History and Haunting of The White Eagle Saloon in Portland, OR

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Featured Haunted Places Horror Mystery and Lore
White Eagle Saloon image from early 1900's

On Russell Street, the White Eagle Saloon has been serving drinks to the community of Portland since 1905. Today, the building stands a regular hot spot on the Eastside of Portland for musicians and travelers alike. Notably marked on the National Register of Historic Places, the building has acquired a set of ghost stories and tales that expands over a century. Polish immigrants, William Hryszko and Bronisław Sobolewski, opened the saloon with intent to help serve other Polish immigrants around them. Yet shortly after opening, the White Eagle Saloon garnished a reputation for itself that would endure a century later: as a puzzle piece of the past in the Albina district. Prostitutes, kidnappings and an opium den are some of the rumors circling what the building, possibly, could have hidden within the walls. The mysterious and mischievous past are never far behind us, and many who stay at the hotel today experience frequent paranormal activity. Stories surrounding the saloon aren’t soon to die, and neither are the spirits still roaming the grounds. 

Oregonian newspaper clipping from early 1900's about Polish Society not being anarchistic

Shortly after opening, the White Eagle Saloon made headlines regarding who occupied the building and what it stood for. Multiple publications in the Oregonian helped to circulate rumors. The Saloon was thought to be an opium den, a brothel, the headquarters for an anarchist group or possibly all three combined. In June of 1906, press surrounding the White Eagle alerted the Secret Service to investigate the happenings within the saloon, believing the Polish members were planning to assassinate President Theodore Roosevelt. Although cleared after investigation, Portland natives were wary of the White Eagle Saloon after this press, which helped secure the saloon’s reputation on the mischievous side. Later that same June, the Oregonian printed an article clarifying that the White Eagle Saloon had, “been misrepresented by enemies”. (1) The Polish immigrants were often thought of as anarchists. Perhaps other members of the community saw them as violent members, as it was reported that many disturbances, such as beatings and brawls, occurred within the property. The Polish immigrants who came to Portland created a circle where they could retain their traditions and share their faith with other Poles. Many of these disturbances were due to politics or religion, as any Pole who did not believe in the Catholic Church was considered an anarchist (1) and one of the founders, Broinslaw “Barney” Sobolewski, was also the Minister of Justice on the Polish Cabinet (7). Regardless of the disturbances within the Polish community, the Saloon stood as meeting hall and refugee for Polish immigrants (3) where, “an immense emblem, a Polish eagle with the American and Polish flags underneath, occupies a prominent place on the wall.” (1)

newspaper clipping early 1900's about a war on vices such as prostitution being planned by the US government.

The White Eagle underwent a remodel from a wooden structure to a brick building, and beginning in 1914 lodging was offered. The original intent Hryszko had to serve their Polish community proved true, as a census taken in 1920 showed that all the guests at the White Eagle were Polish men. (2) Although there is no substantial evidence to prove that the White Eagle Saloon was also a brothel along with the offered lodging, that is not to say that “working women”, or prostitutes, did not frequent the rooms available to rent on the second floor. Proof that prostitution existed in this way on the streets of Portland is shown in an Oregonian article from October of 1917. The article discusses cracking down on prostitution, and that the policy involves, “not only in eliminating regular houses of prostitution, but in checking the more or less clandestine class that walks the streets, and is apt to frequent lodging-houses and hotels”. (4) With Prohibition beginning in 1917, the saloon began to offer “soft drinks”, but it is largely eluded that regular activities were engaged in within. 

Gritty stories surrounding shanghai-ing patrons and enslaved women in the basement have circled the saloon for decades, with little truth ever found behind them. Tim Hills, a historian who researched the origin of the White Eagle, clarified that, “the opening in the basement that is usually identified as the shanghai tunnel is actually a coal chute leading to a trap door in the front sidewalk”. (2) Not only this, but Shanghai activity decreased at the turn of the century, making those dark rumors difficult to believe – thankfully. Nevertheless, rumors of spirits from the shanghai tunnels continue to proliferate even as recently as to my last visit to the bar in late 2019. When asked about the haunted hotel the staff reported that several ghosts from the tunnels have been heard over the years.

