Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, October 18, 2019

Annalisa’s ghost awaits in infamous Read House room

Take a step back in time, explore the paranormal

Shiba Gorman didn’t believe in things that went bump in the night – until she and her husband stayed in Room 311 at The Read House hotel.

Infamous for a grisly murder that allegedly took place within its walls in 1929, Room 311 is said to be one of the most haunted hotel rooms in the U.S. There is no documentation of the killing – or at least no one is said to have scoured the city’s 90-year-old jail records or newspaper archives to find it – but that hasn’t stopped the rumor of an otherworldly guest in the room from persisting through the years.

The lack of evidence also has not stopped the staff at The Read House from telling the story of the murder and extended stay of a San Francisco woman named Annalisa Netherly to would-be ghost hunters, thrill-seekers, the mildly curious and skeptics.

Even the hotel’s general manager, Ken Merkel, is happy to spin the eerie tale.

“There are several versions of the story, but in the one we have accepted, Annalisa was, shall we say, getting around. Her husband took exception to her behavior and ended her life in the bathtub,” he says.

Merkel’s polite wording avoids a gruesome detail: As the story goes, Annalisa’s husband didn’t just pull a Norman Bates on his wife while she was bathing; he cut off her head.

Since then, guests have reported a variety of paranormal activity in the room. From unexplained noises and flickering lights to running water and shadowy figures, there’s no shortage of stories about strange things happening in the room – or people who have come to believe the ghost of Annalisa indeed haunts its confines.

Tripp Gorman and his wife were not among the believers earlier this month as they drove from their home in Atlanta to Chattanooga, where they had reservations to be the first guests to stay in Room 311 since owner Avocet Hospitality Group had completed a $28 million renovation of the hotel in October 2018.

But despite being a skeptic, Shiba Gorman enjoys visiting man-made haunted houses and had always entertained the notion that she could be wrong about the supernatural. So, when her husband received an email from The Read House inviting past guests to stay in Room 311, he signed them up.

“I’ve never believed in ghosts, but a small voice in the back of my head has always said, ‘Maybe they do exist,”’ Shiba explains. “So, I wanted to stay somewhere haunted so I could confirm whether such things are real.”

The Gormans had taken ghost tours in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, but those shallow waters had not prepared them for the immersive experience Shiba said she endured the night of their stay in Room 311.

The Room 311 experience begins outside the three-room suite after a short walk down a narrow, carpeted hallway that creepily calls to mind the film, “The Shining.” Although every other door along the way sports a fresh coat of paint and an electronic card reader, the entrance to Room 311 looks like it hasn’t been refurbished since the current version of the hotel opened in 1872.

The door’s light gray frame is marred with scuffs, the doorknob lacks polish and the manual lock requires guests to use a physical key – like visitors to the hotel in 1929 would have done. The idea, Merkel acknowledges, is to impart the room with a sense of history before guests step inside.

After entering Room 311, visitors might feel like they have been transported to a hotel room in the early 20th century. From the cheesy fleur-de-lis wallpaper to the vintage furniture and decor to the antique rotary phone and crystal doorknobs, every detail evokes a sense of having stepped back in time.

Just like the entrance, the entire suite lacks the spit and polish of every other inch of The Read House. No attempt was made to purchase nicely kept pieces; rather, everything has a lived-in look, down to the distressed hardwood floors. Even the lining under the shade of a table lamp is peeling.

“This is our version of what we believe the room could have looked like when Annalisa arrived,” Merkel says. “We want it to look and feel like something from the twenties and thirties.”

To preserve the ambience, Room 311 lacks the amenities of every other guest room in the hotel. There is no television, refrigerator, electronic safe, hair dryer or Keurig machine with complementary coffees and teas.

There is, however, a shoeshine kit and some old hangars in the bedroom closet and an ancient AM radio in the living room. But guests are going to have to make their own entertainment, Merkel says, because the radio doesn’t work.

“The room was restored to make Annalisa comfortable – not today’s hotel guest,” Merkel quips. “The more we can make her comfortable, the more likely she will not disrupt our guests.”

The Gormans came ready to make up for the lack of electronics. Not only did they have their smartphones, Shiba had packed a Wyze video camera for capturing every moment on video. After setting up the device in the bedroom, she began exploring their surroundings.

One of the first details she noticed were the bars outside the two bedroom windows. Installed during the recent renovation, the bars are similar to those used to detain another of Room 311’s famous guests – Al Capone.

Room 311 is also known for housing Capone while he was traveling through Chattanooga on his way to his federal trial in Chicago for tax evasion. Avocet installed rebar on the windows so guests could see what the view from the room looked like during that time, as well. “It’s been said Annalisa was not a fan of Capone’s cigar smoke,” Merkel offers.

In the bathroom, Shiba found an old vanity, a pink claw foot tub and an original pull-chain toilet. Unlike the radio, the toilet worked.

The Gormans were grateful for this but already feeling unsettled. Even Tripp, a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, said the room felt “creepy.”

While their emotional unease might have set them on edge, it hadn’t turned them into believers. Even Shiba, who was looking wide-eyed for evidence of ghosts, didn’t think twice when she felt something briefly grab her wrist while she was in the bedroom.

And when the lights in the hall outside their room flickered as they made their way to the elevator to go to dinner, they wrote it off as a coincidence.

Then, while eating at Bridgeman’s Chophouse on the ground floor, Tripp noticed a large and seemingly fresh bruise on his wife’s wrist. It didn’t faze him. “I thought maybe she’d bumped her arm into something,” he explains.

But the bruise stopped Shiba midchew. “I don’t bruise easily,” she says.

