Milwaukee’s Little Girl Blue

•January 2, 2011 • 2 Comments
View from Lake Michigan Side

Villa Terrace from Lake Michigan Side

Ghostly footsteps walking the halls, doors that lock mysteriously, and lights that turn themselves on and off are all common occurrences in a stately manor overlooking the glistening waters of Lake Michigan. According to some, this Italian Renaissance-style villa is home to the apparition of a little girl in blue. Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, located on 2220 N. Terrace Avenue, was built in 1923 for Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd R. Smith. Mr. Smith was the grandson of the founder of the A.O. Smith Corporation. It was deeded to Milwaukee County in 1966. In the years since, the staff at the Villa has reported lots of strange activity.

The upstairs hallway where Little Girl Blue has been seen.

The upstairs hallway where Little Girl Blue has been seen.

In February of 2009, Villa staff was on hand during a private party. It was the birthday party for a grandchild of the Smiths, the original owners of the home. During the party, one Villa employee learned that the Smith children once shared an imaginary friend. The family members described this phantom playmate as a blond girl in a powder blue dress. They also claimed that this little girl blue wasn’t always confined to the imagination. Several Smith family members reported seeing her in the Villa over the years.

Later in the evening an older woman, who was one of the party guests, reported to the staff member that she was concerned about a little girl who was left alone upstairs. He dutifully went upstairs to investigate, but found no one. An hour or so later, when another party guest inquired about a little girl in a blue dress he had seen running down the hall downstairs, the staff member thought maybe someone was trying to play a trick on him. This was a cocktail party after all. It would be very unlikely that any children were present and the Villa employee had seen no children at all that night. Yet that was all about to change.

He entered the kitchen and glanced out the window, which looks on part of the downstairs hallway. Just then he saw a little girl in a light blue dress dash down the corridor, her long blond locks trailing behind her. He raced out of the kitchen to confront her in hallway. He was startled to find nothing there, but a mass of cold air in an area that was usually exceptionally hot. The realization that he may just have seen a ghost chilled him to the bone.

Ironwork from the permanent Cyril Colnik exhibit.

Ironwork from the permanent Cyril Colnik exhibit.

If you’d like to explore the museum and grounds for yourself, you are welcome to visit Wednesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Villa Terrace features fine and decorative arts dating from the 15th to the 18th centuries, wrought-iron masterpieces by Cyril Colnik, modern visiting exhibits, and a formal garden. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for seniors, students, and those in military service. Members and children (12 and under) are free. For membership details, visit http://www.villaterracemuseum.org/membership.html.

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Ghost Hunters in Milwaukee

•October 19, 2010 • 2 Comments
Alex and the Ghost Hunters

Alex and the Ghost Hunters

For seven seasons, SciFi Channel (a.k.a. SyFy) has been home to Ghost Hunters – one of the first and, arguably, best of the paranormal reality shows. The program is hosted by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson who are working plumbers when they aren’t shooting the show. As unreal as that sounds, it’s true and it’s integral to what makes the show so appealing.

Jason and Grant are regular guys who each had a paranormal experience that changed their lives. They met and discovered their shared interest in the paranormal, leading them to form TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). TAPS’ mission is to help people discover whether their home or business is really haunted or if their experiences can be explained by something natural – like leaky pipes or a bad HVAC system. Interestingly, Jason and Grant are “skeptical believers.” They do believe in ghosts (they do!) but they go into any investigation with a very critical eye. At least 70% of “hauntings” can be explained by something totally mundane, much to the chagrin of the haunted home owners. It’s also important to note that TAPS doesn’t charge any money to investigate – ever. This point, in particular, lends them a huge amount of credibility.

The show is a success due in large part to Jason and Grant’s authenticity. These guys are exactly who they seem to be – they play practical jokes on each other, they love their families, and they’re in awe that someone is paying them to do what they love.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing them speak, along with members of their team, on a number of occasions. They are completely accessible and truly appreciative of their fans, making their talks much more intimate than most celebrities. They’re also known to say, over and over, that they know that fame is fleeting and that someday they’ll be plumbers again full time.

On Saturday, October 16, 2010, Jason and Grant played to a nearly sold out Pabst Theater in Milwaukee for two shows. Having seen them previously, I expected a similar setup – a moderated panel in which we’d hear some stories and then a lengthy Q&A. What we got was an hour of banter, stories, and – I’m not kidding – a PowerPoint presentation. Now, before you groan, I’m telling you that, if one must use PowerPoint, this is the way to do it. The guys used the slides to support their shtick – pulling up bullet points at exactly the right time to accentuate a point – often to gales of laughter from the audience.

