Old Town Coffin House of Rafael -Haunted houses, ghosts and specters, Or ? say a house of a hundred coffins! A house filled with relics gathered from graves in other words, the house of Rafael. The unknown, and ancient recluse of Old Town, a little place just north of the fair city of San Diego and within a step of gay, worldly Coronado beach, and that mecca of joy seeking, time killing millionaires, Hotel Coronado. The very strands of the dance music In the spacious ballroom of that far famed resort can be heard in the strange coffin house of Old Town. It was way back In 1769 that Rafael’s dominion was founded by Father Junipero Serra. Today the pueblo of San Diego is the oldest In the state of California boasting the title of “municipality.” Long before the smooth beach of San Diego bay was graced by a stately hotel, or a tent city was spread on the sands of the shore to satisfy the whim of society, Old Town was gay, wildly gay and filled with the pets of old Spanish aristocracy. Where today the only feature of the place is Rafael, a relic of the past, the festivities of Christmas, Easter, Lady day, Michelmas and the dramatico “Los Pastores” regularly stirred the indifferent, happy social life of the Old Town cavaliers. But where the guitars and violins cadenced to the melodies of the Spanish youth, where “La Noche Buena” and the celebration of the Astea virgin were made the occasion of high festivity, all is asleep and the house of a hundred coffins stands.
Rafael watches and death waits. It was suggested by my guide, who had offered to take me to this place, that Rafael had a story and that that ever burning light in all romance, love, might be at the bottom of his queer conduct. But whatever love might once have burned in the breast of this deserted man the world will never know. On his brow is a rugged scar. It looks like the wound from a well directed bullet. And while a gleam of intelligence sparkles from his deep set, black eyes, only a stream of Incoherent English and Spanish escapes his dry end parched lips. He is pleasant, is even affable. He will gladly show you his deserted mausoleum, but in it?s grandeur is entombed his life’s story, and that sleeps beyond the charm of any enchantress’ wand. Rafael lives with coffins instead of loves.
While his body is bent and his shoulders turned with the burden of time his head is well shaped, crowned with gray, and held high with a certain pride about his baked and wrinkled throat clings a rosary. He holds the cross and toys with the beads, chanting, chanting, chanting the while. Over his right shoulder is a white, cloth It might be a scrape, it more closely resembles a surplice. The wearer smiles and smiles, blinking in the strong, sun light, muttering a sort, of ‘buenos dios.” Rafael is a fit figure for his strange tragic life a sentinel of the dead. The House of a Hundred Coffins stands within 10 yards of the old Spanish Jail, which was once a monument of law and order in Old Town. About the jail (a crumbling adobe, ruin) jealous Rafael has twisted rusty lengths of barbed wire to shut its romantic interior from the gaze of the curious. He is sole custodian of this ancient California Bastille and none may enter. None! Yet today nothing and nobody, save the occasional hot breath of a southern California wind, stirs the little place. Other than a dozen adobe and frame places a long a low ruined Spanish hostelry and a set of silent mission bells swinging Indolently on a scaffold In the open square, nothing remains of the old life to share the melancholy territory with the man who lives with the dead. There are no more- “carnes tolendos’ nothing but the irregular chanting of some “Veni, Creator Spiritus” by Rafael like an echo of the prayer of Father Sierra, from the tomb of that great and glorious apostle of the faith.
