Thirty-seven years ago this month, a country singer named Bobby Mackey opened a honky-tonk in Wilder, Kentucky. The first guy he hired told him there was a mouth to Hell in the basement, and that story has stuck for nearly four decades. Bobby thinks the whole thing is nuts, but it’s all right by him as long as the ghost chasers buy a few beers and get on the dance floor.
“Warning to our Patrons: This establishment is purported to be haunted. Management is NOT responsible and cannot be held liable for any actions of any ghosts/spirits on these premises.”
— sign in front of Bobby Mackey’s Music World
There’s a hole in the basement of Bobby Mackey’s Music World. Beneath the bar, beside a tiny stone cell, a hallway with spackled bullet holes and a stairway that leads to nowhere, there sits a torn-up section of wooden floor. There at the bottom lies a well, its mouth packed with dirt and rubble.
The building is old, but the well is older. Before Bobby Mackey established his honky-tonk, before the biker bar and the bingo hall and the procession of mob-owned lounges, the well waited under the floor, a relic of the days when the nightclub was a tiny slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Wilder, Kentucky, and the well was filled not with dirt but with blood.
Here’s a story ghost hunters tell about that well. On the last cold day of January, 1896, a 22-year-old music student from rural Indiana stepped off the train in Cincinnati. Her name was Pearl Bryan. She’d arrived in Ohio five months pregnant, wearing nice clothing and custom-crafted shoes. The two men who met her at the station, her lover Scott Jackson and his roommate Alonzo Walling, had brought her to Ohio for the purposes of arranging an abortion.
What happened next is unclear. Jackson and Walling maintained to the end that they took her to a local doctor, who botched the procedure and left Pearl on the brink of death. Others claim that the two men, both dental students, drugged Pearl and attempted to perform the operation with their own tools. The prosecutors at their trial argued they never intended to deal with her fetus at all — that the goal was always murder. In any case, contemporary sources say, Pearl Bryan was still alive when they cut off her head. Jackson and Walling carried her across the Ohio River and into the gray forests around Fort Thomas, Kentucky, where they severed her neck at the fifth vertebra and left her body lying there under the bare branches. Authorities eventually identified Pearl by tracking her custom shoes. Jackson and Walling went to the gallows. What happened to Pearl’s head, nobody knows: Legend says it went into the bloody well of a slaughterhouse a few miles away, on the banks of the Licking River.
This is a true story, more or less. So is every tale to follow: The people involved are real, and their fates are a matter of public record. But look closer at each and you’ll find dark cracks scuttling with strange rumors, gaps that weave between the proven details, insinuating themselves so thoroughly that what remains is not only a true story but also a ghost story: a shape formed by the void between established facts. A hole that holds nothing. A hole with the space to hold anything.
Bobby Mackey’s Music World looms on the precarious edge of 44 Licking Pike Road, above the railroad line and the cold waters of the Licking River. For two nights a week, it hums with life and activity. Couples in cowboy hats and nice dresses stomp and twirl on the dance floor, swept along by live country music from the stage. Kids in University of Kentucky T-shirts knock back Bud Lights and clamber aboard a mechanical bull, shrieking with laughter. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, the clink of glasses and clatter of pool balls, the heat of an old building filled up with people.
But most of those people, given the chance, will drop $10 to tour the catacombs. Because the Music World isn’t just a hopping weekend roadhouse: It’s also widely held to be the most haunted nightclub in the United States, a structure infested with over 40 reported ghosts. Claims of paranormal and demonic activity have drawn in investigators, tourists, reality-show hosts and skeptics from all over the world. If you want to shoot pool and line dance with a frisson of terror, if you want to stumble drunk through a black basement while the ceiling thumps with boots and a guide spins tales of dark and bloody ground, you go to Bobby Mackey’s, the only honky-tonk with a hellmouth in its basement.
Bobby Mackey, the club’s owner, headliner and principle influence, thinks the whole thing is crazy.
True Story No. 1
In the mid 1990s a car shot down Licking Road, lost control, and smashed into a telephone pole just outside the club’s front door. The occupants were killed immediately. Larry Hornsby was the first policeman at the scene. As he stood there, looking over the wreckage, a woman dressed in an evening gown came out of the club and offered him a pair of tablecloths to lay over the faces of the dead. The next week, Hornsby came by to thank her. The club, he learned, had been locked. And no such woman existed.
