Atherton Mansion: A Corpse in a Barrel and His Domineering Wife

Historical Essay

by Dr. Weirde

Atherton House .jpg

Atherton Mansion, 1990s

Photo: Chris Carlsson

Until just a few years ago, this registered historic landmark housed thirteen apartment units. A single-family mansion until 1923, it was then remodeled by one Carrie Rousseau, who turned the orchestra chamber of the grand ballroom into her own apartment -- apartment number 13. An adjoining apartment, formerly the banquet hall, became the home of her fifty-odd cats.

Carrie Rousseau died in 1974. Since then, her caterwauling spirit has apparently joined the ghosts who have long bedeviled this building's unfortunate residents. Singer Aurora Booth told the San Francisco Chronicle about a mysterious rushing wind that blasted through her small apartment. Jerry Landewig, a dental assistant, claimed that a mysterious rapping would disturb her as she tried to fall asleep. Another tenant moved out after being harassed by ghostly apparitions.

The key to the identity of the mysterious spirits may lie in the building's exceedingly weird history. The Atherton House was built in 1881 by wealthy matriarch Dominga de Goni Atherton, who literally "went to town" after her husband's death. (She had managed his rural holdings while he was alive.) Dominga kept her son George under the sway of her personality and her pocketbook, financing him in a series of doomed business ventures. But a domineering mother wasn't enough for the hapless George -- he needed a domineering wife as well. And he got one in the person of Gertrude Atherton, who apparently came to loathe her nebbish of a husband. One evening, fed up with Gertrude's henpecking, George impetuously accepted an offer to set sail for Chile. Sobered up the next day, he was at the point of recanting -- until Gertrude began nagging him: "If you have any pride, you will stay here in San Francisco and make something of yourself." The reverse psychology worked, and when the boat left for Chile, George was on it.

Apparently the sea air didn't agree with him, though, for in the middle of the voyage he died of a kidney attack. The captain decided that this illustrious San Franciscan ought to be well-preserved for his funeral festivities, so he had his sailors stuff the body into a barrel of rum. The barrel was dropped off in Tahiti, picked up by a northbound ship, and delivered to the Atherton mansion, where, legend has it, the family first learned of George's death when a startled butler popped open the barrel. That was enough for Gertrude, who moved out of the house immediately: "I had an uneasy feeling that George would haunt me if he could."

Over the years, the beleaguered tenants at 1990 California believed that it was George's well-preserved spirit that was harassing them. But recently ghost hunter Sylvia Brown, at a seance at the Atherton house, claimed that even stronger vibrations were coming from three female ghosts, identified as Dominga Atherton, Gertrude Atherton, and the cat lady, Carrie Rousseau. "There is a male spirit here," Brown said, "but he's so pale and frail. There's nothing to fear from him ... But bad vibes could come from female ghosts who want things done their way and won't tolerate much male interference." Ms. Brown has suggested that the building would make an ideal women's resource center. (See Antoinette May's Haunted Houses of California)

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