Haunted Milwaukee
by Kristine Hansen

10/27/05 - Milwaukee Shepherd Express

When it comes to haunted experiences, there are two camps: those who believe and those who don’t. I fall into the crack of the reluctantly converted, thanks to my friend Shawn who adores the idea of spirits, and last year bought an electromagnetic ghost sensor. But even before this she dragged me to Humboldt Park on a Saturday afternoon, whipped out a Ouija board, lit a candle and began to call on the spirits. Part of me wanted to laugh while my other side was wallowing in fright. I stick to my story, however, that we saw a ghost scamper away as we packed up the supplies: a male figure in overalls and suspenders skirting through the park, which had previously been empty.

In The Wisconsin Road Guide to Haunted Places, authors Chad Lewis and Terry Fisk, both paranormal investigators and Eau Claire residents, document haunted bars, campgrounds, bed & breakfasts, schoolhouses, lighthouses, theaters and more around the state. The ghost is usually there because a persondeath was in that space, says Lewis, noting a Milwaukee hotel where the ghost of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims reportedly roams.

“For me, a place is haunted when we keep getting a variety of reports about things happening there,” Lewis, who has also researched crop circles and UFOs, tells me. “It’s haunted when people keep having experiences.”

And, he says, it’s not always a visual encounter. More often than not, sounds and temperature changes (an unexplained hot or cold spot not coming from a furnace or window draft) can mark a ghost. “Most of the time it’s not visual. A lot of people who work in haunted places will hear someone say their name [and/or] they will hear voices even if they’re alone,” says Lewis.

Why do people believe ghosts haunt certain locations? “A lot of people believe ghosts are there because they loved the place after life. [Sometimes] people are making [renovations] to their place and that disturbs them,” says Lewis.

Whichever of the camps you ultimately fall in, Halloween is a time for ghostly stories. In celebration of the haunted, here are four places to get your spook on.

The Rave/Eagles Ballroom
Buddy Holly played his last gig on Jan. 23, 1959, at what is now the Rave/Eagles Club (2401 W. Wisconsin Ave., 342-7283) before flying to Clear Lake, Iowa, for a scheduled show. Holly died when his plane crashed en route. While no one knows for sure who is the reported ghost haunting the basement’s swimming pool—many musicians have reported hearing or seeing a presence—it’s nice to imagine it could be Mr. Holly. In fact, on the upper level is a memorial to him: a pastel portrait, color photos and fliers from the shows in Milwaukee and Iowa. Also, a Milwaukee Sentinel review of his show—which is positive—is included.

After chatting on the phone with the Rave’s Art Director Rob Miller about the supposed ghost, I dropped by on a weekday and he recruited another staff person to take me into the pool room, which is always kept locked. Before the ’80s, which is when the 1920s-era building began hosting rock concerts, the building’s use was as an athletic club with a gymnasium, bowling alley and basketball court.

“All the rock stars who have performed here have seen a ghost.” I keep hearing Miller’s words in my head as we unlock the room and step inside. And what are bands like the Black Crowes and Gwar—both performing here soon—going to think of this? A peek at the wall outside the pool room reveals graffiti and scrawl about ghosts in the pool room. It could be a farce or the music world could be holding a great secret.

Inside the pool room, it is dark but I can still make out high ceilings and a deep, dank empty pool painted a light turquoise. No ghost, just lots of shadows and us, trekking across the long room and being careful not to trip on anything.

Miller is careful to say that no staff person has reported a ghostly sighting. Which makes me wonder if Mr. Holly really is stalking the new musical scene?

“The Rave is officially not speculating on that. As far as we know, no rock stars have died here,” says Miller.

Milwaukee School of Massage
“I happen to believe in ghosts. I know a lot of people think it is hokey. But I do.” So says Wanda Beals, owner of Milwaukee School of Massage (830 E. Chambers St., 263-1179). She laughs a little when I call to inquire about the spirit that students joke about. Since 1999 Beals has owned and managed the school. Before that the brick building at the corner of Fratney and Chambers was a neighborhood grocery store. So it’s her guess that the ghost, whom she has fondly named Julia, is the former owner.

For students in Beals’ massage-instruction classes, Julia has become a common occurrence, and often serves as an ice-breaker. When things began to fall off walls in the southwest corner of the classroom and several massage therapists said they felt uncomfortable in one of the treatment rooms, Beals knew she had a ghost. According to a vision she had, Julia is older and has white hair.

“She’s really quite playful. Not at all scary. When things get a little tense she is able to bring some sense to the moment,” says Beals. “Maybe we’re doing a topic that’s hard and people are getting a little grumpy. She’s a wonderful break.”

It’s worth noting that Beals has given the school a facelift, including the upstairs where devils’ faces were painted on the walls. She and several others painted over them, recognizing that the mood just wasn’t conducive to providing massage treatments.

Shaker’s Cigar Bar
Whether you’re at Shaker’s Cigar Bar (422 S. 2nd St., 272-4222) for a cigar and scotch, or one of owner Robert Weiss’ dinners (the next is Nov. 1 and will feature food from Oaxaca, Mexico), don’t be surprised if a shadow catches your eye, or an eerie presence is felt. It’s happened to Weiss many times since opening Shaker’s in 1986.

