The Ghosts of Printers' Alley

between Third and Fourth Avenues, running from Union Street to Commerce Street

Once the printing capital of the world, Nashville, Tennessee's presses were concentrated in what is now known as Printers Alley. A narrow, two-block stretch from Union Street to Church Street, the alley was the city's red-light district, catering to man's most hidden desires. "The Men's Quarter" as it was called, was where you went to grab some lunch, get a haircut, and enjoy the company of a working girl. Today, it is where we go to savor the remnants of this vice city and to catch a glimpse of the ghosts that have been haunting the streets since.

Printer's Alley, one of the most haunted places in Nashville on our Pub Crawls.

Did you know?

  • The two ghosts said to haunt Printers Alley both died tragically in the same building, the Southern Turf.
  • From 1880 to 1914, the red-light district operated almost flawlessly, thanks to lax police enforcement and support from local distilleries.
  • Famous musicians, such as Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley, frequented the Rainbow Room at Printers Alley.
  • Possibly the most well-known ghost in Printers Alley is Skull, often seen walking his colorful poodle on its sparkly leash.

19th Century Printers Alley

Before diving into the Printers Alley hauntings, we must first paint a picture of what the area looked like during the 19th century. Printers Alley got its name from the many publishing companies, newspapers, and printing shops that operated within the narrow, two-block-long alley. But it wasn't all work and no play.

Although by day, the area was buzzing with newsboys and Victorian women, by night, the alley transformed into what was known as the "Men's Quarter," and no classy lady would be caught dead there. You see, among the prosperous publishing houses that framed the alley, there were equally thriving brothels - including an establishment called the Climax Saloon.

Night-time Printers Alley was where murderers, fetishists, and prostitutes felt at home. Where vices ran unchecked, and where local men could let loose. Here, starving artists played their guitars, burlesque dancers shook their tail-feathers, and killers committed some of their most ghastly atrocities.

As far as the paranormal activity in the area, there are two spirits famous for roaming the streets, both products of tragedies that took place in one of the vibrantly obscene Printers Alley buildings.

The Spirit of Ice Johnson

In a sea of grimy alley saloons, one stood out for its upscale environment, the Southern Turf. This four-story building had plenty of customers, serving booze like it was going out of style, and even selling alcohol to-go. The place had it all, bronze statues, paintings, fine solid-wood furniture, and electric fans.

During its many years of booming business, the Southern Turf building was managed by Ice Johnson, who lived on the third floor. It all came crashing down in 1914, when - because of Prohibition - the preferred place for gambling, drinking, and lodging closed. When it did, Johnson proclaimed he would rather die than leave his home. So he shot himself.

Soon after, people began reporting seeing his apparition on the third-floor window. The "ghost of Ice Johnson" became popular lore, and even after the formerly abandoned building was restored and transformed into the Tennessee Publishing Company, the new tenants confirmed his spirit never left. This ghost began to terrify the employees, who witnessed things move inexplicably from their desks. Johnson's full-body spirit appeared to several different staff members - nearly sending them into cardiac arrest.

All the while, visitors strolling Printers Alley swear they saw a shadow figure darting from one window to the other on the third floor. This dark shadow moved at an abnormal speed, too fast to be human.

Skull the Eccentric Ghost

Fast forward to 1948, when the Southern Turf building's basement was purchased by David "Skull" Schulman and turned into his famous Rainbow Room.

When he first opened the business, Skull said the ghost of Johnson had been messing with him. Every night, as he prepared to close the club, the spirit would try to scare him by loudly moving chairs and tables around. But the poltergeist manifestation was not enough to scare Skull away, as he continued to operate his establishment for 50 years.

Skull has been described by locals as a cheerful eccentric, with a few oddities of his own. He wore bedazzled jackets and colorful, patchwork suits. He dyed his beloved poodles red and walked them around on rhinestone leashes. One of his many poodles being a gift from "The King" Elvis Presley himself.

The Rainbow Room became the cool hangout spot, and Skull was named the Mayor of Printers Alley. His business was frequented by famous musicians, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan. Even Paul McCartney visited and wrote songs there when he moved to Nashville in 1974. The place was teeming with exotic dancers and performers, mainly due to Skull’s open-mindedness and charisma. Everyone admired him, one of the reasons his establishment became so popular.

Unfortunately, he was known to carry around large amounts of cash - a habit that proved to be his downfall. In 1998, after 50 years of running the Rainbow Room, Skull was targeted for a robbery. Two armed homeless men barged into the club and held the owner at knifepoint. After he refused to hand the crooks the money, one of them slashed his throat three times and smashed a bottle over his head.

Skull, who was 80 years old at the time, was found by a cigarette vendor with his hands around his throat, gasping for air. He was rushed to the hospital but died the next morning. Nashville, as a whole, was shaken by the sad news. Country singers such as Tanya Tucker rushed to his bedside before he passed, and his good friend Willie Nelson went on America's Most Wanted to help catch the murderers.

We do have reason to believe, however, that Skull is as cheerful as ever, and still residing in his Rainbow Room. As you probably guessed, Skull's spirit is now haunting Printers Alley. People have seen him happily walking his dog before vanishing into thin air. Some even say they have seen him and the poodle walk through the closed Rainbow Room's front door.

After his death, the once-thriving business was promptly abandoned. The space remained empty for 16 years until 2016 when it was renovated and reopened. During the renovations, workers admitted that even though it was 90 degrees outside - and there was no air conditioning in the room - the temperature would get incredibly cold as if Skull's spirit was supervising the restoration.

But in an area as historically-rich as Printers Alley, ghosts are not the only fascinating aspect to discover. Its past is just as captivating.

Brief Printers Alley History

Nashville's red-light district operated until the 20th century, prospering thanks to its lusty male clientele, local police turning the other cheek, and the whiskey distilleries that supported the area.

The alley was buzzing with illegal activity and it wasn't a secret either, the police were aware. Occasionally, local authorities would raid the area but repercussions were merely fines and a slap on the wrist. With many policemen admitting they too partook in the sinful activities.

The Climax Saloon, another Printers Alley brothel, was owned by the Dickel Company, a local distillery. The three-story house had a bar and gambling room. Working girls would hang out on the third floor - which was equipped with a fake wall for them to hide in - if there was a raid. Building saloons was part of a company strategy to promote and sell their whiskey.

The vice-oriented businesses began to slowly dissipate, however, when church congregations started to petition for the district's closure and morally-strict politicians took steps to end the corruption. The onset of Prohibition also took a toll on the Printers Alley establishments. But the drinking didn't stop, though. Instead, it became clandestine. Giving way to a new wave of drinkeries: the speakeasy.

To this day, the colorful Printers Alley remains true to its roots, with plenty of pubs and clubs to enjoy. Visit this historic part of downtown for a look at one of Nashville's most popular haunted attractions.

Know Before You Go

Printers Alley is a public space in the city's historic downtown. Individual bar and restaurant business hours vary.

Location

Printers Alley Nashville, TN 37201

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