JBLM museum's tale no ghost story

By Marisa Petrich/Northwest GuardianOctober 27, 2011

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Everyone loves a good ghost story -- and Joint Base Lewis-McChord could have a great one on its hands. But how much of the haunting of the JBLM Army Museum is fact, and what is fiction, remains to be seen.

The history of the building presents a pretty good case. Opened as hotel across from what was then Camp Lewis in 1919, it actively served as a guesthouse up until 1972, when it was converted into a museum and office space.

Before that ever happened, though, it housed extras and film crew workers during the production of a 1927 silent movie called "The Patent Leather Kid" -- and that's where things start to get interesting.

The story goes that a worker on the film was murdered in a room on the second floor during production. Later on, maids and hotel staff swore they had seen the ghost of a man dressed as a cowboy wandering the halls. He wore a white hat and a brown jacket, and always seemed sad, or angry -- or so the story goes.

Strange sounds, malfunctioning alarms and the occasional mysterious chill were also common.

"It's almost like a movie in a way," Jefferson Davis, an Army reservist from Vancouver and author of "Ghosts, Critters and Sacred Places III," said of his favorite Fort Lewis ghost story.

The book discusses ghost stories on base, including that of the museum. Davis, who worked at the museum briefly while on a temporary duty assignment, has a background in anthropology and an interest in the paranormal.

"Every culture in the world believes in ghosts," he said.

According to an article published in the post newspaper (then known as the Fort Lewis Ranger) in 1987, the haunting continued after the building stopped being a hotel. Eventually, the article says, things got so out of hand that three priests were enlisted to perform an exorcism.

"One of them stood in the weapons park and prayed before entering the building," Barbara Bower, the museum director at the time, said in the original article. "Then all three of them went up to the second floor where the man had been killed and said prayers and performed rituals.

"Afterwards, they came down and told me what happened. They said the man's spirit appeared to them ... He told them he was angry at himself because he had done something to cause his own death. They told him he was forgiven and free to go."

The story ends with the man fading away in the doorway, stopping for a moment to cry before disappearing entirely.

But the facts are a little harder to pin down.

What is known for certain was that the museum did house the crew of the "Patent Leather Kid" while it was being shot on then-Fort Lewis, and that sounds and equipment malfunctions do occur most often on the second floor, according to current museum director Myles Grant.

Grant and his staff have been trying to corroborate the other parts of the story for several months, and so far much of it is up in the air. The Catholic Church keeps diligent records of exorcisms, and several local organizations are checking their archives on behalf of the museum. However, the Seattle Archdiocese has no record that it carried out such a ritual.

It's possible that the event was carried out by Army chaplains, or perhaps was done informally to crush a rumor or up publicity. But so far Grant's research has yet to confirm that such a murder ever even took place.

He's not ready to give up on confirming the historical side of the story just yet, though.

"It's plausible," Grant said.

As for whether the spooky sounds and equipment malfunctions are part of the paranormal, or simply the byproduct of being in a very old building, "That's anyone's guess," Grant said.

Marisa Petrich: marisa.petrich@nwguardian.com

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