For more than 100 years, the two-story, brick building on a corner in downtown Memphis has been a fixture of the city’s landscape. Built in the late 1800s on the grounds of a ruined church, the weathered facade has played host to a pharmacy, a hair salon, a jazz club, a bar, and a brothel. Preachers, doctors, stylists, musicians, bartenders and prostitutes have all called this place home. And today it stands, as it ever has, perched on the edge of downtown, overlooking a warehouse district turned hipster haven dubbed South Main.
The place has barely changed in decades. Bucking the neighborhood trend of themed restaurants and bars with cheeky names like Eight and Sand, Carolina Watershed, and Loflin Yard, Earnestine & Hazel’s remains true to its bones—it’s a dusty, greasy, gritty bar with a questionable past, much like the city itself. The menu is limited: they only serve burgers and chips. And drink-wise, they only recently began serving anything other than beer.
Memphians come to Earnestine & Hazels for the burgers. Dubbed soul burgers, they’re a favorite late night snack for locals; and while soul burgers were named for the city’s music, in the years since they’re creation, soul burgers have come to take on a new meaning.
Earnestine & Hazel’s, they say, is famously haunted.
For two nights, I staked out the walls of what’s become known as America’s Most Haunted Bar to see if those stories are true. I would soon come to learn that the house band isn’t the only thing going bump in the middle of the Memphis night.
“I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis. She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.”- The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Woman,” 1969.
4:45 p.m— The spector of Earnestine & Hazels looms across the street as I rendezvous with ghost hunting aficionado Tiffany Simpson at the Arcade Restaurant. Home to its own share of ghostly tales, the Arcade is a our pre-game destination for taco pizza and cheese sticks. Here, we establish a rough plan for the night: identify supposed spirits of Earnestine’s, and set out cameras to find them.
Though Earnestine & Hazel’s is my home bar, I’ve never really delved deep into its history.
Quick research tells us that 13 people have allegedly lost their lives inside the brick walls across the street. Details are vague; however, and we decide to focus primarily on the spirit of a girl who supposedly haunts the upstairs hallway, the haunted jukebox, and a former brothel room where legends say a violent murder once took place.
5:45 p.m. — We arrive early at Earnestine’s early, joining my neighbor—Leni Stoeva. The general layout is this: a downstairs bar serves beer and soul burgers where the former cafe was located. On weekend nights, a live band sets up there. Meanwhile, the former brothel upstairs is left for patrons to mingle in, manned only by a solitary bartender and an occasional piano player in one of the old suites.
It’s said that Ray Charles used to frequent that piano and the women who worked down the hall. It’s also said that he would shoot heroin in one of the bathrooms. But, as with much of the history of Earnestine & Hazel’s, that remains unconfirmed.
This afternoon, a smattering of bar flies linger around the downstairs counter, but nobody is upstairs. This gives us time to set up a tripod with a static camera in the hallway. This should document people coming and going, as well as anyone or anything watching them do so.
We set up base camp in a former brothel room nearby, the red room. Each room here is colored coded—red, green, blue, black—and contains at least one table and a variety of chairs and sofas for relaxing on.
I once watched an ash tray dance across a table in the red room. Cozy.
6:00 p.m.— The sound of footsteps, a slamming door, and a padlock shatter the silence. Could it be a ghost? No. It’s just bar staff pulling beer out of an upstairs storage room for the night.
6:10 p.m. — I order my first beer, a PBR with dinosaurs on the label.
6:45 p.m.— Twilight descends on Memphis. It’s the first true weekend of Autumn, and an open window in the red room lets the cool air in.
7:25 p.m. — No action yet, but ghost hunting friend Franz arrives and brings another round of beer. I interview Nat Barnes, the upstairs bartender, who has been manning the post since the brothel closed in 1992.
For at least a decade, visitors to Earnestine’s have speculated that Barnes, who rarely leaves his eight-seat bar, is in fact, a ghost.
I’m reasonably sure he’s not.
