The Spectre of Port Washington Road
This story was contributed by Yance Marti from OLDMILWAUKEE.NET. Thanks, Yance! The article first appeared in the Milwaukee Free Press in 1906 and concerns possible shadow people, fireballs, and a moaning shrouded phantom. Where exactly did this wraith appear? To what was it pointing? And what does it want? So many unanswered questions! For now, just enjoy this colorful Milwaukee ghost story.
The Roadside Spectre:
John Wenninger’s Gruesome Adventure on The Port Washington Road
“A ghost! Why, it’s been ten years since he saw a ghost,” said John Wenninger when his brother was asked if he had ever encountered a being from the unknown world. Mr. Wenninger is employed by the Boehm Stove and Repair Co., and old readers will recall the peculiar experience chronicled in this paper that he had some years ago on the old Line road, south of this city.
The inexplicable features of the following mystery are exceptionally remarkable, and the exact facts are truthfully recorded here. Late one night during the fore part of the month of April 1896, a heavy fog floated in from the lake and nestled close to the river and the lowlands lying immediately south of Port Washington. The muddy Port Washington road forbade fast driving, yet a foam-flecked and mud-be-spattered team hitched to a light buggy containing two occupants dashed out of the darkness and over the obscure bridge at a head-long clip. A man on foot going in the opposite direction leaped lightly to one side, barely escaping the iron shod hoof of the plunging horses.
“The fool nearly missed the bridge,” muttered the man who was no other than Wenninger.
Horse Hoofs in the Night
He wondered what caused the driver to endanger human life by crossing that bridge in darkness at full speed. The next instant he had more to wonder about. From some distance up the road came the ever increasing hoofs beats of another hard driven horse. Nearer and nearer the lightning thuds came, and as he drew discreetly to one side a second rig shot by in a blur with a shower of mud and gravel rearward bound.
What could it mean? The driver could not be drunk for there was no wild yelling. The fellow has been excitedly urging his horse forward with wicked stinging snaps of the whip and low sharp commands. Were they trying to get away from something? If so, what was it?
For one short second he hesitated about going farther up the road. Then, putting his apprehensions aside, he started on, glad that the second driver had been as fortunate in hitting the bridge as the first, for of this the muffled thud of the heavy hoofs on the planking was conclusive proof. On up the dismal, lonesome road the young man picked his way, watchful and alert.
He was passing a cottage in which there lived an eccentric, old hermit, when, on rounding a bend of the road that brought him opposite the dwelling, the third surprise of the evening confronted him. It was not far from midnight, yet there was a light in the house of a man who was positively known to go to bed with the chickens. This was most unusual. For some reason Wenninger connected the light with the hurried flight of the two reckless drivers. He stood still, uncertain, fascinated by the bright glow. Then he was startled, for ebony darkness walled him in. The light was out. One second and the light reappeared again. A startling thought came to him forcibly. Someone or something had moved between him and the window, cutting off his line of vision. Whoever or whatever it was must be loitering in the darkness some where between him and the cottage.
The Mysterious Light
Wenninger had not quite made up his mind what action to pursue when the light went out again. Strange thing. It began to work upon his nerves. He shrugged his shoulders and half started to look behind, but conquered the weakness. He would investigate the cause of this disappearing light. It was really none of his business, but curiosity had taken a firm grip upon him, and acting upon a sudden resolve he crept noiselessly forward.
He had scarcely moved when the light blazed forth again. He felt less along when the darkness was relieved by that bright blaze. Within twenty feet of the window he stopped and listened intently.
Silence! Not a rustle, not a sound. He thought he had scared the thing away, when without audible movement it came between him and the light again. A demoralizing chill ran up Wenninger’s spine. He felt helpless in that inky blackness. What could this thing be? What if? He half turned to go when he saw something that changed his mind. With increasing anger he ran forward and clutched at a moving object. Something jet black and elusive as the fog that ringed him round seemed to slip through his fingers and then the mellow glow of the lamp ploughed a furrow out into the foggy night again.
A Creature of the Mist
Something akin to terror tugged at Wenninger’s nerves, but he gamely stopped and listened for retreating footsteps. Appalling silence prevailed. Queer. How could an object as large as this thing move away without even the slightest rustle? Something was wrong – some evil was impending. He was conscious of it now – it was in the very atmosphere. Probably there was a deadly danger lurking under cover of the darkness. Maybe the old man’s life was at stake. He would warn him.
Stepping quickly to the door Wenninger rapped softly. A long moment passed and there was no response. Again he rapped, and loudly.
