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Like any city, Oakland is filled with supernatural stories about haunted places and ghost sightings. We went in search of the most interesting tales of paranormal activity around The Town.
In the process, we heard about homes that once belonged to families with long-lasting legacies—including the historic Cohen Bray House and the Camron-Stanford House, in which people say they’ve seen ghosts, heard unusual sounds, or witnessed unexplained behavior. Some believe that the energy of those who used to live in these houses lingers and remains attached to the place, and objects they once loved. We also heard claims of ghost sightings on the Mills College campus. Whether or not you believe in “haunted” places, most of us can agree we’ve been somewhere that has sent chills down our spine.
Here are three spooky tales we found worth telling about historic locations in Oakland.
Cohen Bray House
This Victorian, built circa 1882 and located on 29th Avenue in Fruitvale, was the home of two prominent Gold Rush era families: the Cohens and the Brays. The home was originally built by Julia Moses and Watson Bray, a grain merchant, as a gift for their daughter, Emma, when she married attorney Alfred Cohen, son of Alfred Andrew Cohen, who established the San Francisco and Oakland Railroad.
Patty and Nancy Donald (great-granddaughters of the original owners) told The Oaklanside they believe the energies of several family members who died in the home are still present, but they don’t think of the home as “haunted,” with the eerie connotation that word usually conjures up.
“We say it is haunted with the spirits of the people that love this place. And if you come with good intentions and care for the house, then it will care for you,” Patty Donald said.
The house was designated an Oakland Historic Landmark in 1975 but it’s not an empty museum. Various caretakers have continuously lived in the house. It’s also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is now run by the Victorian Preservation Center of Oakland, a non-profit founded to protect the Cohen-Bray house. Patty and Nancy Donald serve as president and collections manager. The Cohen Bray House offers special events, tours, and fundraisers to help with the upkeep expenses.
Alfred and Emma lived at the home until the end of their days, and all of their four children: Alfreda Cohen, Douglas Cohen, Marion Cohen, and Edith Emelita Cohen were born there.
Nancy Donald said volunteers have experienced what they’ve considered sightings and energies of past residents. One said she witnessed the presence of Emilita, the youngest daughter of Alfrfed and Emma, and great-aunt to Patty and Nancy.
“A woman who has volunteered here for years came up by herself to clean Emilita’s room. She got the very clear, ‘get out of here’ message,” Nancy said. “She’s still a little anxious when she goes in here.”
The primary caretakers all through the years have been family members. In May, Kenneth Christopher Gilliland, another descendant of Emma and Alfred H. Cohen, passed away at home after living at the Cohen Bray house for 30 years.
For Patty and Nancy, the house is not just a historical landmark, but personal. It’s where their grandfather, Douglas Cohen was born, where their great-aunt Edith Emilita Cohen lived until her death in 1988. A home where they have spent many Christmases singing carols and having family dinners.
“There was a tradition, probably my grandfather. He would go down to the local tree lot with a bottle of bourbon on Christmas Eve, and would get a lot of trees to hang from the ceilings,” Nancy said.
After many people who have visited the home or have volunteered through the years have claimed to feel energies from those who have lived there, a team of so-called “paranormal investigators” came to the Cohen Bray house a few years ago to investigate. You can watch the documentary here.
The Camron-Stanford House is the last of the Victorian homes that once lined Lake Merritt.
Several notable families called this Victorian building home. Among them: The Camrons, Hewes, Josiah-Stanfords, and the Wrights, who were the last to occupy the house before selling it to the city of Oakland in 1907. The home served as the first site of the Oakland Public Museum until 1965 when construction of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) was completed.
Like the Cohen Bray House, the Camron-Stanford house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a designated Oakland Historical Landmark. Currently, the house serves as a museum, a gallery, and private rental for events.
During the three decades that these families occupied the home, they experienced their share of death and grief.
“I have a hard time with ever saying places are haunted,” said Iliana Morton, executive director at the Camron-Stanford House. “It’s hard because there’s definitely an energy here, and it’s kind of a weird place because there were several families that lived here, and none of them lived here for very long.”
