Shelly’s blog posts about her time last week in San Francisco reminded me of this story.
Nob Hill in San Francisco does have one thing in common with the knobs where I come from; it’s a hilly area. There, all similarities end. In my knobs, we don’t run to rich folks, just blue-collar types. Nob Hill, back in its early days in the second half of the nineteenth century, was home to “nobs”, which is, according to Wiki, an epithet for “wealthy and distinguished persons” like the Big Four of the Central Pacific railroad—the most famous of whom, now, is Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University. Notice what happens if you move that “s” in “nobs” up front? All at once, it’s “snob”? Uncouth individuals have been known to refer to Nob Hill as Snob Hill. But let’s get on with the story.
Nob Hill is centered around the intersection of California and Powell Streets. The great houses of the district were, with the exception of a couple protected by high stone walls, destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
I wonder if one such was the home of Flora Sommerton, the Bride of Nob Hill, whose ghost has reportedly been sighted along California Street as recently as the 1990s.
Flora’s story is a sad one. Daughter of a wealthy Nob Hill couple, she was destined for the fate of most wealthy girls of the Victorian era—educated to care for the home and children of some man of her own social class, with the help of a well-trained staff, of course.
Flora, however, drew the line. When she was around eighteen, her parents announced, out of the blue, that she was to be married to a wealthy older man of their choice.
History doesn’t record whether Flora had already given her heart to a younger man, less affluent but more suitable a match for a young and ardent girl. Given what happened at her engagement party—more, actually, in the nature of an engagement ball—it does seem likely. At the height of the festivities, just after her father had, with much ceremony and pompous pronouncement, announced her engagement to the older man, Flora, clad in a fancy white ball gown, simply walked out of the house and vanished.
She was seen walking aimlessly along California Street that night, but no one quite knew what became of her past that point.
That was in 1876. Her parents were both concerned and disappointed, of course. They made discreet inquiries as to her whereabouts, but as time passed with no word from the errant Flora, the inquiries became less discreet and more desperate. Eventually, in the hope that someone, anyone, would come forward with information, the Sommertons put up a $250,000.00 reward. It was never claimed.
The jilted fiance, presumably, married someone else.
The Sommertons died without ever hearing anything of their daughter’s whereabouts. Most likely, their home was destroyed in 1906. Not even then did Flora resurface.
It was not until 1926 that Flora was found. That year, she died in a Butte, Montana flophouse, in dreadful poverty. When her body was found, she was wearing anomalous clothing: a white Victorian ball gown, in a style of half a century earlier, that hung on her wasted body like a shroud. Her identity was established by combing through missing persons reports until one was found that mentioned how, long ago, a lovely young girl in a white ball gown had vanished from California Street in San Francisco.
Only then did she return to her hometown; her body, probably buried initially in a pauper’s grave, was exhumed and reburied in a family plot.
She hasn’t rested there, though. Over the years, at sporadic intervals, a young woman in a white Victorian-era ball gown has been seen wandering along California Street, as if in a daze, paying no attention to modern pedestrians or traffic. It’s believed that this is the spirit of Flora Sommerton, repeating, over and over again, that last night in her hometown, when in desperation she walked away from a life that was being planned for her into one of endless struggle—but at least one she chose for herself.
I first read about the Bride of Nob Hill in Dennis William Hauck’s 1994 edition of The National Directory of Haunted Places.