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Arts and Entertainment Monday, Mar. 5, 2018 9 months ago

Ghosts of downtown's past come out of the shadows in historic walking tour

Two locals are giving tourists and residents alike a new look at Sarasota history — with a few spooks thrown in.
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

Sarasota isn’t just a paradise for the living.

Laura Daniel Gale and Sarafina Murphy-Gibson recently started a walking tour with this opinion in mind, and they hope it can also help preserve the history of downtown Sarasota.

“It’s a history tour with ghost stories thrown in,” says Daniel Gale of their business venture.

Murphy-Gibson moved to Sarasota from San Francisco last year, and she found Daniel Gale, the producer and founder of Black Diamond Burlesque, through a Google search for local burlesque troupes. The two met and quickly bonded over not only their love of the performance genre but their mutual appreciation for history — and a good spook.

Sarafina Murphy-Gibson and Laura Daniel Gale dress in prohibition-era decor for their tours to honor what they believe was the city's heyday. Photo by Niki Kottmann

During their conversation, entrepreneur Daniel Gale mentioned that she always wanted to create a ghost tour through downtown. Murphy-Gibson loved the idea. A partnership was born.

The pair researched and planned the route of the 12-stop walking tour together and decided Murphy-Gibson would be the “ghost host” leading it. In early October 2017, they hosted their first tour.

Murphy-Gibson makes the experience quite theatrical, Daniel Gale says, wearing a 1920s-style flapper costume for a character she maintains throughout.

Daniel Gale holds the lantern and supervises in her own Prohibition-era garb to honor Sarasota’s most important era, the time in which key figures like Bertha Palmer, Owen Burns and John and Mable Ringling came to the city.

Before participants embark on a tour, which covers about a mile of downtown but also shares stories of spots beyond, such as Rosemary Cemetery (where their research says there’s more than 300 unmarked graves) and as far as Longboat Key (its “ghost hotel” is a popular topic). They also carry a book of historical photos to show guests what the stops looked like in their heyday.

Each stop on the tour marks a historical building or the land upon which a historical building once stood, and visitors learn about downtown and its supposed spirits via the script Murphy-Gibson memorized (and which Daniel Gale edited three times).

“Doing this research has made me fall in love with Sarasota,” Murphy-Gibson says.

She adds that two months of research made her appreciate her new home in many ways, but she particularly enjoyed learning how  “naughty” Sarasota used to be, especially within the walls of their tour hub, Gator Club. She learned there was not only a brothel on the second floor of the bar in the ’60s, there was also a stash of bootlegged liquor from the Prohibition era found underneath the staircase in the ’80s.

Sarafina Murphy-Gibson serves as "ghost host" and leads each one-mile tour. Photo by Niki Kottmann

When planning the tour, Daniel Gale utilized her connections in the downtown area to interview  several longtime residents about their spookiest stories.

These conversations helped the pair hear firsthand accounts of what the city looked like several decades ago — and what lost souls haunted it. The stories range from joyful to sad and/or chilling, but the basis is always historical.

“People love to be scared, but the history is what brings them in,” Murphy-Gibson says, noting that several people have told her they don’t believe in ghosts, but her focus on architecture and history made them enjoy the tour.

Although the tour is not meant to be a seance, Daniel Gale says they’ve definitely had some spooky encounters. A few guests have smelled cigar smoke outside the old Roth Cigar Factory, and this past Halloween night something — or someone — banged on the door they were standing in front of and made everyone jump.

They agree most of the stories are not too haunting, however.

“We are the land of Casper the Friendly Ghost,” Murphy-Gibson says. “Most spirits are fairly benign.”

Daniel Gale adds that the tour’s purpose is not to frighten.

“This all comes from our love of history,” she says. “If we can inspire the preservation of anything historical, that would be a big plus for me.”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

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