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The story of the Atherton Mansion begins with Faxon D. Atherton. A native of Massachusetts, the young Atherton traveled to Valparaiso, Chile in 1834 to become a trader in hides, tallow, foodstuffs, and other commodities. His prospering business brought him often to California. Eventually he became one of the wealthiest men on the Pacific coast.
In 1860, Atherton moved to California. One of his numerous real estate purchases was his estate in San Mateo County, which he called Valparaiso Park. The land now forms much of present-day Atherton. Atherton married Dominga de Goņi, daughter of a prominent Chileno family. They had seven children, among them George H. Bowen, who later married Gertrude Franklin Horn, one of California's most important authors.
Atherton was a notorious womanizer and traveled often. This alienated his wife and family. His wife, Dominga de Goņi, was forced to take charge of the estate and found she much enjoyed the power she wielded. This was unfortunate for their son George, as he often bore the brunt of his mother's dominance.
After Atherton's death, Dominga de Goņi left Fair Oaks (later known as Atherton) and moved into the city. She built the Atherton Mansion at 1990 California on the corner of Octavia and California streets in the exclusive Pacific Heights district in 1881. Dominga de Goņi lived there with her son George and his strong willed wife Gertrude. George was somewhat of an embarrassment to the socially prominent Athertons, and the two strong-willed women with whom he lived constantly called his manhood into question.
In 1887, George found his living situation unbearable and he accepted an invitation to sail to Chile. Ostensibly he was going to visit friends, but in actuality he sought to prove his mettle and earn a place of honor in his family much like his father before him.
The trip proved to be his undoing. George Atherton developed kidney problems during the voyage and died. The ship's captain preserved George's remains by storing the body in a barrel of rum, which was shipped back to the Atherton household several weeks later. However, there was no indication that the cask contained anything more than rum and when it was opened by the Atherton's butler there was quite a stir caused by the sight of his former master.
George's body was dried out and buried, but shortly thereafter, his spirit apparently decided to avenge itself on the women who'd tormented him in life. Dominga de Goņi and Gertrude reported being awakened at night by knocks at their bedroom doors and by a cold and disturbing presence. The phenomenon grew so troublesome that Dominga de Goņi sold the mansion and moved out. Subsequent tenants also have been unsettled by phantom knockings and roaming cold spots. None stayed very long.
That is until 1923, when the property was purchased by an eccentric Carrie Rousseau. She lived exclusively in the house's ball room surrounded by more than 50 cats until her death in 1974 at the age of 93. Since then the mansion has been remodeled into several apartments. However, the manifestations still occur. Residents report moving cold spots, wind blowing through closed rooms, voices in the night, and knocking sounds.
A séance conducted by Sylvia Brown identified several spirits active in the house. Three were female spirits, "who just don't like men," and a "frail" male spirit. She believes the home is still haunted by the ghosts of Dominga de Goņi, George, and Gertrude Atherton, and Carrie Rousseau.
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