First Posted: 12/15/2008 10:38:22 AM | Last Updated: 12/15/2008 10:38:22 AM
Photo by Alex Bell
By R. Scott Teets
It’s been just a tad over 30 years since country singer Bobby Mackey opened the doors to his Music World. But it might have been nearly a century before that another – very sinister – door was opened there.
Is it a gateway to Hell that some believe?
For many who have worked in or visited the popular, well-worn honky-tonk on Licking Pike, there is no doubt on this point: The grounds and the building that house Bobby Mackey’s
Matt Coates, for one, said he frequently sees the full-body apparitions of several people who roam the nightclub and who regularly call out his name as he works inside. He’s also seen the drums and a guitar onstage play by themselves. And, like many before him, he has heard the “Anniversary Waltz.” It used to strike up from a juke box whether it was plugged in or not and despite the fact the song was not among its selections. Now the music plays despite the fact the juke box has been removed.
Coates has also seen appear a circled, ritualistic hexagram – about three feet in diameter, glowing neon green – on the floor in the basement’s “Room of Faces.” It was in this area, nearby a well, that occultists once invoked Satan and performed sacrifices.
“I wasn’t a believer until I started working here,” said Coates, who has helped maintain the building the past five years and now lives next door. “You hear voices in here all the time.”
Photo by Alex Bell
Matt Coates draws the ritualitstic hexagram he saw appear in the basement's "Room of Faces."
Is he afraid of working among spirits, some with such evil histories?
“They know I’m in here. They know what I’m doing,” Coates said. “When I come in here I say hi to everyone.”
Also count among the believers Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventure crew which locked themselves into the building for a night of investigation earlier this year.
“It is haunted; that's a fact. It's one of the most haunted places I've ever been to in my life, and I've been to hundreds,” Bagans said.
Bagans was famously assaulted in the basement of the club – nearby the legendary well that has been called a gateway to hell because of its link to satanic ritual. He left Bobby Mackey’s with three long scratches down his spine.
The stories here are rich and plentiful. Some are quite eerie. Others – like the story of a ladder that “walked” across the dance floor and tales of spooks that call cell phones – are quite fantastic.
But just as many who believe are those who dismiss the tales as merely fanciful fantasy.
What does Bobby Mackey think of the ghost stories that have been attached to his nightclub for three decades?
“I don’t believe in any of it,” said the jovial singer.
Not so his wife. Soon after the couple purchased the building, she heard a voice yell “Get out,” and she felt a ghostly presence try to push her down some stairs. Janet Mackey no longer goes inside the building.
wanted to find out for ourselves what demons – if any – haunt this peculiar convergence of country music and curious spooks. We invited Jesikah Saetara
, a gifted singer/songwriter who is also a spiritual intuitive, to tour Bobby Mackey’s club with us.
Ours was admittedly an unscientific investigation that spanned about five hours over two days. We toured the club’s many rooms, its eerie-looking basement where the wellhead is exposed, and the wooded area behind the building where the basement well once emptied flesh and blood into the Licking River.
We even had Saetara step down onto the now-sealed well. Brave girl, many would say.
Photo by Alex Bell
“At the time I didn’t sense any activity, but I was aware of a spiritual presence,” Saetara said. “There’s a presence in the basement, that’s for sure.”
There are allegedly several prominent spirits in Bobby Mackey’s club, and several more that haven’t been identified. Frequently seen are the headless ghost of Pearl Bryan and her killers Alonzo Wallings and Scott Jackson. A.E. “Buck” Brady, a former owner of the nightclub in its casino days, is often present. And then there is the other tragic spirit of Johanna, a cabaret dancer who killed herself there. Many people have smelled her signature rose perfume.
Just how many ghosts might there be inside Bobby Mackey’s Music World? Saetara said it could be many more than believed.
“Not all ghosts want to be found, to be released,” Saetara said. “If the well is a portal, who knows what is coming up from it.”
Our take on the ghostly tales:
If nothing else, Bobby Mackey’s remains one of the country’s great curiosities. You owe it to yourself to check it out on Fridays and Saturdays. Enjoy the great music and fine spirits of all kinds.
