History Research: Haunted and Not-so-haunted

Feb 2023
10-minute read

When I was selected to serve as a Master's Research Fellow under the Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP in the summer of 2022, I was rather enthused about the opportunity, especially since this isn’t my first intern experience in which I had to work independently.  Right before this point, I had served as an intern at the Centennial Museum at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) during the spring semester of 2022 where I was assigned to assist in projects and tasks.  

Some of these included setting up exhibits, developing audio tour scripts, and researching historic information for a few of the artifacts displayed there.  In many ways, I like to think that that experience prepared me for this position in which I served in the summer and fall of 2022 at the El Paso Historical Society, an organization established in the 1950s which has helped to preserve El Paso’s history and stands as one of the oldest historical societies in Texas.

When I began my internship in June, I was appointed to Dr. Cartwright, a history professor I have had the honor of learning under as a master’s student at UTEP; he is one of the main figureheads for the historical society and served as my faculty supervisor for the duration of my internship.

Image 1 Burges House
Historical Burges House in El Paso, Texas.

When my internship began, he introduced me to the Burges House located in the historic Sunset Heights Neighborhood in West El Paso. The Burges house itself was constructed in 1912 and was the home of Richard F. Burges who served as a prominent attorney, legislator, and civil leader in El Paso. In 1986 the Burges House was bequeathed to the El Paso County Historical Society (EPCHS) and since then has served as its main headquarters, which preserves many of El Paso’s historic photos, documents, publications, and artifacts. The EPCHS also hosts an array of local events.

Image 2 Archive room 1 Image 3 Archive room 6
Images of Burges House's archive room.

As a student of history, I came to admire the Burges House as a remarkable piece of El Paso history and came to understand the practices and importance of preserving historic sources on a greater scale. This would certainly be beneficial for me to take in for my future career endeavors.

Upon starting the internship, my first significant project for the EPCHS was to prepare an exhibit display that centralizes around a chosen theme in preparation for the annual Tour of Homes event on the first of October.  Traditionally, the Tour of Homes invites residents of the neighborhood as well as the rest of El Paso to tour remarkably historic houses in the Sunset Heights neighborhood, which includes the Burges House.  For my exhibit, I decided to highlight El Paso’s "haunted history," for which I researched a multitude of sources and visited the sites of some of historic buildings, which local lore stated were "El Paso’s most haunted."  The main reason I decided to go with this topic was that it suited the Halloween spirit that I figured would interest people as the month of October kicked off, an interest that could lead people into a deeper connection with the very real history behind each of the buildings.

Naturally, part of my research for this project meant that I spent a lot of time visiting these haunted sites to acquire historic and interesting facts and interviewing those who knew about them.  One of these sites is the iconic Plaza Theater, which for decades has been surrounded by stories of paranormal incidents taking place.  Upon arriving at the Plaza for my research, I was given a tour of the theater during which the tour guide conveyed the history of the building going back to the 1930s as well as the building's architecture and the Spanish culture that inspired its design.  Unfortunately, the tour guide was rather reluctant to share any ghost stories, a common issue I faced at other places I visited.  In fact, most sources I found on hauntings at the Plaza were through local newspapers like The El Paso Times and The El Paso Herald Post.  I shared this  notion with my faculty supervisor, and my guess is that part of the reason these places were reluctant to convey these stories could be due to publicity.  Regardless, I found the Plaza visit to be an enjoyable experience, which allowed me to know about its history and background.

Image 4 Plaza Theater Box office corner view

Box office and entrance of El Paso's downtown Plaza Theatre.

Not far from the Plaza was another building that has had an even longer history in the city of and also shares a legacy of paranormal activity since its grand opening back in 1905.  The Del Soto Hotel, originally named the Great Northern Hotel, served as a popular living space for tenants around the world, especially from the adjacent border town of Juarez, Mexico.  Even so, local newspapers like the Times and the Herald Post reported a number of strange incidents to have occurred in the building such as mysterious deaths, disappearances, and even fires that commonly broke out. With that being said, a fire which broke out this past February caused the hotel to remain closed for the time being. This left my visit to the site somewhat limited, and most information I found was received from newspaper publications. Regardless, people are still aware of the hotel's legacy as many have expressed to me during the Tour of Homes, and the exact future of the hotel, at least as far as I know, remains uncertain.

Image 5 De Soto SW corner View
An image of downtown El Paso's De Soto Hotel.

Image 6 Magoffin house outside 5 front

Image of Magoffin House in El Paso, Texas.

Another location I researched was at the Magoffin Home, a historic site that was first built during the 1870s and served as the home to local capitalist and El Paso’s fourth mayor. His home is now considered a historic site that receives numerous tourists to this day. In an example of how lore can connect to the very real and historical, local legends speak of ghostly activity that has occurred on the property, with many people claiming that a particular chair within the home is haunted. This particular chair belonged to Joseph Magoffin’s best friend and brother-in-law, Charles Richardson who died in said chair and some have claimed to have seen him rocking in it or even the chair moving on its own, thus completing a connection between historical fact and apocryphal legend. The tour I took at the homestead was quite informative with the staff conveying a great amount of historical information and even providing me with thesis papers on the property as well.

Image 7 Magoffin house Uncle Richardsons chair

An image of Uncle Richardson's chair in Magoffin House.

The last El Paso location I visited for my research was that of El Paso High School, the oldest high school in the city, which opened in 1916 and has had a remarkable history as it served as a staging area for General Pershing’s expedition into Mexico and even held the city’s first three Sun Bowl football games from 1935 to 1937.  Along with this, the school has become a favorite of locals through the years of telling stories of hauntings on the school grounds.  When I called the school to arrange a visit, I was informed that doing so would be tough since they were holding their annual homecoming the same day as the Tour of Homes, but I was able to set up an appointment with a guide.  Unlike other sites I visited, the staff at El Paso High School was much more willing to share ghost stories as such as the legendary tales of a ghost figure in a 1985 class photo, the spirit of the girl who jumped from the building in the 1940s, and a spirit who plays with the lights in the school’s theater.  In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they had managed to establish a miniature museum near the football field that showcased artifacts and sources of the school’s history, which helped me tremendously with my research.  Not only that, but they also mentioned tunnels beneath the school, which are used to conduct ghost tours but more importantly also have a historical significance to them as their developments date back to the early twentieth century.

Image 8 EP HS Front sign North East View

The entrance of El Paso High School.

In preparation for the Tour of Homes, I met with Dr. Cartwright where and over what sources to use including newspapers, photos, and publications to place them in display cases for the exhibit. When the Tour of Homes took place on the first of October, the "Haunted El Paso" exhibit met with good success with many visitors taking a keen interest in its contents, as many were greatly aware of the various location’s histories as well as their ghostly legacies.  I personally enjoyed acting as a guide to the exhibit for not only was it my first solo public history project, but because its haunted theme enabled me to convey many ghost stories to the guests with which they were quite entertained.  On top of that, I took it upon myself to bring a few items which I believed would further enhance the exhibit such as books that were given to me when I visited the sites as well as my laptop which I used to play an episode of the podcast Ghost Adventures for the guests as it featured the Del Soto Hotel. Overall, I would say that my experience researching and presenting the "Haunted El Paso" exhibit was an enlightening one, and connecting history with the legends and lore of which they tend to be a part is certainly something I can use to further enhance my career as a research historian in the future.

Written by Eduardo Isiel Galvan, Master's Research Fellow
The University of Texas at El Paso, The Humanities Collaborative at EPCC-UTEP

All images courtesy Eduardo Isiel Galvan.


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