Geek Travel: Ghost Hunt at Ernestine

I will admit upfront that the categorization of this article is a bit deceitful as it really only required me to travel to the other side of my hometown…..actually not even that far as the office of my day job is close by (yes I work a proper office job with a cubicle and Excel spreadsheets and everything. Why hasn’t anyone told Gfunk my talents are worthy of at least $47,812,592.57 annually? But I digress). In the South Main neighborhood of Downtown Memphis is the world renowned dive bar Ernestine & Hazel’s. Every city in America has dive bars, but it is the history of this century old institution that sets it apart from any other. Travel blog, Thrillist dubbed it “America’s greatest burger dive bar” thanks to its incredible Soul Burgers. Public Books called it a “legend” in no uncertain terms. On any given Saturday night you will find both locals and tourists from every walk of life rubbing elbows over beers. The other major thing Ernestine & Hazel’s is know for is that it also happens to be one of the most haunted places in the country. A while back I wrote an article (you can read HERE) about the ghosts who haunt this dive bar thanks to the 13 people (that’s not ominous) who have joined the choir invisible here. The paranormal activity in this old bar have made it the subject of countless articles and TV shows, a month ago it was even covered by Katrina Weidman and Jack Osbourne on an episode of Portals to Hell. Recently my friends at the tour company Historical Haunts have gained permission to lead laypeople through full paranormal investigations at this famed haunted tavern. I gladly hopped onto the opportunity to be a part of their inaugural run of a Ghost Hunt at Ernestine & Hazel’s.

As these things often do, the Ghost Hunt of Ernestine & Hazel’s began with housekeeping rules and a nice bit of the history courtesy of tour guides Tanya and Stephen. While the precise dating is iffy, records date a structure standing on the spot all the way in the late 19th century with a church. The part relevant to us begins in the 1930’s with pharmacist Abe Plough on the first floor and hairdressers Ernestine and Hazel on the second floor. Thanks to his business success and the inventing of Coppertone sunblock, Abe successfully moved on and sold the entire building to Ernestine and Hazel. Since the nearby Club Paradise was owned by Ernestine’s husband a business plan took perfect form as he booked artists like BB King, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Tina Turner and countless other musical legends to play at the club and head to Ernestine & Hazel’s following a gig a for: drugs, drinks, and the company of the women practicing the world’s oldest profession on the second floor. But over time the place fell into disrepair and abandonment with only the brothel upstairs functioning as a business. It was given new life when former dancer Russell George seized on the opportunity to own a piece of music history. He purchased the dive bar and served as its owner until 2013 when he tragically took his own life in the office adding to the supernatural element of the bar.

Naturally the lurid and sometimes violent past that Ernestine & Hazel’s wears proudly for all to see has brought with it the paranormal activity we were looking for tonight. Objects regularly move on their own in front of employees and patrons. Disembodied voices echo through hallways and rooms. Catching a quick glimpse of a shadow figure, or occasionally full-bodied apparition, is fairly common. In 2019 renovation work revealed a collection of cow bones and a jar sealed up in a wall, a completely normal thing to find. Fittingly, in a city where music has been such a driving cultural force the most supernaturally charged object in this old juke joint is of course the juke box. After long periods of inactivity many juke boxes will bust out with a song, but this legend by the bar’s front door will do so with songs tying into something going on in the room. One of the tour guides, Scott shared how one night during a conversation about famed Memphis musicians the box would play a song for each artist mentioned far too precise and often to be a coincidence.

With a constant basecamp set on the first floor and a series of cameras keeping watch throughout the second floor we split into groups to hunt for the ghosts within this Memphis landmark. My group was the first to venture up the stairs and spend time in the Black Room with a Boo Bear. For the lay people, a Boo Bear is a rather neat tool for paranormal investigations, on the surface it looks like your standard plush bear however it is wired with a microphone, recorder, and different sensors to measure temperature and elector magnetic changes. In a location where the spirits of young people tend to linger the Boo Bear is quite effective. As the film Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssssss Song taught us, children being in brothels is not outside the realm of possibility.

While there was not much in the way of unexplainable activity but the Black Room and the neighboring room had incredibly comfortable couches and a solid AC unit and given that we were in the midst of summer (that’s right summer lasts through September in Memphis) that was a welcome. From there we migrated to one of my favorite spots of Ernestine & Hazel’s as a patron, Nate’s Bar. A small bar tended to by the local legend Mr. Nate, it provides a great view of the South Main and the passing trollies, especially at night. While on this ghost hunt I learned that during the bar’s glory days, this was a suite used by Ray Charles. So with a laser grid set against the wall to detect any movement I would be lying if I didn’t want to see something by the piano and perhaps hear a few bars of “Hit the Road Jack” come through the spirit box. Sadly this did not happen, but when I left the room for a few moments, I returned to hear a voice coming through the spirit box proclaiming “he’s back”. So perhaps the spirit of Mr. Charles recognized me…..or more likely one of the other spirits in the building but I dream big.

Returning to the first floor we learned from those watching the monitor that when the other group of ghost hunters entered the Black Room and without their knowledge a host of unexplainable activity kicked up, including a shadow figure, all just outside the room. This just reinforces that when you are investigating the paranormal you may be oblivious to events just beyond your field of perception. After it became clear the haunted juke box was not willing to take my requests on this night (or maybe it hates my tastes in music which is a possibility) we moved to the 5 Spot a bar in the back that does not have the same level of grit as the main bar but still has the same vintage juke joint vibe. In here a grand laser grid was set up to overlaying a stage area at the front. On the paranormal front we did not experience a whole lot of activity, until a flashlight that was placed on top of a piano turned on by itself.

If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself in my hometown I wholeheartedly encourage you to sign up for the Ghost Hunt at Ernestine & Hazel’s. While there is not guarantee that you will have an encounter with someone from beyond the grave (because necromancy is frowned upon) the bar itself is just so incredibly cool. Walking through its graffiti-covered walls while listening to the O’Jays blaring from the juke box you truly get a sense of the history that has taken place within the walls through the decades. Everyone from music legends to criminal ne’re-do-wells have been hosted in the house Ernestine and Hazel built creating a certain atmosphere of authentic coolness that is impossible to replicate. Granted the tour is only available on Tuesday nights when the bar is closed, so if you are unable to make that, fear not (or depending on your level of squeamishness concerning the macabre you should fear) as Historical Haunts host a number of incredible tours throughout the Bluff City. There is a bus tour of famed haunted Memphis sites; a pub crawl focusing on the supernaturally-inhabited drinking establishments of the city; a tour of true crime sites and other ghost hunts at different locations. If the dark, scary and mysterious is not your jive, they also run a Brew Bus tour taking visitors to many different local breweries. Since I moved to Memphis close to a decade ago the wonderful people who run Historical Haunts have been invaluable in my learning about the fascinating elements of my hometown. Should you ever visit my incredible hometown I can not recommend enough booking yourself on either the Ghost Hunt at Ernestine & Hazel’s or any of their other tours.