Barnes says he’s never seen a ghost. “If they were here, I’d know,” he crackles, under the guise of a trademark, wide-brimmed hat. It’s public knowledge that Nate keeps the local haberdashery open entirely on his own.
“But,” he quips, “I did have something scary happen. Two girls came into my bar, and ran out of here screaming. They were so scared that they scared me. I ran downstairs with them. Maybe they thought I was a ghost or something.”
That’s exactly what a ghost would say. Isn’t it?
7:35 p.m.— I wander into the black room, which shares a doorway with the red room. There, an antique record player has long stopped spinning vinyl, but its built-in AM/FM radio still works if you know how to turn it on. I power it up. The station is set on gospel, which I soon change to rock.
In the black room, an eerie painting of a pale, redheaded woman rests on one wall. Karen Brownlee, the downstairs bartender, will later tell us that she’s not sure how it got there. Nobody on staff knows, actually. And even though the painting creeps everyone out, they’re afraid to move it—for good reason.
Paranormal investigator Stephen Guenther runs Historical Haunts, a South Main-based ghost hunting tour that visits the black room every Friday night. Its here that Guenther has seen EMF detectors light up. “It’s consistently active,” Guenther would later tell me. “We’ve had people tell us they were touched in there.”
The black room has been a consistent epicenter of weirdness for me over the years. In fact, I’ve felt a primal fear of the room until the later part of this decade, meaning a good ten years of visits to Nate’s place down the hall never involved stepping foot through the threshold of this small, dark room with a brick-covered window.
At one time, the black room played host to a table painted as a Ouija board; but the staff eventually painted over it. Since then, I’ve felt more welcome in its confines; and I’ve witnessed an unusual number of friends almost drawn into the place, to one specific chair in particular.
9:47 p.m.— A ghost tour climbs the stairs. This isn’t Guenther’s company, but rather a rival tour group with a penchant for elaboration. About fifteen people crowd around the black room, seemingly oblivious to our presence next door.
“They window was bricked up after the murder,” the guide says. “The door between the red room and here doesn’t stay closed.” That tale is new to me.
Ghost tours here are not abnormal; but I notice an unexplainable occurrence while this tour is taking place. The radio volume in the black room appears to lower almost to a whisper on its own before the group enters. When they leave, it raises back to a louder volume without a single person in the room.
I replay the scene in my head several times to be sure what I saw was correct. I’m sure that nobody touched the radio.
10:05 p.m. — A second hint of mystery surfaces when our drone—flying outside to film YouTube scenes—careens into the abandoned train station next door. The crash happens just as I fly towards the window of the red room from the outside.
With very little wind and a system of obstacle avoidance sensors, there’s no immediate, logical explanation for this crash. It almost seemed to be shoved away from the bar by an unseen force. A subsequent review of flight logs from the drone company revealed no user or mechanical error.
9:15 p.m.— Five card stud! Leni pulls out a deck of playing cards in the red room. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” newcomer David Stein says. “But I do believe that those stairs are crooked, and stumbling down those is a drunk person’s nightmare.”
9:20 p.m. — We abandon five card stud. Stein abandons the group.
10:11 p.m.— The black room radio turns off on its own. Franz and I decide that it may also be changing channels, as it wanders from the Isley Brothers to the Avett Brothers and back again.
I set a static camera in the black room to document the radio, should it decide to perform again.
10:25 p.m.— Locals Chris & Cassie Duncan arrive to join the hunt. The couple lives nearby and has visited the bar several times per month for years. We tell them about the radio and the drone.
This is one of the rare occasions that Cassie has come upstairs, she says. “There’s a totally different vibe up here. I can feel it from the moment I climb that first flight of stairs. When I walk back down, it’s like an anxiety, a weight, lifts.”
11:15 p.m. — Beer run. This time, I grab a PBR from Nate’s place down the hall. There are no dinosaurs on the label. Sad.
11:28 p.m.— The red room, already doused in red paint and graffiti, is also illuminated by a red light bulb. We remove the bulb from its lamp in the hopes that a darker room is a more active room for spirits.
Midnight — It’s not.
