Dead Time

Haunted Happenings at the Biltmore Hotel

Located on 11 Dorrance Street in the heart of downtown Providence, the Biltmore Hotel is most recognizable by its neon red sign. On many an evening drive back to College Hill from T.F. Green Airport, I’ve seen the flickering crimson glow as a beacon of sorts, a herald of home. Streetside, the Biltmore is refined, a Beaux Arts-style building designed by the same company responsible for Grand Central Terminal in New York City. It’s not hard to imagine the mayors, debutantes, and industrial magnates who twirled in its ballrooms in its first resplendent decades. Yet, there is something odd about the Biltmore, the neon sign bringing a bit of roadside diner amidst the regality. Despite (or sometimes because of) its respectable clientele, the Biltmore has been embroiled in a variety of debauched activities throughout its history. Some say the remnants of those participants quite literally stalk the halls. In other words, the Biltmore Hotel is haunted.

Given the circumstances surrounding its construction, it actually isn’t too surprising that the Biltmore’s history has included the supernatural. Though ostensibly just one in a series of Bowman-Biltmore chain hotels across the country, the Providence Biltmore only got off the ground due to the generosity of Johan Leisse Weisskopf, a known Satanist. Weisskopf financed the hotel in 1918 with the underlying goal of familiarizing stuffy New Englanders with the joys and extravagances of his religion. He had chicken coops installed on the roof to maintain a steady supply of birds for weekly sacrifices and dug hot springs in the basement for purification rituals. He hired a team of nude waitresses, naming them the Bacchante Girls after the Biltmore’s dining room, and hosted bacchanalian parties attended by the likes of Louis Armstrong and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Weisskopf’s religious leanings, however eccentric, were not the primary reason the Puritan progeny of Rhode Island viewed the Biltmore warily. Modern day Satanists have alleged that Weiskopf’s elaborate rituals kept spirits at bay, and allegations of haunting only appeared after the authorities intervened to “clean the place up,” dismantling the chicken coops, forbidding blood sacrifices, and boarding up the basement springs. It was, rather, Weisskopf’s connection to the mob that gave the Biltmore a bad name. (Indeed, this association has endured through the decades: Former Providence mayor and convicted felon Buddy Cianci saved the hotel from demolition in 1979.) The hotel’s heyday was during Prohibition, and Rhode Island’s notoriously lax interpretations of the liquor ban allowed the Biltmore’s basement to function as a speakeasy. Men of the government and law bypassed the 25-cent drink fee, and the collaboration between those breaking the rules and those intended to enforce them set off a chain of strange events. Between 1920 and 1933, six police officers were implicated in eight murders that took place within the Biltmore’s walls. A governor (accused of six sexual assaults and one murder), a mayor (one murder), and a cardinal (the drowning of an 11-year-old prostitute in a bathtub) were also involved. Each of the victims’ ghosts is now said to haunt the hotel, and raucous parties, complete with clinking glasses and foot-stomping dancing, are said to be heard between midnight and 2 a.m., the period paranormal experts call “dead time.”

Though plenty of 20th-century luminaries visited the hotel, the most famous ghost is that of an unnamed financier who stayed at the Biltmore when the stock market crashed on October 24, 1929. Upon hearing the news, he was so devastated that he leapt from his window on the 14th floor, plummeting to his death. His spirit does not haunt only his room or his floor: Guests staying in rooms on lower floors have reported seeing a falling male body hurtle past their windows. When they rush to the balcony to look, however, no body materializes on the street below. He remains unknowable, mirage-like, a spectral presence vanishing before the eye can register it was ever there.

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Despite its spooky legacy, the Biltmore receives mostly positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Its “excellent” ratings—of which there are 666—overwhelmingly praise its sleeping arrangements, with multiple reports indicating that the beds alone warrant a return visit. That said, several visitors report ghostly activity interfering with their sleep. User Lori K., from Stratford, Connecticut, describes feeling a soft padding motion around her pillowed head, “like a dog slowly stepping,” before the being jumped off and proceeded to scrabble about the bathroom floor. The incident woke her boyfriend, who is now “no longer a skeptic.” Similar stories abound on more underground forums, with ghostsofprovidence.blogspot.com being one of the most comprehensive. The comments section under the 2009 entry on the Biltmore is one of the most active on the website, with past and prospective visitors sharing their experiences and anticipations. User Sarita Moldovan reports waking at 1:15 a.m. after feeling pressure on her eyes, and again at 3 a.m., struggling to breathe under the weight of “what felt like a man pressing down on me.” User cheezmuffin describes an actual sighting—inspired by rumors of ghostly activity on the 16th floor, they went up to investigate, heard loud giggling, at which point, cheezmuffin says, “I SWEAR I saw a ghost whizz by.” Another user named CAL points to the abundance of YouTube videos showing doors slamming and curtains fluttering as evidence of paranormal activity. CAL also offers a story—while attending an alums conference at Alpert Medical School, CAL awoke between 2 and 3 a.m. to find the TV turned to full volume, all of the windows fully open with the curtains billowing, and the shower running. “No one could have entered the room while I was asleep,” CAL says, because “the latch bolt was engaged.” In the morning, the front desk confirmed that similar situations have happened to other guests.

Other commenters are more skeptical. Jorge F. calls the anecdotes “all a crock” and Rachael declares the claims are “absolutely and totally fraudulent,” saying she’ll bet 5 dollars that the writer of the article is either an employee of the hotel looking to drum up business or someone who works for ghost hunting shows wanting to film “random ghost specials” at the Biltmore. The most compelling evidence against supernatural activity, however, might come from the-new-zero: “Brought cult robes, candles, inverted crosses, and pentagram leather arm gauntlets…and NOTHING. Total rip.”

Regardless of whether you believe in spirits, nude dance parties, or chicken sacrifice, the Biltmore is an undeniably intriguing part of Providence lore. Some may consider it a historical landmark, as the 1977 board of the National Register of Historic Places did. Others may say it’s a place for artistic inspiration (word on the street is that Stephen King used it as the basis for the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, though the man himself assigns that honor to the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.) All I know is that, walking under its heated lamps on a cuttingly windy night, the Biltmore enveloped me with something. Curiosity, maybe, or unconscious longing for a mattress nicer than my Twin XL, or nostalgia for a time I’d never known. Or maybe it was just the ghosts.