A Modern Cocktail Bar Ghost Story

Upon opening Philadelphia's slickest cocktail bar—Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co.—the staff experienced a series of eerie, unexplainable happenings. Christopher Ross on who the ghosts might've been, and why all bars are haunted in their own way.

I worked in a bar that I, and few others, once believed—with some degree of certainty—was haunted. Unlike most bars that lay claim to the supernatural, this was a brand-spanking new drinking establishment, not a rickety 19th-century hovel formerly frequented by prostitutes and sailors. I was a member of the opening staff of the Franklin Mortgage and Investment Co. in Philadelphia, which is, as American cities go, about as ghost-prone as you get. The Franklin has gone on to become one of the finest cocktail bars in the country, but as we were opening in 2009, no one quite knew who or what we were, including us—a motley crew of Philly bartenders, many of whom were just learning the ropes of high-end mixology for the first time.

Our place of work was dark, windowless and basement-level. It was slickly designed in the style that Proprietors LLC—the consulting group behind Death & Co., the Franklin and many other bars—has since become famous for. Imagine a set of stairs descending to an underground, coffin-like chute: a low wooden ceiling overhead hung with glass chandeliers, dim lamps glowing from the exposed cement walls, creaking leather banquettes, guttering candles on marble-topped tables. A cocktail bar by way of Dracula.

In the nights following our grand opening, odd stories slowly began trickling in. Someone reported that the light switches—absent human touch—had begun flipping up and down. Another staffer heard strange voices in the narrow back staircase when no one else was around. Sometimes you’d turn your back for a minute only to find that, upon returning, objects in front of you had switched places. While breaking down the bar after one New Year’s Eve, a few bartenders observed apparition-like globes of smoke floating across the floor. Another night, a few of us swore that the manager on duty began speaking in tongues as his eyes rolled back in his head. He’d been possessed, we insisted, though the spirit in question may have been Clontarf, his favorite Irish whiskey.

If any kind of establishment would be haunted, it seems natural that it would be a bar. Where else do you find such a density of lost souls, such a profusion of lunatics disguised by the temporary madness of others, so many intermixed passions and insoluble problems rattling in the bottoms of glasses?

Of course, you can’t have ghosts without a backstory. The lore at the time was that the floor above us had been a brothel, and that long ago our space had been a bakery, the brick ovens still eerily intact and buried behind the backbar. But neither of those sources seemed satisfactory. The more likely culprit, we came to believe, was the previous tenant. For years before 112 S. 18th St. was the Franklin, it had been a wild, dirty, drug-fueled dive called Bar Noir. It turned into a dance club on the weekends, becoming one of those late-night gutters that catches the cast-off from the city’s other bars. The unisex bathrooms were infamous for all sorts of unspeakable acts and renovations had allegedly turned up drug baggies strewn all over the space.

What we appeared to have on our hands was a case of a bar-on-bar haunting. Despite the pristine counters and smell of fresh paint in the air, the space had apparently acquired a dark spiritual grime during our predecessor’s tenure, built up over the course of countless nights of disreputable behavior. Even if the revelers themselves had blacked out, the bar remembered every bad decision, indulged temptation and promise betrayed. All that evil mojo was still in the bones of the place and, as so many protagonists of haunted house horror films have learned, bleach and mops won’t scrub those stains away.

If any kind of establishment would be haunted, it seems natural that it would be a bar. Where else do you find such a density of lost souls, such a profusion of lunatics disguised by the temporary madness of others, so many intermixed passions and insoluble problems rattling in the bottoms of glasses? The internet is lousy with its “haunted bar” slideshows and stories of bones discovered beneath floorboards, a famous stool where some grisly happening occurred, murdered patrons who never abide their mortal last call. In our age of artisanal worship and period nostalgia, a resident ghost is practically a feather in your bar’s cap.

So was the Franklin really haunted? All I know is that after we built a small shrine on the back bar consisting of Santa Muerte and Papa Ghede candles, bullets and fake money, the paranormal incidences mostly died down. There is, however, no doubt in my mind that another kind of haunting continued to occur most evenings at our bar, as it does at bars everywhere. It’s one grounded in the law of conservation of energy, which posits that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.

The collective psychic force of two- or three-dozen people simultaneously clamoring for drinks in the middle of a busy night is a palpable thing—you can feel it thicken the air in front of you like mist. It’s fueled by hundreds of tiny pent-up emotions: anxiety over tomorrow’s deadline, excitement about tonight’s date, frustration over yesterday’s humiliation, caffeinated impatience or simply the garden-variety alienation of life in a modern city. Through the frantic scrum of service, in the whiplash exchange of dollar for drink, all that collected energy is transferred onto the bartenders, who are in turn animated by it—spinning, stirring, shaking, pouring—like possessed people.

In the words of my friend Nicholas Jarrett, who now bartends at The Saint in New Orleans, but was also a part of the Franklin’s opening staff: “Bartenders are shamans—to heal the sick, you take on their sickness and purge it.”

Which raises the question: How does the shaman heal himself? When I think about “the purging” of our post-shift antics, when we drank ourselves silly following particularly stressful nights, repeating the cycle of excision through alcohol, I think about the final scene of The Exorcist, in which the priest Karras attacks the demon, absorbs it from young Regan and then throws himself out the window. Some phantoms are harder to get rid of than others and some people are more predisposed to haunting. There were a few nights in the early days of the Franklin when, if you had peeked your head in the door around 4 a.m. and seen us sprawled around the banquettes and tables, indistinct through the smog of our cigarette smoke, motionless and pale with fatigue, you might have mistaken us for the ghosts.