Bobby Mackey's Haunted Honky Tonk
In Wilder, Kentucky, just south of the Ohio river and Cincinnati, stands a building with a reputation for blood-curling apparitions, a diabolical history, and perhaps even an entrance to Hell itself.
The site of the building at 44 Licking Pike in Willder where Bobby Mackey's Music World now stands was, according to tradition, originally used as a slaughterhouse in the mid-19th Century. There is still a drain in the basement of the building that eventually feeds into the Licking River, where, when in use, the unwanted bits of the animals were washed away. According to tradition, the unscrupulous owner of the slaughterhouse could, for the right price, also arrange for anything, or anyone, else unwanted to disappear down the drain.
After the slaughterhouse shut down, the building was abandoned and fell into disrepair for an extended period. It was during this time that the basement was supposedly used as a site for a Satanic cult to practice it's diabolical rites, allegedly sacrificing children in the basement. Whether this bit of the story of the building's past is accurate or not remains to be verified by historians, but who knows? As far as we're aware, the late 19th Century may very well have been the heyday of Devil worship in the greater Cincinnati area.
We do know that the site first became a night club in the 1930s, when it was bought by a man named Buck Brady, who named his new establishment The Promise. The Promise was soon broken under the weight of the Chicago mob, who, with prohibition just having ended, still had a hand in the liquor market across Ohio and through Northern Kentucky along the river all the way down to Louisville. Although Brady was trying to run his place above board, the mob was anxious to replace the substantial amount of revenue that the re-legalization of alcohol meant losing. Unable to deal with the pressure, Brady committed suicide within the building.
The mob ran the place as a Latin music club called the Latin Quarter until the 1950s. As with most finer mob operations, gambling and prostitution were both freely available on site. The mob was finally forced out, and the building went though a period of mixed used, opening again as a music club in the early 1970s as The Hard Rock Cafe (not the same as the one with the T-Shirts).
The period when it was The Hard Rock Cafe was another one of violence for the building. A riotous honky-tonk, the Hard Rock was well known for bar fights that escalated out of control. There were several fatal shootings on the premises throughout the 70's, and in 1978 the authorities finally shut it down. It was that year that country music recurring artist Bobby Mackey bought the club and turned it around. It was also around this time that the stories of strange apparitions and supernatural happenings began to circulate widely.
There are multiple legends about Bobby Mackey's music world and the spirits that haunt it. One story is about a singer named Robert Randall, who worked at the club during its mob days in the 1930s. Randall carried on an affair with a woman Johanna, whom Randall eventually impregnated. Unfortunately, Johanna's father happened to be the club manager. Sleeping with a mafioso's daughter isn't the best career move for any aspiring singer, and when Johanna's father found out, Randall soon disappeared, it was assumed permanently. A distraught Johanna took her own life, and her ghost is still reportedly seen floating around the club, usually accompanied by the distinctive smell of her rose perfume. Mackey himself has recorded a song about the incident.
Another story ties the nightclub to a famous murder from 1896, the death of Pearl Bryan. On the morning of February 1st, 1896, the body of a headless young woman was discovered on a farm near Newport, Kentucky. An autopsy revealed that her head hasd been removed neatly with surgical instruments, and that he was several months pregnant at the time of her death. Police were able to identify the body through the fashionable shoes she wore, which were discovered to have been mail-ordered a few months prior by a 22-year old woman named Pearl Bryan of Greencastle, Indiana.
Bryan came from a socially prominent family in Greencastle. She was also the subject of a considerable amount of gossip, having often been seen in the company of two young men, her cousin William Wood and a newcomer to town, Scott Jackson. Sometime in late 1895, Bryan became pregnant by one of these men, and in January she told her family that she was traveling to Indianapolis to visit relatives, but instead went to Cincinnati to obtain an illegal abortion. What happened when she arrived in Cincinnati is still not completely known.
Jackson's association with Bryan was discovered by the police, and he was arrested outside a boarding house in Cincinnati where he was staying while studying to be a dentist. Under police questioning, Jackson admitted that he had arranged for Bryan to travel to Cincinnati for the abortion, but named Wood as the father. When Wood was questioned by the police, he identified Jackson as the father. The father's identity was never firmly established.