Walk into Bobby Mackey’s Music World on a Saturday night, as I did on the evening of March 25, and you’ll enter a place dislocated in time. Newspaper clippings and record sleeves occupied the walls, which connected and split at odd, listing angles. Cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes swirled around the early evening crowd, a mixture of older men in cowboy hats, preppy tourists from Cincinnati and bikers clad in leather vests. The mechanical bull sat silently in the vast back half of the space, awaiting the arrival of younger patrons. A rockabilly group crooned from the stage, playing a mixture of Elvis and Billie Holiday, like the soundtrack to a period film.
I’d come not just to meet the ghosts at Bobby Mackey’s club, but also the man himself. Robert Randall “Bobby” Mackey is a square-jawed, gray-haired man with sleepy eyes and a soft Kentucky drawl. The evening marked the celebration of his 67th birthday, and Bobby greeted well-wishers and itinerant reporters alike with the graciousness of a king. After nearly 40 years of performing and four studio albums, Bobby is something of a local celebrity in North Kentucky, and both his songwriting and his bar command a large and loyal following. He attributes that success to a certain strength of vision: the idea that other people love classic country — the music of Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Hank Williams — about as much as he does. His eyes light up when he talks about music, like he’s talking about a childhood passion.
Which, in a sense, he is. Born in 1948 in the tiny railroad town of Concorde, he sang endlessly growing up, harmonizing to the tunes on the jukebox in his father’s grocery store, singing for the amusement of his mother and the railroad men who came in on weeknights, looking for something to do. When he was 4, he won $5 at a local talent show with a rendition of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” (Williams remains one of his favorite musicians.) His brother got him a guitar when he was 8; his mother taught him to play it. After graduating high school and taking a job as a railroad brakeman (just like another country legend, Jimmie Rodgers), he worked the 128-mile-line from Russell to Silver Grove, playing in jam bands and making connections. When the railroad laid him off in 1970, he launched himself into music full time, performing in smaller bars in Cincinnati. His easy stage presence and rich, steady voice soon gathered him a following. By 1978, he’d played regularly at three different clubs in the city and was beginning to contemplate his next move.
“I was in really heavy thoughts about moving to Nashville,” Bobby said, “and getting close to the industry. But of course I was married, had a baby girl. I considered the fact that the clubs where I had played for eight years, I always had a crowd. I was looking at the security side, and I decided that getting my own place would allow me to go to Nashville anyway, because I’d own the place. I could get someone to sing for me or something.” When a pair of Bobby’s friends from Wilder invited him to come and look at a local property, 44 Licking Pike Road, he decided to take a chance.
The property that he found at 44 Licking Pike was not entirely new to him; in his railroad days he’d passed it fairly often on the bus while heading from his sleeping pad in Covington to the Silver Grove trainyard.
“I always had real strange feelings about the place,” he recalled. “When I’d go by on the bus, I’d look at it and just picture what was inside. But I never went in.” Now, in the spring of 1978, he entered it for the first time and found it moldering, filled with a tangle of artifacts from its eventful past. “It had been shut for a long time. It was musty. Had some walls that needed to be taken out. But I stood up on stage and I had visions in my head…. I could see it working.”
He and his wife Janet bought the club that April. Neither had any idea what was in store.
Consider this: There are some landscapes that speak. The words come through the weather, through the shape of the trees, in the crunch of twigs under your boots or the precise song of tires beating out a rhythm on the road. Heading northeast across Kentucky toward Wilder, I went across hills that rolled and dipped like the frozen waves of a long dead ocean, the slopes cut apart and spilling their fossilized innards against the road cuts. Red smears and mottled carcasses lined the highways beneath the sagging March sky. Kentucky spoke to me of ghosts.
It speaks to others, too. According to Benito Cereno, a comics writer and folklore enthusiast in Lexington, the Bluegrass State is thick with supernatural tales, a shambling procession of haints, spooks, cryptids and monsters that stretches from the western plains into the eastern hills. In Bardstown Cemetery, the humble ghost of 19th century politician John Rowan fights a century-long war with the obelisk placed, against his dying wishes, on his grave. A fatally clumsy bride haunts Cumberland Falls State Park. The mysterious Gray Lady, perhaps the ghost of a Civil War era nurse, sprints across the campus of Centre College. The frontiersman Daniel Boone makes the occasional postmortem visit to the hotel that bears his name in Berea. Countless others exist — murdered miners, poisoned society belles, hill-folk gunned down in forgotten quarrels. And then there are the silent spirits of the landscape, spirits that have no names or stories: a looming oak standing alone in the twilight, an old slave barn abandoned in the fields, faded family cemeteries buried under deep drifts of dogbane and ivy in the woodlands.
