Excerpt from Myths and Legends of Yellowstone. Interior photos by Ednor Therriault
The Old Faithful Inn almost looks like it was designed to be haunted. The eighty-five-foot-tall structure,
the largest log building in the world, was designed by renowned architect Robert C. Reamer. Its seven stories tower over a broad lobby dominated by a massive stone fireplace that reaches to the roof. Guest rooms wrap around the perimeter, balconies overlooking the cavernous interior. The log work throughout is beautifully intricate, the clever design providing support for the massive structure that’s stood for more than a hundred years. It even survived the infamous Yellowstone earthquake of 1959, a magnitude 7.5 temblor, although much of the chimney crumbled. These days visitors are not allowed to ascend past the balcony on the third floor, which means you can’t walk all the way up the wooden stairs to the odd little structure called the crow’s nest, a railed platform suspended near the ceiling, seventy-three feet above the floor of the lobby. In the early days of the inn, string quartets or small bands would squeeze into the crow’s nest and entertain the throngs of tourists milling below. Over the years a number of guests and even a few staff members have reported seeing, usually late at night, a woman in a flowing white dress moving across the crow’s nest, stopping to look down over the rail. In most of these accounts, she is holding her decapitated head under her arm.
The year was 1915. Yellowstone National Park was forty-three years old. The United States was still five years away from giving women the right to vote, Babe Ruth hit his first career home run that summer, and the nation’s first stop sign appeared in Detroit. Also that summer, a teenage heiress from New York was to be married. Her father had arranged her marriage to the son of another well-to-do family, but alas, the rebellious young spitfire was in love with another man. The object of her affection was much older, a servant in her family’s household. Her father implored her to forget about the older fellow, whom he was convinced was marrying his daughter to get his hands on the family’s wealth. The young woman held her ground, though, and refused to go through with the arranged marriage. Like most fathers, this one had a weakness when it came to his daughter, and he capitulated. There was a catch, however.
He would present the couple with a hefty dowry as a wedding gift, but after that they would be cut off from the family fortune, and the servant would be fired. This, the father thought, would surely cause the gold digger to pull the plug on the couple’s wedding plans. Again he was wrong. They went through with their wedding and traveled west to Yellowstone Park for their honeymoon. The young bride was faced with a rude awakening, however, when the husband began spending their nest egg recklessly, gambling and drinking at taverns along the way. By the time they arrived at the Old Faithful Inn, their relationship was strained and their wedding bankroll was getting thin. Nevertheless, they checked into Room 127.
A month into their honeymoon, the money ran out. The couple argued loudly and frequently in their room, overheard by the hotel staff. Realizing that her father had been right about her husband, the young bride phoned home and asked for enough money to cover their hotel bill. She was denied. One night the staff heard the couple’s fighting grow even louder in their room, the sounds of violent scuffling booming through the door. Shortly afterward the husband emerged from Room 127 and slammed the door behind him. He left the Old Faithful Inn and was never seen again.
Rather than intrude on the young woman, the staff decided to allow her some privacy, give her some time to collect herself. When a couple of days went by and she hadn’t left the room, they became concerned and entered the room to check on her. The place was in shambles. Clothing and bedding were strewn about, the aftermath of an epic battle. The bride was nowhere to be seen. When a hotel maid walked into the bathroom, however, her blood-curdling scream brought everyone running, fearing the worst. There was the young woman, sprawled in the bathtub, drenched in blood. She had been decapitated. Staff members frantically searched the room, but her head was nowhere to be found.
Days later, guests began to complain of a foul odor in the hotel. It seemed to be coming from the crow’s nest, high up near the ceiling of the lobby. Someone was sent up to the tiny platform to take a look, and to his horror, there lay the young woman’s severed head.
Old Faithful Inn tour guides are reluctant to tell the story, but suggestible guests of the venerable hotel who have heard the tale still occasionally claim to see the figure of a young woman in a bridal dress drifting around the place, carrying her head under her arm like a halfback cradling a football.
It’s a grisly story, probably the most well-known tale of murder told in Yellowstone Park. And it’s total claptrap. Every word of it. George Bornemann, then an assistant manager of the Old Faithful complex, told the Deseret News in a 1991 interview that he’d been closing up the inn for the season one winter night with only one other staff member in the building. While lying in his room, reading, he heard someone running down the hall just outside his door. He looked out into the hall a couple of times but saw nothing. At midnight he left his room and walked to the balcony that overlooks the lobby. That’s when he looked up and saw a figure on the stairs. It was there for a few moments, he said, and then it vanished. Later, after moving back to his home in Missoula, he told a coworker from the inn that he’d learned that a woman had been murdered in the hotel in 1915, in Room 127. She’d been found in the bathtub in her wedding dress, missing her head.
There is no legitimate record of a murder being committed at the Old Faithful Inn in 1915.
Bornemann had been telling the story since 1983, which is when he made up the whole thing. He actually had heard some phantom footsteps in the hallway, he said, and that gave him the idea for the horror story, which he cooked up as a way to give the inn some mystique. Like many legends that are repeated through the years, this one has taken on a life of its own.