The “man they couldn’t hang,” a priest’s lonely crypt, the Midwest’s first crematorium, and other strange bits of history can be found in Milwaukee’s historic cemeteries.
Obligatory mausoleum vault window selfie. That’s a thing, right?
To celebrate the first day of fall, I embarked on an expedition to a couple of my favorite cemeteries for the annual Doors Open Milwaukee event. Thankfully, the equinox also brought with it the first hint of crisp autumn air, so I threw on my new Dead Sled hoodie and set off on a journey into Milwaukee’s Great Beyond.
The two oldest cemeteries, where the city’s founders, early mayors, industrialists, and other prominent historical figures are interred. During Doors Open Milwaukee, both cemeteries allow visitors a glimpse into areas that are otherwise closed to the public. Among other things, that means an opportunity to peek into the Midwest’s first crematorium, as well as a large underground crypt where only one priest was entombed before it was closed.
My first stop was:
Forest Home Cemetery
The mausoleum of Milwaukee beer baron Valentin Blatz
Milwaukee’s early burials, one guide explained, took place either on private land in family graveyards or in fields among herds of cattle. When the first forested acres of land were bought for the city’s first actual cemetery in 1850, many of those remains were moved to what would become Forest Home Cemetery.
Before the cemetery, the land was dotted with more than 60 Paleo-Indian burial and effigy mounds which were all catalogued by pioneer scientist Increase A. Lapham. None of those mounds remain today, but Lapham is now one of the cemetery’s notable residents.
Others worth mentioning are the founders of Harley Davidson, Milwaukee Beer Barons Jacob Best, Frederick Pabst, and Valentin Blatz, as well as a cenotaph for Joseph Schlitz, who was lost at sea when the ship he was headed to Germany on sank in 1875 near Cornwall, England.
The Man They Couldn’t Hang
The grave of John “Babbacombe” Lee
The one grave in particular I was hoping to find this visit was that of a man named John Henry George Lee who was born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, England in 1864. He is also known as John “Babbacombe” Lee, or “The Man They Couldn’t Hang.”
Lee was sentenced to death after being convicted of the brutal 1884 murder of an elderly woman named Emma Keyse at her home in England’s Babbacombe Bay. On February 23, 1885, Lee was brought to the gallows to be hanged at Exeter Prison. He stood on the scaffold with the noose securely around his neck, but the trapdoor through which he was supposed to drop failed to open. Lee was brought down and the executioner examined it. He couldn’t find anything wrong. The trapdoor was tested and seemed to work fine. So Lee was brought back up and the rope placed around his neck again. But again, the trapdoor failed. And again. After the third time the medical officer attending the execution refused to take part in the proceedings. The execution was halted, and Lee’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
Lee was released in 1907, but what happened to him after that was something of a mystery. It seemed as though he died in a workhouse in Tavistock and was buried there. He has a death certificate and a grave there in Plymouth Road cemetery. However, in 2009 two researchers discovered a trail of documents revealing Lee boarded a ship in Southhampton in 1911 bound for New York. He abandoned his pregnant wife with their other child, arriving in the US with a woman named Adeline Gibbs. Adeline, it seems, was fleeing her recent marriage to a man named William Jones, and was listed as Lee’s wife Jessie Lee on the ship’s manifest.
Burial card and plot map showing the graves of John Lee and his family
The convicted killer and his mistress came to Milwaukee, where they lived out their secret, anonymous lives. They had a daughter together named Evelyn Lee, who died at the age of 18 or 19. Evelyn was working as a maid for Dr. Arthur Kovak. On October 12, 1933 Kovak came home to find Evelyn dead, asphyxiated by the fumes from the naphtha she was using to clean the drapes in the bathroom.
John Lee died in 1945, followed by Adeline, listed as his window, in 1947. The three are buried together, Evelyn between her mother and father. Lee, the man who couldn’t be hanged, who has two graves on two continents, rests in Milwaukee’s Forest Home Cemetery.
