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The Ghost of Watertown's Goss Opera House

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staircase at the goss opera house
A Staircase in the Goss Opera House, Watertown, SD
Friends of the Goss

Watertown retailer and developer Charles Goss had the building bearing his name erected in 1888. When the Goss Opera Hall opened in 1889, it provided retail and office space and a 1500-seat theater. It was the largest theater in South Dakota at the time. Changing times contributed to the building's long, gradual decay. It continued to serve a useful purpose in Watertown but by the 1930s, much of the building's old luster was gone.

Between 2017 and 2020, thanks to the efforts of a group of civic-minded individuals, the building underwent an extensive, 5-million dollar renovation. The Opera Hall is once again a top-tier performance space and the offices and other facilities in the building are again artfully up-to-date. But the old building has a secret. It's not a well-kept secret, but until recently, the truth of it hadn't been fully revealed.

The Goss Opera House ca. 1900

What follows is a transcript of the text on a sign now visible to Goss building visitors.

Tour guides at the Goss Opera Hall have often told a story about a traveling performer named Annie who was burned to death. But no one ever had a date or a last name of the victim, so it was hard to verify the story. After a few hours of paging through big dusty books of bound newspapers the Codington County Heritage Museum (in Watertown) found it. The story itself is quite interesting but there was no performer named Annie. Instead, they found a Lincoln hotel waitress named Maud. Here’s the story as printed in the Watertown Public Opinion:

During the evening of Friday, March 13, 1936 neighbors in the third-floor boarding rooms in the Goss Building heard fighting coming from Maud Alexander’s room. It was a common occurrence when her son Orval had been drinking. At the height of the Great Depression the rooms on the second and third floors became an affordable place to live for those who could not afford mortgages or rent larger apartments of homes.

Around 11 PM, neighbors of 48-year old Maud Alexander were startled to hear Maud screaming, “I’m burning up! I’m burning up!” When they looked in the hall, they found Maud running back-and-forth, her clothing having burned off and her skin black. Neighbors Frank Collier and Nels Pearson wrapped Maud in a large blanket to put out the flames while another neighbor, W.E. Wilson, ran to Kirwan’s Confectionary to call the police. During all the commotion, Maud’s son Orval, 28, stood in his room down the hall.

The Gergan ambulance was called to transport Maud to Bartron Hospital. Upon arriving at the hospital, a nurse asked Maud how this happened to her. “Don’t ask me. I’ll never tell,” was her response. Maud later told a doctor she had received the burns while lighting an oil stove. Maud passed away n Saturday morning as a result of burns sustained on two-thirds to three-quarters of her body. Orval was taken into custody and held without charges on Friday night. The room was closed of and inspected by the coroner who found an unlit oil stove and a full can of kerosene next to it.

States attorney Ellsworth Evans was out of town at the time of the incident. He stated that he wished to question the son in regard to the tragedy before deciding what further action would be taken. Agents from the South Dakota State Department of Justice assisted in the investigation.

During the first questioning session, Orval stated that he had started drinking on Thursday night and continued drinking all day Friday; drinking beer in the morning and then purchasing a half pint of whiskey, which he drank in the afternoon. He also took some sleeping tablets. On Friday evening, he had a drink with his mother and then went to bed. After this he remembered nothing until waking up in the jail.

Maud Alexander’s funeral was held on Wednesday, March 18. Orval was allowed to attend the funeral and was then charged with her murder immediately afterward.

On Thursday, Orval was again questioned about the incident. He told Judge Skinner that he had been addicted to the use of alcohol constantly since he was 15 years of age. He was born in Clear Lake and had attended school until eighth grade. After the formal complaint had been read to the court, charging Orval with the intentional burning to death of his mother, Judge Skinner asked if he had determined upon his plea.

“Yes,” said the defendant. “I have.”

“And what is it?” the court questioned.

“I am guilty.”

This surprised many people in the courtroom.

Evidence and Alexander’s admissions were then pieced together to tell a clearer story of what had happened. Alexander had been drinking all throughout the day, Friday, March 13, the state’s attorney told the court. His mother had bought him two half pints of whiskey at his insistence and he had supplemented the liquor by taking a quantity of sleeping tablets.

