The Gato House in Key West, named for the Cuban cigar maker Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, is certainly a building rich with cigar lore and historic importance.
Key West is home to many ghosts and the island residents take the ghostly viewings seriously, but with a sense of humor. One of those ghost stories involves the Gato House located at 1209 Virginia Street.
Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, a Cuban immigrant, made his fortune in the cigar industry. Gato was a Cuban patriot who helped finance Cuba's revolutionary leaders including Cuban National hero José Martí, who fought for freedom from Spain.
E.H. Gato Factory
Gato came to Key West in 1874. He was instrumental in Key West's evolution from a small fishing town to one of Florida's wealthiest cities through his development of the Cuban tobacco industry. He built the island’s foremost cigar factory, where millions of cigars, using Vuelta Abajo tobacco, imported from Cuba, were hand rolled and boxed for shipment worldwide.
Cuban rollers were producing the best cigars at two-thirds the cost of production in Cuba. On the mainland, American cigar manufacturers were producing cigars with Spanish sounding names that they claimed were produced in Key West.
Artwork was pirated from the E.H. Gato Factory’s most popular brands; Mi Preferida and La Estrella. Lawsuits were settled and in the 1880s, manufacturers developed an official Key West cigar seal.
Gatoville & The Gato House
Some cigar makers built colonies of cottages near their factories where workers could rent or buy. Gato’s cluster of cottages became known as “Gatoville”. In 1917, Gato built the first fireproof cigar factory on Simonton Street employing nearly 500 workers.
The Gato house, with its ornate Queen Anne style detailing, was built circa 1894 at the southernmost end of the island facing the ocean. Although constructed of wood with Victorian trim, typical of the late nineteenth century, the large building's central courtyard is reminiscent of Cuban architecture.
In 1911, Gato permitted a philanthropic group of Cuban residents to use the building as a hospital for indigents. Gato and his family no longer resided in the house. The hospital was named in honor of his wife, Mercedes calling it Casa de la Pobre Mercedes Hospital, also referred to as Mercedes Hospital.
The Mercedes Hospital was run most of its years by Maria Valdez de Gustens, addressed as Mother Gustens. The Mercedes Hospital continued till the beginning of World War II when it closed. The former Mercedes Hospital then became an apartment house.
The Haunting of the Gato House
In the interim between being the Mercedes Hospital and an apartment house, the building was empty and deteriorating and many windows had been broken. The rear of the building became a popular place for cockfights. The apartment building has since acquired an additional description; a ghost house.
Resident Jan Stefano was in bed sleeping with her boyfriend when she felt someone touching her wrist. She woke immediately. She observed a short stout woman at her bedside. The woman was wearing a gray dress and her hair was fashioned in a bun. Standing next to the woman was a man.
The woman appeared to be in charge. Stefano thought the woman was taking her pulse. When she turned to wake her boyfriend, the ghosts disappeared. Most Conchs and longtime Key West residents believe the event occurred and that it was Mother Gustens who walks the house looking after its occupants.
On April 11, 1973, Eduardo H. Gato House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Whether the ghosts have been sighted since, I have not been able to ascertain.