The atmospheric and, some say, haunted Pabst Theater was the setting for this unique event.

The atmospheric and, some say, haunted Pabst Theater was the setting for this unique event.

They began with a short history of themselves and TAPS which, given the audience, was probably unnecessary. I’m pretty sure that everyone in the room was a fan. Then they covered the various types of hauntings such as “residual,” “intelligent,” “poltergeist,” etc. After we learned about the types of phenomena, we were treated to a number of case studies, wherein the guys told us what the homeowner claimed to experience, what TAPS experienced, and the investigative conclusions. These were, undoubtedly, the best slides of the night. The conclusions were often funny but sometimes very sad and disturbing – especially when the haunting involved children. One interesting point they made was in the case study where the homeowner had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was being heavily medicated because she heard voices. TAPS discovered that the voices the woman was hearing were saying the same things as the voices they were capturing on EVP (disembodied voices imprinted on audio recording devices.) Their conclusion was that the woman wasn’t schizophrenic at all; she was simply becoming sensitive to the spirits around her.

After the case studies, the presentation turned to outtakes and footage from the show. The focus was video evidence – ghostly images, furniture moving by itself, etc. – most of which never made it to air. Problems with the projection system made this the least satisfying portion of the program but they were very apologetic and even asked if anyone in the audience had a solution for fixing the problem. Amazingly, in a room full of geeks, none of us had enough AV experience to help out.

Jason and Grant answer questions from the audience.

Jason and Grant answer questions from the audience.

Finally, the program ended with 40 minutes of Q&A. In order to move things along, Jay and Grant answered FAQ beforehand, getting most of the most obvious questions out of the way immediately. After that, they sat down and patiently answered questions about everything from how they handle working two jobs (the show and plumbing) to some uber-fan’s dissection of the minutest detail of some show from season two. You could tell they were running long – it was probably supposed to be 30 minutes – but they stuck with it in order to take questions from a number of children who had been waiting in line. So sweet!

All in all, it was a really great night. Lots of laughing. Lots of banter with the audience. And an actual PowerPoint slide that didn’t put us to sleep. Even I, a seasoned Ghost Hunters fan, learned new stuff and saw my plucky heroes in a new light.

This tour is called the Lecture Series and runs from October 15 through the 22. TAPS has other appearances around the country throughout the year and their schedule can be found at http://the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com.

A Note from Allison Jornlin of Milwaukee Ghosts: This great recap was generously provided by guest blogger @alexinmadison from www.mightydistractible.blogspot.com. Thank you Alex for your thoughtful and thorough review of the event!

A Rising Wind: The Lady Elgin Story Opens Today on 150th Anniversary of the Disaster

•September 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Sept 8 marks the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the side-wheel steamer The Lady Elgin. This is a devastating, yet fascinating chapter in Milwaukee history that has been largely forgotten by the general public. In our weekly Third Ward Haunted History Tour (May-Nov.), we remember the event and the Milwaukeeans lost in this tragedy, which spawned considerable regional folklore. This week a local play will also commemorate the disaster, which claimed the loved ones of 1 out of 3 residents of the Third Ward in 1860. Damned Theatre will present the premier of A Rising Wind, a play written by John Kishline and Edward Morgan about the shipwreck and surrounding events.

The play will be performed at the Best Place Tavern in the Pabst Brewery complex at 9th and Juneau, which recently opened as a bar. The room itself dates back to the 1850’s and thus provides a perfect setting for the tale. The play was originally commissioned by Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin, with support from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the Milwaukee Irish Fest Foundation. Morgan will direct, and the cast will feature Kishline, Georgina McKee, Jonathon Wainwright, Pete Woods and Sherrick Robinson. The play runs September 8, 9, 10, and 11th at 8 p.m. No reservations are required. Suggested donation is $10.

The Lady Elgin was a grand side-wheel steamer that sank on a stormy night off the coast of Illinois, September 8, 1860. Returning late from Chicago to Milwaukee and overloaded with more than 600 passengers, the Lady Elgin was accidentally rammed by the lumber schooner Augusta as she sped southwards under full sail. Only moderately damaged, the Augusta limped on to Chicago. But the Lady Elgin foundered some 10 miles from shore. Despite the resourcefulness of her crew and rescue attempts from citizens along the Illinois coast, hundreds drowned in the fierce undertow just 50 yards from shore. There were at least 300 deaths, but since the passenger manifest was incomplete, the full number of victims was never known. The tragedy claimed the greatest number of lives in the history of the Great Lakes.

