Thursday, October 17, 2019

HGB Ep. 311 - Winecoff Hotel

Moment in Oddity - Grandpa Buried with Bent Legs
Suggested by: Jannae McCabe

This Moment in Oddity was not only suggested by Jannae, but it is actually about a member of her family. Her grandfather Roy Almaron Thomas. Roy was born on July 29, 1894 in Bay City, Michigan. When he was twenty-three, he joined the US Air Service and trained as an aviator flying the Curtiss JN-4 Hisso “Jenny” style airplanes. He would later find himself on the front lines during World War I fighting alongside the British and French allies. Although he was fighting in the war, he found time to marry his sweetheart on July 10, 1918. And then tragedy struck. Roy went down in a plane and suffered a horrendous injury that left both of his legs badly broken. Doctors managed to repair his legs enough that he could walk again, but his joints would lock up with arthritis. He was given the impossible decision by doctors to either have his legs set permanently in a lying down position or permanently sitting up and he would be confined to a wheelchair. He decided that a wheelchair was preferable to a bed and I would agree. He developed Bright's Disease that eventually took his life at the age of 44 on April 23, 1939. There was one more hard decision to be made in Roy's life. The funeral home asked his wife what she wanted them to do when it came to Roy's legs. Should they break his legs so he could be buried lying down in a coffin? His wife was adamant that they not do that. Roy would never want to suffer through having his legs broken again, even in death. So the funeral home pulled all of the extra stuff out of the casket and they were able to bury Roy in his coffin with his legs permanently bent. I think his wife honoring him in this way was wonderful, but you have to admit that being buried with permanently bent legs certainly is odd!

This Month in History - Trial of Marie Antoinette

In the month of October, on the 14th, in 1793, the trial of Marie Antoinette began in Paris, France. She was accussed of several crimes and had already endured watching the execution of her husband Louis XVI and the removal of her 8-year-old son, Louis XVII, who was turned against her. There were some who wanted the former queen traded for prisoners and others advocated for her exile to some place like America, but the public was pushing back against monarchy with the French Revolution. Antoinette and her lawyers were given less than a day to figure out a defense. One of the egregious accusations was that she had commited incest with her son and that accusation came from him after coaching. Antoinette would not even respond to the charge. On October 16th, she was found guilty of treason, stealing money from the national treasury and conspiracy against the security of the state. Her sentence was death. That execution took place that very day. She penned a letter to her sister, had her head shaved, put on a white dress, had her hands bound behind her back and was driven for an hour in a cart to her place of execution. She remained composed the whole time. She was guillontined a little after noon and buried in an unmarked grave. She would later be exhumed and given a Christian burial.

Winecoff Hotel (Suggested by: Mike Streibel)

The Ellis Hotel sits along Peachtree Street NW in downtown Atlanta. The hotel hasn't always been the Ellis and it has been refurbished many times. The original hotel here was the Winecoff Hotel and it was a grand place that dwarfed the other buildings. A devastating fire would change all of that in 1946. Over a hundred people would lose their lives in what has been dubbed the worst hotel fire in American history. Contractors can rebuild walls and slap on new paint, but they can't cover over the energy and residue left behind by such tragic circumstances. That residue seems to have fed paranormal activity and there are many experiences that people have shared throughout the years that just can't be explained. Join me as I share the history and hauntings of the Winecoff Hotel.

Atlanta was initially called Marthasville with a nickname of Terminus since it was founded in 1837 as the end of the Western & Atlantic railroad line. The name was eventually changed to Atlanta after the chief engineer of the Georgia railroad suggested Atlantica-Pacifica as a new name. Because Atlanta was such an important spot along the railroad, it became a major target of attacks by the Union during the Civil War. General Sherman would burn nearly everything in the city except for the churches, but it would rise from the ashes and become a prosperous city known for Civil Rights, Black Education and Coca Cola. It would be here that the Winecoff Hotel would be built.

Kelly and I visited the Ellis Hotel while we were in Atlanta for me to speak at a women's podcasting conference. The building is beautiful on the outside with red and brown brick and concrete made to look like stone. The hotel stands fifteen stories and with all the modern skyscrapers around it, it is hard to believe there was a time when it was the tallest structure in this area. The inside lobby is very small and not real unique. The place is a boutique hotel today and I imagine the inside is nothing like it was when it was the Winecoff Hotel.

