Sarasota, rumored to be a spiritual vortex, is full of ghostly stories and curious places. As a paranormal enthusiast, I sought out medium and Ghosts and Gruesomes guide Bob Hunt-McClimen to learn more. At one of my favorite places for spirits, the Gator Club, we discussed his tour and local ghost activity.
Hunt-McClimen worked as a business consultant for many years, a job that brought him all over the country. If he stayed long enough in any one location, he would take shifts hosting local ghost tours. Like many paranormal aficionados, the combination of history and spiritual activity is appealing to him. With experience telling tales from Savannah, Georgia to Anchorage, Alaska, Hunt-McClimen believes his attunement to the spiritual world has deepened over the years.
And since moving to Sarasota, he has had no shortage of unusual experiences.
On his current attraction, part of Sarasota Suncoast Tours, Hunt-Mclimen takes brave souls on a ghost hunt of the downtown theater district and surrounding area. He tells tales of spiritual activity, mixed in with true-crime stories and anecdotes from his personal relationship to the spirit realm. Guests learn if you can ever truly exorcise a theater, the fate of poor Harry Higel and what restaurant’s backroom Hunt-McClimen prefers to stay out of.
Lucky for me, Hunt-McClimen was unfamiliar with the Gator Club, so I got to witness his first impression of the space. The brick building has a remarkable history dating back to 1912. It was a grocery store and a cigar shop before serving as a popular watering hole for more than half a century. Prohibition-era moonshine was once found under the stairs during a renovation, and the club is said to have functioned as a "house of ill repute." Naturally, with a history like that, countless specters have been reported on the premises.
Past ghost-hunters have recorded heightened activity on the second floor, which originally served as living quarters. As we reach the top of the stairs, Hunt-Climen takes a deep breath and says that we aren’t as alone as we appear.
Entering the salon, with its elegant period furnishings, he says, “I sense a flamboyant female presence here. She’s excited to see us.” Could it be Mrs. Worth, the shop’s original matriarch—or perhaps the madam herself?
Meanwhile, the male spirit Hunt-McClimen detects in the pool-hall is not nearly as benevolent. As he describes the entity's purported hostility, I feel the hair on my arms rise, and my feet instinctively pull me to the door.
After we settle safely at our table outside the bar, we run through a few of our favorite places to look for ghosts, such as the Rosemary Cemetery. The century-old graveyard is the final resting place for many of Sarasota’s founding fathers, like John. H. Gillespie, Owen Burns and Rev. Lewis Colson. It also houses Ella Green and her three children who, in 1887, were allegedly murdered by her husband while they slept. Visitors to the cemetery claim to have heard the sounds of children laughing between the gravestones and felt invisible hands pulling at hems or hair.
Speaking of John H. Gillespie and Owen Burns, back in 1926 they planned to build a grand Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Longboat Key. They erected a massive frame before the Florida economy collapsed and the project was abandoned. In its half-finished elegance, the estate sat for nearly four decades, earning the nickname The Ghost Hotel.
The Ghost Hotel’s isolation made it a popular haunt for teenagers seeking mischief or a place to canoodle. While beautiful, the heights of the ruins were dangerous, and there was a string of tragic accidents. In 1964, the building was torn down and largely forgotten—except, perhaps, by those who remember it firsthand. The Chart House restaurant now stands in its place and guests have been rumored to have unexplained encounters or hear phantom screams, as if someone has just fallen from a great height.
Hunt-McClimen acknowledges that, for the most part, spirits in Sarasota seem pretty content. As he says, it’s a “happy passing place.” Still, that doesn’t mean we don’t have the occasional bad boo. Mary, the ghost who is said to reside in the Keating building at the Ringling College of Art and Design, has tormented co-eds since the 1930s, and some say it was dark forces that drove the once-luxurious John Ringling Towers into destitution. Could those same malevolent entities have taken up residence in the new Ritz-Carlton, built next to where the towers stood?
Either way, it’s easy to see that our little Florida town with its balmy weather and beautiful beaches is a paradise for the living and the dead.
Ghosts and Gruesomes tours are offered Wednesdays - Sundays, 7p.m. or 8:45p.m. Private tours are available. Please reserve your spot in advance.