Bobby Mackey’s Music World: Honky-Tonk Heaven or Hell?

by Michelle Mason

Bobby Mackey's Music WorldI grew up in Cincinnati, just across the river from Bobby Mackey’s Music World.  For locals, the country music bar is a cornerstone of the area’s haunted folklore; it also repeatedly tops lists of haunted places in America and has been featured on shows like Ghost Adventures and A Haunting. It has also been investigated by many paranormal groups, and been written about by local writer Doug Hensley in the book Hell’s Gate: Terror at Bobby Mackey’s Music World.  Even though I had heard so much about the place, I had actually never set foot inside Mackey’s, so when the opportunity arose to take a private tour of the bar on a sweltering early August evening a few weeks back, I jumped at the chance.

Before my visit, I did some research online to refresh my memory regarding the stories I’d heard about the place; stories about Pearl Bryan, the headless ghost that supposedly haunts the place, along with the Johanna, the wandering spirit of a former singer who apparently committed suicide there.  I had also heard that the building was originally a slaughterhouse that was rumored to be a site of worship for a satanic cult after the slaughterhouse shut down in the late 1800s, and that supposedly Pearl Bryan’s head was dumped into the well in the basement, where the group’s sacrifices were performed.  What I wasn’t aware of was the violent and tragic history that apparently took place at the site as it changed owners over the years; at one time the then-reconstructed building housed a speakeasy and was later a casino and hangout for gangsters, known as Primrose.  It went on to become The Latin Quarter (during the days of Johanna), and then the Hard Rock Café (which was closed down because of fatal shootings that took place there; it has no affiliation with the chain) before its current incarnation.

Warning Sign in Bobby Mackey'sBobby Mackey’s is situated ten minutes south of Downtown Cincinnati in Wilder, Kentucky, with only a set of train tracks separating it from the Licking River (one of the few rivers that flows north, running into the Ohio River).  It’s an unassuming, run-down building; the kind of place that seems to revel in staying the same, even when everything else around it changes.  If you somehow came to Mackey’s without having any prior knowledge of their near iconic status as a haunted establishment, you’d quickly learn about it as soon as you walk in the door, where a warning to all patrons – exonerating Bobby Mackey’s from any liability should you find yourself the object of the wrath of any ghosts – hangs in the entryway.

I met Matt Coates, the club’s caretaker, security and sound person, in the bar area, which is situated between the stage and dance floor, and the infamous mechanical bull.  The former caretaker was Carl Lawson, the one whose experiences while working there and living in an apartment above the bar were well-documented in Hensley’s book.  Lawson was allegedly possessed at one point and an exorcism was performed on him at the bar, so with the role must come a bit of apprehension.  But Coates is pretty matter-of-fact about it all, despite his own experiences.

“You name it, I’ve experienced it,” Coates says.  He notes that, in addition to seeing and hearing things, he’s had his tool bag and other items disappear on him.  He’s experienced a force that felt like arms throw him against a wall in the basement and says that he was at one point “mildly possessed,” with feelings of extreme anger and hostility that would only subside after leaving the establishment.

He’s quick to point out that, before working at Mackey’s, he didn’t even really believe in ghosts, noting that “I’m the biggest debunker there is.”  When probed about why he still works there, despite all that he’s witnessed, he just shrugs and says that he feels drawn to it.

The Well at Bobby Mackeys
The Well – a portal to hell?

Taking us downstairs to the basement, Coates pointed out what’s left of the infamous well, which is now nothing more than a shallow hole in the ground (and the only original structure still remaining from the old slaughterhouse).  This is where the blood from animal sacrifices was apparently drained; rumors say it’s also where Pearl Bryan’s head was dumped, and Coates tells me that allegedly handicapped children were sacrificed here as well.  We then stepped back into what’s called the “Room of Faces,” where, if you look closely, you’ll see impressions in the wall that resemble both human and demonic faces.   Coates dismisses this phenomenon as being water damage on the cement walls (I agree with him wholeheartedly), but what’s more interesting about this room is that it’s the one where Coates was thrown against a wall.  He also says that he once saw a glowing pentagram shining on the floor in this room, which had never been there before and quickly disappeared.

Room of Faces at Bobby Mackey's
Room of Faces

We took some time to explore the old jail cell (left over from the gangster days) and the dressing rooms, including the one that belonged to Mackey’s most famous ghost, Johanna.  People have claimed to smell roses here – apparently Johanna’s signature perfume – but the only thing I could smell was the musty scent that usually accompanies old basements.  Like the rest of the building, the basement doesn’t look like it has changed much since Mackey bought the place in 1978; it doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned or dusted since then, either.  As I mentioned earlier, I think that may be a part of the appeal of Bobby Mackey’s – it is firmly rooted to the past, and unwilling to change.   This is especially evident in the fact that, despite not believing in ghosts himself (or wanting to be associated with them), Bobby Mackey has stayed put on the property.

When I asked why Mackey has never tried to sell the place and build at a new location, if he really is as serious as he claims to be about wanting to be known for the traditional country music rather than for ghosts, Coates tells me that Mackey did buy the adjacent lot to try and rebuild the club at one point, but a fault line running beneath the original establishment was discovered, which rendered the surrounding property useless.

The fact that Bobby Mackey’s rests on top of a fault line and is very close to train tracks, water and power lines leads me to wonder how much of the “paranormal activity” experienced here is maybe the result of geopathic stress or exposure to electromagnetic energy, which can create hallucinations and a heightened sense of anxiety, among other things.  I didn’t conduct an investigation while I was there, but high EMF readings have been captured at Bobby Mackey’s during investigations I’ve read about online, so I would be curious to hear more from teams who have conducted investigations there.  My skeptical side also feels the need to point out, that, if you try to look for factual evidence of some of the events that allegedly took place here, you won’t find it, especially in the case of the Pearl Bryan’s missing head.  The connection of her death to Mackey’s – established in Hensley’s book – seems to be unsubstantiated and far-fetched, with no proof that her murderers ever dumped her head in the well in the first place, two miles away from where her dismembered body was discovered. I have an easier time believing that perhaps a few spirits may be lingering from the Primrose and Latin Quarter days.

Needless to say, many investigators, employees and patrons believe that Bobby Mackey’s is haunted, and Matt Coates has resigned himself to what he hopes will be a peaceful co-existence with whatever may be present at the establishment.  He says hello to the spirits when he arrives at work, and tells me that he asks them “not to mess with me when I’m not in the mood.”  While Mackey wouldn’t go so far as to formally acknowledge the ghosts, he does pay tribute to the famous legend when he performs his song “The Ballad of Johanna.”

Coates was there when the crew from Ghost Adventures came back to investigate the honky-tonk for the second time; that episode airs on the Travel Channel on Friday, October 1st.  Those interested in conducting an investigation of their own can contact the club directly; the promotions manager told me that six-hour investigations can take place on weeknights for a $595 fee.  Or, if you’re just looking for a ghost tour, those take place on weekends during normal club hours for $5.  Regardless of whether or not you spot any ghosts during your visit (I didn’t), you’ll definitely have an experience – even if it’s just a strange, overwhelming desire to line dance to genuine country music, or getting possessed by the effects of Miller Lite and taking a ride on the mechanical bull.

Bobby Mackey's mechanical bull