Inauspicious Celebrations

It Was the Best of Fourth of Julys, It Was the Worst of Fourth of Julys

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Here at the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour, we have heard more than our share of ghost stories.  Not only have we scoured across the history of Philadelphia for the most haunting tales to share with our guests on our tours, but over the years, hundreds of guests have shared their own personal ghostly encounters with us.  We have begun to realize certain themes develop among the many stories we hear, and one of the most prevalent is that of “Inauspicious Celebrations!”
 
Ghost stories often involve tragedy, but when that that tragedy occurs during a period of what should have been joy and celebration, the situations seem to become even more ripe for a supernatural situation.  Stories of celebrations going frightfully wrong and the haunting repercussions can found again and again in Philadelphia’s long history.  
 

Legionnaire’s Disease: Real Life Medical Mystery and Hotel Horrors at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel

One such terrible tale has been a part of the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour from the beginning.  The Bicentennial Celebration of 1976 and the grisly tale of “Hotel Horrors” is the story of an inauspicious celebration if there ever was one.
 
In 1976, Philadelphia was the centerpiece of America’s 200th Birthday celebrations.  Those celebrations reached a crescendo on July, 4th 1976 when over two million people came to Philadelphia to celebrate where America had been born two hundred years earlier at Independence Hall.  The Bicentennial ceremonies included everyone from President Gerald Ford to Master of Ceremonies Charlton Heston. Even Queen Elizabeth II came to present the Bicentennial Bell, which was cast in the same foundry (Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. in London) as the original Liberty Bell, to the United States.
 
Even as the major Bicentennial festivities came to a close, many events to celebrate the Bicentennial continued in Philadelphia, among them was a three day convention for the American Legion which began on July 21, 1976.  Over 4,000 Legionnaires attended the Convention, including at the headquarters hotel of the convention at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.  
 
Bellevue-Stratford Hotel
 
At that time, the Bellevue-Stratford was recognized as one of the finest grand old hotels in America.  Other than being known as Philadelphia’s best hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford’s only notoriety on the “dark side” was the fact that it served as the inspirational location where Bram Stoker wrote a major portion of his famous blood-curdling tale, Dracula.  
 
While the Bellevue-Stratford was previously well established as the headquarters of the 1936 and 1948 National Conventions for the Republican Party and the 1948 Convention of the Democratic Party, within short order, however, the Bellevue-Stratford would be famous across the United States as the setting for the horrible events of the American Legion Convention.
 
Just two days after the end of the convention, veterans began falling ill with a then-unidentified pneumonia-like illness.  The disease struck swiftly, first with a headache, then muscle and chest pains, and fevers that could get as high as 107 degrees.
 
These heroes, who had already survived the perils of combat in foreign wars stretching from World War II to Korea to Vietnam, died tragically in what was meant to be a celebration of their service to the United States. Coroners who had performed autopsies on the victims described their lungs as resembling Brillo pads.
 
This was so serious that the Pennsylvania government feared an epidemic, and the United States Centers for Disease Control was called in to investigate. The New York Times reported that, “Americans were primed for the threat of an epidemic.” At that time in 1976, the investigation into Legionnaire’s Disease would become the largest and most complicated medical investigation in history.
 
A Bellevue Stratford Hotel Postcard, Circa 1976
 
This sinister sounding plot seems like it is right out of a script from Hollywood, but it was quite real indeed, sadly so.  Forensic Files Medical Mysteries memorialized Legionnaire’s Disease in a great episode documenting various historical accounts with photos, videos, interviews and news coverage of this real-life hotel horror story that dominated news cycles and made worldwide headlines for months. 
 
 
All told, as many as 221 people were treated for illness, and 30 people died.  Perhaps even more terrifying than those numbers, was the fact that in 1976, the cause of the disease and how to stop it were still totally unknown.  There was widespread fear and panic that adversely impacted tourism and visitorship to both the Bellevue-Stratford and moreover to Philadelphia during and after America’s 200th Birthday celebration in 1976.  Just four months after the outbreak, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel closed after nearly a century of service due to fears surrounding the disease that the Legionnaires contracted there.  In 1976, many visitors and businesses canceled trips and meetings in Philadelphia in the wake of this still unfolding medical mystery and daily national media coverage.
 
