The Dark & Disturbing History of the St. Francis Hotel
The Westin St. Francis Hotel looms on the edge of Union Square, bearing silent witness to flocks of tourists and shoppers who likely know nothing of its history. Built in 1904, the St. Francis Hotel is now known to be one of the most haunted hotels in California.
Many notable names graced the St. Francis Hotel in its heyday, including comic Charlie Chaplin, director Cecil B. DeMille, novelist Sinclair Lewis, and President Woodrow Wilson. In the 1920’s, the hotel was particularly popular among Hollywood film stars and directors. Actor John Barrymore (once called the “greatest living American tragedian”) weathered The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake at the St. Francis, cruelly roused after a night of heavy drinking.
In 1921, the St. Francis took on a darker reputation. Comedian and silent film actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle hosted an exclusive party at the hotel, entertaining Hollywood’s biggest stars across rooms 1219, 1220, and 1221. One actress in attendance, Virginia Rappe, was last seen with Arbuckle in room 1219 before she was rushed to the hospital in a battered, bloodied state. Rappe, who appeared to be crushed, later died from her injuries, and Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder. Although Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of these crimes, his career was irreparably tarnished.
Since that fateful night in room 1219, numerous hotel guests have reported seeing the ghost of Virginia Rappe, pacing the halls in evident distress. Sightings of Arbuckle have also been reported.
Decades later, room 1219 was host to another Hollywood death. In 1950, vaudevillian actor Al Jolson suffered a fatal heart attack during a poker game with friends. Jolson was America’s most famous and highest-paid entertainer in the 1920’s, although he was known for his minstrelsy. To this day, Jolson is occasionally seen in suite 1219, seated with eyes cast downwards on his final hand of cards.
Given its sordid history, room 1219 is said to be the most haunted room in the St. Francis Hotel. However, the entirety of the twelfth floor is reportedly haunted. In addition to Rappe, Arbuckle, and Jolson, there have been sightings of a woman who died in her sleep at the hotel. Unlike the Hollywood ghosts, she is said to be a kind, friendly spirit.
Despite its hauntings, the St. Francis Hotel may be most infamous for the life that wasn’t taken on its property. In 1975, President Gerald Ford was leaving the St. Francis when FBI informant Sarah Jane Moore opened fire in an unhinged assassination attempt. One shot narrowly missed Ford’s head before an ex-Marine named Oliver Sipple wrested the gun from Moore’s hands.
The Westin St. Francis Hotel may not be the site of a presidential assassination, but its body count remains. Perhaps the next time you visit Union Square for its dazzling holiday decor, you’ll take note of the St. Francis, hulking quietly on the outskirts.