Murder room

The supposed room in the Van Gilder Hotel where Fannie Baehm was murdered by her husband.

Nestled between the Liberty Theater and the First National Bank of Alaska, the Van Gilder Hotel keeps a silent watch over Adams Street just as it has for over a century. Normally thriving throughout the summer, this year the Van Gilder remained closed as the coronavirus pandemic kept the cruise ships away. The electricity and water disconnected, the hotel saw out the summer dark and still and quiet. But that doesn’t mean it was entirely unoccupied. For years, staff and visitors have reported seeing a mysterious lady in various rooms throughout the hotel, or sometimes walking the halls. Does she walk there still? 

There is much speculation as to the apparition’s identity, and many believe her to be the ghost of Fannie Baehm, who was murdered on the second floor of the hotel between 8 and 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 5, 1950. Fannie was a waitress at a restaurant located across the street. She was staying in room 12 on the second floor of the Van Gilder as she awaited an operation at Seward General Hospital to be performed on Friday. 

Her husband Joe flew down from Anchorage and visited Fannie in her room. After he left, witnesses say she told them she was afraid. Joe had been drinking heavily, and when he left the hotel, Fannie hid out in another room for the remainder of the day. 

By early evening it was reported that Joe had been picked up by a patrol car for drunken disorderliness. Fannie was escorted by a friend downstairs to phone the police, but a voice called to her from the top of the stairs.

“Fannie, I need to speak with you in private.” It was Joe. Concealed in his clothes was the .22 revolver he’d bought from the secondhand store. In the chamber, two rounds of ammunition.

Fannie followed her husband to room 12. The door closed. Thereafter, a gunshot. 

The hotel staff clambered to the room and flung open the door to find Joe Baehm kneeling beside the corpse of his wife, who sat peacefully in a rocking chair, her pale head against the back of the chair as though resting. 

Could Fannie be the lady who periodically startles the housekeeping staff with her sudden visitations, gazing longingly out the window or appearing to inspect the rooms? Or might another spirit walk the corridors? 

Built in 1916, the Van Gilder has at different times served as an apartment building, a host to the Odd Fellows, the Freemasons, Christian Scientists, and offices for the Gateway Newspaper. But its primary purpose over the decades has been as a hotel. Some visitors to the Van Gilder describe another woman whose appearance would seem to predate the fashion conventions of a 1950 Fannie Baehm. 

One account comes from a woman who wishes to remain anonymous. Her encounter took place years ago, when she was in high school. She and her fellow students were canvassing neighborhood businesses to raise donations for the school. The Van Gilder was on her route. She had always admired the place in seeing it from the street but never had occasion to visit. 

She walked up the front stairs and entered. 

“Hello? Hello?” Seeing no one from the entryway, she had a peek into the room to the left of the entrance. 

“I just kind of stepped in there and I said, ‘Hello?’” she recalled. “It opened up to a really beautiful room, and I remember there was a really neat piano in there.”

Next to the piano stood a strikingly beautiful dark-haired lady, her hair worn up. Her hands, clasped in front her, protruded from the sleeves of a white shirt layered with ruffles. A small black belt wrapped her tiny waist above a long burgundy skirt. She also wore a fine pair of button-up boots. Our anonymous witness took her for a hotel employee in period dress.

“I thought, man, they’re dressing just like they did,” she said. “She even has the boots on like they used to have.” 

The lady listened with obliging interest as our witness proceeded to solicit her for donations. She cocked her head as a slight smile came over her lips. 

“She didn’t look like a ghost; she didn’t look like anything; she looked like a lady,” the witness said. “I was telling her all kinds of things about the school and what we were raising the money for and all this stuff, and she just would sit there, kind of had a little smile on her face, and she’d turn her head and just listen to me.” 

The witness had nearly finished her pitch when a voice sprang from the hallway. “Hello? Hello?”

As the voice drew nearer, the witness turned to the doorway to find another woman, this one in contemporary dress, a hotel employee. 

“Can I help you?” she said.

“I told her my name,” the witness recalled. “I said, ‘I went to school and I’m talking to this lady here and telling her about the donations.’”

But the pale look on the woman’s face told our witness everything she needed to know. She’d heard the stories, the legends. A thick silence hung in the air as they shared a wide-eyed stare. 

“Is it… her?” said our witness. The woman stood dumbfounded.

The witness then turned around to discover the room was empty. The pair entered the room and inspected it for signs of occupants. There was no other way in or out, yet they found no one. After an uncomfortable silence, our witness dared to speak. 

“Well I hope she liked my sales pitch,” she said. The woman was not amused.

The Van Gilder Hotel will come back to life on Memorial Day weekend of 2021. The lights will blaze again, guests will fill the rooms, and staffers will again bound up and down the corridors. Until then the Van Gilder will stoically await their return. Darkened. Still. Quiet. But not entirely vacant.