Want to hunt for the ghosts inside Bobby Mackey’s?
The best opportunity might be in January when you can investigate the haunting along with the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventure crew. Click here to read more and to buy tickets online for the three-day ghost hunt and paranormal symposium that runs Jan. 20-22.
Be prepared! Coates said the spirits seem most active at the end and beginning of the years.
Caretaker Carl Lawson’s Tale
One person who needs no convincing there are active spirits inside Bobby Mackey’s club is Carl Lawson, its longtime caretaker and a former resident. He remains convinced he was possessed by a spirit that haunts the building.
“I’ve always felt I wasn’t alone here,” Lawson said. “I get this sense that someone is always watching me here.”
Lawson was the first employee of Bobby Mackey’s Music World. He grew up in a house that used to sit at the edge of what is now Mackey’s parking lot. He has worked in the allegedly haunted building since he was 15.
Lawson introduced himself to the Mackeys when he noticed activity (of the living kind) inside the closed tavern. Mackey hired Lawson on the spot and he began helping Bobby and Janet ready the place for its grand reopening.
Lawson was already very aware of spirits that roamed the building.
Mackey watched him that first day lock the doors and bid adieu to the spirits inside. The new owner wasn’t buying it, though, despite all of Lawson’s tales of doors that unlocked themselves, lights that turned back on, apparitions and voices, and old music suddenly playing from the jukebox.
It was Lawson who uncovered the basement well a couple of years after the honky-tonk opened.
Mackey said he and Lawson were in the basement working when he noticed holes in the cement floor – holes that looked to have been made by a pickaxe. They shined a flashlight into the hole and discovered what appeared to be a filled-in well that had settled over the years, leaving a gap between the dirt and cement. Soon after, Lawson dug up the cement, exposing the wellhead.
Bone fragments, including what appears to be part of a human jaw, have since been unearthed from this wellhead.
As the years, passed, the spirits that stirred inside the club became increasingly frightening to Lawson, who was then living in an upstairs apartment. Though not a particularly religious man, Lawson one night sprinkled holy water on the basement well, hoping to ease the hauntings.
It might have backfired on him. Afterward, he said, the spirits seemed more active.
The spirits seemed especially stirred, he said, whenever psychics came to Bobby Mackey’s. After one such visit, Lawson said he was in his apartment when an overwhelming feeling struck: “You’ve done it this time, Carl.” Lawson fled the building, going to a coffee shop until daybreak.
Mackey said Lawson took to bolting his apartment door and sleeping with a loaded gun.
Many people over the years have reported a sense they were possessed briefly while in Bobby Mackey’s. But a spirit allegedly took hold of Lawson during those years and wouldn’t let go. People began to see a difference in him. Lawson saw it too.
“I had changed. I knew something was wrong,” Lawson said. “I was on a path to self-destruction.”
In 1994, Lawson underwent a six-hour exorcism -- captured on video – that was performed by Pastor Glenn Cole in an unused portion of the building that has since been torn down. During the ordeal, the formerly mild-mannered Lawson wildly cursed at the pastor. Moreover, he spoke in Latin and German – languages Lawson does not speak. At the conclusion, Lawson fell to the floor, hugged the pastor’s legs and wept.
“It wasn’t Carl at all,” said Mackey, who wasn’t present at the exorcism but watched video of it later.
Lawson said his memory of that period is sketchy, but he does recall that during the exorcism he had a sense of dread, like something that’s time was up. Afterward, he said, there was a great sense of release.
“I actually prayed for help. It was sent to me,” Lawson said. “I can never thank (Pastor Cole) as much as I’d like to.”
Lawson, who had sunk into alcoholism for a time, no longer lives in the upstairs quarters. Beside his current sobriety, another, rather recent, life change is Lawson’s turn to the Bible, which has given him a very different perspective on his past and future.
“I believe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in God’s time,” Lawson said. “I’m not afraid anymore… I know there’s a reason my life is the way it is right now.”