The source of this thriving supernatural ecosystem may lie in Kentucky’s history as one of the United States’ earliest frontiers. In the late 1700s, woodsmen, settlers and land speculators began to filter en masse through the gentle swells of the Appalachians, and found on the other side a post-apocalyptic landscape — a world of Native American nations decimated by disease, the once populous forests gone feral and silent. As the settlers fanned out, the society that grew was watered with blood from the Revolution, from the slave trade and the Civil War, from prohibition and lynchings and lawlessness. Official accounts warred with local memory. The result was a state riddled with half-remembered history, uncertain stories distorted by the weight of retelling, borderlands defined by too much past and too little fact.
Wilder is just such a borderland. Nestled in the foothills of the western Appalachians, the city sits at the confluence of the northward-running Licking River and its brother, the Ohio, only a stone’s throw away from Cincinnati. Originally established around Wilder Station on the north-south railroad line, the settlement was a sleepy place, full of German farmers and small-town industry, with the only real excitement arriving with the ruckus caused by the sensational discovery of Pearl Bryan’s body a few miles away. By 1925, all that had changed. The booming sin trade from Newport and Cincinnati leaked across the Ohio, sprouting a crop of distilleries, brothels and speakeasies. Wilder, not to be left out, soon had a distillery of its own at 44 Licking Pike Road, the site of the former slaughterhouse above the tracks.
The information that follows is compiled from an interview with the women of Gatekeeper Paranormal, a team of ghost hunters who have spent a good deal of time investigating the documented history of Bobby Mackey’s club. According to them, the slaughterhouse itself had been shuttered for some years prior to the opening of the distillery. (Modern tradition has it that the building was regularly used by a coven of powerful satanists, who broke in to hold sacrifice-filled ceremonies around the well. This is almost certainly nonsense, but the story persists.) The distillery ran gambling and prostitution in addition to illegal alcohol, a potent and bloody mixture. By the time E.A “Buck” Brady purchased the property in the 1940s, it had acquired a nasty reputation.
Brady, a former bootlegger made good, didn’t mind. He sank his profits from Prohibition into remodeling the building and reopened it as a bar and underground casino called the Primrose Club. Soon he was running a tidy profit. As it happened, it was slightly too tidy: According to testimony Brady later gave before the United States District Court, he was hoping the rural location of the building would be enough to keep him out of the way of the Cleveland Four, a crime syndicate with powerful interests in Cincinnati. And if Brady had been a poorer businessman, it might have. But soon the Primrose began to cut into the profits of mob-owned operations in Newport, and in 1946, the Cleveland Four dispatched a man named Red Masterson to persuade Brady to move. Brady, disinclined to do so, got the drop on Masterson with a shotgun and blasted him in the leg. The ensuing fracas saw Brady arrested for disturbance of the peace, charges he escaped only after Masterson refused to name him at trial as the attacker. As soon as Brady walked free, the Cleveland Four made it clear his continued presence in Wilder was unwise. Brady opted to move to Florida, where he committed suicide in 1965. The Primrose Club he left to the mob.
The mob reopened the building in 1947 as The Latin Quarter. It had once again been remodeled and expanded: Now it was a swanky nightclub, with dancers and food in addition to the requisite slots and gaming tables. The main floor boasted beautiful hostesses, fine dining and shows. An attic room sat behind a hidden door. Below, the basement had also been repurposed, with dressing rooms for the dancers and a little stone cell for the detention of those unwise enough to rack up a debt. Allegedly, ghosts began to accumulate as well: those beaten to death for defaulting on mob debts, unhappy dancers and perhaps even Buck Brady and Red Masterson, reunited in an afterlife devoid of shotguns. One of those spirits, a lovely woman in rose-scented perfume, would become particularly prominent in years to come.
But that was later. As the decades passed, the mob found itself hard-pressed. The Latin Quarter was routinely raided throughout the 1950s by local police, who took sledgehammers to the walls in order to confiscate the slots. In 1961 the Latin Quarter closed. A few other businesses operated in the building after that, including a bingo hall. The last of them, a brawling biker bar known officially as the Hard Rock Cafe (no relation) and colloquially as the “Bloody Bucket,” closed in 1977 after a series of shootings.
