When most people think of an ideal bar, death is probably not in the picture. But Captain Tony's Saloon in Key West, Florida somehow does morbidity right.
Tony's, located just off the island's infamous Duval Street, became a local watering hole in 1931. Before the saloon's existence, the building served as the local morgue-slash-icehouse, because it was the coldest spot in town. Although the morgue-turned bar has warmed up a bit since then, it's certainly still cool, exuding the type of eccentric, rogue charm that Key West is known for.
Upon arriving at Captain Tony's Saloon during a recent visit, I asked the bouncer what he thought I should know about the place. He didn't hesitate to point out the headstone located in the middle of the building, as well as the "lynching tree" that grew above it. I later came to discover that 79 people died in that tree.
Just common bar history, right?
I ordered the bar's special, the "Pirate Punch," served in a Captain Tony's souvenir cup. The tropical rum concoction reminds the drinker of the Caribbean town right outside of the former morgue they are in. Along with the drinks, stories of mortality are continually served by bartenders Ian and Mitch, who have worked here for one and 14 years, respectively.
One story, of the "lady in blue," took place in the bar's very own lynching tree. Legend has it that a woman was hanged there after killing her own husband and two children, except her neck didn't break right away. Instead, she hung alive from the trees for two days, until she eventually suffocated and died, hence the nickname. To this day, patrons have reported seeing flashes of blue in the women's restroom.
Neither bartender seemed too fazed by the place's deadly history. Ian showed me an area of the bar that hosted a few corpses in the ground underneath, pointing out how the floorboards were laid flush, "out of respect for the bodies, you know." It turns out that section of the bar was a graveyard at some point.
"It freaks a lot of people out," Mitch admitted.
At this point, I was convinced that the place was haunted, and I wasn't the only one who thought so. Bottles filled with holy water line one of the building's walls, left there from when the morgue lost 13 bodies that were being stored there during a hurricane. The local Bahamians wanted to keep the evil juju spirits inside, which was probably a good idea. And apparently those spirits are still lurking, according to Ian, who described watching the bathroom door open and close by itself when he was alone inside the bar one morning.
Ironically, the lonely headstone in Tony's doesn't have a dead body underneath it. Legend has it that a scorned widower threw it there after learning that his wife was cheating on him with the late Captain Tony himself (who, Mitch told me, was apparently quite the womanizer). The husband had intended to dig up the body, but he could only manage the headstone. It seems like death was somehow even a part of the captain's love affairs.
To be fair, the bar isn't all corpses and ghosts. Sure, there are shrunken heads that hang as decoration, but some of Tony's history isn't so morbid. A stroll around the counter reveals a long list of celebrities who have consumed libations at the former morgue, including Eric Clapton, Al Pacino, and Ernest Hemingway, who was a regular here. It's also the birthplace of the "Red Headed Slut," the classic shot made from Jägermeister, peach schnapps, and cranberry juice. I'm assuming the captain's alleged promiscuity had something to do with the name, but I can't be sure.
Some people might be put off by so much death and mystery within a bar. But there really is something for everyone at Tony's, from the pool tables to the extensive history and live music. You don't need to be a ghost story enthusiast to have fun at Captain Tony's Saloon, but it certainly helps.