AT the end of our interview, I asked Ryan Puls a regular question in my rotation: “Anything else?”
“Well,” he said. “Everyone likes talking about the ghost.”
Ghost? What ghost?
Why, that would be Faceless Fred, a regular topic of conversation and a sometimes hazy vision in the hallways at Speakeasy.
Lots of diners order a steak and a drink before requesting a special side of ghost story. So here’s the brief but spooky tale of Faceless Fred and how he came to be, as Ryan tells it. Read this over a plate of steak, or not.
Back in the day, the Speakeasy building was a general store, and a guy named Fred owned it. Other versions of the tale say that instead of the Speakeasy being in the same building as Fred’s general store, it’s instead built on the site of a well that comes into play later. And others say that instead of being a meek general store owner, Fred was a longtime philanderer and whiskey maker who actually ran a roadhouse.
I’ll pause here for the first fact check. I called the Nebraska Prairie Museum in Holdrege to see if they could confirm any of this. Sandra Slater, who works in the library at the museum, said that the building formerly was a general store.
“My brother bought a pair of shoes there,” she said; he was born in the ’30s. Her guess was that the general store closed sometime in the 1940s.
OK. Back to the tale.
One day, a general -- “General Hooker,” Ryan says -- came through town. Prostitutes followed his platoon, so it goes.
I’ll pause here for another fact check: A band of prostitutes is said to have followed the division of Gen. Joseph Hooker, and versions of this legend say the women were known as “General Hooker’s Army,” though that doesn’t have anything to do with the term “hooker,” since it already existed. Hooker County, Nebraska, is named for him, though.
Anyway, Fred had relations with one of General Hooker’s ladies. His wife was unhappy when she found out. Her solution? Murder her husband, and (shudder) cut off his face, or at least most of it. She disposed of Fred, Ryan says, either in the well outside the shop, or in the road out front. Fred is said to travel back and forth between those two places, right through Speakeasy.
I asked the natural question, then: “Have you ever seen him?”
A bartender was closing one night, Ryan says. All the doors were locked.
“A man came in wearing a flannel shirt and overalls, and ordered a whiskey,” Ryan said. “The bartender turned around from counting the money, and no one was there.”
Ghost hunters have come to the restaurant looking for Fred. Though they’ve never found him, they reported finding others, including a woman who died in a prairie fire and her daughter.
If you want to know what Fred looks like, go to the elevator lobby at Speakeasy. There’s a painted portrait of him there: flannel shirt, overalls, blank face.
“We have people come in just for that,” Ryan says, smiling.