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BOO! : Curious Old George Is Just One of Several Spirits That Go Bump in the Night at Houses in the County

October 27, 1988|PAT GERBER | Times Staff Writer

George is a curious sort. He has been hanging around the old Forster Mansion in San Juan Capistrano for years. He always wears the same plaid shirt, khaki pants and leather hat and leaves a strong odor of cigar smoke in his wake.

He doesn't work and never talks to anyone--not in the conventional sense. But when George wants to get somebody's attention, he has been known to rattle windows. And sometimes, he just appears.

George is the resident ghost of the 78-year-old house on Ortega Highway.

He is just one of several spirits that have been seen or felt hanging around homes, buildings and assorted structures in Orange County, sending chills up the spines of some of the living or drawing amused stares from the cynics. Some of the ghosts are the stuff of legends handed down over the decades and bear remarkable similarity to ghosts in other parts of the country. And many are associated with structures in and around San Juan Capistrano, which is more than 200 years old.

Among all the haunted structures in the county, however, the Forster mansion probably has the most persistent ghost.

The house, considered one of the best examples of Mission Revival architecture and bearing historical landmark status, was built in 1910 by Frank Forster, a descendant of the founding family of large landowners and horse breeders in San Juan Capistrano.

The 5,000-square-foot house, on a 1.8-acre knoll about a quarter-mile east of Interstate 5 and just off Ortega Highway, was later bought by an eccentric farmer who allowed dogs and cats to freely roam the premises. By the time interior designer Martha Gresham bid for the house in 1984, its tattered curtains and peeling paint prompted local schoolchildren to dub it "the haunted house."

Gresham saw not a run-down building but a jewel in the rough. She paid $650,000 for the place and proceeded to invest $450,000 into remodeling the two-story, 16-room house into clusters of studios for interior designers. Woodwork was stripped of old paint, floors were sanded and polished, and the walls in some rooms were covered in expensive cloth.

One day, while workmen were tearing into an upstairs wall, they found an old, fossilized cigar butt lodged into the wood. It was as if someone had put it there on purpose, possibly a humorous calling card from a workman of an earlier decade?

Amused, Gresham put the odd token into a small box and placed it in her car's glove compartment. She then temporarily forgot about it. That evening, while driving home, Gresham's car stopped dead cold, seemingly for no reason. She couldn't even get the lights to turn on. But before the tow truck hauled the car off to the garage, Gresham retrieved her valuables, including the cigar, and waited at home for a report from the mechanic.

He called several hours later, perplexed. The mechanic said that the car had started right up for him and that he could find nothing wrong with it.

From that moment on, Gresham said, she began to experience strange occurrences--sudden chilly spots in the house, little shoves going down the stairs, the security alarm system going off at all hours with no evidence of a trespasser, and the strong smell of cigar smoke, especially in the room where the cigar butt was found.

Then Gresham and some of her colleagues began to see the spirit she would come to refer to as George. And he always looked the same: about 40, with a mustache and chubby cheeks, wearing khaki pants, a plaid shirt and a leather hat.

Gresham said one of her strangest experiences with George occurred when Mrs. Lucana Forster Isch, a descendant of the Forster family, died in 1985. The house has a clear view of the old San Juan cemetery, and Mrs. Isch's funeral procession passed by the house on its way to the burial grounds. As Gresham went from room to room that day, the windows started rattling violently, as if shaken by an earthquake. Gresham said she was so shaken that she closed the house for the day.

Gresham does not appear to be the type of person who is prone to fantasy. She is a successful, no-nonsense person, on a tight schedule and wastes no time getting to the point. Sitting in her lush office on the second floor in the full light of an autumn morning, she emphasized that she has never dabbled in the occult nor has she played with Tarot cards or Ouija boards. And she certainly understands people who discount her experiences as mere ghost stories; before they started happening to her, Gresham said, she herself would have thought the whole thing silly.

"I certainly understand. How do you explain that kind of experience?" she said.

When she started seeing the ghost, Gresham said, she tried to track down his origin, but with no luck. Eventually she consulted a psychic, who determined that George had probably helped build the mansion and was especially proud of his work; he loved the house and has attached himself to Gresham, who also has a great appreciation for the structure.

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