It’s natural for a destination of this notoriety to be believed to be haunted. The White Eagle Saloon was a notable location for dozens over the decades, and the idea that spirits of the dead are still attached to the building is not a unique idea. There are a couple of prominent ghosts known to haunt the grounds, with other ghosts poking fun at current hotel guests. Recounting’s of the tales vary in dates, names and other details. With something as intangible as ghosts, these differences are bound to appear. It has been reported that a prostitute named Rose met an untimely fate within the walls of the saloon. The general tale is that Rose was a favored and frequent prostitute around the area, who was often at the White Eagle. Sadly, a customer happened to fall in love with her and schemed up a plan for the two of them to run away together. Hoping to convince her to run away with him, he met up with Rose one night, pleading with her to leave her life of prostitution. Rose refused his advances and chose to remain. In desperation and anger, whether she was pushed down the stairs or stabbed to death in her room, the man then killed Rose. Guests at the hotel reported having seen an apparition of a beautiful woman, with some experiencing the feeling of being touched while in their beds. (5) While the spirits of multiple prostitutes may be tied to the saloon, guests have been reported to experience a run-in with some sort of female energy. Local staff report that most of the activity is rumored to come out of Room #2 in the hotel where she allegedly frequently stayed.

Another prominent ghost is a man rumored to be named Sam Warrick. (6) The tale surrounding Sam is that he was born on the second floor, believed to be birthed by a prostitute. Orphaned at birth, Sam grew up in the White Eagle trading his services for room and board. It is reported that he was a bartender amongst other jobs at the White Eagle. The saloon would be his final resting place, as he never moved away and eventually passed away in his room. Some of his possessions are said to still be in the guest rooms, appearing to have been moved on their own. It’s told that Sam is one of the faces you can see in the old photographs hung upon the walls on the White Eagle, keeping a dutiful eye on his forever home. 

A quick check on youtube has several paranormal investigators who have stayed at the hotel with various measurement tools. Their reports vary and some even report that room 3 has more paranormal activity than room 2. If you get the chance to walk the halls you will see why this hotel maintains such a vibrant haunted past. It is truly spooky in the hotel although it does maintain a warm vibe regardless of the low lighting, creaky stairs and stories of hauntings.

Perhaps it’s the spirits of Bronislaw Szelaszkewiez and William Hryszko that roam the halls, as their spirits are no doubt also tied to the White Eagle Saloon. Regardless of the truth, which many may never truly know, these tales that come from the White Eagle Saloon is an honor itself to the significance the building has had in Portland. The White Eagle Saloon has seen over a century of happenings occur within its brick walls, fluctuating between a safe haven for immigrants or a final meeting place for some souls. Spirits are still welcoming new guests, so feel free to book one of the original boarding rooms any night of the week and test it yourself. If you are brave enough perhaps add the Stanley hotel and Crescent hotel to your list as well, those are certainly on mine!

Oregon has several other haunted hotels also worth investigating including Hood River, Oregon’s Hood River Hotel and The Gorge Hotel.

Index 

  1. Article: The Oregonian, June 25, 1906 “Polish Society Not Anarchists”
  2. Article: Hills, Tim. “Oregon Places: Myths and Anarchists: Sorting out the History of Portland’s White Eagle Saloon.” Oregon Historical Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 4, 2000, pp. 520–529. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20615097.
  3. Article: The Oregonian, “White Eagles True Story”, Sep 27,2001 
  4. Article: The Oregonian, Oct 13, 1917, “Vice War Planned” 
  5. Ghost Hunting Oregon by Donna Stewart 
  6. Ghost Hunters Guide to Portland the Oregon Coast by Jeff Dwyer 
  7. Article: “Journal of the American-Polish Chamber or Commerce and Industry June/July 1921” 
Atlas of Lore #1

History and Recommendations in Body Horror

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Despite its miraculous properties, the human body is an incredibly fragile vehicle for existence. The outdoor elements, other humans, animals, illness, an uneven sidewalk, and so on – there are many potentially dangerous factors to consider in our walk through life. And though all bodies are different, they share in the common pain of bruising, breaking, and bleeding – the results of which also elicit a sense of betrayal. Enter Body Horror.