By the time they returned to the room, Shiba was on full alert. Before turning in, she flipped on every light in the suite and checked her Wyze cam to make sure it was recording. Gripping her smartphone, she then settled into bed next to her already snoring husband and mentally readied herself for a sleepless night.

Haunted Chattanooga

Chattanooga is known for more than its tourist attractions, trails and lakes. Stories abound about hauntings beneath the city in Underground Chattanooga, and in addition to visiting the Tennessee Aquarium, residents and visitors can take a ghost tour to hear even more tales about the long-dead spirits that supposedly dwell in the city.

After spanning nearly the entire life span of Chattanooga, The Read House has inspired a few ghost stories. Built to replace the Crutchfield House, which had burned to the ground, the hotel opened in 1872 and has been serving guests ever since. Over the years, it’s housed presidents, celebrities and – if the stories are to be believed – a few of the city’s phantoms.

“There was a duel in the lobby at one point, and several other people have expired in the hotel,” Merkel says, his wording still genteel. “A lot of the stories revolve around bumps in the night, the feeling of something being in the room and running water.”

After Avocet purchased The Read House in 2016, the company undertook a sweeping renovation of the site. As plans to transform the hotel into a luxurious, Roaring Twenties-style destination were taking shape, locals asked the new owners about their plans for Room 311.

Avocet presented its answer during a party late last year to introduce the renovated suite to Chattanooga. To everyone’s surprise, more than 500 people showed up to sip wine and see the purportedly haunted space. The huge turnout convinced them to begin giving tours.

A year later, 30 to 50 people a day still show up for the free excursions, which the hotel conducts daily between noon and 2 p.m. (There are no tours on Thursdays in October so the staff can prepare the room for that evening’s guests.)

While conducting the tours, the hotel’s bell staff add their own stories to the history of what happened in Room 311 and what people have seen and heard there.

Guest services manager Jared Nelson says the staff has reported seeing the pull-chain on the toilet swing, while visitors have told him they heard the pipes in the walls rattling.

Although Nelson has never heard the pipes make noise – which he admits could be attributed to their normal function – he says he has seen the door on the davenport cabinet in the living room slowly open.

“We think that’s Annalisa’s way of telling us to get out,” he adds.

While Nelson enjoys telling these and other stories, he’s especially fond of relating his experience with flickering lights in the room.

“When I started working here in 2015, I thought the story about the hotel being haunted was a running joke, so I went along with it.

“Once, a grandmother and her two grandchildren were staying in Room 311. Since the grandkids were close to my age, I told them they were staying in a haunted room.

“One night, as I was delivering food, the lights in the room start flickering. I thought the girls were messing with me. But when I asked the grandmother where they were, and she said they were at the pool.”

When Nelson stepped out of the room, the lights stopped flickering. He later related the incident to his boss, who asked if he smoked. When Nelson said he did, his boss said, “Someone died in that room, and the ghost hates men who smoke.”

“I’m not a smoker anymore,” Nelson says.

A night to remember

As Shiba was lying in bed, she went over the stories she’d heard about Room 311. Her mind had plenty of room to roam, as the suite was quiet – except for her husband’s snoring. She’d even unplugged the alarm clock in the bedroom because it emitted a slight white noise, and she wanted to hear everything that happened.

Eventually, she started feeling like someone was in the room with her and Tripp. Telling herself the stories she’d heard were getting to her, she tried to rest.

She couldn’t. Unnerved by the notion of a spectral visitor, Shiba began to see and hear things – lights flickering, water running and movement in the corners of her eyes. When she would turn to look, there would be nothing there.

Then, she says, the bed moved.

“It felt like someone was tapping it, or like someone was sitting on it and moving around,” she explains. In the video Shiba took with her phone, the bed does appear to move slightly. She then rouses her husband and asks him if he feels it, too. Seconds after mumbling no, he’s snoring again.

While the bed was still moving, Shiba says, one of her legs suddenly felt numb and heavy. Startled, she sat up and shook her husband again. At this point, she notes, something brushed the back of her neck.

“It gave me the creepy crawlies,” she says. “Even though I had to use the restroom, I waited until my husband woke up to go with me.”

In the morning, a well-rested Tripp tried to discredit the evidence his wife said she’d captured on video. The shadows, he said, were her iPhone adjusting to the different levels of light in the room, and the water she’d heard running was a guest in another room turning on their faucet.

Convinced she’d touched the veil between worlds, Shiba was not dissuaded. Then, while she and her husband were packing to leave, something nudged Tripp’s skepticism.

“The door on the cabinet in the living room was completely open. I thought Shiba had opened it to take a picture, so I closed it,” he says. “Then, when I went back five minutes later, the drawer above it was fully open.”

Tripp immediately asked Shiba if she was playing a trick on him. When she said she wasn’t, he asked her again. When she insisted she wasn’t, he asked her four more times.

“We’ve been married 10 years, and I could tell she was telling me the truth,” Tripp says.

His next suspect was the staff of The Read House. Thinking they had rigged the cabinet with a pneumatic device, he pulled out the drawer and looked, but all he saw was wood.

“I started shaking visibly,” he admits. “All I wanted to do was get out of that room.”

As the couple checked out, a frazzled Shiba confesses to being a newfound believer in the paranormal. “I would normally make fun of people like me, but I know what happened and I was terrified. I’ll never stay in that room again.”

Having recovered from his encounter with the drawer, Tripp says he’s less skeptical than before. “Something opened it.”

Merkel doesn’t say whether he’s a believer or a skeptic. But he does add one more story to the annals of Room 311.

“A service dog in room 316 started barking and growling at the door last night. When the people who were staying in the room looked in the hall, the lights flickered,” he says. “For the rest of the night, the dog stayed in the bed.”

Then again, he says, a colleague of his spent the night in Room 311 before the renovation and slept like a log.