After a heated argument, Orval had dashed a quantity of medicinal alcohol over his mother’s body as she lay sleeping on the couch, and then flicked a burning match at her to ignite the fluid. A report from the state chemist, Guy G. Frary of Vermillion, revealed that a fragment of unburned clothing taken from the woman’s body had been saturated with medicinal alcohol.

Alexander made no move to aid his mother while her clothing burned from her body. He returned to his own room where he drank the rest of his liquor, took some more sleeping tablets, and shortly thereafter slipped into a stupor from which police were unable to arouse him until 6 o’clock the following morning. Orval Alexander was sentenced to 30 years on the South Dakota State Penitentiary on Friday, March 20, only seven days after the incident, and arrived at the penitentiary that same day.

Maud Alexander's room

The Goss Building was renovated inside and outside in 2019 but Maud Alexander's apartment, room 6, was locked and left as it was. People who work or spend much time in the building on their own have reportedly heard piano music and things being moved around when no one else is in the building.

The Goss before the 2019 renovation

The Goss after 2019 restoration

The Goss Opera House Theater after renovation

The Goss is Watertown's premiere performance space and continues to host both public and private events.

Learn more about the Goss Opera House and the reports of strange goings-on in the building over the years.

In the Moment

Interview with Brad Johnson, Friends of the Goss Board


"In The Moment" interview transcript:

Lori Walsh: Welcome back to In the Moment. I'm Lori Walsh. In the late 1800s, Charles Goss opened the Goss Opera House in Watertown. By the 1930s, due to changing times the building began to decay and lose a little of its luster. Within the past three years, however, that building has been under renovation, and people working on the renovation have noticed a few strange things. A piano playing, things moving about when no one else was in the building. Well, with Halloween a few days away, it's always a good time for a ghost story. Brad Johnson is a member of the Friends of the Goss board, and he is with us now. Brad, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Brad Johnson: Hey, thanks. Thanks for having me.

Lori Walsh: Let's go back in time a little bit to the 1800s, because this was not the first opera house in Watertown. Tell me a little bit about Charles Goss and this building, and where it was seen to fit in the community.

Brad Johnson: Well, Charles Goss was a man who moved from London and came to Wisconsin and made his way to Watertown, as did a lot of people from Wisconsin. And he had had a variety of misfortune before he got here. He had a family, and all of his children died before he moved here. And they started a new family and built the Goss Opera House. The first building that he built actually burned down, so fire has a history at the Goss. And he rebuilt it in the late 1880s, and it was a real mystery as to what was going on.

And at the time, it was the second opera house in Watertown, and which eventually we had three. And when he it opened, people were disappointed because we already had an opera house and they thought it was going to be more hotel rooms for the railroad. And so, it started and it had a great start. Then moved on and slowly deteriorated over the years after the 1920s and the Depression and the war, World War II. And then it started to close down, and largely sat vacant for about 70 years. Not quite 70 years. And it was resurrected beginning in 2008.

Lori Walsh: I want to talk about this idea of an Annie, and how tour guides know if you went through the Goss at a certain period of time you heard the story about this traveling performer named Annie. Talk a little bit, Brad, about finding out the truth behind who has a story that developed in this place. It's not Annie, after all.

Brad Johnson: No, it's not Annie. I actually had given many tours of the Goss telling the story of Annie, because that was what I had heard from people that had began the restoration of the Goss. And it was within the last year or so that the Codington County Historical Society finally corrected us and gave us the real story about it. We thought Annie was a traveling performer, as they had a number of traveling performers that would stay there. And they would come from Minneapolis and spend a week or two in this area because there were multiple opera houses around. But we found that was not correct, and that Maud was a person in the 1930s who was living in the house. And she ended up catching on fire. And it turned out to be it was her son that did it. Well, we thought it was the traveling performer's son, but no, it was actually an older son. They both lived in the opera house.

Lori Walsh: Who was she? Was she someone who worked there? Lived there? What do we know about her life before her death?

