Is Old City Hall haunted? Some have asked this question, and with good reason. The building, which is now part of the Whatcom Museum, once housed criminals and the accused in its basement jail cells. If you venture into the rooms today, you’ll find prisoners’ names etched into the walls. So, who spent time in the basement jail? Read on to find out.
Haunted Old City Hall
Many suspects went in and out of the jail cells in the basement of Old City Hall. The following brief stories are summarized from the Murder in the Fourth Corner book series by local author and Whatcom Museum Visitor Services Attendant Todd Warger. Want to learn more? Pick up a copy of Warger’s books in the Museum Store.
Ben Worstell was a sometime barber living in Bellingham in the 1920s and 1930s. He lived with his domineering mother, and he may have suffered some developmental disabilities. He was committed for a time to a mental hospital, but by 1933 he was back living with his mother.
One morning that year, his mother threatened to have him recommitted because he wasn’t living up to her moral standards. In a fit of madness (or rage), he strangled her. He was quickly apprehended and placed in the padded jail cell. While there, the jailers report he was joyful to be out from under his mother’s thumb.
Eventually he was tried for murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to Walla Walla and moved to the Eastern State Hospital a year later. He died at that institution in 1945.
In 1907, Russian sailor August Friedberg found himself on shore leave in bustling Bellingham. Looking to have some fun, he and a friend sought entertainment in the Red Light District. By the early afternoon they were drunk and observing the dancing of Odia Briscoe, also known as Snowball Wallace, an African-American performer.
After an hour of dancing, Ms. Briscoe was worn out and decided to take a break. In a drunken rage, Friedberg demanded she continue dancing. When she refused, he took out a gun and told her he would show her how to dance. Friedberg then fired twice, hitting Ms. Briscoe in the abdomen. The men were quickly taken into custody, and Ms. Briscoe passed away a few hours later.
Friedberg’s defense was that he had drank so much he had no idea what he was doing. The jury convicted him of manslaughter rather than murder. Within a few years, Friedberg was out on parole.
In 1914, the Bellingham & Northern Railway crew noticed one of their number, Guisseppe Stumpo, was acting a bit odd, eventually walking off the job. The foreman, knowing Stumpo had frequent bouts of conflict with his wife, decided to check at their home.
As he approached the Stumpo homestead, he heard the wailing of children. His knock at the door went unanswered. As he walked around the perimeter, he spied through the kitchen window Dominica Stumpo lying in a pool of her own blood. All three Stumpo children were in the room, the two youngest crying uncontrollably and the oldest staring silently.
Mrs. Stumpo had been slain with a firewood ax. Stumpo was quickly found and admitted to the crime. He later changed his tune and attempted to fight the charges to no avail. He was sentenced to life for first-degree murder. After 15 years, Stumpo began suffering from delusional paranoia. He eventually passed away in state custody at the Eastern State Hospital in 1943.
In 1909, four lumbermen were playing cards late into the night. Words were exchanged and tempers flared. Hugh Finnian, a 56-year-old wiry mill hand, felt wronged by George Shoemaker.
Thrown out by the barkeep, Finnian and Shoemaker took their exchange outside. Here accounts differ, but the results are agreed upon: George Shoemaker was stabbed to death with a rusty pocketknife. Finnian was arrested.
At his trial, Finnian said he was acting in self-defense because Shoemaker was following him and harassing him. The jury agreed with his account, and Finnian was found not guilty. A few years later he committed suicide.
In 1893 John Erickson, a Swedish laborer new to the area, was looking for a place to rest after work. Lacking funds, he saw a cabin that appeared abandoned. He pried off the boards over the door and started to make his way in when BANG. He was shot dead.
The cabin’s owner, Newell Barr, had set a trap to deter vandalism while he was away on a week-long hunting trip. Barr boarded the place up and set up a gun to fire when the door opened. Barr was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to Walla Walla. He was pardoned by the governor one year later.