Around 1998 when my children were tiny, I visited San Juan Capistrano and took pictures of the many haunted places there. Following are some of them. The article text is based on information available to me while I was researching in the 1990s.
–Elisabeth Busch, July 2020
The following sites are all in or near the Los Rios Historic District in San Juan Capistrano, California.
The El Adobe Restaurant
The building that now houses the El Adobe de Capistrano Restaurant was originally two separate structures. The Miguel Yorba Adobe (the north half) was built in 1778 as a private residence, and the south half of the current building was built in 1812. This second half was called the juzgado and used as a justice court and jail. The jail portion has been converted into a wine cellar for the restaurant, and it’s here that waiters and others report a feeling of being watched. In addition to the creepy jail, the ghost of a headless monk has been seen wandering the street outside of the restaurant.
31891 Camino Capistrano
San Juan Capistrano
In 1912 the Vanderleck family connected the Miguel Yorba adobe and the courthouse to form one home. Later the building was turned into the restaurant. The adobe, besides being a jail, also served as a store, a stage depot, and a hotel.
This small two-room adobe, built in 1794, is across the road from the Mission SJC on a sidestreet. Like all adobes, its interior is cool year round, and it is easy to imagine a spirit finding itself at home in the little-disturbed interior.
A ghostly ball of light has been seen by some visitors in the sala (living room) of the adobe. Perhaps this is the ghost of Dona Polonia Montanez, who owned the home during the late nineteenth century and taught local children there.
This adobe, like the Rios home, is one of the original forty adobes built for Mission housing in 1794. Dona Polonia, after whom the adobe is named, was known as the “Pied Piper of San Juan” because she was always surrounded by children. The adobe was restored in 1980.
31745 Los Rios St
On Rios Street in SJC is a large, old pepper tree that is the site of one of the most famous hauntings in San Juan Capistrano. The White Lady of Capistrano has been seen under this tree, as well as walking Rios Street, for almost 100 years. Several other phantom ladies keep company with the White Lady. One is known as the Phantom of Del Obispo (or the Del Obispo White Lady) and is associated with a ghostly black dog. In life, the Phantom of Del Obispo was Dona Bernadino, and legend has it that she was either a healer or bruja (witch). Various spectres have also been seen walking along the railroad tracks in the center of the historic district.
Los Rios St.
In 1778 the Mission San Juan Capistrano cemetery filled up and they began burying people here instead. Unlike other historic spots, this old graveyard is not kept up or open to visitors. It’s surrounded by a chainlink fence with padlocked gates. (No, we did not climb over the fence to get our pics 😉 It’s hard to find, too–without precise directions it would be easy to miss. Because of its out-of-the-way location, it is an eerie place even on a hot summer’s day. Many of San Juan Capistrano’s oldest residents were buried here, along with Native Americans and Civil War veterans. The most famous ghost said to haunt the cemetery, however, is none other than La Llorona herself.
DIRECTIONS: The Cemetery is located just off the freeway (Ortega Highway) in San Juan Capistrano near the historic district. [Directions from a reader: From the 5S, make a left on ortega and make another left directly into a seemingly dead end road (after where the shell gas station used to be and is now torn down). The cemetary is hiding on the hill above the 5 freeway and Ortega Highway.]
My two year old in jail. Fortunately he did not take up a life of crime after this photo, and is now a well-behaved adult.
“This jail cell was built in 1896 to serve as a holding cell for miscreants on their way to County jail. Originally located on the west side of Camino Capistrano at the intersection with Ortega Highway, it was the scene of several jailbreaks and one hanging.”
Text from OC Historical Commission plaque
Historical Sites in San Juan Capistrano:http://www.goodtime.net/sjc/lisjc030.htm
The Haunted Southland by Richard Senate, 1994 Charon Press, pp14-16
“The Ghosts of San Juan Capistrano” by Lyn Sherwood, for OC Now, March 23, 1998
Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck, 1996 Penguin Books, p76
Historic Spots in California by Douglas E. Kyle, 1990 Stanford University Press, p251