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Arts & Life

The Ghost of Watertown's Goss Opera House

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Friends of the Goss
A Staircase in the Goss Opera House, Watertown, SD

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.

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Maud Alexander's room

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.

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The Goss Opera House ca. 1900

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.

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.

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The Goss after 2019 restoration

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.