Lawson believes spirits trapped inside the club have untold stories to tell – and they will tell their tales, in their time.
“There is a lot of history preserved here… a lot of tragic memories,” Lawson said.
A Storied and Bloody History
Tragedy, indeed, engulfs the grounds and building that houses Bobby Mackey’s club. Since the time a slaughterhouse was closed, this spot has been the scene of much violence and death since the late 1800s, including satanic sacrifice, suicide and organized crime murders.
The most sensational among these was the grisly murder of Pearl Bryan in 1896 – a time when occultists were believed to be using the old, abandoned slaughterhouse for sacrificial rituals. The building’s basement well, which flushed blood and flesh from the packing house to the Licking River, was being used by these occultists to dispose remains of the small animals butchered during ceremonies.
Bryan was an attractive daughter of a wealthy Indiana farmer. She was seduced, and became pregnant by Scott Jackson, a student at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in Cincinnati. Unknown to her, Jackson was also an occultist who met with those gathering inside the former slaughterhouse.
Jackson and his roommate, Alonzo Wallings, took Bryan to Cincinnati to perform an abortion. It was a bloody failure. The two men took a frightened and injured Bryan across the river to Kentucky, where they beheaded her in a secluded spot near Fort Thomas.
Bryan’s body was discovered just off Alexandria Pike, but her head was never found. Her hair was later discovered in a valise in Jackson’s room.
Some people believe Bryan’s head remains in the well of the old slaughterhouse, put there during a satanic ritual.
At the time of their arrest and trial, the Kentucky Post
reported that Wallings and Jackson were offered life in prison instead of death if they told authorities where Bryan’s head was located. They refused, according to some claims, because they feared bringing the wrath of Satan for exposing the occultist activity.
The two men were the last publicly hanged in Campbell County when they were sent to the gallows on March 21, 1897. Before being hanged, Wallings allegedly threatened he would return to haunt the area.
Photo by Alex Bell
Newspaper clippings at the front door tell visitors of the bloody history of Bobby Mackey's.
That original slaughterhouse was torn down after many years sitting unused and replaced by a roadhouse. In the 1920s it became a popular speakeasy and gambling house where, reportedly, there were several murders.
In the 1930s, the building was purchased by E.A. “Buck” Brady who turned it into an elite tavern, hotel and casino called the Primrose. Brady was later muscled out by Cincinnati mobsters. He committed suicide in 1965.
The 1950s brought a new incarnation: the popular Latin Quarter. Several times that decade the new owners were arrested on gambling charges.
The casino heyday of the building brought another tragic figure that is believed to haunt there today: Johanna.
She was a dancer and the daughter of the casino’s owner. Legend has it that Johanna became pregnant by a club singer, Robert Randall. Her father was furious and had Randall killed. Soon after, a very distraught Johanna attempted to poison her father as revenge and she succeeded in killing herself. Her body was discovered in the basement where the entertainers’ dressing rooms were located.
The 1970s brought even more tragedy when the building was turned into the tough Hard Rock Café (no relation to the famous restaurant chain). It was closed at police request because of several fatal shootings there.
What’s the death toll on or connected to this bloody patch of ground? No one knows for sure. Rumors abound of unreported murders, especially during the speakeasy and casino eras. What we can safely say is this:
Few locations boast so much tragedy over such a long period.
Mackey’s (Haunted?) Music World
In 1978, Mackey was a successful country singer playing at clubs throughout northern Kentucky. He had planned to pursue his career in Nashville, but put those plans on hold to instead open a country nightclub. The vacant building on Route 9 seemed the perfect place for his plans.
The mere fact that Mackey bought the building adds to its curious history. See, this country singer’s given name is Robert Randall Mackey.
Musician's Photo Courtesy of Bobby Mackey's Music World
Some unsuspecting owners might have been spooked by Lawson’s haunted tales – maybe even fled. But not this singer; Mackey was on a musical mission.
“I didn’t listen to him,” Mackey said. “I had too much on my mind at the time… My passion is the music; that’s what I’m about.”