The Winecoff Hotel was built by William Fleming Winecoff for whom it is named. Architect William Lee Stoddart designed it and the Winecoff officially opened in 1913. While the exterior was built solid with a steel frame and floors and roof of concrete, the inside was a complete fire hazard by our modern standards. The hallways and walls were covered with a painted burlap from the chair rails down to the baseboards. The walls above that were wallpapered. There was wall-to-wall carpeting and cloth drapes. Winecoff sold the hotel in 1937, but he continued to live in a tenth floor suite.

There was an excitement in the air on the morning of December 7, 1946. People were in the city to see decorations and shop for Christmas gifts at Macy's and other stores. There were almost 300 guests staying at the hotel including those Christmas shoppers and teenagers attending a Tri-Y Youth Conference. Americans experienced a similar situation on September 11th, 2001. Everything was fine and then something so tragic happens that it forever changes a city or a country. People of Atlanta were about to witness one of the most tragic circumstances of a high rise fire: people pushed to suicide.

Fire. It's a devastating thing as so many people in California know. A fire destroying a home is horrible for a variety of reasons. For most of us who own a home, we are financially invested. It's our number one asset. This is also the reason why people won't move out of a haunted house. But homes are also our place of safety and almost everything we love and hold dear is inside the house. A fire can take all that away in an instance. A fire is even worse when it strikes a structure like a hotel. And when a fire hit a building like a hotel in the days of no fire codes or safety regulations, it was incredibly deadly. You might recall that in Episode 71, I detailed a fire in 1980 at the MGM Grand where the elevator shafts and bad ventilation system allowed smoke to rise up into the towers of the hotel and 85 people died. The Winecoff had a similarly bad design. The two centrally located elevator shafts had a staircase that wrapped around them and since the shafts were fire resistant, the staircase would allow fire to climb steadily up all the floors. Even worse was the fact that the hotel had vertical ventilation shafts that would feed oxygen to a fire and help the flames rise to all fifteen floors. Transoms above each room's door would allow smoke and flames easy access as well. There were no fire exits and no sprinklers. The Winecoff was a sitting duck if a fire ever started. But as we've heard in regards to so many of these historical fires, the builders and city had deemed the hotel fireproof. This fireproof building would be the site of the worst hotel fire in American history.

 On duty in the wee hours of the morning were the night engineer, the bellhop named Billy Mobley, the female elevator operator who also served as a maid and night clerk, Comer Rowan. At 3:30am, a guest rang asking for some ginger ale and ice to be brought up to the fifth floor. Rowan asked Billy to take the items up and the engineer decided to join him as he needed to do his rounds. The elevator operator dropped them off and then took the elevator to the basement to prepare to do her nightly rounds, but about the third floor she smelled smoke. She dropped off the elevator and went up to the main floor to tell Rowan that she thought she had smelled smoke. Meanwhile, Billy and the engineer are waiting outside of Room 510 for the guest to answer the door. Rowan told the elevator operator to go up and get the engineer while he investigated. He went up to the mezzanine and could see flames via a mirror and he ran for the phone and called the fire department. They arrived around 3:45am with three ladder and four pumper companies. Billy and the engineer were unaware that anything was happening when the guest invited them inside. The group visited for a few moments with the door closed. When they turned to leave, they found flames behind the closed door and quickly closed it again. Rowan returned to the front desk and began frantically calling every room, screaming "Fire" into the phone. He only got a few rooms before the switchboard went dead. That was it for a fire alarm. Most sleeping guests would have no idea the danger they were facing.

