Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Haunted Driskill Hotel

There are haunted hotels in virtually every city and it’s amazing how much legend and lore becomes attached to these historic locations.  The Driskill hotel in Austin, Texas is a prime example of such a place.  One of the city’s most haunted locations, the Driskill has its fair share of characters from its long history.  The stately building’s founder, Colonel Jesse L. Driskill, a pair of suicide brides, and the spirit of a little girl who perished on the grand staircase are just of few of the ghosts purported to haunt the Driskill.

But one of the hotel’s most interesting tales has roots in both Europe and Mexico.
In the 1850s, legend has it that Ferdinand Maximilian was traveling in Europe when he met a gypsy woman who predicted that one day we would be crowned Emperor.  Ferdinand, hoping that the prediction was accurate, did his best to befriend French royalty at every possible opportunity.  Eventually, members of the court decided that Ferdinand would make a good Emperor…for their puppet regime in Mexico.  But, he would need a bride.  Enter Charlotte, Princess of Belgium.  A woman more than willing to go to Mexico and share the throne with Ferdinand.

They were married in a grand ceremony and set sail for the French colony.  Once in Mexico, Charlotte became “Carlotta,” and the couple took up residence in Chapultepec Palace on a hill overlooking Mexico City.
But a grand, royal life in Mexico was not in the cards for the couple.  There was a U.S. blockade in place that made it difficult for French ships to reach the colony.  Furthermore, local forces, spearheaded by Benito Juarez were constantly stirring up trouble.  As their regime began to fall, Carlotta rushed back to Europe, hoping to persuade the aristocracy to help.  Unfortunately, the French court refused to even see her, so she headed instead to Italy.  While waiting for an audience with the Pope, she received terrible news.  Juarez and his men had stormed the palace, crushed the Emperor’s forces and executed Maximilian.

Carlotta was heartbroken.  It’s said that her mind snapped and she began suffering from paranoid delusions.  She lived out her days supported by various European courts, continuing to be known as “Empress Carlotta.”
It’s unknown if Carlotta ever learned about the belated wedding gift that Ferdinand had made for her.  A set of eight mirrors with elaborate gold leaf frames, each crowned with a carved bust of the Empress.  The ornate mirrors were backed with sterling silver and diamond dust to add a greater sheen to their surfaces.  After the fall of the palace in Mexico, the couple’s belongings were pillaged and scattered.  Somehow, the mirrors ended up at an auction in San Antonio, Texas.

In 1930, the Driskill decided to renovate a large room just off its Mezzanine.  The room had served for years as a men’s smoking lounge, but its new incarnation would be as a grand dining hall for special events.  The hotel purchased the eight gold, French mirrors from an antique shop in San Antonio and installed them in the newly renovated room to add a touch of European elegance to the décor.  Now dubbed “The Maximilian Room,” both guest and hotel employees have had strange experiences in the hall over the years. 
Some people believe that the spirt of Empress Carlotta haunts the mirrors, despite the fact that she had never seen them while she lived.  Perhaps it’s due to the fact that her image adorns the frames, or, perhaps she returns simply to see if the gifts from her beloved husband are being properly cared for.

Austin ghost tour guide, Monica Ballard, recounts an interesting story involving the mirrors in her book on Driskill hauntings.
According to an account related to Austin ghost tour staff, a photographer in the 1990s encountered an apparition that he believed was the ghost of the Empress.

The man was setting up for a shoot in the Maximillian room.  He intended to photograph modern bridal gowns against the classical period background of the room’s décor.  While he was unpacking his equipment, he heard the doors open and glanced up into one of the mirrors to see a woman stride into the room.  He described her as a stunning, raven-haired beauty wearing a sumptuous antebellum white gown.  He turned to question this “bride” as to why she was wearing a period dress rather than something modern but found there was no one in the room, though the doors were now standing open.  He turned to look in an opposite mirror, and there she was again!  Snapping his head around once again to the doors, he found that the room was still empty.  The woman, it seemed, only appeared in the mirrors.
Once the woman had vanished from the mirrors, the photographer found himself looking closely at the carved bust on the gold frames and shaking his head in amazement at the uncanny resemblance to the spirit he had seen.

Perhaps Carlotta didn’t want to have her picture taken.
The next time you’re traveling through Austin and want an unquiet night, book at room at the Driskill.  The fifth floor is reputed to be the most active, but there seem to be a wide range of spirits roaming the site.

To check out some stories of this haunted hotel, check out Monica Ballard’s “Haunted Tales of the Driskill Hotel: Volume 1.”

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