The Midwest’s First Crematorium
The Forest Home chapel is made of red Lake Superior sandstone from the Apostle Islands. It opened in 1892. Several years later the first crematorium in the Midwest was built below the chapel, and the first cremation took place in on July 7, 1896.
The crematorium is notable for using oil instead of coal, gas or whatever other crematorys used at the time, meaning the bodies were incinerated faster.
Also, the retorts were larger than normal. The reason for this, one of the cemetery volunteers told me, was to accommodate Milwaukee’s barons.
After a funeral was held in the chapel, the casket would be lowered on coffin-sized elevator lift from the sanctuary down into the crematorium. Families would then push the deceased into the retort, and then spend the next several hours in a marble-covered room waiting for the process to be complete.
The remnants of their loved ones would be swept out of the retort and dumped into a grinder, or cremulator, that breaks up the large chunks of bone into tidy “ashes” so the cremains will fit in an urn.
The crematorium was in use until 1998 when a more modern facility was built elsewhere on the grounds.
Another interesting feature of the chapel’s basement level is the receiving vault, where bodies were stored during the winter months until the ground thawed and graves could be dug. The guide mentioned that when Frederick Pabst died in January 1, 1904, armed guards stood at the entrance to the vault for months protecting his body until he could be buried.
The guide also noted that before the chapel was built, there was a different receiving vault where a fountain now stands that could store up to 400 coffins.
The receiving vault where bodies were stored during winter months
The Forest Home Cemetery chapel was built in 1892
The coffin elevator was used to bring coffins down to the crematory from the chapel sanctuary above
The cenotaph of Milwaukee beer baron Joseph Schlitz
A sign points the way to the crematory during Doors Open Milwaukee
The 6-foot bronze angel that usually stand here was stolen a few weeks ago
It is difficult to leave Forest Home Cemetery, but after wandering aimlessly for a considerable amount of time before I found Lee’s grave (even with the plot map in hand) there was only an hour left before Doors Open Milwaukee concluded for the day.
So I hurried to my second stop:
Calvary Cemetery chapel on Jesuit Hill
The oldest Catholic burial ground in Milwaukee, Calvary Cemetery is filled with the Catholic victims of the Newhall House fire that took 76 lives in 1883 (the non-Catholic victims were buried in Forest Home) and numerous victims of the Lady Elgin disaster that claimed some 300 lives when the steamer collided with a schooner and sank into Lake Michigan on September 8th, 1860.
Other notable interments include Patrick Cudahy of the Patrick Cudahy meat packing company and Frederick Miller, founder of the Miller Brewing Company.
Somewhere in Calvary is a memorial to the Lady Elgin victims, as well as at least one stone (that may or may not be the same as the memorial) which says “lost on the Lady Elgin.” I’ve spent numerous hours on multiple occasions searching the cemetery to no avail, so I didn’t even bother this time. I really just wanted to see the crypt beneath the chapel again.
Abandoned crypt beneath the Calvary Cemetery chapel
The Calvary chapel was built in 1899 from Cream City brick atop one of Milwaukee’s highest points. Today it overlooks Miller Park. The hill is sits upon is called as Jesuit Hill, and is primarily the burial place of clergy and members of various religious orders. At the base of the hill is the grave of Father Walter Halloran, the Jesuit priest who assisted in the exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949.
That is one of two cases (the other also involved a Wisconsin priest who was known as the foremost exorcist in America during his life) that inspired William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.
The grave of Father Walter Halloran
The chapel was in use for a long time, but with no climate control, the harsh Wisconsin weather eventually took a toll. It was closed in the 1950s.
The mystery lies in the crypt beneath the chapel.
Rev. Idziego Tarasiewicza is the crypt’s only interment
The underground mausoleum contains 45 niches on two levels. Two sets of spiral stairs on either side of chapel altar wind down into the crypt. To bring in the dead, each level had it’s own entrance. A tunnel through the hill lead into the lower level.
