Go If You Dare: Ghost Tours Take Participants to Sonoma’s Haunted Places

Wine isn't the only spirit to be found in the town of Sonoma.

Cue the minor-chord organ music: it’s that time of year, when we give our inner paranormal detective permission to play, and the town of Sonoma is reportedly a place that many a ghost calls home. From Mountain Cemetery to the Sebastiani Theater, Sonoma has a number of haunted places, including several wineries where wine isn’t the only spirit to be found.

For those who want to delve deeper, two local tours stand out, one of them led by Carla Heine Mirsberger, author of “Sonoma Ghosts,” historian, and the city’s reigning poltergeist-laureate.

Heine has lived for half a century near Sonoma’s historic plaza, and has been interested in the paranormal since childhood. “I grew up in an adobe built for General Vallejo by Indian slaves. There were five murders in the house. We had eight ghosts. Dad said, ‘Live with it; the escrow’s closed.’”

Heine used to lead tours in her Phantom Limo, which has now gone to “limo heaven,” she says. These days, the curious can walk the actual footsteps of the ghosts she introduces, and she takes great care to research the locations, history, and background, often using electromagnetic resonators and dousing rods, to find out “who these people were, and why they haven’t moved on.”

A statue with a missing head tops the grave of the Ramacciotti family in the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma.
A statue with a missing head tops the grave of the Ramacciotti family in the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. (John Burgess)

At the top of her list of five locations for spotting ghosts in Sonoma is the empty lot behind the Mission San Francisco Solano, at First and Spain streets. “There is an amazing opportunity to see the ghost of Sem-Yeto (Mighty Strong Arm.) He was the Pomo Chief of Chiefs of the Bear Cult sacrifices that took place at those times. The Bear Spirit has also been seen there after sunset on a regular basis over the last 150 years. If you go looking for him, aim high: he is about seventeen feet tall and neon blue.”

The whipping tree on First Street East, the carriage drive at Vallejo’s Home, the west side of City Hall, Depot Park, and the Sonoma Mountain Cemetery are also quite active.

“If you want to see a ghost, you have to go where they have been seen often, at the time they have been seen. In Sonoma that means twilight.” The witching hour.

Ellen MacFarlane, who leads the Sonoma Plaza Ghost Walks with her partner, Devin Sisk, has also felt drawn to the occult since early childhood.

“I come from a long line of mediums. I lost my mother suddenly at the age of 10, and soon after that, I began to try to reach out to the other side to find her.”

She and Sisk are also event producers, and last year hosted the largest paranormal conference in Northern California, with celebrity speakers, seances, tattoo artists, vendors, and even a bagpiper in a Freddie Kruger mask. The event sold out. Their local tours are part actual paranormal investigation, part history, and part personal experiences, with a bit of comedy thrown in.

MacFarlane concurs that Sonoma’s plaza is heavily haunted. “You can go there at any time of day and feel it. We have seen a Mexican soldier at the Mission, as well as a robed monk carrying two flaming lanterns up the barracks stairs. We also communicate with a little boy nearby, and one evening, when there were no children, and no breeze, he began to swing on the swing in the playground. It moved back and forth for quite some time, then it just stopped. Ghosts do as they please.” A “lady in white” has also been spotted in the dining room behind the Toscano Hotel.

But perhaps no place in Sonoma houses as many restless phantoms as the former music hall, now the Sebastiani Theater, where three female ghosts make regular appearances. Barbara, a stage manager who fell to her death while crossing a catwalk that was used for elevated scenery walks that catwalk still … from the beyond the grave. Washing your hands in the women’s restroom, you may encounter Trixie, a girl in a 1930s yellow dress reflected just over your shoulder in the mirror, appraising your outfit. And should you sit in the center of the front row of the theater, be prepared for the disgruntled countenance of a deceased elderly patron who still thinks of that as her seat.

Twilight Tours with Carla Heine Mirsberger take place around the Sonoma Plaza on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. 707-996-1600

Sonoma Valley Ghost Walking Tours take place year-round, Wednesdays and Fridays. 888-298-6124, napaghosts.com