It was not until January 1977 that the “legionellosis” bacteria was finally identified and isolated as the cause of the mysterious disease.  The cooling towers of the hotels’ air conditioning system proved to be the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria, and then the bacteria was spread through the same cooling system throughout the hotel, infecting hundreds of unsuspecting guests.  This finding prompted global change on regulations and maintenance of heating and air conditioning systems, but those changes came too late for the poor souls who perished in Philly after the aftermath of Philadelphia’s Bicentennial Celebration.
 
As a post script, the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel was reopened on September 26, 1979. After a short stint being renamed The Fairmount Philadelphia, the hotel was renamed the Bellevue once again.  Today, The Bellevue Philadelphia is still a hotel, and it is managed by Hyatt.  Some believe that The Bellevue is haunted from some of the poor souls who lost their lives in the hotel back in 1976.
 

National Constitution Center’s Dangerous Debut

On July 5, 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, 
 
“It was the best of Fourth of Julys, it was the worst of Fourth of Julys, as Philadelphia proudly opened the National Constitution Center Friday, but in doing so suffered an accident that injured Mayor Street and Senator Arlen Specter - and narrowly missed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.”
 
Decades following the Bicentennial Bust with Legionnaire’s Disease, another celebration on America’s Birthday in Philadelphia was marred by a near catastrophe.  On July 4, 2003, thousands gathered on Independence National Historical Park (also known as Independence Mall) in Philadelphia to celebrate the Grand Opening of the National Constitution Center.  The National Constitution Center is likely familiar to many of our guests as the meeting place of our sister tour, The Constitutional Walking Tour.  The National Constitution Center has become one of our favorite destinations here in Philadelphia, but it was very nearly the site of a disaster before it even opened to the public.
 
Jonathan and Leslie Bari, The Constitutional Walking Toul, at the Grand Opening Dedication Ceremony for the National Constitution Center - July 4, 2003
 
As the Grand Opening celebrations were underway, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke as well as many other guests on the main stage.
 
During the very last minutes of the grand opening ceremony, right after Ray Charles sang a moving rendition of America the Beautiful, there was an exciting 3-2-1 countdown led by Supreme Court Justice O’Connor. Along with O’Connor were various dignitaries and children on the stage who were pulling on giant red, white and blue ribbons to reveal a tableau or frame depicting the signing of the Constitution, when the wood and steel frame, about 15 feet high and weighing about a couple of hundred pounds, collapsed just feet from many of the guests of honor. Justice O’Connor was not hit by the falling frame, but she was heard through an open microphone exclaiming, “We could all have been killed!
 
As the frame crashed down, it fell right onto a number of people including Philadelphia Mayor John Street and United States Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, while narrowly missing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Governor Edward Rendell.  The National Constitution Center’s president, Joe Torsella, was hit in the head by the falling frame. Mayor Street and Senator Specter were both hit in the arm. The C-SPAN video captured the glory of the Grand Opening festivities, and even the chaos that ensued was memorialized when the Grand Opening was marred by near tragedy.
 
All-American Evening on the Mall Concert and Fireworks Celebrating the Opening of the National Constitution Center, July 3, 2003
 
Some local ghost hunters believe that the spirits of those who were interred in a former Native American and African American burial ground on the site of the National Constitution Center may have been disturbed by the construction of the National Constitution Center, and may have caused the near disaster in 2003. Spirits of these African Americans and Native Americans have occasionally been seen in the early morning dew and late evening surrounding the National Constitution Center.
 
Over the years, the many tales of “inauspicious celebrations” that we’ve heard about here at the Spirits of ’76 Ghost Tour have led us to be especially wary whenever it comes time to celebrate… 
 
All-American Evening on the Mall Concert and Fireworks Celebrating the Opening of the National Constitution Center, July 3, 2003
 

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