Gracie Camron, the daughter of William and Alice Camron, the home’s first residents, died a few days after her second birthday.
Josiah Stanford (brother of Leland Stanford, the railroad baron and founder of Stanford University) and his family were the second to reside at the Camron-Stanford house. Stanford died at home from cancer in 1890.
Not long after Josiah Stanford’s passing, his daughter-in-law, Alice Gertrude Gordon, also passed away at the residence from an unknown disease.
When the Hewes resided in the home, David Hewes brought his wife Matilda Gray and stepdaughters, Franklina and Rosa, to live at the Camron-Stanford House. Franklina was married to William Springer Bartlett at Camron-Stanford House in 1878. To this day, the Camron-Stanford House is in possession of several of Franklina’s belongings, including the dress, veil, shoes, and gloves she wore on her wedding day, as well as the bible she was given that day. Many other items once belonging to her are also on display at the museum.
In 2019, the Camron-Stanford House published Franklina C. Gray: The Grand Tour, a collection of journals and letters by Franklina from her tour through 22 different countries including England, France, Italy, and Greece.
“We spend so much time talking about [Franklina] because we have so many of her objects,” said Morton. “If she was a ghost, is it possible that she would be here at the house?”
Franklina did not die at the Camron-Stanford House. She lived well into her 80s at another home in Southern California. “I don’t believe that there are ghosts, necessarily, but I do understand the idea that objects do hold energy and they hold memory,” Morton said.
But she added that she has experienced inexplicable things working at the house.
“Our events coordinator and I have both experienced the smell of tobacco by two spots in the house. And it happened once when we were both here at the same time,” said Morton. “And then down in the basement where our bathroom is, it just kind of smells like tobacco. Which is weird, because whenever it happens, there’s no one in the house.”
Other docents, she said, believe that the spirit or essence of Franklina still roams around the house.
“I don’t know if that is necessarily true. It can be that we spend so much time talking about her, because we have so many of her things, that they prescribed any energy to be hers,” she said. “There are lots of door slams, and this fell down, and this thing keeps getting moved around.”
Mills College, Oakland’s historically women’s college founded in Benicia in 1851 and relocated to Oakland in 1871, has garnered many claims of ghost sightings over the years.
Bertram Gordon worked as a professor of European history at the school for decades and has led campus ghost tours.
“We visit the dorms and other places students are familiar with, and I point out that there’s been a ghost sighting at such and such place,” Gordon told The Oaklandside. “It’s a little scary but kind of fun.”
Mills College received its own chapter in the book Ghost Stories and Legends of Alameda, Berkeley, and Oakland by Karen Zimmerman. The book details eerie moments people have witnessed at the school, such as a ghost sighting at Mary Morse Hall, a dormitory. In 1996, two students told Zimmerman that after they went to sleep in their dorm without the lights on, both woke up to find a man sitting at their desk reading a newspaper. The man, they said, noticed them, put away the newspaper, and left the room by passing through the wall.
According to the book, music has also been heard playing inside the music building when no player could be found.
Some claim to have seen Susan Tolman Mills, the founder of Mills College, haunting Lisser Hall, the theater, pacing back and forth on the stage. Others, though, say it is actually Louis Lisser, the former music director. Either way, people have said they have heard footsteps on stage when there is no one in sight.
One of those people is Alex Wright, a student who grew up in faculty housing in the 1990’s while his father was a drama professor. Wright said he’s experienced a number of ghost sightings and shared his stories with Oakland North. He spent a lot of time at Lisser Hall where Susan Tolman Mills was rumored to have been spotted, and as a child he heard the odd footsteps on stage when no one else was inside.
Gordon himself lived on campus as a professor during the 1980’s, though he never heard or saw anything out of the ordinary. “Occasionally you’d see snakes or deer, but that was it.”
While he’s yet to experience a ghost sighting, he joked, “I have a feeling that in the not-so-distant future that I’ll be wandering around the campus [as a ghost].”