In 1903, Rev. Idziego Tarasiewicza died. He was the founder of St. Casimir’s Parish. A procession of more than 2,000 mourners walked from the church in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood to the Calvary crypt 6 miles away. Tarasiewicza was entombed in the vault directly beneath the altar. He was the first, as well as the last, interment in the crypt.
And no one knows why.
Rev. Tarasiewicza lies behind this marble marker
The entrance to the upper level of the crypt
Tunnel entrance into the lower level of the crypt
The guide in the crypt said the reason is probably due to poor ventilation, which could become hazardous. He cited another nearby crypt that was closed for that reason. But whether or not that is the case will remain a mystery. At some point, both outside entrances into the crypt were closed. The tunnel may have been covered up, or it may have collapsed. No one knows.
The crypt is open to the public on Memorial Day and during the Doors Open Milwaukee event every September.
‘Haunted’ hotel yields cache of mystery jars
Image Credit: PD
The Crescent Hotel as it appeared back in 1886.
Hundreds of bottles containing human tissue samples have been found at the Crescent Hotel in Arkansas.
Situated in Eureka Springs, the building, which has been featured on several paranormal investigation shows, has often been referred to as “America’s most haunted hotel.”
Much of its notoriety stems from one of its previous owners – Norman G. Baker – who in 1937 turned it in to a hospital and health resort where he conducted controversial research in to so-called “cures” for various ailments while simultaneously attempting to discredit conventional medical practices.
Now archaeologists investigating the site report that they have uncovered a large cache of mysterious bottles and jars containing some of Baker’s home-made medicines as well as some rather gruesome human tissue samples taken from patients during his time there.
The samples have since been sent to the crime lab at the University of Arkansas.
“Baker was a charlatan touting that he had the cure to cancer,” said hotel vice president Jack Moyer.
“Obviously that proved not to be the case.”
Source: Atlas Obscura
Creepy Ghost Places: Danvers State Hospital
In December 2006 a 139 year old Gothic asylum was demolished to make way for a 497 unit apartment complex. The facility was not only one of the clearest examples of the Kirkbride Plan, but it had since even before its closure in 1989 been considered a location of exceptional paranormal phenomenon.
In the real world the demolition may be a tragedy, but it’s not all bad as a taste of the facility can still be found in Batman’s Arkham Asylum. Welcome to Danvers State Hospital…
Arkham Asylum, the setting for one of the bestselling Batman video games took creepiness to entirely new levels, pushed to the point where it was practically a caricature of a haunted asylum, but aside from Batman and the Joker, it’s not that far from reality.
Without knowing it, the producers of Arkham Asylum had almost entirely based the facility on a very real location. Danvers State Hospital was the inspiration for the notorious horror writer and occultist, H. P. Lovecraft’s Arkham Sanitarium in his 1933 story ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, and the Arkham Asylum of Batman fame is an identical replica.
Before its demolition Danvers was a sprawling facility covering over seventy acres of land, complete with the Gothic courtyards, gardens, and even the labyrinth of underground tunnels connecting the several buildings.
Between its closure and demolition Danvers State Hospital became a favourite amongst ghost hunters and urban explorers, some leaving it in not quite the condition they found it. This only added to the similarities.
Phenomenon of the paranormal sort within Danvers State Hospital can range from well-lit rooms where there is no electricity to loud noises as though somebody just pushed over a brick wall on the floor above you.
Some witnesses have reported hearing eerie whispers pleading for help, begging to “keep her away”. The “her” has also been reported on numerous occasions – a slender scowling woman dressed in Victoria era clothing. She has been known to appear randomly, standing ominously in dark hallways, but more terrifying is her habit of charging at those that witness her.
Despite that, the victims having blamed it on the Victorian woman who had charged at them, there had been so many illnesses amongst urban explorers and other enthusiasts illegally touring the facility that an unknown toxin was listed amongst the defences for the destruction of the facility during the 2006 legal proceedings.
The toxin itself was never identified, but Danvers State Hospital’s long history as a medical facility in a period when science was less than appropriate coupled with the numerous current day ailments coming from the facility was enough to warrant the defence.