The Lady Elgin tragedy is among Wisconsin’s most famous disasters. It is also a complex and fascinating story, complete with political wrangling over state’s rights and slavery, ethnic pride, the dramatic collision and gallant rescue attempts, public outpourings of grief and rage, and a highly publicized trial. The trip to Chicago, on the eve of Lincoln’s election, was predicated by the furor over slavery. At stake was Wisconsin’s possible abolitionist secession from the United States. Also at stake was the survival and integrity of the Union Guard, a local militia that was the pride and joy of Milwaukee’s Irish community. Because so many of the Lady Elgin’s passengers were civic leaders from the Irish Third Ward, the tragedy devastated the Irish community, and many believe it forever altered Milwaukee’s cultural identity. The Lady Elgin story is an essential piece of Wisconsin’s history – a fascinating drama framed by race, politics and social issues that still resonate today.

Wisconsin’s Haunted Heartland

•July 29, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The Milwaukee Journal republished some notable Wisconsin ghost stories from the book Haunted Heartland by Beth Scott and Michael Norman. Included here are links to these oldies-but-goodies for your enjoyment.

Oct. 26, 1984
Only Ghosts Stumble Off of Saloon’s Bar Stool (Germantown Ghost Story)

Oct 21, 1985
Ghosts Had a Favorite Haunt (famous “Summerwind” in Vilas County)

Oct 24, 1985
When She Turned Around the Pale Figure Had Vanished (St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield)

Oct 25, 1985
It Looked Like an Ordinary Ranch House (Wausau Ghost Story)

Oct 26, 1985
It Was Midnight and Max Kubis Couldn’t Sleep (Milwaukee Ghost Story)

Oct 28, 1985
Plover Restaurant Serves Up Mysteries (Plover Ghost Story)

Spooking the Suburbs

•July 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

1984 was a very good year for ghost stories in the Milwaukee Journal. Unfortunately none of the articles feature Milwaukee locations. However, since summer is a great time for roadtrips, a visit to the suburbs may be in order. Enjoy these links to a treasure trove of tales resurrected from the October issues of that year.

Oct. 23, 1984
Eerie Visions in Carroll’s ‘Morgue’ (Waukesha Ghost Story)

Oct. 24, 1984
Girl’s Ghost Haunts Bridge (Waukesha Ghost Story)

Oct. 25, 1984
Black Monk Prowls Grounds of Seminary (Delafield Ghost Story)

Oct. 26, 1984
Haunting Melody: Music Made Mansion’s Tenant a Believer in Ghosts (Vernon Ghost Story)

Oct. 26, 1984
Only Ghosts Stumble Off of Saloon’s Bar Stool (Germantown Ghost Story)

Oct. 29, 1984
Octagonal House a Many-Side Mystery (Pewaukee Ghost Story)

Oct. 30, 1984
An Ordinary House (Sussex Ghost Story)

Oct. 31, 1984
Ghost Linked to Tragic Past (Waukesha Ghost Story)

Oct. 31, 1984
Troubled Ghost of Rural Street May Be Lost (Hartford Ghost Story)

Major League Paranormal Activity at the Pfister Hotel

•July 13, 2010 • 11 Comments

Pfister Hotel Lobby

Major League Baseball (MLB) players have reported a wide range of paranormal activity at the Pfister Hotel including object manipulation, electrical anomalies, and, most recently, the holy grail of paranormal phenomena, an apparition. Some have admitted to their experiences publicly and some have confided in others, who later leaked details to the press.

As reported in Sports Illustrated, in 2001, Adrian Beltre, then with the L.A. Dodgers, described several eerie happenings during his stay at the Pfister. First he heard knocking in the hallway and on his door, but upon investigation found no one there. Later, Beltre witnessed the air conditioning and the TV repeatedly switch itself off. When he went to bed, he was startled awake again and again by pounding noises from behind his headboard. Beltre resorted to taking a bat to bed with him for protection and reported that he only slept two hours over the course of his three-night stay.

MLB reports wouldn’t resurface until June of 2008, when Carlos Gomez, then of the Minnesota Twins, experienced something strange in his hotel room before a day game. First he heard disembodied voices. Then he witnessed some strange object manipulation. His iPod, which he had left on a table across the room, switched itself on. Static blared from it. He watched the iPod as it began vibrating wildly, shimmying towards the edge of the table. Gomez ran over to catch it before it fell to the floor. When he grabbed it, it switched to music and then back to static again. Gomez turned it off and placed it back on the table, only to see the iPod repeat the same behavior.