This fragility and commonality are what make the body horror genre so effective. The books and movies may be filled with far-fetched concepts, but the trauma inflicted on the bodies within hits closer to home. Most of us haven’t experienced the torturous mutilation presented in Audition (1999), but many have experienced the sting of papercuts, accidental lacerations, and so on, all the way up to self-inflicted cutting and physical abuse. Likewise, many of us don’t have to worry about flesh-eating bacteria destroying us from the inside out (as seen in 2002’s Cabin Fever), but we know of the affliction of disease, deformity, decay, and yes, even flesh-eating bacteria for some.

Close up of bloody eye

In this article I will attempt to briefly trace the history, characteristics, and notable creators/examples of the body horror genre. So enjoy the read, cringing and grimacing through the fingers half covering your eyes. This genre is not for the squeamish.

[Side note: as in all horror genres, there is overlap between body horror and other spaces – in this case areas like eco horror, slashers, surrealist horror, psychological horror, cosmic horror, and more]

What is Body Horror?

In its most basic definition, body horror is horror and trauma that is visited specifically on the human body.

Nailed it.

Need more? Examples of these bodily violations usually include some form of dismembering, destruction, distortion, transformation, mutilation, infection, and so on. These acts are typically graphic in nature and meant to elicit powerful reactions from viewers and readers, though there are instances where the horror is quieter (and still somehow just as effective). Monstrous mutations, debilitating diseases, invasive aliens, alarming technology, and anatomical abuse are all par for the course when it comes to body horror. 

So body horror is visceral, but it’s also emotional. The fear of aging and our body decaying, of losing a limb or an organ, and of breaking down due to some invasive disease are all very haunting prospects. It’s a deeper level of fear because it involves some sort of degeneration and devastating change to who we are and how we identify. Horror is also ripe for works that deal with social or political themes and metaphors, and the body horror genre is certainly no exception. 

Werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London movie

Ostensibly, body horror has existed in some form or fashion for as long as humans have had bodies. The term itself appears to have originated in Phillip Brophy’s 1983 article “Horrality: The Textuality of the Contemporary Horror Film” – in which he cites specific examples like the marble slab scene from Deep Red (1976), the chestburster scene from Alien (1979), the numerous transformations in An American Werewolf in London (1981), and the shape-shifting, replicating horror of The Thing (1982). But the genre has roots that stretch back further than the 70s and 80s, reaching back into the Gothic tradition and even Mary Shelley’s seminal novel Frankenstein (also a landmark for kick-starting the sci-fi horror genre). 

But since this is supposed to be a brief look, we’re going to skip a large chunk of time and land closer to home. The modern era of body horror began in the 1950s, so we’re going to start there and move forward, looking at prominent examples in film and literature. 

Body Horror Films

Our current conception of body horror got its start back in the 50s with films like The Blob (1958) and The Fly (1958), and then skyrocketed from there. The 1960s saw films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and the 1970s had movies like Erasehead (1977) and the remake of Invasions of the Body Snatchers (1978).

Then came the 80s, which was truly a golden age for body horror. That decade produced some of the best films from giants in the field like David Cronenberg (Scanners and Videodrome), John Carpenter (The Thing), Stuart Gordon (The Re-Animator and From Beyond), Brian Yuznu (Society), and Clive Barker (Hellraiser). The 1980s also saw a rise in Asian body horror with such offerings as Akira (1988) and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). Both involve humans melding with machines in increasingly gruesome and disturbing ways.

Videodrome movie cover
Rabid movie cover
The Fly Body Horror movie cover

It’s impossible to talk about this genre without going into more detail on the works of visionary director David Cronenberg. The most famous example is probably his version of The Fly (1986), where a misfortuned man has his cellular structure fused to that of a housefly. The transformation is a painful one, as he slowly becomes more insect than human, and it’s made even more so by the loved ones who have to bear witness. If you’re wanting more concrete examples of body horror, look no further than the genetically engineered parasites of Shivers (1975), the experimental surgery gone wrong of Rabid (1977), or the tech-inserted-in-body-orifices of eXistenZ (1999).