“What’s wanted?” came in the cracked tones of the old man from within.
“I want to talk to you. It’s important,” was the answer. There was a smothered oath, the latch rattled, and the old man’s angry face peered forth from a narrow crack in the door. Wenninger told him what he had seen and to his astonishment was promptly ordered off the premises. Before he could open his mouth to retort the door was slammed shut in his face.
Angry to think that his well meant intentions were met with rebuke and insult, Wenninger left the place hastily and with several backward glances. However, he reached his home, a half mile further up the road without further mishap or adventures.
What the Drivers Saw
The following day he learned that the people he had seen driving so recklessly were fleeing from a ghost. They said it had stood by the road side below the hermit’s cottage and when they were opposite had raised a great arm and uttered a long drawn sob that ended in a piercing wail. Before the frightened people had time to lift a finger the thing shot skyward in a fiery flash of vapor and disappeared.
Uncertain was the night and the hour that this mysterious being put in its appearance, yet it kept the entire neighborhood in feverish apprehension of some dreadful climax for two long weeks. Young Wenninger said nothing, but he was sure that he had been in close contact with this strange being the night he had tried to investigate the vanishing light in the hermit’s cottage.
A quiet, star-lit night found him and two companions secreted behind a clump of bushes across the road from where the unnatural thing usually made its appearance. A double barreled breech-loaded shot-gun lay across the young man’s knees. The little company crouched down in the darkness and waited patiently. A soft breeze rustled the buckling branches of their shelter, and fanned their hot, expectant faces. The ground was cold, damp and disagreeable, but these young fellows were determined. When they spoke it was in low, strained whispers.
The place was lonely and they were on a daring mission. Queer fancies took root in their minds. Fancies that they would have been ashamed to admit. Yet each one was fearful that the others would hear the loud thumping of his heart. A night-bird rustled a twig behind them and one of the boys sprang to his feet in wild alarm. The other two hastily pulled him down beside them. Moving forms seemed to be skulking among the deeper shadows. The slightest breeze appeared to them not unlike the icy breath of the departed. The suspense was becoming unbearable. Something would have to happen quickly. It did.
The Beckoning Arm
Down the road came two unsuspecting fellows on bicycles, their lanterns glaring out of the darkness angry red and the size of saucers. The eyes of the men in ambush were upon the approaching wheelmen. Suddenly one of them toppled from his machine and startled the stillness with a wild scream of fright that pealed down the road and bounded off on the distant river bank in echo after echo. The other leaned low over his handle bars and whipped around the bend of the road at a clip that was not unlike the swoop of a hawk.
Wenninger and his party stared across the road, then sat bolt upright. An apparition in white was visible in the shrubbery on the other side of the thoroughfare. The sullen fear of the unearthly numbed their senses. The thing came nearer and raised an arm. Imperiously. The party scarcely dared breathe. There was a clicking sound as of chattering teeth. The fallen cyclist moaned and prayed for mercy. A deep groan as of mortal anguish rose from the awful being and the uplifted arm slowly sank to its side. Instantly a great sigh wheezed through the trees, the shrubbery, and seemed even to stir the grass blades. An unearthly spell hovered menacingly over the spot. But the spectre did not come nearer. It remained on a rising bank and again swept that long draped arm imperiously to and fro.
Suddenly Wenninger realized that his fingers were gripping the gun stock. He jerked it to his breast with a low exclamation. In the first awful fright he had forgotten that he had a gun. He had been conscious of nothing but an overwhelming scene of terror. Now he felt more secure. He raised the gun and sighted it. As if anticipating the action, the thing moaned again in its weird, heart-racking way. The menacing muzzle was lowered. The draped arm once more swung aloft as if to wipe everything from the universe, then dropped slowly as if in deep despair. Death like quiet ensued.
Vanishes in Cloud and Flame
Like an avenging spirit, the spectre stood straight and dignified for perhaps five seconds, then a great white spiral shaped cloud of vapor shot upward in a flash of pale green flame and the thing was gone.
Wenninger had started sharply. The gun butt leaped to his shoulder and the double eyed muzzle squirted a shot laden streak of fire into the bosom of the vanishing spectre. He reloaded and followed by his companions ran across the road to where the apparition had stood. They found nothing.
The frightened wheelman recovered and mounted his machine. Commands for him to halt only accelerated his speed. The boys went home much mystified. The old hermit was questioned to no purpose. But the ghost was never heard of again, probably it journeyed to less hostile haunts.