In May 2009, the Palm Beach Post revealed that whenever the Florida Marlins stay at the Pfister at least 4 players demand to double-up and share rooms for fear of the ghost. Later that spring, Brendan Ryan of the St. Louis Cardinals reported seeing a strange apparition at the Pfister. He said a “moving light” passed through his room, followed by a temperature drop that chilled him to the bone. However, Ryan eventually retracted his statement. Then in June of 2009, Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants divulged that one night during his stay he awoke at 3 a.m. and witnessed his hotel room door open and shut on its own.

In July 2009, an AP article included a story from Brewers visiting clubhouse manager Phil Rozewicz. A “rookie ballplayer” reportedly told Rozewicz that he had awoke in the middle of the night to discover the blinds and the window in his room were open. He shut the blinds and the window only to wake up in the morning and find them open again.

Then on July 6, 2010, Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants returned. He and teammate Edgar Renteria made news when they left the rest of the team behind to avoid reliving last year’s frights. They checked out of the Pfister and into the nearby Intercontinental.

C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers revealed the most detailed account of paranormal activity at the Pfister to-date. On June 15, 2010, during an interview on an ESPN radio show. C.J. Wilson said that he heard scratching on the walls of his room at the Pfister, which sounded like a key scraping down wallpaper. He also reported intermittent problems with his room lamp, which at one point began flashing wildly on and off “disco style.”

Other teammates experienced similar problems with the lighting and one was locked out of his bathroom. Colby Lewis awoke at about 1:30 a.m. and saw a frightening skeletal apparition in his room. He was so shaken up by what he saw that, according to C.J. Wilson, he spoke with the team chaplain about it the next day. Afterward, Colby Lewis didn’t show for a scheduled radio interview with ESPN and so far has not spoken publicly about his experiences at the Pfister. In all, according to Wilson, “4 or 5 guys had odd experiences on various floors.” He plans to blog about the strange events of that weekend at the Pfister on his website leftylefty.com.

There are most likely many more ballplayer experiences that haven’t been covered in the press. Unfortunately, no player has been formally interviewed by paranormal investigators, so many important details remain unknown. Escalating activity seems to beg for careful investigation.

We can’t expect proper reporting to become the first priority of MLB players. However, if their accounts are indeed genuine, hopefully they will come to realize the significance of their experiences. If such limited access to key witnesses continues, a rare opportunity to uncover the truth behind the paranormal could be lost.

Mequon’s Favorite Haunt

•June 14, 2010 • 7 Comments

The unique building is a farmhouse with an attached barn.

The unique building is a farmhouse with an attached barn.

Nestled amongst the trees on a shady country road in Mequon is an unusual two-story farmhouse. It became a roadhouse, then a steakhouse, and most recently a banquet hall for a catering business. According to many diverse accounts over the last ten years, the building, now empty, is home to restless spirits. The sleepy, farmhouse with attached barn and silo seems an unlikely spot for ghostly chain-rattling until you consider its colorful and tragic history.

Tunnel entrances are now bricked over.

Tunnel entrances are now bricked over.

Built in 1841, the building, according to former owners, became a stop on the underground railroad. Slaves found their way to freedom using the building’s subterranean tunnels. One of the tunnels extended to a nearby house on County Line Road. Local legend has it that another extended all the way to the present day site of Brew City Barbeque Mequon located at 10250 N. Cedarburg Road, and then on to the river. It was this tunnel that later proved most useful to the owners of the building in the 1920s. By that time, it had become one of the many proverbial Wisconsin Mafia roadhouses frequented by Al Capone.

Gangsters used this tunnel to smuggle alcohol to the river during Prohibition. Unfortunately, the tunnel entrances have since been bricked over. Whiskey running wasn’t the only business of the building’s proprietors, however. Along with liquor, the owners of the establishment, also entertained patrons with gambling and prostitution. As you might suspect, no good could come of this unsavory mix of crime and sin. Stories abound that this pastoral facade would be the scene of at least two mysterious deaths.

Old fixtures like this dresser still decorate former brothel rooms.

Old fixtures like this dresser still decorate former brothel rooms.

The madam of the brothel would be the first to die. She managed the many bedrooms on the second floor. In these small rooms, still very much the same as they must have been then, you can still see the tiny mirrored dressers with washbasins that stood next to the beds. In a larger room, down the hall, is a wall-length period mural of a nude woman. The face was later painted over to tie the mural into a former Mexican restaurant’s vibrant interior art. Some say the original mural was a portrait of the madam. Nearby is the madam’s bathroom, where she spent the last moments of her life.

The original mural may have been a portrait of the madam.

The original mural may have been a portrait of the madam.