12:01 a.m. — The crew moves downstairs in unison for the first time tonight. The house band is really on fire, belting out soul classics to a packed house. In stark contrast to the relatively tranquil vibe above, downstairs is keeping the Memphis music tradition alive and well. Anyone not dancing is busy eating a soul burger. The entire scene is overlooked by the husks of Club Paradise bandstands pinned to the walls above—a nod to the building’s past as a jazz club.
“This is exactly the scene here,” Chris yells. “It’s a typical crowd. There’s a wedding party, some random people in ripped jeans, and some old folks just chillin’ at a table. It’s like no matter how many times you come hereo n a Saturday night, this is what you see.”
Duncan is right. Even amidst a rapidly-gentrifying downtown Memphis, Earnestine & Hazel’s has retained its soul. It hasn’t upgraded with Edison bulbs, or added fancy fusion foods, or even fixed the holes in the walls. A pair of tourists wander in asking for a menu. “I’ve got beer and burgers,” bartender Karen Brownlee says from her perch over the grill. “No menu.”
No menu needed.
12:45 p.m. — All friends have abandoned ship. I’m left to carry out the final hours until close by myself. There’s still plenty of company at the bar, though, as 30 or 40 patrons cut a rug and a wave of sightseers grows increasingly wobbly. True to Stein’s prediction, the stairs floors are becoming increasingly difficult to navigate.
“Slow night, slow night,” says Barnes back upstairs. Apparently, much of the crowd downstairs never made its way to his keep. Barnes and I talk about his long journey here. He is, after all, one of the last remaining members of the original Earnestine & Hazel’s family.
Barnes came to Memphis in 1976. He picked up a job at a local Budweiser distributor, delivering booze to the local bars. Long before Earnestine’s ever opened downtown, Nate was filling the fridge in Midtown Memphis at Murphy’s. The joint, still operational today, was run by Earnestine’s founder Russell George, who soon offered him job upstairs at his new project downtown.
Nobody else has ever run the bar upstairs at Earnestine & Hazel’s.
1:09 a.m. — Downstairs, about 20 patrons remain. The wedding party files out, and only a group of late night Beale Street stragglers lingers. The band has briefly replaced guitar necks with bottle necks, and Brownlee is still busy behind the grill.
2:15 a.m.— My final beer of the night coasts across the counter. Michael Jackson and Prince covers belt from the band before their final set wraps to “Billie Jean.”
2:25 a.m.— As the lights go up for the night, the crowd begins to file out, and I join them, left to ponder on the events of the night: a drone crash, and a radio seemingly operating on its own. That’s not much to go on, but I’ve got one more night inside of the walls.
Sunday, Jazz Night
“October is a weird month here. People try to come stir them up, and I don’t think they like it.” – Karen Brownlee, former bartender at Earnestine and Hazel’s.
Created 10 years ago as a way to drum up business on sleepy Sunday nights in the south, jazz night at Earnestine & Hazel’s has become a South Main staple. The crowd here is not as thick or crass as the Saturday bunch, comprising mostly locals and Memphis ex-pats who have made their way back to a place they call home.
5:00 p.m.— Karen Brownlee, an 18 year veteran of Earnestine’s unlocks the front door, and I saunter in as the first customer of the day. The matriarch of the bar is a whirlwind when the place gets busy, so interviews with Brownlee only come very early or very late.
I grab a seat at the bar, and she drops off an ice cold lager, Ghost River Gold, brewed just down the street.
I’m here early to investigate the haunted jukebox. It sits opposite of Brownlee’s bar, giving her a front row seat to its performances. “A lot of times we just sit here and don’t put any money in it and see what it plays,” Brownlee says. “Just like me and you will do right now.”
5:30 p.m.— With the sun still up, the jukebox isn’t on yet. But I count the trickle of customers carefully and keep tabs out of the corner of my eye, carefully watching for someone to put money into it. Nobody does.
The jukebox is notorious for playing songs related to conversation at the bar. Brownlee thinks Earnestine is making those choices; and as we talk about a particularly rough Saturday night, the jukebox suddenly begins to blare. “That’s Earnestine,” Brownlee says. “What’s she playing? Go over there and see.”
