Eduardo H. Gato House
1209 Virginia Street
Key West, Florida
A Registered Nurse occupied a first floor apartment in this house in 1976. She was awakened in the middle of the night. “I leaped with my hands over my face to protect myself. A white sort of energy was crossing from one end of the room to the other. I had the feeling of being invaded—that something that was not me was in the room.”
Some years later in another apartment, another woman was sleeping next to her boyfriend when she was suddenly awakened. “Something had touched her. She saw a short, stoutish woman at her bedside. The woman’s hair was in a bun, and she was wearing a grey dress with long sleeves and a high collar. Next to her was a man.” The figures seemed to be conferring about the woman as she lay in bed. The sleeper realized after a few moments that the woman was holding her wrist, checking her pulse.
Yet another woman in an apartment in the building experienced the ethereal nurse more recently. The resident had been sick with the flu and in bed for the day when she was started awake by something cold on her forehead. She awoke to find one of the nurse’s hands on her forehead while the other hand held her wrist, checking her pulse. She tried to scream and pull away but could not. The spirit quickly faded.
The spirit, however, returned the next evening. After hearing about the spirit from another women living in the building, the woman was not so frightened. The woman addressed the spirit and said that while she appreciated the attention, she was frightened. “She took a step back from the bed, gave me an understanding smile and faded away.”
This large, grand home was not built to house the sick and the dying. It was a grand home for cigar magnate Eduardo Gato. At the outbreak of the Ten Years’ War—the first of three wars fought as Cuba tried to break away from Spain—Key West was filled with Cuban émigrés who built up the cigar-making industry on the island. Eduardo Gato built the home around 1890 possibly using Cuban carpenters though he only lived in the house for a few years before returning to Cuba in 1898. The building was briefly used as a school and then in 1911 the house opened as the Casa del Pobre (Home for the Poor) Mercedes Hospital.
Named for Eduardo Gato’s wife, the Mercedes Hospital was opened by Maria Valdez de Gutsens and a handful of other ladies who had been concerned with medical care for the poor and indigent. She was known around town as a marvelous fundraiser and personally collected money to keep the hospital running. Gutsens would haunt the exits of the local cigar factories on pay day asking for quarters for her beloved hospital.
While she was only an administrator, Gutsens aided the hospital’s small medical staff in their duties when needed. From 1911 until her death in 1941, Gutsens was a constant fixture in the hospital. She may still be there.
The tale is told that just a few months after her death a patient was in the hospital with severe pneumonia. Not being in contact with his wife and children the man pleaded for help writing to his family. An older woman appeared at his bedside and calmly wrote the letter the man dictated. Feeling better the next morning, he asked who the kindly woman was so that he could offer his thanks. The night nurse insisted that she was the only person who had been on duty and she was shocked to see the letter the man had dictated in the hand of the late Maria de Gutsens.
A year after Gutsen’s death, the hospital closed its doors and cockfights were held in the building’s Spanish courtyard. The large home then was renovated into an apartment building and remains so to this day. Tenants still encounter the grey shade of the good Maria de Gutsens checking the pulses of the living while Dr. Fogarty—one of the many doctors who served the hospital—stands quietly by.
“Ghost of Nurse Haunts Key West House.” Playground Daily News.
4 November 1976.
Eyman, Scott. “Ghost Houses in Old Key West, The Walls Have Ears—
And Eyes. Here Are Four Guests Whose Names You Won’t See on
The Register. But They’re There.” Sun-Sentinel. 4 August 1985.
McCoy, Charles E., Jr. Report on Eduardo H. Gato House for the Historic
American Buildings Survey. 16 Septrember 1966.
Sloan, David. Ghosts of Key West. Key West, FL: Phantom Press, 1998.
Williams, Joy. The Florida Keys: A History and Guide, 10th Edition.
NYC: Random House, 2010.