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Community Sunday Favorites: The Ghosts of Captain Tony's

Captain Tony's Saloon is located on the 400 block of Greene Street in Key West. 

KEY WEST -- Every time I visit Key West, I have to swing by Captain Tony’s Saloon located just a half-a block west of Duval Street at 428 Greene Street. There is something alluring about the dark interior that spurs intrigue. First of all, it is supposedly the oldest saloon in Florida (1852) and a tree grows through the middle of the chamber. But what’s especially mysterious is that the poolroom always seems to be a few degrees cooler, even in the midst of a hot summer day. Some would attribute the chill to the dense cement floor, but others swear the poolroom is one of the most haunted places in Florida.


The bright yellow building housing Captain Tony's Saloon has a colorful history filled with legend and lore. According to locals, the building originally served as an icehouse and doubled as a city morgue in the days before electric refrigeration. Sailboats delivered bananas north and shipped ice back that had been cut from frozen lakes. The wide doors in the front of Tony’s allowed for easy access for horses to wheel the ice inside, according to Key West Paranormal.


Key West was a major port in those days and attracted many vagrants who had no family or friends to claim them. When they showed up dead and there was no one to pay for their burial, they were supposedly buried next to the icehouse which is where the poolroom is located today.


In the 1890's this building housed a wireless telegraph station. IIn 1912 it became a cigar factory and then a bordello, which was popular with the Navy until it was forced out of business. After that it became several speakeasies, the last of which was named the Blind Pig, specializing in gambling, women, and Hoover gold, which was the local's nickname for bootleg rum.


Who is Elvira and why is she buried in the bar?

In the 1930's a local Conch named Joe "Josie" Russell leased the business and it became the original Sloppy Joes. In 1940 it became the Duval Club and was decorated Victorian style. Then In 1958, Captain Anthony "Tony" Tarracino brought the bar from David Wolkowsky and Captain Tony's Saloon was born.


One year, a hurricane flooded the streets of the city and several bodies, an estimated 16, that were buried next to the bar resurfaced. Capt. Tony decided to place their bones in his cement foundation, and inserted bottles of holy water into his makeshift ”vault.“


Also located in the bar are two tombstones. One is part of the south floor of the building and reads: Elvira, daughter of Joseph and Susannah Edmunds died Dec. 21, 1822 Age: 19 years 8 months and 21 days. Some say Elvira was the daughter of the coroner, but no one really knows for sure.


The other is the tombstone of Reba Sawyer. According to ”Ghosthunting Florida“ by Dave Lapham, a married Sawyer had a longtime affair with a man, who was also married. The two rendezvoused at the bar where they thought their affair would go unnoticed. Sawyer died in 1950. Years later, her husband discovered her secret while going though some old papers. Angered, he drove to the cemetery and removed Sawyer’s headstone, disposing of it on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Tony picked it up and added to the other morbid collectables within the saloon.


In addition to the weird burying practices, the tree growing through the roof used to be where the townspeople conducted their executions. An estimated 75 people were hanged from the tree, most of which were murderers or pirates. But the town vigilantes once hanged a woman in a blood-stained blue nightgown who supposedly still haunts the bar to this day.


The lynch mob seized her after she reportedly murdered her husband and killed her children, cutting their bodies into little pieces. The noose that was tied around her neck was designed to break it, but it didn’t work on her. Instead she suffered a long strangling while dangling over the courtyard.


There are also tales of one of the bathrooms being haunted, particularly the women's bathroom. People have found that doors become locked for no apparent reason. Reports of strange and eerie sensations that overcome you when entering the bathroom have deterred many from using it. 


But besides the hauntings, Tony’s bar also offers promise. A large goliath grouper with its mouth open hangs above the sign outside the building. Captain Tony caught it and had it preserved. It is said that if you throw a quarter into the mouth of the fish, good luck will follow you until you leave the island.


So how much of this is true? Historians question the validity of almost all the surrounding lore, including the date of construction and the story that the bar once housed an icehouse. As for Elvira, some say that Tony made up the name and the tombstone after finding bones in the drywall. Whatever truth there is in the tales surrounding the bar, it's still a great place for a cold beer in Key West.