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Get familiar with Austin's haunts

Tour takes a look at spooky spots in River City.

Ian Dille

According to tour guide Nathan Jerkins, the ghosts of downtown Austin lurk —and laugh at their own demise — in the historic brick buildings of former funeral homes. They wander the halls of the city's most storied hotel. They tease guests at upscale eateries, located in what was once the least desirable part of town.

The spirits might even haunt vacant parking lots, where one of the nation's first serial killers preyed upon 19th-century Austinites.

On a muggy evening in October, Jerkins spun the tale of the Servant Girl Annihilator, believed to have murdered seven women and one man during the late 1800s, to a roughly 30-person group on Austin Ghost Tours' Halloween-themed excursion. An actor and historian by trade, Jerkins engaged the group (as well as a few eavesdropping passers-by) with dramatic flair. As the story's tension heightened, as if on cue, a breeze blew through the corridors of the downtown skyscrapers, catching the tails of Jerkin's leather duster and flapping them in the wind behind him.

'Each of the women were finished off,' he said, drawing a line across his Adam's apple, 'with a hatchet wound to the neck.'

Mentally engrossed and physically goosebumped, the group moved on to Brush Square, where Jerkins narrated the tour's final ghost story from under the looming bows of an old live oak. The tour had embarked an hour and half prior from the front patio of the Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill—a former mercantile store purportedly haunted by the souls of impoverished denizens who were lost to early 20th century floods along Waller Creek. Many attendees met for pre-tour cocktails. A few came dressed in their favorite paranormal-themed outfits. A couple carried camcorders.

Austin Ghost Tours was founded 10-years ago by Jeanine Plummer, who researched historical accounts and local folklore of Austin's often ghoulish past. Since its inception, interest has grown steadily. Crowds peak, not unexpectedly, as Oct. 31 approaches. Today, Austin Ghost Tours employs five full-time guides.

Beyond the Halloween walking tour, Haunted Texas provides guided outings of Austin's most haunted bars, dubbed the Sixth Street Pub Crawl ('always a fun one,' says Jerkins), a tour focusing primarily on the Capitol and Driskill Hotel (which is also included in the Halloween Tour), and an expedition focusing entirely on the Servant Girl Annihilator (parental discretion advised).

If you decide to attend one of Austin Ghost Tours' outings, bring sensible footwear (some ill-prepared attendees faded toward the end) and an open-ended belief of the mid-world inhabited by spirits caught between life and death. Preparing the group to depart, Jerkins emphasized, 'This is not a haunted house. No one is going to jump out and scare you. These are true stories of ghosts in Austin to the best of our historical knowledge.'

Austin Ghost Tours. 90-minute tours beginning at the Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill, 303 Red River St. Varying times; check Web site for details through Oct. 31. $20. www.austinghosttours.com.