Neither did his wife Janet give much credibility to Lawson’s tales – at least not at first. That changed dramatically soon after she and Bobby began the arduous task of getting the club ready to open.
Janet was in the basement when she smelled Johanna’s signature rose perfume. But more frightening, she sensed something unseen swirl around her.
“Something grabbed me by the waist,” she has said. “It picked me up and threw me back down.”
Janet Mackey ran from the basement and went up the stairs that led to her husband’s new office. Near the top of the stairs, she felt another presence.
“Get out! Get out!” the ghostly voice yelled at Janet. Then she felt someone push her down the stairs.
Janet Mackey, who hasn’t been inside the club for many years, later would identify Alonzo Wallings as the spirit who pushed her.
Making a strange story stranger still is the fact Janet, like Johanna and Pearl Bryan when they died, was five months pregnant when she felt the ghostly presence.
“I don’t know what to make of that,” Bobby Mackey said of the incident.
Why would the spirits be against Mackey re-opening the club? One reason may be his intention to build a new structure and to raze the deteriorating building. In fact, Mackey was about to do just that as the Urban Cowboy craze waned.
Mackey’s plans for a new club were scuttled when a fissure suddenly opened across the parking lot where he intended to build. The crack, measuring 6 inches wide by 30 feet deep, ran from the area of the well to the mid-point of the parking lot.
The fissure has been filled in, but the property remains unbuildable without substantial investment. The land there continues slipping toward the Licking River.
Trying to Keep a Lid on Noisy Spirits
In his early years owning the club, Mackey wasn’t pleased with the many ghost stories spreading around. Mackey had everything invested in his club – ghosts could only hurt his business, he thought.
But the stories were so plentiful the lid simply couldn’t be kept on. So many of his patrons and club workers began to experience strange occurrences, including smelling the rose perfume, hearing voices, seeing apparitions and objects move, and hearing music play from a juke box when it wasn’t loaded on the machine.
While the basement might be the centerpiece of hauntings, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere off limits for ghosts here. Even in the bathroom.
In 1994, one customer, Rich Lawson (no relation to Carl) tried to sue Bobby Mackey, claiming a ghost attacked him in the men’s restroom. He described the misty image that came toward him as a man sporting a handlebar mustache.
“I thought he needed some medical attention. And not because he was beat up,” Mackey said. “I laughed at him, and that made him mad.”
A judge later dismissed the complaint saying he would leave it up to a higher power to decide.
A remnant from that lawsuit greets customers at the door today. A sign reads, “Warning to our patrons: This establishment is proported to be haunted
. Management is not
responsible and cannot be held liable for any actions of any ghosts/spirits on this premises.”
Ghost Stories Galore
Few ghost hunters are “lucky” enough to see a full-body apparition. Typically, it’s a haunting sound here and there they report, maybe a flickering light, a cold sensation, or a sensation of touch. But maintenance man Coates has “seen” spirits many times working alone inside the building. Very often the apparitions appear to him in the area of the club’s mechanical bull.
In the basement, Coates has seen the apparition of a headless Pearl Bryan. She appeared the day her grave’s caretaker came to the club. He wouldn’t walk into the basement with Coates.
He has also seen Johanna, Buck Brady and his dog.
Coates said he has not been able to talk with the apparitions that appear before him. He hears his name clearly enough, but when the ghosts begin speaking, he said he can’t understand them.
He has tried to approach them, but they walk away. For example, one afternoon he clearly saw Buck Brady in the area of the mechanical bull. With his first step toward the spirit, Coates said, the apparition turned away and left through double doors just to the right. Johanna, Coates said, usually just disappears.
Lawson and several other visitors have reported also seeing full and partial apparitions inside Bobby Mackey’s. When they were locked inside the basement, the Ghost Adventure crew videotaped what appears to be an apparition of a man in a cowboy hat walking nearby the dressing rooms.
The Ghost Adventure’s crew also captured voices and other strange noises at various locations throughout the club and basement. Near the well, Bagans and his crew taped a voice that clearly said, “Precious… no.”
