Arizona Myths and Legends: The Coal Man of the Adams Hotel

Arizona’s employers have a long tradition of exploiting the working man, but few can beat the case of the Coal Man of the Adams Hotel — and the cruel end that leaves his haunted visage wandering the Adams Hotel’s successor at 100 N. 1st Street.

In 1890s Phoenix, the territorial capital was still Prescott, and what would become the state’s largest city was an agricultural community and rail hub that lived in the shadows of Tuscon and Prescott. Nevertheless, thanks to the coming of the Southern Pacific rail line, tourists and travelers from back east began to trickle into the city to experience the dying hours of the Old West. Though it had never truly been a frontier town like Tombstone, Phoenix was able to attract a growing tourist trade thanks to its proximity to the railroads and its pleasant winter climate.

And no hotel shone like the Adams Hotel, the city’s premier luxury establishment. Built in 1896 of pine and in Victorian style, the Adams Hotel reflected the growing ambitions of the little city, and its desire to be a central place not only in Arizona but in the whole southwest.

Run by a certain Mr. John Adams, who would twice be the city’s mayor, the Adams Hotel catered to the best of society who came looking around Phoenix for a taste of the West. It had fully stocked casks of whiskey, beer, and champagne on ice for its prestigious clientele, while it filled its restaurant with the finest foods it could import from California and Texas. To preserve such luxury was hard work, and took many workers much of their time to maintain.

Alas, Mr. Adams was not a terribly scrupulous employer, paranoid of his reputation, and in the territorial ambiguity of the time, and in the spirit of the Gilded Age which was then cramming children into factories in the east, Mr. Adams often found the weakest chains in the social link to force into hard labor.

Among them was a man who worked the hotel’s boiler, an important luxury of the day, and who was tasked with the difficult job of overseeing its stocking with coal around the clock. Toiling alone with not even an apprentice to help him, the Coal Man was a shadow to the hotel’s rich and famous coming and going from the pristine luxury of the Adams. But the Coal Man did not merely stock the coal and maintain the boiler. When time permitted, Mr. Adams demanded of him a unique task well-suited to his unknown identity.

The Coal Man’s full background is not known — some say he was an Italian immigrant, or an Irish peddler on the run from the law, or a Mexican who found the border had jumped his family years prior, or even a freed slave exploited one last time by the white man. His ambiguity is in part because Mr. Adams kept him out of sight as a matter of policy, as he dispatched the boiler man not only beneath the hotel but within its walls as well.

For Mr. Adams, keen on recouping his investment, and himself a social climber, was ever concerned that the rich and famous might flee his hotel should he lose sight of their tastes and affinities. So he dispatched the Coal Man to lurk within the walls of the building in the early hours of the evening, listening carefully for complaints that Mr. Adams could readily address, and for gossip and idle chatter that he could use to blackmail those who would not be otherwise convinced that the Adams Hotel was the finest in Arizona. Crammed between the wall, the Coal Man would memorize whole conversations to recount for Mr. Adams, before being forced back into the depths of the boiler room to work another night shift.

This state of affairs continued for many years, and though Mr. Adams found himself in ownership of troves of stories and tittle-tattle, the Coal Man found no promotion nor escape from his servitude. To have done a good job was to prove not his eligibility for promotion, but rather his suitability for his present post: Mr. Adams had no intention of changing the social order by allowing some unknown upstart out of the shadows. As the legend goes, the Coal Man began to report misinformation to sabotage Mr. Adams, and having no other means of checking the Coal Man’s veracity (he being the sole informant Mr. Adams could utilize), Mr. Adams found himself on the receiving end of acute embarrassment, as he addressed complaints not made, or tried to blackmail guests with falsehoods.

After 14 years of operation, the Adams Hotel was beginning to show its age — and Mr. Adams manner of management had alienated both staff and guests. The shrinking roster of guests especially was a call for alarm. Then, somewhere in the spring of 1910, Mr. Adams caught the Coal Man in a lie — for the Coal Man had reported a blatant falsehood to Mr. Adams about a guest, one that even Mr. Adams could see through. And thus was set into motion Mr. Adams’ plan for revenge.

On May 17, 1910, the Coal Man was conducting his typical rounds of eavesdropping on the early summer crowd, of whom there were few. The heat and years of sun had turned the Adams Hotel into a desiccated matchbox, and the Coal Man found himself trapped in an oven of a crawlspace near the presidential suite, straining to hear a conversation between guests. As the story goes, Mr. Adams ordered him to remain there all night, convinced that these particular guests — an industrial magnate from Boston and his wife — held the key to future success. And so the Coal Man slept in the crawl space, waiting for their arousal in the morning.

But it was not to be. In the early hours, fire raced through the Adams Hotel. The precise spark is not totally known, though it appeared to come from the basement; most whisper that Mr. Adams himself set the blaze. In any case, the dry wind and years of summer exposure conspired to fuel the flames into an inferno. Phoenix’s residents haplessly watched the hotel burn and crumble, and a few guests escaped by a hair.

The Adams Hotel burns with the Coal Man inside.

But there was no sign of the Coal Man, until during the aftermath his charred bones were found amongst the rubble. Mr. Adams could not explain the body — it was neither guest nor worker, he claimed, and the bones were put into a potters’ field not far away. Mr. Adams resolved to build a newer, better hotel on its spot, and in 1911 a second Adams Hotel was constructed of concrete. That, at least, should have been the end of it.

Except that guests in the newer hotel began to complain of scratching within the walls, and the boiler room’s new attendees — of which Mr. Adams felt compelled to hire more than one for this bigger structure — described a feeling of being watched from the shadows. One worker quit in 1932 after seeing a figure he said was “a man covered in coal dust and ash lunging at him from a darkened corner of the room.”

In 1941, one guest reported seeing a pair of eyes watching from holes drilled in her bathroom wall; upon bringing management up for inspection, the holes were filled, the eyes vanished. Many rooms lacked the crawl space of the old Adams, and yet the recurring pair of eyes would haunt many a room, especially in the early hours of the morning — and despite quick investigation, they rarely remained for long.

A newspaperman decided to investigate these occurrences in 1944. He wrote that he’d felt a deep sense of dread in the boiler room, followed by a wave of cold that swept through despite the boiler burning nearby. “I have never felt such a thing before or since,” he wrote later, “and I hope never to do so again.”

The Coal Man appeared in bathrooms, in closets, in empty halls, especially when guests found themselves in the midst of gossip or rumor mongering. In fact, his attraction to his old duties remains a common theme of his hauntings — for as soon as a guest of the Hotel Adams turned to scurrilous talk, they would often feel a chill embrace them, even in the dead of summer. Some would then report seeing eyes appear in random walls, or a shadowy figure begin to stalk them in the halls.

Yet most prominent of all the Coal Man haunting stories must be the final hours of Mr. Adams himself, who in 1921 fell ill to an unknown disease, and decided to spend his last days in his hotel. Mr. Adams confounded doctors and friends as he demanded to know who the man in the corner was, but all witnesses claim he was shouting at nothing. Mr. Adams, in between coughs and starts, focused ever more intently on the corner until dawn came. Mr. Adams’ doctor, upon returning for his morning shift, was the last to see Mr. Adams alive — as well as the figure standing over him. A man caked in coal dust, shadowy and smelling of soot, was holding his hand, but disappeared as soon as the doctor approached. Mr. Adams expired at that moment.