With the Bloody Bucket’s closing, the building stood empty for a year, a sprawling, sagging hulk of timbers, brooding above the railroad line and the long, cold waters of the river. In the dark reaches of the basement, empty dressing rooms and narrow, cramped hallways shifted and creaked with the rumble and hum of passing trains. Waiting.
True Story No. 2
J.R Costigan, a bar regular fond of Western-style clothing and ice water in equal measure, reported an attack in the men’s bathroom at Bobby Mackey’s. While washing his hands he looked into the mirror, and there it was — a man-shaped hole in the air, complete with a cowboy hat. It came at him, punching, kicking, clawing, beating him until he fainted. Upon recovering, he ran straight to Bobby and told him he had to get control of his club’s evil spirits. Bobby laughed, assuming it was a joke. But Costigan wasn’t laughing: He sued Bobby for negligence in allowing the ghosts to operate without any warnings to patrons. The judge threw the case out, recommending that Costigan take the matter up with a higher power. Following the advice of his lawyer, Bobby put up a warning sign on the front entrance. The ghost, by all accounts, remains in the commode.
The haunting began in April 1978, not with a ghost, but when a local kid walked into the not-yet open club and asked for a job. His name was Carl Lawson, a 20-year-old loner with big glasses and a dreamy air. Bobby, not one to turn down help during the remodeling, hired him to clean and paint. Despite his odd manner, Carl soon proved both a conscientious worker and an inexhaustible font of stories about the building: By the time Bobby Mackey’s Music World opened for business that September, he had landed himself a job as a live-in caretaker, moving out of his parents’ house and into the attic room above the bar.
But for all Carl’s reliability, Bobby said, there was one early conversation that gave him pause. The two men were hanging out in the recently opened club, shooting the breeze, when Carl shook his head and told Bobby, “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that go on here.”
“What do you mean?” Bobby asked.
“Weird things go on here,” Carl said.
Eventually Bobby dragged it out of him, and soon wished he hadn’t. Carl began telling him stories: stories of being watched, of noises and phantom footsteps parading across the dark dance floor after everyone had left, of presences prowling through the basement. Bobby, though not himself inclined toward supernatural terror, listened with growing alarm. “I said, ‘Carl, I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want nobody to know nothin’ about that. Here I am, putting everything I got in here. I didn’t want to be scaring people off before we got started!’”
Carl agreed to keep it to himself. He continued to live in the upstairs apartment, Bobby said, sleeping with a brace against the door and a shotgun by his bed. Within the first few years, meanwhile, the club proved a success; they stayed open five and sometimes six nights a week, with Janet Mackey keeping track of both the books and the bar, and Bobby headlining on stage. Bobby made the occasional trip down to Nashville to record, as per the original plan. On one occasion business sent him further, when he and a local buddy, R.J Seifert, went out to Texas and bought a mechanical bull to capitalize on the release of the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy.” (Seifert later became the club’s head of promotions, a position he occupies to this day.)
Occasionally, Carl attempted to update Bobby about the club’s supernatural goings-on. Bobby refused to hear of it. Janet, on the other hand, listened and believed. In interviews prior to her passing in 2009, she recalled an overwhelming sensation of malice that seemed to bleed out of the walls. Worse, she claimed to have been attacked while alone in the building, with a ghostly force grabbing her by the waist and pushing her down a flight of stairs. Soon, Bobby said, she flatly refused to enter the building alone. Other members of the staff claimed to have encounters of their own — glimpses, sounds, sensations of being watched or followed.
Still, the spookiness of the club was mostly under wraps — something talked about by the help and a few of the locals, but not an integral part of the building’s identity. That changed around 1989, when one of Bobby’s friends — a horror writer named Doug Hensley — began hanging around the bar. One night, while the two men were chatting about Hensley’s writing, Bobby mentioned a few of the stories Carl had told him about the club. As Bobby remembers it, Hensley reacted like someone had lit a fuse under his seat. “He comes in here that same Friday night. Carl was operating the bull that night, and Doug about pounces on him, wanting information. Carl wouldn’t tell him nothing. So he comes to me and says, ‘Carl won’t tell me anything about it!’ And I said, ‘Well, I told him not to talk to nobody about it.’ So they went back and forth all night long. Finally, they wore me out and I threw up my hands and said, ‘Carl, tell him! You’ve been trying to tell me for years. I don’t care.’”