The space has now been turned into a shuttered storage area. But inside, underneath the cabinetry built around it is the madam’s bathtub. It was in this bathtub that the madam is said to have died. The exact circumstances of her death are unknown. Some say there was an argument between the madam and her lover. This nameless man turned violent and strangled her. Another version of the story claims the madam’s death was accidental. She slipped and fell, striking her head on the side of the tub. This version maintains that the first person to find her body was an innocent employee.
The madam's bathtub remains.

The madam's bathtub remains.

The next person to die, however, was undeniably murdered. The other patrons mobbed the man they discovered with the madam’s body, hurling him down the spiral staircase in an act of vigilante justice. He died at the bottom of the stairs. It may never be known whether he was a murderer or just a hapless bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time. His body is said to be buried somewhere on the premises. The exact location of the grave is unknown.

These two unfortunate souls are said to roam the premises. The madam remains because of her sudden death, whereas the murdered man remains until his name is cleared or alternately until his final resting place is discovered. If it is true that the dead haunt the living in an attempt to communicate with us, then the ghost of the murdered man may be trying to deliver a message. In one of the most dramatic examples of spectral activity on the premises an eerie symbolism seems evident.

In the days when the building was a steakhouse, the restaurant’s manager had an unsettling experience in the basement while closing one night. She and another employee descended to the basement storage area to retrieve some liquor for the bar. The manager, who kept the only key for the basement storage area, unlocked the door only to behold a startling spectacle within.

Basement staircase to nowhere lingers.

Basement staircase to nowhere lingers.

The extra chairs, usually kept there in neatly stacked columns in the corner of the room, were teetering in the middle of the room in a surreal configuration. One chair was supporting 20 or so others in a formation shaped like an upside-down pyramid, towering to the six foot ceiling. The manager and her helper fled at the sight of the unwieldy chair sculpture. They locked the building and left immediately. In the morning, when the manager returned to open up the restaurant, the freaky chair tower was gone. All the chairs were back in the corner neatly stacked.

The employee that accompanied the restaurant manager to the basement that night saw a religious statue on the top of the chair structure. Could the ghost have been trying to convey that the spot is somehow hallowed ground? And what about the strange shape of the chair formation? Perhaps the upside-down pyramid was meant to represent an arrow pointing from above, directing us to the location of long lost earthly remains.

Most other ghostly manifestations on the premises were more mischievous in nature. These antics were persistent, yet harmless with the exception of one odd incident where a steak knife flew point first out of a dish rack, narrowly missing the back of a nearby waitress.

Main staircase leads to former bedrooms.

Main staircase leads to former bedrooms.

Other spooky hijinks include doors that won’t unlock, beer taps that turn on by themselves, phantoms that bump against you in the dark, and lights that switch back on after being turned off at closing time. Another former restaurant manager, who was closing up alone one night was so frightened when he heard the chair in the upstairs office roll across the floor, that he fled the building immediately. He refused to go back to the building that night and called the police to lock it up.

Heavy, upstairs, casement windows are said to open on their own.

Heavy, upstairs, casement windows are said to open on their own.

Patrick, a more recent manager, had a more relaxed attitude about the ghosts. He stayed late almost every night and had never had any frightening experiences, only annoying ones. He had persistent trouble with the upstairs windows. Their latches were tight and their hinges would need a good greasing to move easily, but some how the heavy casement windows just wouldn’t stay shut.

This problem was especially frustrating when he and a former owner worked late nights one winter to get the restaurant ready to open in spring. It was hard enough to keep the drafty, old building warm without having to contend with cold air blasting in from open windows.

“I was about ready to screw gun the windows shut,” Patrick said. “But I had a little talk with the ghosts and the problem settled
down for awhile.” One of the most recent ghostly encounters featured more than just opened windows or other objects moved by unseen forces. This time one of the ghosts was actually seen.

Don, a former suis chef, was down in the basement one morning at the end of July. He getting ready for his shift, putting on his chef coat, when he heard footsteps coming toward him. “It sounded like someone wearing dress shoes,” he said. He looked up only to see the swinging arm of a man in a fancy suit pass by the door as if someone was ascending the stairs.

Don peaked around the corner to see who it might be, but no one was there. He ascended the stairs himself to talk to the Patrick, the restaurant manager, about what he had seen. He wondered if a salesman had come to call since no one who worked there was likely to wear a suit, especially on a hot summer day. However, there was no salesman and none of the staff was wearing a suit that day. Encounters with apparitions are a rarity. This is true even of locations where high levels of spectral activity have been documented because in theory a ghost needs a tremendous amount of energy to manifest. Don’s experience suggests that the ghosts of this Mequon haunt are strong and will no doubt haunt their picturesque old farmhouse for years to come. I just can’t wait until someone buys the place and I have the opportunity to visit and collect additional stories.