Certainly, there is no shortage of ghost stories at Bobby Mackey’s. But among the more curious is the tale of the ladder that “walked.”
General Manager Donna Clifton and Tom Bennett were alone at the bar when they became aware a ladder on the dance floor had moved. They then watched in disbelief as the ladder began moving before their eyes – its hinged middle part rising and falling. They said it took more than two hours for the ladder to make its way from one end of the dance floor to the other.
Video from a club security camera, however, shows the ladder never moved. It was always in the spot where Clifton and Bennett said the ladder stopped moving.
Equally captivating is that Bennett believes he has a ghost’s voice captured on his cell phone. He received the phone call when a particularly untypical rock band was playing.
“Make them leave,” a craggy voice can be heard saying on Bennett’s voice mail, which he played for CinciPulse.
The incoming phone number was reported on his cell phone as 666-666-6666.
Six months after that strange message, Bennett said another message was left from the same mysterious phone number and was in the familiar craggy voice. This one claimed the spirit had fixed the band’s sound equipment so they couldn’t play.
That night, said Bennett and Clifton, the band’s equipment failed. They couldn’t play.
The ghosts of Bobby Mackey’s seem to have a particular fondness for cell phone high jinks.
Both Coates and Bennett have received multiple cell phone calls from Bobby Mackey’s bar phone while inside the club. The spooky problem: Both had one of the bar phones in their presence, and the other bar phone was locked away at the time the phone calls came in.
Bartender Tina Engel has also received calls on her cell phone from a 666 number. But she has an even more eerie story about Bobby Mackey’s nightclub.
Engel’s sister, Becky Swafford, died in a traffic accident in 1981 outside Bobby Mackey’s. While paramedics were at the scene, she said, a woman came out of the club and offered a blanket to cover the dying woman. Afterward, when paramedics went to the club to thank her, they discovered the bar was closed that evening and no one was inside.
Many believers who have visited Bobby Mackey’s have left with what they believe are photographic evidence of paranormal activity. Often guests return to show Mackey and his employees their photos with mysterious flashes of lights or grayish dots and misty swirls.
We have our own tale. At our urging, Saetara took several photos of Lawson standing above the famous basement well.
Before getting his picture taken, Lawson spoke of standing one night in the very spot he was standing near the well and noticing an orb floating nearby. He said the orb appeared moments after invoking the name “Inez,” a woman who babysat him as a child and who is purported to be among the spirits who roam the club – possibly taking care of children there.
Very often, Lawson said, such an orb will mysteriously appear in visitors’ photographs of the basement and music club. Such an orb also appeared in video shot when the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventure crew spent the night locked inside the club. Those orbs appeared soon after host Zak Bagans was attacked in the basement by something unseen, leaving three large scratches on his back.
Add a Saetara photo to the growing list. In one shot, floating behind and to Lawson’s right is an orb identical to those seen elsewhere.
Photo by Jesikah Saetara
But are these really ghostly “orbs” or simply common distortions caused from a dust particle or spot of moisture on the camera lens? We’ll let you decide for yourself. We wouldn’t want to spoil the fun.
Also on the night we visited, Saetara’s camera failed while taking more shots of Lawson, all near the famous well. Fresh batteries did nothing to help.
“That happens a lot here. Cameras and recording equipment just stop working,” Lawson said.
Saetara’s camera worked fine after leaving the club. Was that significant of something spooky happening here, or just simply a camera malfunction that a bit of warming afterward took care of? Again, you decide.
Curious? Look for Ghosts Yourself
You don’t have to take our word for whether there are spirits or not inside Bobby Mackey’s Music World. Have a peek around yourself.
Inside you’ll see the famous slaughterhouse well and the basement dressing rooms still intact from when this was an elite nightclub full of Vegas-style entertainment. Be sure to ask Lawson to also show you the “Room of Faces.” You’ll probably see spooky images on the mottled walls – if you allow yourself.
And while there, don’t miss the newspaper clippings posted by the front door about the purported spirits inside and about the famous Pearl Bryan murder. They’re great reading before a spirited night inside Bobby Mackey’s Music World.