Carl obliged. His suspicions about the paranormal entities inside the club had metastasized. Somewhere over the past 10 years, while cleaning out the labyrinth of detritus that filled the narrow hallways and dressing rooms of the basement, he and Bobby had discovered a series of holes chopped in the floorboards. Underneath lay the well, its round mouth exposed and open, the dirt sifted and sunken by the endless passage of trains. To Bobby, it was just a blocked-up shaft. But the hole took root in Carl’s imagination, boring down, down, until it led straight to Hell. There weren’t just ghosts haunting Bobby Mackey’s Music World, he told Hensley, but demons as well.
Hensley was only too happy to listen. He soon had made the rounds of the staff, interviewing everybody about their paranormal experiences with the aim of writing a book. Carl was his star witness, but Bobby, seeing that his friend wasn’t about to let the subject rest, decided he’d contribute as well. “[Hensley] would get information from me and write a chapter,” Bobby said, “read the chapter to me on the phone, and I’d say, no, it wasn’t exactly like that, it was like this. I made sure everything about me was absolutely correct.”
The first edition of Doug’s book came out in roughly 1989, a small edition entitled “The Terror at Bobby Mackey’s Music World.” At the time, Bobby greeted the release without much worry. As he admitted to me, “I didn’t figure it would go anywhere.”
And if it had happened at any other time, perhaps it wouldn’t. But a strange phenomenon had begun to brew across the country in the late 1980s, a growing hysteria centered on the notion that shadowy networks of satanists were conducting terrible rituals on children. Both law enforcement and swaths of the media took the idea seriously, to the sorrow of many of those falsely imprisoned on charges of satanic child abuse. Common murders became satanically motivated; common paranormal and occult imagery of any kind, from Halloween decorations to the sourcebooks of Dungeons and Dragons, abruptly became proof that dark conspiracies were widespread and well entrenched.
In such an environment, Bobby Mackey’s demon-haunted music club could not help but attract attention. As Doug Hensley’s book gained press coverage, some big-name media people came calling. In 1991, Bobby, Janet, and Carl were invited to appear on Jerry Springer. The next year, it was Geraldo. The momentum grew; more people began approaching Hensley with stories, which he happily incorporated into later editions of the book. The final version, “Hell’s Gate: Terror at Bobby Mackey’s Music World,” was released in 2005. Lurid and sensational, it contained a mixture of historical research, breathless speculation, and notarized personal accounts by staff and visitors. The testimonies ranged from the eerie — a unplugged jukebox playing “The Anniversary Song,” which on further inspection it did not contain — to the actively dangerous, including a car wreck supposedly caused by demonic forces.
With the increased attention, Carl’s tales became more dramatic. Hensley’s work reveals that he had begun talking to himself, and he reported constant trouble sleeping. The demons, he said, were attacking him in his dreams. Soon, he claimed to have been possessed by the evil spirits of the club. He submitted to an exorcism attempt (unsuccessful, naturally) in 1993, which Hensley wrote up in another manuscript, “The Exorcism of Carl Lawson.” The introduction set the breathless tone: “... Lawson knew he had bit off more than he bargained for. But becoming friends with his employers he felt obligated to stay at this establishment until he could figure a way to rid the place of the evil that lurked inside. What he didn’t know is that the evil there intended to use him and use him they did.”
According to Seifert, the publicity manager at Bobby Mackey’s Music World, it was around this time that the ghost tours began. At first, he said, they were informal affairs. “Two or three people would say, hey, can we look at the basement? So we’d send someone to take them down. We didn’t start getting people volunteering to lead official ones until about 2005.”
Bobby Mackey greeted all of this with growing resignation. “I was embarrassed about it at first,” he said, and while that embarrassment has mostly drained away, it’s left behind something like grudging acceptance. You can see it when you ask him about the hauntings — the twinkle goes out of his eyes, and his courtly manner goes a little bit abrupt. “I tried to stop it for a long time,” he told me. “It got bigger than me…. I don’t dwell on it. It’s all about the music for me.” He eventually signed off on ghost tours and allowed paranormal investigators to enter the building, charging a hefty fee for the privilege. If people wanted ghosts, than they could have ghosts, as long as he himself did not have to hear about it.
