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History comes alive in magical S.F. Ghost Hunt

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Christian Cagigal tells cool tales in the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, a spooky — and informative — walking tour. (Courtesy Audrey Penven)

Actor, magician, storyteller extraordinaire Christian Cagigal, owner-operator of the 20-year-old San Francisco Ghost Hunt, is in a top hat and bow tie and swinging a little lantern as he greets ghost hunters under a giant eucalyptus on a particular San Francisco corner “where dogs bark for no reason.”

“I don’t make it up, I just report it,” he says.

He does not himself believe in ghosts. “I’m a skeptic who wants to believe in ghosts,” he shrugs. For him, the main point of the walking tour — which meanders for an hour among the Victorians near Lafayette Park — is to share little-known tales of interesting figures from our past.

“There’s so much known about Emperor Norton [the eccentric, or maybe crazy, 19th-century San Franciscan who declared himself emperor of the United States] but so little about Mary Ellen Pleasant,” he points out. “She seems to have fallen off the tapestry of San Francisco history.”

Mary, as he refers to her in a familiar way, was a 19th-century African-American who was a powerful local entrepreneur and abolitionist who could, and at times did, pass for white. After the Civil War, says Cagigal, she identified herself on the census as black, “upsetting white San Francisco.”

Part of Cagigal’s job as tour guide is to tell as much of the unknown story of figures such as Pleasant — and Gertrude Atherton, and others — as he can uncover. His research is ongoing.

His stories about the goings-on in some of the more elaborate houses and neighborhoods on the walk are neither hokey nor phony, and he imparts every story in great detail, with humor, drama and suspense and a modicum of wonder. Now and then he sneaks in a magic trick from his repertoire as a professional magician.

There’s the story of the woman in white who some claim to have seen wafting down the middle of California Street — sure — but what about the sparring sisters in the two-towered mansion that is said to have a secret room between two floors?

What Cagigal especially loves is the energy of an old place itself, whether spiritual or not. “You can feel the history in the walls,” he says.

“Tales and legends, urban myths, are a legitimate way to learn about a culture,” he adds. “I want these stories to be known. If guests go home and Google the names, I’ve accomplished something good.”

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour
Where: 1801 Bush St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 23-25, Dec. 26-30
Tickets: $20 (reservations required)
Contact: sfghosthunt.com

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