An American Ghost Gallery: The Punchbowl Ghost

Spectral Edition

In a book titled Legends of Old Honolulu (1915), Ka Hula O Na Aumakua describes that famous city’s Punchbowl region this way: “Punchbowl lies back of Honolulu. It is an extinct volcano. Inside the crater rim lies a basin whose sides are grass-covered, with groups of trees here and there. The little houses and small gardens of squatters show that there is no longer any fear of subterranean activity.”

The writer goes on to narrate one of the area’s legends. Long ago, Kakei, “the moi, or high high ruling chief of Oahu,” had proudly returned from plundering the village of Waimea on the island of Kauai. Surveying his ill-gotten riches and kidnapped women and children, the warrior decided a great feast was in order and its site should be Punchbowl Hill. However, as the celebration began, earthquakes cracked the earth’s crust. “The side of Punchbowl Hill opened and a flood of lava poured out, mixed with clouds of bursting masses of steam and foul gases.” The eruption threatened not just the feast but the lives of those attending. Amid the calamity, the spirits of the victims’ ancestors appeared “in a solemn and stately dance. Back and forth they moved to the rhythm of steady peals of bursting gasses. The clouds swayed to and fro, while ghosts moved back and forth among them.” The ghostly ancestors had come to rescue the kidnapped women and children. Not until Kakei made reparation to Waimea for his plundering did the earthquakes, lava flow, and spectral dancing cease. “It is said that the fire never again returned to that crater or to the island of Oahu.”

honolulu-harbor-and-punchbowl-crater
A view of Honolulu Harbor and Punchbowl Crater (c. 1854), by G.H. Burgess

Perhaps fire never returned to Punchbowl, but ghosts did. These were not the spirits of protective ancestors. Instead, these were the kind of ghosts one finds in the ghostlore of those who had immigrated to Hawaii from Europe.

A 1905 issue of the San Francisco Call reported: “A large portion of the Portuguese population of Honolulu is in a state of terror owing to the appearance of a ghost in the Punchbowl district.” The phantom’s “long black hair falling over a cold and eyeless face” was said to resemble a woman who had “died under unhappy circumstances.” This appears in a fairly typical ghost report, one that follows the pattern of concluding by saying the family fled the house and now rents in the area have dropped.

Three years later, a less routine series of reports appeared in Hawaiian newspapers. One of the earliest appeared on September 28, 1908, in The Evening Bulletin. “PUNCHBOWL GHOST EXCITES WONDER,” the headline shouts, and now the haunted were not Portuguese newcomers but a Polish husband and his Spanish wife. The article says that Mr. and Mrs. Pecarick had experienced the “commonplace” manifestations of a ghost: pictures dropped from the wall, kindling somehow passed through closed windows, unseen hands tossed cups and faucets from the kitchen along with sticking knives and a corkscrew into a table.

The twist in the case, though, involves the explanation decided upon by parties investigating the haunting — including spiritualists, theosophists, psychics, even “Charles R. Frizier, who has made many researches of this kind of things [sic] on a scientific basis.” The consensus was that the Pecarick’s cleaning girl, Esperanza Gonzales, was a medium, and the paranormal activity was all happening through her.

The next day, the Hawaiian Gazette reprinted an article that had run in the Advertiser. It quoted thirteen-year-old Esperanza as saying, “I have worked for other people, but have no trouble like this. But here I work only four day and such queer thing happen. I see picture go from one place to another place and dish fall on floor and wood fly up in air. . . . How all this happen I don’t know.” The reporter then overheard Esperanza use the word “diablo” when speaking with her mother in Spanish. In English, though, she flatly denied being a medium. In its own article in the same issue, the Gazette sides with Esperanza, arguing, “There is as much sense in blaming her as there is reason to believe the story related with a wealth of details by some of those gathered at the house yesterday, that there was a treasure buried under the building, the exact spot of burial known only to a young girl who had died in the house.” No one seemed to notice that this tale of buried treasure carries loud echoes of the Brinkley College Ghost of 1871.

Elsewhere on the 29th, the Hawaiian Star reported that Esperanza was in danger of persecution from those convinced of her mediumistic powers. The reporter says that the situation was “perhaps one of the most fit subjects ever arising in this community for the careful consideration of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. . . .” The article implies that the Pecaricks were up to something shady, noting their ease with remaining in the house despite the presence of young Esperanza. In the end, the reporter quips, “There were no manifestations last night. The ghost probably realized he had the wrong number.” Instead of ancestral spirits coming to rescue the wronged, now the press was defending an adolescent from being held responsible for whatever was happening at the Pecarick home.

Punchbowl headlineIn fact, the next day, the Hawaiian Star ran an article titled “GIRL NO MEDIUM.” It reports, “The Pecaricks declare that they were buncoed by the previous tenants of the old Boyd premises, for that the tenants knew very well that the house was haunted” and were guilty of failing to make that known. The immigrant couple now spoke of neighbors telling them of earlier manifestations, and they exonerated Esperanza from any blame. An article in the Evening Bulletin from the 30th says about the same while mentioning, “This forenoon the Pecarish [sic] family was busy packing up its household goods, it being its intention to remove the lares and penates to a more quiet place.”

Did the Pecaricks invent a story to break a lease, a plan that went haywire when zealous spiritualists pointed to their servant as a psychic medium? Was their discovery of earlier tenants experiencing ghostly phenomena confirmed? Did subsequent renters have any trouble? We might never know. The newspaper accounts of what happened next to the Pecaricks or their haunted house seem to disappear. I found an October 12th report in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser about the Reverend C.D.M. Williams, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. “I did not go to the place and made no inquires into it,” Williams is quoted as saying about the haunting, “knowing that if the manifestations were of supernatural origin they must come from the Devil, and we are distinctly told not to have any dealings or interest in any such things.”

Little else about the Punchbowl ghost found its way into digitalized history. We’re left to wonder. Was young Esperanza right when she mentioned “diablo” in a conversation with her mother? What if the Reverend Williams was right about the Devil having paid a visit to the Pecarick house? If so, the old legend was wrong. Perhaps subterranean fire had returned to the island of Oahu.

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