Police soon took Alonzo Walling, Jackson's roommate, into custody after Jackson told police that he had left Bryan in Wailing's hand to facilitate the abortion. Walling said that he believed Jackson had committed the murder. Jackson said he thought it was Walling. Both claimed to have no direct knowledge of events.
Prosecutors went to trial with a circumstantial case built from the testimony of witnesses to Jackson, Walling, and Bryan's movements through the days before the killing. The most damning testimony came from a cab driver named George Jackson, who testified he had been paid to drive the men and a moaning woman to Kentucky, and seen them disappear into the woods near where the murder occurred. Despite maintaining their innocence to the end, both Walling and Jackson were convicted and sentenced to hang. Although both men seem to have been involved in some way with the events around Bryan's murder, the exact extent of their involvement remains unknown, as this complete account of the Pearl Bryan murder and trial reveals. There is a even strong case to be made that there was no deliberate homicide, and that Bryan died of complications from an attempted abortion, and that it was the man who performed the procedure, a Dr. George Wagner of Bellevue, Kentucky, who removed Bryan's head in an attempt to conceal the botched, then-illegal procedure.
In recent years, patrons at Bobby Mackey's have reported seeing the figure of a headless woman in late 19th Century clothing wandering through the Music World. The figure has been widely known as being the ghost of Pearl Bryan.
There is a slight kink in this attribution. The site where Pearl Bryan's body was discovered lies about four miles away from Bobby Mackey's Music World, and recent versions of the story which say the murder was committed at the building that was then still a slaughterhouse seem to have no basis in historical evidence. Maybe the restless spirit of Pearl Bryan, who seemed to have enjoyed a good time when she was alive, was just drawn to the lights and music of the happening joint. Whoever she is, she seems to do no harm. The same can't be said for some of the other spectral inhabitants of Bobby Mackey's.
In 1994, J.R. Costigan, a patron at Bobby Mackey's claimed to have been physically assaulted in the men's room by a ghostly figure wearing a cowboy hat. Costigan claimed that while using the facilities, the spectral figure kicked and punched him. Costigan sued Mackey, claiming that Mackey was negligent in failing to rid his property of dangerous ghosts, and sought $1,000 in damages. Mackey's lawyers filed a motion calling for dismissal, noting the extreme difficulty in calling the ghost to testify for the defense. The judge apparently agreed, as the case was thrown out of court. In a bid to avoid further legal troubles, Mackey has since posted a sign by the club entrance stating that the premises are haunted and that management is not responsible for any spectral damage.
But perhaps the most alarming feature of the haunted honky tonk is the supposed portal to Hell found in the basement. People entering the room that holds the old slaughterhouse drain routinely report an overwhelming feeling of sickening dread. The door to this room refuses to stay locked, and will open and close seemingly by itself. Lights in the room come on and off of their own volition. Many people have reported being tugged, scratched, or pushed by unseen hands in this room. These hands also seem to be inclined towards violence, as multiple people have reported being pushed down the basement stairs by invisible forces. Some people have even reported seeing a huched, swiftly-moving, not-quite-human figure with glowing amber eyes moving in the dark shadows of Bobby Mackey's basement.
Does the old slaughterhouse drain lead not, as previously assumed, into the Licking River, but down to Hell itself? Is the shadowy figure seen in the basement, who can appear and disappear at will, and who seems to resent the presence of people in the building, a demonic guardian at the gateway to Hell? Are the ghostly figures seen around Bobby Mackey's drawn to the demonic portal? Are they lost souls who have escaped torment by coming through the gateway? Are they warnings sent forth from whatever lies at the other end of that old drain?
Well, visit for yourself and find out. Bobby Mackey's Music World is welcoming to ghost hunters and even offers ghost tours. But despite its association with death, Bobby Mackey's Music World should also be credited with keeping the spirit of classic country music alive. So when you plan your visit, plan to stick around and catch some great musicians at work. As Mackey himself says, come for the ghosts, stay for the music.