many wars and murders in the area, it’s easy to see why New Orleans is the ghost-capital of the US.
1) New York City
New York City has arguably the richest history of any city in the States. Although admittedly not as haunted as a few of its predecessors on this list, what NY lacks in ghost stories, it makes up in violence and scandal. One tour, the Boroughs of the Dead, immerses viewers in the rough streets of 19th century New York, including the gangs of the Five Points, the opium-den-laden “Murderer’s Alley,” the African Burial Ground rediscovered in 1991, and the Draft Riots of 1863 that changed the city. Other shocking events and places are McGurk’s Suicide Hall, the scandals of New York’s colonial history and historic taverns and graveyards.
For the paranormally inclined, there are the haunts of John Lennon in the Upper West Side, and the ghosts and hangouts of Peter Stuyvesant, Harry Houdini and Dylan Thomas, as well as the ghosts of Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving in the East Village. An interesting curse is one that prevents New York City mayors from ever moving up to higher offices.
Regardless of what you’re looking for, when it comes to shocking pasts, New York City will not disappoint.