Spirited Stories in Detroit Bars

Local bar owners tell the tales of ghostly encounters and other mysterious presences at their establishments.
Illustration by Holly Wales

As gathering places for the sharing of ideas and political opinions, for trade and storytelling and celebration and mourning, bars are powerful repositories of emotion — and spirits, in both the physical and ethereal senses of the word.

One common rationale behind the existence of haunted structures is the stone tape theory, which holds that building materials may have “recorded” the psychic energy of past events. The stronger the emotional or psychic energy trapped by the walls of a bar, the stronger the manifestation.

At The Whitney’s legendary Ghostbar, especially inside the women’s restroom, guests might catch a glimpse of Mrs. Whitney herself, the wife of one of the city’s wealthiest lumber barons.

Detroit’s bar ghosts can be playful — or they can be eerie, like at Nancy Whiskey, where the bartenders and regulars all swear the place is haunted by no fewer than three (friendly) ghosts. Legend has it Jimmy Hoffa used the old phone booth in the front corner and that the family who opened the general store on the site in 1902 might be lingering around.

When Tommy Burelle bought a sports bar and grill next to Joe Louis Arena in 2011, he wasn’t thinking about archaeological digs or malevolent apparitions that might manifest in the fluorescent lighting. But since the day Burelle opened Tommy’s Detroit Bar and Grill, items have been flying off shelves and unexplained phenomena have been witnessed by Burell, along with his staff and visitors.

The basement in particular is home to at least one malevolent presence, he says — his experiences over the last 11 years have convinced him of that. “I was never a nonbeliever, but I think I didn’t want to admit stuff was happening.”

Every so often, Burelle will spy a figure in a white fedora, out of the corner of his eye. It’s this mysterious presence that Burelle believes nearly locked him in the walk-in cooler on two occasions. The man in the fedora hearkens back to the building’s days as Little Harry’s, a speakeasy and known hideout of Detroit’s Purple Gang.

A 2013 archaeological dig by Wayne State University confirmed rumors of a speakeasy in the basement, as well as the existence of two secret entrances, a tunnel that had been caved in, and definitive ties to the band of infamous bootleggers.

Burelle says he isn’t sure where the spirit (or spirits) in his bar came from, but he senses that they are unhappy.

Jennifer Isbister of the Two Way Inn in Detroit grew up surrounded by presences she calls her “spirit friends.” She and her siblings have spent much of their lives residing in the home attached to the historic tavern, and for as long as she can remember, she has been reassured by the presence of beings that not everyone can see.

“We are not haunted,” she says. “We are spirited. Because the spirits that walk these floors care about us.”

Among the spirits witnessed by Isbister and others are a young boy, believed to be the son
of a doctor who operated out of the building’s second floor in the 1920s, and a lady in white, who she speculates is the daughter of Col. Philetus Norris, the Civil War veteran who
built the Two Way Inn.

Perhaps the connection between Norris and Isbister, whose husband served in the armed forces for several tours of duty, has strengthened the gentle bond between her family and the spirits of the Two Way.

Whatever the reason spirits seem to linger in Detroit’s bars, it doesn’t appear they will
be taking their leave anytime soon. Isbister, like others who have learned to cope with the unexpected and the unexplained, has opted to practice tolerance.

“We have had to learn to coexist with them — not the other way around,” she says. “They were here first. So we like to respect them.”

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.