While getting ready for a Christmas-party event at Shaker’s a few years ago he felt a tap on his shoulder. Nobody was in the place. “I looked into the mirror and my jacket is literally going up and down at the shoulder,” he reports.

In the early ’90s two psychics stood in the center of the bar and asked Weiss to feel the space encircled between them, saying, “This is Elizabeth, a little girl who resides in the ladies room.”

“As I reluctantly did so, I had the sensation of reaching into a blast freezer,” Weiss wrote in a description of the moment, which is available at the bar.

Elizabeth has become so famous—and well liked—that the Elizabeth’s Raspberry Martini is named after her. Her presence is described as playful and fun. Weiss says she will often startle the user of an occupied restroom stall door by knocking, and a pair of 19th-century style shoes have been sighted under the door. Strangely, a series of photos of a little girl—perhaps Elizabeth?— hanging in the ladies room have disappeared and returned a few times with no explanation.

In addition to Elizabeth, who reportedly died in the 1850s by falling from an apple tree and breaking her neck, Weiss tells me there are “malicious spirits” in the basement, as well as others who roam the bar from time to time. For example, often people claim to hear the piano playing—and no one is sitting on the bench, he says. Or, “Sometimes at night you’ll see a cloud in the back room and it’s not caused by cigar smoke. And it’s not unusual for glassware to fall off the shelves,” he says. Several waiters and waitresses have walked off their shifts when asked to get ice or beer from the lower level, out of fear that the basement could be haunted.

Reported to roam the place are spirits such as Suspender Guy, who sits with his legs crossed smoking a pipe; the Merchant Marine Captain, with sideburns and a thick nautical-style peacoat, who likes to look at reflections in the mirror and hang out near the wine cooler; the Bouncer, a large brooding man on a bar stool; and a Sicilian man who appears in a cloud of smoke in the back of the bar. There is also the Longshoreman, a very angry and malevolent man who brings a cold feeling with him.

After some small talk I’ve decided I want to check out the basement, where two men were reportedly killed during Prohibition in the ’30s. A group of city officials were having a meeting here and drinking—as they usually did—when a fight got out of hand. Today there’s a 7-foot by 3-foot line in the foundation and no clear reason for it, leading many to believe a murder victim was buried here.

Weiss hands me a flashlight (“So you’ll feel more comfortable,” he says) and shows me the back stairwell. A worker at the top, inside the door, startles me, but we apologize and move on. Nervousness has already set in. But, alas, I see nothing except a creepy basement.

Weiss remains a firm believer that the Shaker’s building—which was built in 1894, and was a former wooden barrel producer for brewing—is haunted, and that “Energy has to go somewhere. This is an old building,” he says. “You can’t come here expecting to see something. When you least expect it is when you see something. The busier we are, the more inclined they are to come out.”

Brumder Mansion
Carol Hirschi, owner of Brumder Mansion, a Victorian-decorated bed-and-breakfast (3046 W. Wisconsin Ave., 342-9767), has no fear about the unexplained activity that has been rattling her house and business since 1997, when she bought the place and began renovating it to its current state. But the first time she experienced a ghost she was not so chipper. Sleeping in the Gold Room (one of the mansion’s five suites) with her then-husband and her blind dog, she awoke to an odd noise. A spirit she later called Aunt Pussy—the name of the mansion’s former owner George Brumder’s aunt—was speaking to her.

“I got up in the middle of the night and had this weird presence,” she says. The spirit told Hirschi to get the dog out of the bed or she would do something terrible to it.

“She does not like dogs. That’s just a real problem for her. She would prefer they were not above the first floor,” says Hirschi. Another thing that upsets Aunt Pussy, she says, is Victorian décor; she prefers simpler decorations. In fact, many of the sightings began right after the renovations.

Another strange occurrence that Hirschi reports is the frequent shifting of flatware on the dining room table, which Hirschi would set out at night before bed. In the morning the spoons would all be turned 90 degrees despite her setting them straight. And a television set that would often make “popping noises,” says Hirschi, worked fine when she gave it to a friend for use in his home. (Believers claim that paranormal activity can disrupt television reception.)

The Gold Room is where most of the sightings have taken place. In that room, a visiting psychic had a psychotic breakdown and an Indian medicine man in town to perform a wedding, and staying at the mansion, felt very uncomfortable, reports Hirschi.

Once owned by Brumder, a publisher of sheet music, the mansion was later used as an upscale boarding house owned by a Swedish woman, a lodge for war workers during the 1940s, a church parsonage and an activity center.

In early October a local group of paranormal enthusiasts and investigators scouted out the mansion and found activity. According to Hirschi, there are tapes and photos available that document their experiences.

A theatrical, interactive event inside Brumder Mansion—Dracula Papers: Van Helsing, The Journey Concludes (Oct. 21-31)—will include readings of the original text and a fictional grave-digging.

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