But the House of a Hundred Coffins is a mixed feeling of awe and reverence seizes one familiar with the story of Rafael as the approach to the low brown sun burned shambles reached you whisper to your guide, “Is this it? Is that he? and then, you’re inside the crooked enclosure and in the presence of the spooky, little, man and the ghostly house. At the casket lid door is the proprietor, standing like a stoic Bony handed, headed, framed, and his looks fit his life and apparitions of death seem to swing and step across this mans threshold like, pressing past the veil of eternity into the realm of the great beyond. An assortment of old blankets piled in a box that suspiciously resembles an undertaker’s case greets one on entering. It’s the bed a bench to sit on , which was once unmistakably the lid of a coffln, he speaks of his hospitality – panels from broken coffins have made his hovel tight from wind and rain. Graveyard sprites arid elves seem to leer from every corner, and a thought of the dark night, is too horrible. The house, which San Diegans call, ?the coffin house,? is built of rough material, about 15 feet wide by 20 long, and consists of two rooms. In one the old Spaniard eats his ‘-meager meal, in the other he sleeps. Here and there is evidence of Rafael’s carpentering. Casket box wood, tops, lids,, etc., have: been utilized for furniture, from bed to foot chest. On the four walls are the old name plates which once adorned “the coffins of Old Town’s citizens. They hang like pictures on the wall. Old, . tarnished things that seem to beckon to the graves on the hill. Among it all is Rafael, forgetting yesterday and courting the hereafter. What dreams he dreams must rival the grandest apparitions of De Quincey. He needs no opium he craves no cocaine. He lives through the new and carries tunes like familiar “Las Noches Buenas.” He lives, in dreams fandangos may be danced in his hut, or feasts spread by spectral visitors at midnight. It’s all the same to Rafael Eat drink and be merry my ghosts! How Rafael acquired things that once were buried no one seems clear to understand. Once or twice within memory graves have been exhumed, and possibly Rafael gathered that which the grave diggers left. In ancient times graves might not have been dug as, deep as they are today and rain may have torn loose the hillside soil of which the forefathers of Old Town sleep. Whatever it may be, Rafael has the best of evidence coffin lids, casket tops, and name plates are his treasure trove. The very door of his castle is a coffin box lid. It boasts no number. It stands without hinges it’s a coffin box top, and it serves Rafael. Nobody annoys his odd California character. Seldom do tourists travel so far off the beaten path as to visit the little pueblo of old San Diego. Like a little city that once started to grow to, the, pearly harbor it has stopped, and today the new city of San Diego spreads out some miles beyond it, forgetting its little brother and Rafael.
Funerals are now rare in Old Town El Campo Santo cemetery, and it’s a matter of ancient record when the last took place. Yet daily at twilight Rafael says vespers at the graveyard gate. There in possibly lies his secret. perhaps his love is buried their among the mesquite. What the world knows is little, and what Rafael care for it is hardly worth the reckoning. Kind charity and good providence seem to keep Rafael alive. From a small garden patch he gleans a few vegetables and from a well he draws his drink. Rafael’s life Is like a painted scene. He moves like a shadow across the scenic background. Nothing changes in Old Town save the direction of the wind. During the day the sun shines. At night Rafael’s candle burns to throw long shadows nervously across the coffin lids and name plates. When night falls on the dry San Diego country a coffin top is drawn across the door of the house of a hundred coffins. Inside an old man dreams of New Spain. In all the strength and breadth of the southern country, from Yurna to the Santa Margarita river valley, none can be found to testify to the age of Rafael. Morena, El Cajon and La Mesa may all boast their oldest inhabitants Rafael, like a desert sphinx, smiles and dreams on among, his grewsome associations, the oldest known inhabitant of the countryside. Many tales have been told about him. Ghosts and sprites, witches and devils, all have been declared kin to the old fellow. The stories go on. Whoever knows the true one is long since departed. The mission bells of Old Town are silent. Rafael is silent. The House of a Hundred Coffins is silent. Rafael and his house stand today the mystery of San Diego County. Civilization seems to have stood still in Old Town for the last hundred years. Otherwise the strange character would probably long since “have passed from the scenes of his early life. Attempts have been made to extend charity to the old man, but nothing can win him away from his odd life. From the district attorney’s office to the church organizations, at one time or another Rafael has been an object of consideration. Some have complained, some have pitied; sweet charity seems to have triumphed. While the residents know that coffins have found their way from the graveyard into the house, no one has ever been able to accuse the man of robbing a grave or destroying the sanctity of the little hillside city of sleep. His conduct has been investigated some have attempted to have him examined by a commission. Rafael only smiles peacefully at them all, doing no harm, attending his own peculiar duties. There are numbers of hermits In America. There are hundreds in the foothills of California. San Diego County boasts Rafael, the strangest, most interesting recluse of all.
San Francisco Call, Volume 106, Number 6, 6 June 1909 Author: H. J. Rogers