It’s “Everybody is a Star” by Sly & The Family Stone. “Awwww,” Brownlee smiles.
5:32 p.m.—As suddenly as it began, the jukebox stops. It doesn’t start a new song.
5:46 p.m.— A pedal tavern powered by bachelorettes floats by outside of the bar’s open door. Nobody stops to look at Earnestine & Hazel’s.
6:30 p.m. — It’s still daylight as a husband a wife enter the bar. The Memphis expats have returned from their new life in Texarkana to visit the corner on South Main Street. After the death of her son in 2003, Jayna Lacy says she felt herself drawn to this place. “I’m not afraid of spirits,” she says. “I’m more afraid of people.”
Lacy hasn’t been here in a decade, but remembers the rooms of the old brothel and wants to go upstairs again.
Together, we climb the stairs for a tour. Then, things get weird.
As we wander down the creaking hallway and into the red room, I explain to Lacy where base camp had been last night. At that moment, I hear faint whispers coming from the black room next door. I can’t make out what they are saying, and my immediate reaction is to cross the threshold and check the radio.
I do check the radio, assuming it’s been left on, but it hasn’t. There’s no explanation for the whispers, that seem to be silenced for now.
I turn the radio dial to be sure it isn’t on, and no sound comes out. It doesn’t.
Minutes later, Lacy and I are in the upstairs hallway. As I wonder aloud, claiming that the spirits don’t like cameras, we hear a series of knocks coming from the direction of the black room. They’re relatively loud—on the level of an ice maker in a refrigerator. I pause, knowing what I heard, but searching for a logical explanation. Lacy and I decide the sound must be coming from downstairs, and I repeat my sentence about the cameras.
As if on cue, a much louder thump comes from the direction of the black room. This time, it’s heavy enough to feel through the floor. You can see the interaction at the beginning of our YouTube video here:
That video is a compilation of both nights in this story. But listen closely to the opening minute, and you’ll hear exactly what Lacy and I did on Sunday afternoon, before jazz night.
A few seconds after the clip stops, we canvas the upstairs area to be sure we’re the only ones there. We are.
Downstairs, Lacy and I describe the event to Brownlee—who has an incredible revelation to share. It’s a note, left by an anonymous patron earlier this year. The paper was accompanied by a bundle of white roses:
“The other night I had an experience in your bar that I cannot explain. There is a spirit there that endured a very hard life and a terrible experience—she wishes to be heard.
It is my understanding that she was stabbed in the shoulder. I have never encountered or felt anything like this before, so I am unsure if I am misinterpreting. Please make sure that this letter and roses make it to the green-lit room with a painting of a woman and the brick covered window, so that she may see them.
I want her to know that I cried uncontrollably and felt her pain, and I am so deeply sorry—from the bottom of my heart. Her beautiful soul deserved better.
I write this with hopes that she may find her peace, knowing that she was heard and felt. I hope so deeply that she may let go of this pain and find joy and light.”
Lacy and I sit at Brownlee’s bar, stunned. The legend of the black room does involve a stabbing.
“They killed her up there,” Lacy blurts.
Brownlee says she saw the note on her birthday, and that another staff member had taken the roses and put them on her bar. When she realized who they were meant for, she promptly ran them upstairs.
After hours, Brownlee says, she talks to the people who used to frequent this place: Earnestine Mitchell, Russell George, and Keenan Harding. She’s sure they are with her. She knows them, but she doesn’t know who the lady in the black room is. She isn’t sure she wants to know, referencing the mysterious painting that appeared in the room several months ago.
Unlike Barnes, Brownlee has had experiences in the bar. And though we have known each other for some time, she won’t share all of her tales for print. Many are widely available; most revolve around the jukebox, but others have sent her searching for invisible guests.
She’s seen orbs in photos and faces that people claim to have spotted the walls. Brownlee has been scared here, she admits, especially when she first started. But now, she says the ghosts here are helpful. They watch over her and the bar. She says the spirits here are good. “If you treat this place with respect, you won’t have any problems.”