By the time the firemen had themselves set up, the building was engulfed from the the third floor, all the way to the top.  The ladders on the fire trucks could only reach to the eighth floor. Dragging out safety nets was not much help as they could only hold for jumps up to 70 feet away. Anyone above the eighth floor was probably going to die. There were no sprinklers to fight the flames and the interior embellishments fueled the fire. The first person to appear on a ledge was a woman on the seventh floor. She pulled her two children out with her as the flames drove her from their room. She tossed both children out into the air. She then jumped, but missed the net and got caught up in wires. Her nightgown had been touched by flames and she was soon engulfed. Other people knotted their sheets together to attempt to climb down from their windows, but clearly no sheet rope would be long enough. The firemen spent more time saving people than fighting the fire. They shouted for people not to jump. Spectators started putting together nets to catch people, but there was not a lot of success. People missed the nets by inches. Even more tragically, falling people killed others. One fireman who had a woman wrapped around his back was hit as he made his way down the ladder and he fell along with the woman he was attempting to save. All hands were on deck with the city of Atlanta's complete 60-piece fire department performing rescue operations outside of the Winecoff Hotel.

There were people who did survive though. A young boy was caught by a spectator. Another woman who jumped, managed to survive her injuries. A couple on an upper floor crawled out onto the ledge and made their way to athe room next to them that had a closed transom. They worked with the couple inside to jam a mattress against the door and they kept it soaked with water and they all survived. Another man was saved by going down a firetruck ladder. he then saved his mother by entering a building next to the hotel and using a board between windows to guide his mother out of her room and across to safety. Another couple used the board as well. It was a miracle. Firemen begged people to wait for rescue and many did listen as they perched on ledges outside windows. The firemen were true heroes with several having to be hospitalized for smoke inhalation later. They battled for six hours and then they had to take care of the dozens of dead bodies left in the building. Some were still in their beds, never realizing that the building was engulfed in flames. One hundred nineteen people died including William Winecoff. The cause of the fire was never officially announced with some saying it was an accident due to a dropped cigarette, but the running theory by most is that this was an intentional arson.

This would not be the end for the hotel. The Winecoff would never return, but the building would stand and be renovated. This fire would lead to new fire codes and regulations for all hotels. The building reopened in April of 1951 as the Peachtree Hotel on Peachtree. The hotel was successful for many years and then it was donated to the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1964 for use as a nursing home. Then it passed through several hands with nothing really coming from any of that. Eventually, that lead to it standing vacant for over two decades. In 2006, a multi-million dollar renovation was begun by RD Management under direction of the architects at Stevens & Wilkinson, Stang & Newdow and Juneau Construction Company. It opened in 2007 as the Ellis Hotel with 127 rooms, a fitness center, lounge, meeting spaces, business center and cafe. And that is what it is today. It also seems to be home to many ghosts.

Many of the early stories of experiences with the unexplained came from contractors and construction workers. They claimed to hear footsteps and disembodied voices coming from areas of the building that were empty. Tools would go missing or be moved. After guests started staying in the hotel, more reports came out that included not only the same experiences as the workers, but there were also the cries in the middle of the night, the sounds of people running in the hallways and the smell of smoke. Many guests on upper floors would get really angry about all the noise in a hotel that they were paying a lot of money to stay at. Staff at the front desk occasionally report getting calls from rooms that are empty. And then there were the faces. Many people have reported seeing faces peering out from the windows and while we could dismiss those as just being living people, these reports happened mostly when the building was abandoned. Security would be called out to chase away squatters and they would find no one. The fire alarm sometimes goes off in the early hours of the morning when the real fire started.

Another paranormal experience is shared by Reese Christian in her book, "Ghosts of Atlanta." A man named Bill Bryson was a bus driver for Smoky Mountain Trailways. His company permanently rented out a room on the ninth floor for their drivers to catch some sleep between drives. Bill was always uncomfrotable in the hotel because he had a fear of fire. It seems that many generations of his family had suffered loss at the hands of fire. His own parents home had recently burned to the ground before the Winecoff fire. While it would just be superstitious or paranoid to think that a fire would affect him too, Bill had another reason for his fear. He had had a premonition that he would die at 28-years-old because of a fire. He was in the Winecoff when it caught fire. The building next door was only ten feet away, so he figured he could jump to safety, but he was wrong. He leapt, missed and fell into an alley between the two buildings. An alley that would soon be littered with bodies.

The hotel is reluctant to share ghost stories. This is an elite hotel with no time for stories. But how could a building that was a setting for such a horrific event not have some kind of issue with paranormal residue? Is the Winecoff Hotel, now Ellis Hotel, haunted? That is for you to decide!

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