Louisville, Kentucky has been a major southern hub since it was founded in the late 1770s. Around the turn of the 20th century, the city was a thriving industrial center. Brothers Louis and Otto Seelbach saw the city’s importance and made it their mission to start a grand hotel similar to those in Venice and Paris. The Seelbach Hotel was born and has inspired great writers, hosted gangsters, and was even the site of a murder.
I recently visited the Seelbach Hotel with my mother for a tour. We were fortunate to learn all about the historic and haunted side of this great establishment from hotel expert, Larry Johnson! Visiting (and staying overnight!) is definitely a must-do for anyone in the Derby City.
Special thanks to Hilton, the Seelbach Hotel, and Larry Johnson, Seelbach Concierge, for hosting us!
A Little Background on the Seelbach
Otto and Lewis Seelbach were well versed in running restaurants and clubs, and decided to expand their business to the hotel game in 1903. Their lavish Beaux Arts Baroque hotel went up on the corner of 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali) and radiated luxury. The brothers spared no expense, importing the best building materials and decor from all around the world. Otto and Lewis opened the hotel in 1905 and drew 25,000 visitors that day alone! They then started working on a 154 room addition, finishing it in 1907 with the addition of the now famous Bavarian-style Rathskeller.
Over the past 100+ years, the Seelbach has hosted basically everyone who’s anyone. Otto and Lewis hoped to build a hotel that would stand the test of time; as the Seelbach has become a Louisville staple, I’d say they succeeded.
The Lady in Blue
Rumors that the Seelbach is haunted have circulated since the 1980s and all revolve around one ghost: The Lady in Blue. The Lady in Blue is a woman wearing a blue gown with long, dark hair. She was first seen by a man cooking breakfast outside of the Oak Room in 1987. The man said that he saw a woman in a long blue dress walk right into the elevator through closed doors. A short while later, a housekeeper on the eighth floor saw the same woman walking out of the elevator. The Lady in Blue wasn’t seen again, but rumors of a ghost spread.
Fast forward a few years to 1992 when a doorman found a lead – a 1936 newspaper article. The article outlined the death of Patricia Wilson, a young woman found dead in an elevator shaft at the hotel. Patricia’s landlady had said she had headed to the Seelbach to meet her ex-husband. Once at the bar, she received word that her ex had died in a car accident. She was found the next morning, July 16, 1936, on top of a service elevator. Finally, the Lady in Blue had a name, but her death was still a mystery.
Uncovering the Lady in Blue
Years later, Larry Johnson published a book on the Seelbach for its centennial, including the Lady in Blue’s story. He got an email from a woman saying that her father knew the Lady in Blue, only her name was Lucy and she worked in a “house of ill repute.” The case was cracked when author Ian Punnett visited Johnson at the Seelbach, bringing a 1955 True Detective article about Patricia Wilson’s death with him.
The True Detective article spoke of two witnesses who saw Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt on the eighth floor arguing with a young woman. The article went on to suggest that Denhardt was the cause of Patricia Wilson’s death. He is said to have assaulted, beaten, and bruised Patricia, causing her to fall down the hotel’s elevator shaft. Johnson thinks that the two were probably arguing because Denhardt’s fiancé discovered that he was spending time with women of ill repute. While Denhardt was investigated for Patricia Wilson’s death, he was able to get off. Denhardt was later investigated for killing his fiancé and was killed by his fiancé’s brothers while out on bond.
The Lady in Blue’s story was far from over, though. They tracked her story to Oklahoma and uncovered her real name: Pearl Elliot. Pearl moved from Kansas and married a man named “Charles B. Wilson.” She and Charles got divorced sometime in the 1930s, but she kept her married name. A few years later, Patricia Wilson met her tragic end.
Thanks to the work of Larry Johnson and others, The Lady in Blue’s identity and story are finally known! You can even visit Pearl Elliot’s grave in Louisville’s Evergreen Cemetery. Pearl’s presence, though, lingers at the hotel, with guests reporting cold spots and the smell of a woman’s perfume.
Gangsters at the Hotel
Prohibition made the crime lords of the underworld richer. Gangsters gathered in luxurious places for cigars and card games. The Seelbach became a meeting place for notorious figures like Al Capone, George Remus, Lucky Luciano, and Dutch Schultz. Gangsters would sit down for a round of poker or blackjack in a small alcove room inside the Oak Room upstairs. The room featured doors that would swing shut at the first sign of trouble, a large mirror on the wall that allowed gangsters to always watch their backs, and a hidden door that led to a secret passage for a quick escape. All things that would come in handy if the police decided to pay the gangsters a visit.
My favorite feature is the secret passageway! It started in this alcove and let out across from the Rathskeller’s main entrance. Gangsters could run down this passageway, through the Rathskeller and kitchens, and into an underground tunnel system that linked much of the historic downtown area. The perfect way to evade arrest!
F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Seelbach
Remember how I said basically everyone who’s anyone has stayed at the Seelbach? Well, one of those anyone’s was iconic writer F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before he was writing some of the most well known books on the planet, F. Scott Fitzgerald trained for the army at Camp Taylor. He’d spend his weekend passes at the Seelbach sipping bourbon, smoking cigars, and mingling with gangsters. Fitzgerald was even banned from the hotel at one point for getting a little too rowdy (I blame the bourbon).
During his visits, F. Scott Fitzgerald got to know gangster George Remus, who became the model for a little character named Jay Gatsby! Interesting guests weren’t the only thing that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald. The grand coming out parties at the Seelbach’s top floor ballroom were so impressive that F. Scott Fitzgerald used the room as the setting for Tom and Daisy’s wedding in The Great Gatsby! The ballroom is still a popular wedding venue to this day – and we can see why!
I’d been curious to learn more about the Seelbach’s history for some time and am so happy to have had the opportunity to hear the hotel’s stories from Larry Johnson! The Seelbach is a seriously wonderful establishment full of truly kind employees who truly care about the hotel. The hotel’s rich history, incredible features, and connection to Louisville make the Seelbach anything but ordinary. No matter your reason for visiting Louisville, be sure to swing by and see this gorgeous landmark in person!
Have you visited the Seelbach Hotel? Share your stories in the comments below!