Capitol Ghost Stories

Standing in the well-lit hallway outside the Governor’s office, you wouldn’t necessarily think that the State Capitol has a scary past. The friendly Highway Patrol officers pose for photos with visitors and the county displays offer cheerful reminders of the diversity of California’s people and places.

There is also a less known history of murders and hauntings. Being the week of Halloween, it seemed like a good time to look back.

Memorial at the former Stockton Asylum

One story close to home is that of Reuben Clark, the architect who designed the State Capitol. A series of delays in the construction led to mounting costs and pressure on Clark, which eventually drove him insane. He died at the Stockton Insane Asylum in 1866, never having recovered from his time at the Capitol. State Senator Jehu Berry, while helping write the current California State Constitution, was “taken with a mania” and confined at Stockton for “his own and the public safety.”

Almost 4,500 people were eventually buried in the Stockton Asylum‘s cemetery, of which only 1,619 were moved when the new cemetery opened. That means that there may still be nearly 3,000 bodies beneath the lake at CSU Stanislaus at Stockton (including Mr. Clark). Well, less than 3,000 since bodies are occasionally found.
[See also: Students wary of ghost at former Stockton Developmental Center]

On April 14, 1927, lobbyist Harry Hill shot and killed Capitol staffer Marybelle Wallace in a murder-suicide just outside of the elevators on the fourth floor of the State Capitol (historic side). Although initially friendly, Wallace had started avoiding Hill after he suddenly proposed to her. She planned to flee Sacramento to escape Hill, but on what was to be her last day at the Capitol, he found and shot her when she again refused his advances. The first person to arrive at the murder scene was Senate Minute Clerk Harold J. Powers (who would later serve as Senate President pro Tem and Lieutenant Governor). Wallace is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Coincidentally, the day that Wallace had planned to escape (April 15th) was the 67th anniversary of another murder at the State Capitol. On April 15th, 1860, Assemblyman John C. Bell was stabbed to death on the Assembly Floor by a colleague during a fight over a redistricting bill.

Outside of the Capitol, truck driver Mike Bowers committed suicide by crashing his fully-loaded semi-truck into the south side of the Capitol on January 16th, 2001. The crash caused millions of dollars in damage and, together with the 9/11 attacks, led to the increased security presence at the Capitol today.

There was also the Ghost of Assemblyman Chalmers, an 1870s Assemblyman who died of starvation after his wife chained him to a wall in their basement. For several decades, this building (the Vineyard House in Coloma) has reportedly been haunted by the ghost of Chalmers. There were the murder victims of the State Legislature, most notably John Yule and Lloyd Magruder (who was murdered in his sleep by men he had hired to protect himself).

Poster for Dark Shadows (a 2012 Warner Bros. movie)There was also Assemblyman Barnabas Collins of Butte County, whose name was used for the main character (a vampire) in the TV show and horror-comedy movie “Dark Shadows” (released in 2012). From all indications, the grave was undisturbed and he remains in the ground.

Ghost stories and the paranormal aren’t only limited to the Legislature. On May 28, 1934, Virginia Johnson, the daughter of State Treasurer Charles G. Johnson, was found soaked in kerosene and set on fire in a garage a few blocks from their home in Sacramento. Sacramento police determined that Virginia’s death was a suicide, although her father told newspapers that convinced that she had been hunted down and killed by a “murderous fiend”.

In 2009, “paranormal investigator” Nancy Bradley visited the Capitol and reported on her findings. Even more recently, in 2013, the unruly ghost of a certain former legislator appeared on Twitter, dispensing wisecracks and occasional advice like


So what’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the Capitol?

San Luis Obispo Highways

Senator Vernon L. Sturgeon Memorial Highway

Driving through San Luis Obispo County last weekend, I stopped to photograph several places and things named for California Legislators. The most easily visible was the Senator Vernon L. Sturgeon Memorial Highway.

Vernon Sturgeon


Named for a local State Senator who served two terms before serving as Legislative Secretary for Governor Reagan, the highway is the much traveled Highway 101 (between Paso Robles and Atascadero).

Sturgeon died in 2004, and the highway was named in his honor in 2006.


Connecting with Sturgeon’s highway is the Eric Seastrand Memorial Highway, located on State Route 46 (between Highway 1 on the coast and Highway 101 at Paso Robles). Seastand served eight years in the State Assembly until he died in office in 1990. His wife, Andrea Seastrand, won the 1990 election to take his seat and served two terms before being elected to Congress in 1994.

The highway was named in Seastrand’s memory in 1993.


A Decade Later: Assemblyman Mike Gordon


A decade ago Thursday, 47-year-old Mike Gordon, just months into his first term as a member of the State Assembly, died of cancer.

Gordon, who had previously served as the Mayor of El Segundo and as a staffer to Assemblyman Bruce Young, was diagnosed with a brain cancer just months after his inauguration. He was survived by his wife Denise, and four children.

During his 202 days in the State Assembly, Gordon authored 19 bills, of which four were chaptered and one was vetoed. Gordon was the chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs and a number of his bills related to the military and the closure of the Los Angeles Air Force Base. His legislation included bills relating to school attendance of the children of military personnel, providing mental health to veterans, and the redevelopment of the former Air Force Base.

The special election to fill Gordon’s vacancy was filled by Torrance City Councilmember Ted W. Lieu. Six years later, Lieu would win election to the State Senate after Jenny Oropeza died of cancer.

In a Memoriam to Gordon shortly after his death, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer noted;

He was a deeply loved member of both the California State Legislature and the South Bay community for his willingness to champion the causes of those he represented. He will be missed by all who knew him. – Senator Barbara Boxer

It’s just a good opportunity to reflect on those who left us too early, and to appreciate the ones who remain.