Brad Johnson: Maud had been a maid over at the Lincoln Hotel, which also had an opera house in it, and there were boarding rooms in the upper level of the Goss, on the third floor. And Maud and her son had rooms on that floor and they had a shared bathroom there, and there were other people that lived in there. And apparently what happened was, her son had a serious drinking issue and the two of them would drink together. And one night, one of the other people in there heard a scream, "I'm on fire. I'm on fire." And they went up and they found Maud running up and down the hallway. And they grabbed her and put the fire out, and then they took her on up to the hospital. And she was asked if she knew what had happened and she said she would never tell. And then she ended up dying.

And her son is believed to have set her on fire, although, he blacked out and he does not remember it. And he ended up getting convicted, even though there was no witnesses or anything like that. But he said, "Well, I must have done it." And so, we believe that Maud's spirit has stayed in the building because she was really afraid of what was going to happen to her son and she wasn't going to leave the building.

Lori Walsh: So this happens on Friday the 13th, in March of 1936, which when you're telling a ghost story out of a tragedy, always adds to the intrigue of it. When people say they think she is still in the building, why do they say that? What are they hearing? What are they experiencing?

Brad Johnson: Well, when the restoration began in 2008 under David Berry, who had purchased the building, they had a number of different people that would run the restaurant, would also work in the building. And they started experiencing strange things and hearing things, including a piano that was playing when nobody was in the building. And actually at the time, there wasn't a piano that worked in the building. There was a couple of old pianos that were broken, but they would talk about hearing that. And then a door would slam and there's nobody there. Other noises that they would hear.

In fact, one worker actually called the police department over because they thought somebody was in the building. And they found nobody, but the officer who came was very disturbed by a feeling and really uncomfortable being in the building. There have been a few incidences like that. It's nothing nefarious. Maud's a friendly ghost, but we believe that she's-.

Lori Walsh: Yeah, tell me what happened to her room. Can you tour her room? Is it locked? [crosstalk 00:07:55] Yeah, the original.

Brad Johnson: Yeah. Well, what happened was, the fire started in the room. And we preserved the room exactly as it was on that day, pretty much. As you walk into the room, you'll see the old paint from the 1930s. The fire started in a corner and it went up the wall and it charred all of the painting on the ceiling. And you'll see the black paint that's hanging off of the ceiling, there's a big area of kerosene on the floor and a charred area. And if you wipe your finger on that, you'll come up with kerosene on your finger. So it's still there.

We preserved the room out of honor and respect to a Maud, and also as a way to show the people what the opera house looked like, especially when we started this last renovation about two years ago now. That whole third floor was in a state of disrepair. We've since renovated the entire third floor except for Maud's room.

Lori Walsh: I want to expand on something you just said about remembering her and honoring her life, and this really difficult life she had with a son who had addiction issues, and who she cared about even though her body had been saturated with medicinal alcohol. He went to prison for his role in her death, for killing her, even though he didn't remember it. We love a good ghost story, Brad, but when I think of Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos, and some of these things are really about remembering the people who have gone before us, what their lives were like. And as difficult and complicated that they were, this humanity with all the performers that come into the Goss and all the people who have seen shows, the people who have lived there, who have suffered there, it's a real time to pause.

When you take people through the opera house, when you go through the opera house yourself, or talk about its history and its legacies, your role on the board, do you get caught in that moment every once in a while, to just say, "This is why we preserve some of these historic spaces"?

Brad Johnson: Well, I always think about the original entertainers that came there, and I think about Charles Goss and why he built that beautiful facility, is because it's a community gathering space. And as we know, we need places where people can get together, especially today. We're all looking forward to being able to return to those places. And over the years, so many of our buildings get destroyed or torn down, and we don't put the effort into saving our history. And this is a real prime example of a community coming together to save its history. And to be able to walk into the building, you can almost hear the voices of the entertainers from 100 years ago, standing on the stage and just looking out. You just feel the presence of the people that have been there before.

Lori Walsh: Yeah. I love that. Brad Johnson is with the Friends of the Goss board. We've been talking for Images of the Past today, and you can find photos of this and the full story on our website, Brad, thank you so much.

Brad Johnson: Well, thank you for having me, and I encourage people to come up and visit us.