This is the tale of two grand theaters in Old Sacramento. The physical theater now lies under Old Sacramento in California’s capitol city. The theater of the bizarre was acted out just before the city of Sacramento was raised a few stories in height to prevent the frequently overflowing Sacramento River from washing over the most important part of town.
The “Excelsior” Theatre was the scene of many a wild penny opera and more than a few murderous brawls. One poor soul was whipped to death in full view of a horrified crowd. The whipping was carried out by an itenerant gold prospector who believed that he had been unfairly divested of his gold coins in one of the rigged poker games that went on in the upper rooms of the Excelsior Hotel.
The poor victim was flayed to the bone, but suffered for days before he expired. It later turned out that he had no part in the purloining of anyone’s gold, so the murderer was hanged a few days later.
In late August of 1851, there arrived a very special lady performer who held court at the old Excelsior Hotel. She was a comely lass named Elissa who was rumored to have fled the outcome of a shameful series of incidents in County Cork, Ireland.
Elissa would elegantly toss her wild mane of flaming hair and knew how to discreetly show a little more leg than was necessary. Her performances attracted no small amount of interest from the visiting gold prospectors and ranchers who frequently found their way to the Excelsior for a bit of prime beef and female companionship.
When Elissa arrived in Sacramento, she was a member of Lawrence O’Hanlon’s Traveling Road Show. O’Hanlon longed for a permanent theatrical home, but quickly decided that San Francisco was a very crowded town. As a result, he found himself and his troupe more or less settled in Sacramento and at the Excelsior Hotel.
Elissa was rumored to be O’Hanlon’s daughter, but some suspected that she was playing a different role in his life. Other rumors floated around, the most popular one being that O’Hanlon and his “daughter” had to abandon his family estate back in County Cork after a powerful noble set his sights on the girl.
Elissa was certainly good at becoming the apple of a gentleman’s eye. Before long, she attracted a prosperous rancher who owned a thousand acres and five thousand head of prime cattle over in the Sierra foothills. The rancher was a foreigner who well known for producing quality meats. He was also highly regarded as a man of fine education. He preferred for his possessions to be of a unique and high quality nature. The rancher was well known to be an honorable man who paid promptly and well for fine craftsmanship and quality work.
Otherwise, no one in Sacramento knew very much about the “Elegant Rancher”, as he was called. There was once a Ruskii man who appeared to know the Rancher, but that Ruskii man moved on to Nevada City before anyone could ask any nosy questions.
On Saturday nights, the elegant rancher would show up early to sit at the front of the class and be educated by Miss Elissa. It was not long before he worked up the nerve to approach her “father” and to plead his case for her hand in marriage. When that option was refused, he threatened to engage in an elopement, and was promptly shot and killed by O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon, a master of leaving others to clean up his messes, dumped the Rancher’s body into the rising Sacramento River, packed up his troupe, but moved on without Elissa.
The brokenhearted young woman was at least able to stay at the Excelsior Hotel for a few weeks, serving as a performer and “ladies manager”. The light had permanently gone out of her eyes, however. She took to a little bit of drink, but no one could figure out which man, O’Hanlon or the Elegant Rancher, had been the source of her heartbreak.
No one was able to find the rancher’s body. The Winter of 1852 arrived.
The next Spring, the Sacramento River rose and become ever so treacherous, making it impossible to ever find, let alone recover the dead Rancher’s body.
Elissa recovered and married the Hotel manager. But one night, O’Hanlon returned like a thief in the night, slipped into the Excelsior Hotel, and demanded Elissa’s favors. As O’Hanlon attempted to force his attentions on the young lass, the ensuing racket attracted all who were present at the Excelsior hotel on that night.
Seeing that he was outnumbered, O’Hanlon killed the unlucky Elissa, then charged up the stairs toward the attic rooms of the hotel, hoping to make his escape across the rooftops of Old Sacramento.
The outraged crowd chased O’Hanlon up five sets of stairs as if they were on level ground, but once they reached the large landing that served as an entrance to the attic rooms, the group was held back by a pair of sturdy oak doors that were built to keep the attic off limits to thieves and drunken guests.
One exhausted pursuer managed to shout, “Well, how did O’Hanlon manage to get in there?”
Someone else, equally exhausted, huffed out a quick answer “He must have stolen Elissa’s key!”
“Elissa never had a key! She hated coming up here!” The manager replied.
Sounds of a violent struggle came from behind the oak doors. Everyone assumed that it was O’Hanlon trying to break through to the rooftop since no one else should have been occupying those rooms.
Suddenly, the violent sounds ceased and were replaced by a loud and singular keening noise that resonated through the impenetrable wood of the massive doors. The keening was somewhat musical, but there was no recognizable song. Before the manager could stop his hands from shaking enough to unlock the doors, a final sound came from the attic rooms:
Then there was silence.
Elissa’s husband, the Excelsior Hotel’s manager finally burst into the first attic room. He was joined by a deputy Sheriff. The the two men immediately rushed through several rooms before they were exposed to a scene that made them regret their decisions to ever get involved.
Despite the weakness and unreliability of the light that emitted from their trembling lanterns, it was obvious to those who entered that last attic room that O’Hanlon was dead. He had been ceremoniously murdered, but was done so by a most cruel hand and in a completely heartless way. His headless body was suspended from a chain and hook, the murder so fresh that his corpse was still swinging in an arc.
Worse, a bloody set of boot prints led straight to an exterior wall and ended there. There was no damage to the wall to indicate that a human had broken through in order to escape. An escape through that wall would have been fruitless, anyway, because the other side of the wall led only to a drop into the violent and rushing Sacramento River.
Whoever had beheaded O’Hanlon and hung him up like a side of beef had taken the head and escaped, but darned if anyone could figure out how!
And no one accounted for a stolen attic key. No key was found on O’Hanlon’s body nor was a key found anywhere in the attic rooms.
Only two bits of evidence were found. That evidence shed a horrible light on the identity of O’Hanlon’s murderer. There was a machete of such fine steel and unique design that only one person was known to have such a weapon. The hook from which O’Hanlon was hung could only have been crafted by one man, the owner of a particular ranch in the Sierra foothills.
The owner of the ranch, the machete, and the hook was the very same Rancher who had been killed by O’Hanlon.
Three days later, the machete and the hook disappeared from the Sheriff’s lockup. The Sheriff was shot and died before finding out what happened, but both items reappeared at the ranch. The hook was found hanging in it’s traditional spot in the iron works shed, and the machete was found resting in it’s cabinet in the rancher’s library.
And the Rancher’s bones still rest somewhere at the bottom of the beautiful Sacramento River.