8:25 p.m.— The band cranks up. In true Memphis fashion, they belt a blend of Miles Davis with a Hustle & Flow backbeat. The next few hours go by in a blur.
Still stunned by Brownlee’s note, I run upstairs to the black room to read it aloud, sensing that I may have angered the spirit there by filming our show, and hoping that an explanation will calm things down.
8:41 p.m. — As I climb the stairs to film a segment near the staircase, I notice the black room radio is on. It’s loudly playing the same gospel station that I heard before I changed it last night.
Only a handful of customers loiter downstairs near the band; and I’m the only person upstairs. An Australian couple that I’d told about the radio earlier say they couldn’t find it. They say they didn’t turn it on. “That’s Russell,” Brownlee rolls.
9:05 p.m.— Brownlee sends over another Ghost River.
9:18 p.m.— I double check with the Aussies. They’re sure they didn’t touch the radio, and act frightened when I tell them why I’m asking. They leave Earnestine & Hazel’s shortly after my spill.
9:20 p.m. — I’m camped at Brownlee’s bar when a girl wanders down from upstairs. Out of breathe and sweating, she lights a cigarette and swears she’s not going back up stairs. Something is wrong up there, she decides.
I go to see what’s wrong.
9:21 p.m.— Nothing is wrong.
9:48 p.m.– I’ve walked across South Main Street to Max’s Sports Bar, forgoing another soul burger in favor of barbecue nachos. Along the way, I grab Brownlee a pack of cigarettes from what feels like one of the world’s last cigarette vending machines, located inside of the sports pub. A heavily intoxicated man at Max’s—most people at Max’s usually are—tells me that he once saw the spirit of a woman behind him in the upstairs bathroom.
She was pretty, he says. She had dark hair and a dress, and he wasn’t afraid. But he was sad to see her go, and he wont go to the bathroom there again.
10:25 p.m. – Back at Earnestine’s, I return again to check on the black room radio. It’s off. I turn it back on, head downstairs and grab a seat at a booth as rain starts to fall. By the time the Lacy’s leave at 10:42 p.m., the jazz band is nearing the end of their set. In the four hours and 12 minutes since hearing the unexplained noises upstairs, Jayna Lacy and I have found no logical explanation for what happened.
Did I anger a spirit of a perished prostitute by bringing a film crew into her domain last night? Did Lacy’s long lost son trigger and close connection to tragedy trigger a response from a tortured soul?
12:49 p.m.— By the time I wander out of Earnestine & Hazel’s with a notepad and a camera for the final time, I’m convinced that the place is truly haunted. If Saturday night was filled with fun at the spirits’ expense, Sunday night was a message.
The next week, I visit Stephen Guenther at Historical Haunts to find out what that message means. “It was a response,” he says, from his storefront overlooking the bar. In addition to ghost tours, Guenther is a trained member of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS). He’s conducted paranormal investigations across the region, and says he has to be very careful about what he says about Earnestine & Hazel’s.
“It wasn’t random,” Guenther says of the knocks that Lacy and I caught on film. “The statistical chances of that being a coincidence happening twice are very small. In a court of law, that’s circumstantial evidence.”
Faced with my own evidence of a haunting, I ask Guenther what he thinks is happening in the neighborhood bar. “It’s interactive,” he explains. “We can’t say for sure what spirits are in there, or how many there are. But, we are very careful to treat them with respect.”
Respect. It’s a recurring theme of the bar, from Brownlee to Guenther to the mysterious note left on the door. And it’s that note which offers a final clue to the mysterious happenings at Earnestine & Hazel’s, one left in its final lines:
“Please encourage your patrons to treat your rooms and the spirits residing within them with the respect they deserve—and hear their stories.
With love for the employees, the establishment, and the spirits within them,
Editor’s note: Earnestine and Hazel’s has since undergone renovations and incorporated a new staff. You can still find Nate Barnes upstairs. You can still hear the haunted jukebox downstairs. And visitors to Memphis can meet Karen Brownlee bartending at another old Memphis institution—Alex’s Tavern.