The 10:30 ghost tour kicked off in the club’s gift shop, a smaller room off of the main hall crowded with T-shirts, memorabilia from the old Latin Quarter and copies of “Hell’s Gate” and “Ghosts of Bobby Mackey’s Music World.” A group of about 15 patrons, many of them a few drinks in, gathered to sign a waiver forfeiting their right to sue in the case of supernatural molestation. (After Mr. Costigan’s run-in with the cowboy-hatted ghost, Bobby takes no chances.) Mark, our businesslike tour guide, collected us and led us out onto the street and around the building.
A cool breeze was blowing off the river, and the glow of nearby Cincinnati pressed against the low-hanging clouds. Cars and trucks shot past like comets through the dark. We picked our way down the hillside and crowded through the basement entrance, our guide’s flashlight spearing through the gloom. The walls were lined with junk, much of it decades old — chairs, boxes, an old car and more indistinct, shadowy tangles of material. An empty pathway had been cleared through the basement, and Mark led us along, stopping here and there to point out a historical detail or relate a ghostly event: a specific murder from the Latin Quarter or Primrose Club, a series of bullet holes in a hallway, a black doorway that occasionally throngs with silent, man-shaped shadows. Footsteps thumped overhead. Notes of music filtered down through the floorboards. A series of trash chutes led down from the bar, dropping empty beer bottles into a cluster of trash cans arranged on the basement floor, and at odd moments the clatter and smash of glass jolted us like the strings in a horror-film score.
We stopped for a while by the old Latin Quarter dressing rooms, tight, mirrored spaces without doors, bathed in dim washes of red and blue light. Mark encouraged us to squeeze into one of them, and the group obliged, accompanied by nervous giggles. There, as the walls pressed in and the mirror flickered with reflected movements, he told us about the club’s most notorious occupant.
The version the guide told us is one of many, and it goes like this: In the 1950s, a young woman named Johanna fell in love with the wrong man. Though Johanna lived at home, she was a dancer in the club; he was a dealer in the casino. Johanna’s father, a jealous and spiteful mobster, got wind of the affair and had the man killed. In her sorrow, Johanna poisoned herself in the dressing room.
And yet she lingers. Carl Lawson, who claimed to have found her journal, was the first to report her. Apparently he saw Johanna constantly — according to “Hell’s Gate,” Lawson went so far as to hold long, one-sided conversations with her spirit. Her appearances were always accompanied by a distinctive, cloying odor of rose perfume, he said, drifting like petals on the breeze. Soon other employees and visitors began claiming encounters with her as well — tugs on their clothing, faint touches and sometimes a sad, lovely face, glimpsed from the corner of their eye, staring out of the mirror. Though Bobby Mackey was unenthusiastic about ghosts on principle, something about the legend of Johanna captivated him. He recorded and released a single, “Johanna,” in 2010, which went on to become one of his most famous songs. “Now some may not believe it,” he sang, “and I won’t say it’s true / but some of us have smelled your rose perfume.”
But though Johanna became something of a mascot for the ghosts of Bobby Mackey’s Music World, there’s very little evidence that she actually existed. In a paper hosted on Doubtful News, science writer Sharon Hill laid out the problems with the prevailing narrative. First, she pointed out, the likelihood of the Latin Quarter’s owner, a mobster, allowing his daughter to dance in the nightclub is virtually nil. Saloon dancing was a disreputable profession in the early 20th century, and mobsters tended to keep their families separate from their work. “Therefore,” Hill argued, “to say that Johanna was a dancer that lived at home and intermingled with her father’s business does not make historical sense.”
Moreover, Hill wrote, the other versions of the story don’t fit the historical record either. One version claims that Johanna was the daughter of Red Masterson, the mobster who took a shotgun blast from Buck Brady. But birth records don’t record Red having a daughter named Johanna. The head of the Cleveland Four, Moe Dalitz, ran the Latin Quarter and did have a daughter, but her name was Suzanne. There was a Johanna Reagan who committed suicide via poison, but she was a housewife in Covington who did so in 1914, before the speakeasy had opened. Most damningly of all, there remains no physical record of the journal Carl Lawson allegedly discovered, with the only record of it coming in Hensley’s books. “While it remains possible that there really was a dramatic story of a mysterious Johanna during the Latin Quarter years,” Hill concluded, “documentation for such is lacking and we are left concluding that the story of her tragic life and her alleged journal are fictional.”
