Irish Ghosts of America: Fatty Walsh, Coral Gables, Florida

Fatty Walsh, third from right, said to haunt a hotel in Florida.

Fatty Walsh seems to have been a relatively minor character in the history of American crime, but he went out with a bang. On March 4, 1929, on the 13th floor of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Thomas Walsh took a bullet. It was witnessed by a nightclub performer, Demaris “Hotsy Totsy” Dore, who claimed that a sudden argument had broken out during a gambling game and then bullets started flying.

Nobody in the press believed her at the time. They all assumed Walsh had been assassinated, and speculated it was a whiskey deal with Cubans that had gone bad, or, even more tantalizing, that Walsh had been a little to free in discussing an earlier shooting, and had to be silenced.

That earlier shooting was Arnold Rothstein, kingpin of the Jewish mob in New York and the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. Rothstein had been gunned down in a hotel in New York four months earlier and refused to identify his shooter, even as he lay dying, telling the police “Me mudder did it!” Nobody knows who killed Rothstein, but the first man arrested was Irish-American gambler George “Hump” McManus, who made have had a hand in a fixed gambling game that cost Rothstein a fortune.

Fatty Walsh had been Rothstein’s bodyguard, and New York detectives told newspapers that he had been marked for death for weeks. They had been tipped off that gunmen were following Walsh, hoping to get him into Rothstein’s former headquarters, where they had a machine gun stashed in a car parked outside the building that would be used to gun Walsh down. But Walsh didn’t stay in New York; he went to Florida, and he died there.

Fatty never really left the Biltmore Hotel, according to the stories. Author Greg Jenkins, in his book “Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore: South and Central Florida,” offers one of them: Women find the elevator takes them right past their floor and stops on the 13th floor, where presumably the ghost of Walsh awaits. Jenkins also tells of assorted doors opening, lights flickering on and off, and even a haunted television that refused to play sporting events for President Clinton when he stayed there.

There wasn’t much talk of haunting in the Biltmore, at least publicly, until 1985, when a ghost-hunter named Richard Winer visited the then-derelict hotel and declared it the “world’s largest haunted house.” Winer has made a career as a sort of paranormal travel writer, scouring the country for haunted places, and he identified numerous ghosts in the old hotel: Along with Fatty Walsh, there war veterans from the time the hotel was used as a veteran’s hospital. He described unearthly behavior in the hotel: alarms that sounded without cause, doors that opened even when the security system insisted they were closed, and wheelchair marks that could only be seen through security monitors.

Winer also conducted a seance, during which he claimed to have contacted the spirit of Fatty Walsh, who said he was surrounded by confused ghosts, many of whom had no idea they were dead.

Stories of spirits have continued since then. Recently, the filmmakers behind the haunted doll movie ­”Annabelle” stopped at the Biltmore to promote their film — they had been touring haunted locations in America. New Times Miami reported that “nothing out of the ordinary occurred while [the filmmaker] was speaking about the movie, guests whispered of a strange shadow appearing in their selfies.”

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.