Hertzberg Circus Museum now The Brisco Western Art Museum

Front of Hertzburg Circus Museum now the Briscoe Western Art Building.

The Hertzberg Circus collection, owned by the San Antonio public library, is housed in an old white stone building just one block west of Alamo Street. Today This is the Biscoe Western Art Museum. During a storytelling event in 1993, several museum staff members chastised the speaker for not including The Hertzberg Museum story in his book about San Antonio’s ghosts. 

After receiving an article from the museum administrator, Dr. Robert O’Connor, the speaker realized the Hertzberg story was fascinating and deserved further research. 

The story of Hertzberg is a peculiar twist to a heinous crime that remains unsolved. The story goes back to the early days of the Texas settlement when John McMullen, an influential citizen, built a fine house where the Hertzberg Museum is located today. 

In 1853, a thief bound and gagged McMullen, leaving him to bleed to death. The murderer was never caught. James McGloin, McMullen’s former partner, and close friend, arrived home from a trip to Matamoros and was haunted by a sense of foreboding. He settled into his favorite chair in front of the fire while his wife went outside.

Just then, McGloin heard the sound of wings beating frantically on the front door, and he was filled with a sense of terrible dread. Turning towards the door, which was barred against intruders, he saw a white mist float in and suddenly take on the shape of a human being. From out of the mist stepped the image of John McMullen. 

He was wearing a white nightshirt, and blood was spurting, gey­ ser-like, from a wound in his neck. Although his lips were moving, McGloin could not make out what his friend was say­ ing, and the apparition soon vanished into the mist from which it had come, leaving McGloin highly shaken.

When McGloin got to San Antonio, he could hear the tolling of the bells at San Fernando Cathedral. He saw candles glowing from the windows of McMullen’s house; a few men were also on the front porch.

 As James McGloin got off his horse, the horse shivered, snorted, and dropped dead on the ground. One of the men who knew McGloin asked him how he had heard of McMullen’s murder so fast.

He answered that he didn’t hear anything; he felt he needed to get to San Antonio to help his father-in-law. When McGloin entered his father’s in-law’s home, John McMullen had just been laid out in a coffin.

 His throat had been cut! McGloin was told that McMullen had adopted a green-eyed Mexican boy, and they all believed he was the murderer.

Nobody ever found the young boy. Some say they think the boy had weight tied onto his body, and he was thrown in the river beside the home and was murdered along with John McMullen. Today this is where the Briscoe Western Art Museum stands. They say John McMullen’s spirit can still be felt on the property today.

Ghost Stories About The Hertzberg Circus Museum

One employee of the museum has reported strange occurrences while working. They have seen a shadowy figure moving around out of the corner of their eye, and an electrician working in the building claimed to have seen a ghost. Another former staff member reported hearing the sound of keys jangling and footsteps on the third floor but could never locate their source.

The staff members were never frightened despite feeling a presence and hearing unexplained noises. One strange incident involved two employees hearing banging noises on the elevator door from the sixth floor, despite no one else in the building at the time. The cause of these occurrences remains a mystery.

Lara recounted some strange occurrences during his time working at the museum. On one occasion, he heard his name whispered in his ear while in the kitchen with two female employees, only to turn around and find himself alone. Another time, he heard books fall on the fifth floor but found no explanation for their cause.

Both Lara and the new curator, John Slate, have reported feeling a presence in the building. Lara also witnessed a shimmering light on the second floor, which he couldn’t explain. It’s unclear whether these experiences are related to the museum’s circus memorabilia collection or are connected to the restless spirit of John McMullen, who was killed over 150 years ago.

More About The Old Hertzberg Museum

The Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum is a part of the San Antonio Public Library created by Harry Hertzberg, a prominent San Antonio lawyer, civic leader, and state senator. It is the oldest public circus collection in America and one of the largest in the world, and the only one of its kind. Hertzberg was an avid circus enthusiast and also collected rare books.

Both his collections were bequeathed to the San Antonio Public Library, of which he was a trustee. The museum primarily focuses on documenting the circus’ history and contributions to American culture. 

In 1942 the collections were dedicated and housed in two new wings on the third floor. The circus archives and artifacts were placed in separate rooms. At the same time, rare books were available in the reading room until the late 1980s. The collections are a valuable asset to the San Antonio River Walk and are a popular tourist destination.

The Circus/Popular Arts Collection and Archives consists of more than 42,000 items, including artifacts, programs, prints, photographs, sound recordings, sheet music, and manuscripts. The Rare Book Collection contains close to 15,000 volumes, including 100 illuminated manuscripts, a Gutenberg Bible, a first edition of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, and signed letters from Mendelssohn, Clay, and Zola. Furthermore, the museum also houses a library devoted to the American circus and popular culture. 

It has six exhibit areas, a temporary gallery, a special place for children’s programming, and a video and library room for receptions and programs.

In 2001 the city of San Antonio closed the Hertzberg Circus Collection and Museum. However, in accordance with his will, the Witte Museum received the collection in 2003.

 It is now supported by the City of San Antonio, admission fees, gift shop sales, donations, grant requests, and annual fund-raisers. The museum staff is a member of the American Association of Museums as well as the Texas Association of Museums. 

It also has two new performing arts groups affiliated with it, the Hertzberg Puppet Theatre and the Hertzberg Street Theatre Troupe.