Likewise, the story of poor decapitated Pearl Bryan is less certain than it appears. For a start, it’s not at all clear that Scott Jackson was the father of her unborn baby. In “Mysteries of Pearl Bryan,” an article published in the magazine Kentucky Explorer, historical crime writer Robert Wilhelm argued that she might have been carrying the child of her second cousin, Will Wood, who had bragged to friends that he enjoyed a sexual relationship with Pearl. Jackson initially claimed that he had arranged Pearl’s abortion as a favor to Wood. Wood admitted that he had seen Pearl off at the station, but that Jackson had been her lover. Complicating matters further, Wilhelm wrote, Jackson himself admitted to having “criminal intercourse” with Pearl — but only after he knew that she was already pregnant. Recall as well that the exact sequence of events that led to her death — botched abortion or outright murder — remains in question. Curiously, the only detail beyond dispute is precisely what happened to Pearl’s head: during police interrogation both Jackson and his accomplice Walling separately accused the other of throwing the head in the Ohio River.
None of the above made it into the 30-minute ghost tour. But in its own way, the experience underscored the tension between fact and fiction at Bobby Mackey’s, particularly in the room Mark called The Room of Faces. He gathered us there, in a long, poorly lit room dominated by a concrete back wall. A metal grate closed off one end of the room. Shelves occupied the other, laden with dolls, children’s toys and balls brought by psychics trying to establish contact with the spirits. Water damage spattered the surface of the concrete, a series of abstract patterns that resolved themselves into eyes and mouths when viewed from a distance. A two-faced head leered out of the wall across from the door, one head demonic, the other lionine. A woman lying on a bed swam into view as Mark pointed out her cheek, her hair, her shoulders. “Some people see faces, and some don’t,” he said. Scientists refer to the phenomenon as “matrixing,” he went on, the human brain’s tendency to perceive faces in abstract patterns. It’s a well established phenomenon. But some prefer alternate explanations: that the faces are truly formed from demonic or ghostly residue, trapped on the walls.
In general, though, the more dramatic ghost tales at Bobby Mackey’s Music World are like that, formed from rumors and happenstance, patterns of negative space. Johanna may never have existed, but there’s a Johanna-shaped hole in the club’s history, and that’s enough for most. Those looking for more solid proof generally come away dissatisfied. In general, Hill wrote, “Allegations of the location being extremely paranormally active, a ‘portal to hell,’ or host to dangerous dark entities are unsubstantiated.”
Some, however, view sentiments like that as a challenge.
In 2008, the premier episode of the Travel Channel’s reality show “Ghost Adventures” featured an investigation at Bobby Mackey’s Music World. The “Ghost Adventures” crew, including show host Zak Bagans, are an aggressively masculine take on the profession of ghost hunter. (A female friend of mine once referred to them, with perfectly understated disdain, as the “Ghost Bros.”) Their style is combative: they “provoke” ghosts by shouting at them, insulting them, daring them to come out and show themselves. The Bobby Mackey episode is a mishmash of interviews with Lawson and Hensley, intercut with scenes of the three main hunters fumbling around in the dark basement using night-vision cameras, swearing at specters. Eventually Zak Bagans received several long scratches, allegedly from a phantom hand, and the crew went home happy. The episode was successful enough to spawn two sequels, including a web series, “Return to Bobby Mackey’s,” and another episode in 2010. All three proved wildly popular. Visits to Bobby Mackey’s by paranormal enthusiasts, which had flagged a bit, rocketed back up. As yet, they have not come down.
These days, however, ghost investigations at Bobby Mackey’s Music World are handled by Gatekeeper Paranormal, the club’s resident supernatural investigators. The Gatekeeper Paranormal team is comprised of four women from around Cincinnati and northern Kentucky; Laura Roland, Angela Johnson, Mandy Loftis and Kim Short. Since 2014, they’ve been leading two-hour ghost tours on weekdays, along with the occasional five-hour investigation.