Though the 1980s were spectacular, the next several decades each had their own highlights in the genre. Woven into the 2000s was a surge of “torture porn” films like Saw (2004) and The Human Centipede (2009), but also other – and arguably better – examples of body horror like Slither (2006) and Teeth (2007). Some particularly good flicks from the 2010s include American Mary (2012), Under the Skin (2013), Tusk (2014), The Void (2016), and The Beach House (2019). And if Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is any indication, then the 2020s have exciting things in store for the genre!

Body Horror in Other Mediums

There is no lack of examples for body horror in other mediums as well, such as literature, comics, TV, and video games.

Pinhead from Hellraiser Body Horror Film

When it comes to literature, someone like Clive Barker is an easy pick. Beyond just The Hellbound Heart (1986), body horror also shows up in a lot of his short stories, such as “In the Hills, the Cities” or “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament”. Other literary giants sure to have dipped their toes into the genre are Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Richard Mattheson, and Robert Bloch. But there are plenty of other fantastic authors with titles to make you feel queasy, from Nick Cutter (The Troop), Jeremy Robert Johnson (Skullcrack City), and Kathe Koja (The Cipher) all the way over to the extreme horror side with authors like Edward Lee, Wrath James White, Ryan Harding, and Jack Ketchum. A personal favorite is Scott Smith’s 2008 novel The Ruins, in which a group of vacationers are graphically tortured and invaded by a sentient plant.

And just to give you more examples, here’s a woefully inexhaustive list from a number of indie/small press releases: Greg Sisco’s In Nightmares We’re Alone (2015), Jonathan Winn’s Eidolon Avenue (2016), Gwendolyn Kiste’s The Rust Maidens (2018), Eric LaRocca’s Starving Ghosts in Every Thread (2020) and his later work Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke (2021), Scott Cole’s Crazytimes (2020), Hailey Piper’s Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy (2021), and Eve Harm’s Transmuted (2021).

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke by Eric LaRocca cover
Transmuted by Eve Harms cover
Crazytimes by Scott Cole cover

When I think of body horror in comics my mind immediately goes to writer Zac Thompson, known for such excellent offerings as 2019’s Come Into Me (co-written with Lonnie Nadler), Lonely Receiver (2021), and I Breathed a Body (2021). Other exemplary choices would be Charles Burns’s Black Hole (1995), Justin Jordan’s Spread series (2015-2018), numerous instances in the current run of The Immortal Hulk (2018-present), Jeff Lemire’s run of Animal Man (2019), Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle (2019), Carmen Maria Machado’s The Low, Low Woods (2020), and basically any iteration of Swamp Thing.

Anime has an extensive output of body horror, with examples like Parasyte, Ghost in the Shell, Attack on Titan, and Dorohedoro. In the world of manga, writer and artist Junji Ito dominates the scene. Best known for his spiral-obsessed anthology Uzumaki (1988-89), Ito’s work is shockingly gruesome in it’s originality and creativity, and it ranges from the quietly unsettling to the outright grotesque. But other manga’s definitely worth checking out include Kentaro Miura’s Berserk and anything by Kazuo Umezu, as well as the manga versions of previously mentioned titles like Attack on Titan and Parasyte

Spiral man from Junji Ito's Uzumaki manga

For video games, the series Dead Space is the first property that comes to mind, where all kinds of nightmarish mutations and body horror oddities await engineer Isaac Claarke in outer space. Other contenders would include various entries in the Resident Evil series, the Parasite Eve series, aspects of the BioShock series, and several of the games from Frictional Studios like Amnesia and Soma

What’s Next?

The beauty and tragedy of mankind is that we will continue to live out our existence in these meat suits we call bodies, at least until the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising. These bodies will continue to hurt, age, decay, and generally betray us in surprising ways. Diseases and infections will continue to appear and attack our vital systems (too soon?). Scientists and extremists alike will continue to search for new ways to improve the body, thereby altering and transmuting it into something unlike its natural state. What this morbid but factually correct information means then is that there will always be a place for the visceral and emotional fears of body horror in the popular consciousness.