I met all four women the Sunday after Bobby’s birthday. We sat around the bar, the club interior around us thick with the dreamy darkness of an empty honky-tonk at midday. The women introduced themselves in order of skepticism. Laura is an atheist and dedicated skeptic; Angela is a slightly more cheerful one; Kim remains noncommittal; Mandy is a full-throated believer. What they share is a devotion to the idea of ghost phenomena as something provable, scientific and not a thing to be exaggerated or spiced up to make a better story. They spoke with some annoyance about former guides at Bobby Mackey’s (politely unnamed) who had added flashy details to various stories, details which bore only a passing resemblance to the truth. “That made it difficult for us,” Mandy said, “because people who were from this area would come and take tours, and we would have to set the record straight.”
Gatekeeper Paranormal as a group is not particularly interested in the kind of epic confrontations with evil featured in Hensley’s stories or “Ghost Adventures” episodes.
“Basically, we’re trying to prove life after death,” Mandy said. They don’t provoke spirits if they can help it; as Laura and Mandy pointed out, it’s rude and stupid in equal measure. If you believe in ghosts, why would you rile up the ones in your primary location? Instead, they practice their trade as scientifically as they can, using specialized equipment to gather remote recordings, which they sift through for any evidence of postmortem activity. As a result, the ghosts they encounter tend to be vague entities: mists, glowing balls, crawling shadow people or EVPs — “electronic voice phenomena” — rough voices that can supposedly be detected in recordings of ambient noise.
But flashes of personality still occasionally erupt through the ether. “The best EVP we got was a female voice saying a long sentence, which is weird because normally it’s just a word or two,” Laura said. “But this one is kind of a whisper, and in kind of a Southern accent, and it says, ‘She does not like all these people in here.’” Kim believes that as human spirits, ghosts likely maintain human emotion after death, and the building’s history as a gathering place for rough men might have lead to an unusual profusion of angry spirits. All four women agreed that sometimes the mood in the building is so ugly that they won’t stay there alone.
The atmosphere that morning was surreal and watchful. Before I’d arrived, Mandy said, they’d glimpsed some shadowy heads poking up above the bar, which considered them in silence before slipping back into nothingness. Together, the Gatekeeper Paranormal team led me on another short walk around the building, their flashlights playing over the walls. The floor shifted quietly under our feet. We found no glowing orbs, no living shadows, no mists. In the basement we wandered past the now-darkened dressing rooms, past the Wall of Faces, past the circular, dirt-choked well at the bottom of Bobby Mackey’s Music World. It struck me as the quietest, most unassuming portal to hell I’d ever seen. But perhaps I just wasn’t looking correctly.
I saw Bobby Mackey play before I left. He’s an excellent performer, solid and present as a boulder, carrying his songs with deliberate strums of his steel-string guitar. Watching him onstage, he looked transported — like a man holding the only thing he ever wanted. Before him the club hopped to the thump and twang of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, the crowd line-dancing on the floor, college kids draped over the pool tables or hanging onto the bucking mechanical bull for dear life. The picture of a classic honky-tonk, fashioned in Bobby Mackey’s image.
Ghosts rarely trouble him these days, he told me before he went onstage. He’s come to accept that the stories aren’t going away. It gets people in the door, if nothing else, and once they’re inside Bobby can make their feet tap and their eyes glaze over, no problem. If patrons want to share ghost stories with him after that, he’s a good enough host to listen.
“I come to find that most everybody believes it down deep,” he said. “People want to relate stories about the farmhouse they had as a kid, and how their grandmother came back and sat on the bed, stuff like that. I don’t believe in it, but most of all I don’t dwell on it. I just play my music. The music, the dancing, it sets the atmosphere. So whatever it was before, I didn’t care. I made it home, you know? Like an old pair of shoes, it fits.”
And yet Bobby Mackey’s Music World is haunted, not by ghosts, but by Carl Lawson. Lawson died in 2012, after a long slide into alcoholism led to his vacating the job of club caretaker. His picture still hangs above the bar, and both Bobby and R.J. Seifert speak highly of him. As yet, nobody appears to have been brazen enough to suggest that his ghost remains in the building. But it’s likely only a matter of time; his belief in the club's supernatural phenomena seems likely to persist long after his death. That belief has threaded itself into the fabric of the club, to the extent that most people who know of Bobby Mackey’s Music World now think of it as the most haunted honky-tonk in the world. That is Lawson’s legacy, a haunting reinforced by the endless tales he told to Hensley, by the rumors and jumbled facts recorded by everyone who believed, by the cloud of obfuscation that chews on the past.
A void between established facts, in other words. A ghost story.