Over the years Danvers has been given numerous nicknames including: The Castle on the Hill, The Palace on the Hill, or The Haunted Castle – but one such nickname stands out as a hint to its early history, The Witches’ Castle.
Danvers State Hospital is immediately outside of Salem Massachusetts where twenty-nine people were convicted of the capital felony of witchcraft. Contrary to popular belief “witches” were not burned in Salem, this was for the most part a European phenomenon.
In Salem they hanged them “on the hill”. The same hill where Danvers State Hospital was built and where there are now 497 apartments.
The witch trials took place in 1693, almost three hundred years before the construction of Danvers State Hospital.
If the entity of the witch hung around for three hundred years, it’s fairly unlikely she’s leaving just because there are condos there now, so if you ever thought perhaps you wanted to live with the 320 year old poltergeist of a witch, these may be the apartments for you.
Unraveling the Mystery of a House “Cursed by Death”
The Witherell House has some surprising connections to Jeffrey Dahmer, the formation of the Wisconsin Territory, and a disturbing practice of divine healing from the Middle Ages.
Of all the things I’ve written about on Cult of Weird over the years, one of the most viewed posts is the story of an abandoned house I was caught trespassing in 20 years ago. The house captured my attention one fateful day in 1999, and continues to fascinate as I dig into its long history and hear about the experiences of others.
“Two story, Late Picturesque frame house with clapboard siding,” a historical property record states about the house. “Gable roof with bargeboards. Oddly shaped windows.”
The house isn’t famous or historically significant outside of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin where it resides, but for decades passersby have been intrigued by its unusual architecture and the disturbing legend that has swallowed this once stately home.
It’s a legend that has drawn countless curious explorers to their demise. I mean, not that anyone has died in there recently, as far as I know, but many have been ticketed or arrested and charged with restitution for damaged property whether they broke something or not. Though no one has lived in the house for decades, the lawn is always mowed, the property is consistently maintained, and the house is heavily protected by fire alarms and (it is rumored) motion detectors.
According to local legend, a young mentally ill child killed her parents in this house.
While I have yet to uncover the origin of that story, I did find an old, yellowed letter hidden inside the house addressed to a Mr. James Witherell. The letter, handwritten in pencil, was an apology that Mr. Witherell’s wife and daughter would soon be discharged from the Fond du Lac sanitorium because it was closing. The sanitorium could have been the Catholic tuberculosis hospital that once stood just down the road from the Witherell property, or some other facility. But chances are it wasn’t referring to a mental institution.
From the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, 1874
I first wrote about my personal experience with the Witherell House a few years ago hoping to learn more about it. Commenters soon helped shed light on the property’s recent history.
It seems the Witherell family were in fact the house’s final inhabitants, but there was no mental illness or murder.
“My grandfather, Archie Witherell bought the property during the depression – mid 1930’s, restoring the woodwork and upgrading heating/electrical,” one comment reads. “The surviving elderly brothers who owned it then had lived in the servant’s quarters – a portion of the house that was taken off – dragged out of the yard to rest near the site of an earlier frame house nearer the creek. Archie died of natural causes in 1967. Grandma Adelaide lived there with housekeepers until the year before she died, 1981. The property was expensive to maintain, and without Archie and Addie, was in need of other dreamers. There is nothing sinister about the grace of this lovely old home – no mad relatives or hauntings. It wasn’t the Witherell’s for long in the scheme of things, but very much appreciated.”
“I grew up in the last house on How 23 before county K,” another commenter said. “I was born in 1951. When I was a young girl our telephones were on party lines. Mrs. Witherall was totally blind and many times would fail to hang up the phone when she was finished talking. So, one of us had to go across the field and ask she or Mr. Witherall to hang up the phone. Nothing scary or haunted about it. As a teen, I was in the empty house once. There were old magazines and books and lots of dust.
“These are some pretty outrageous claims about this house all the way around,” the comment stated. “Mr. and Mrs. Witherall were very old, but not insane or possessed.”
Bleak stretch of Hwy K in front of the Witherell House
Sometime after the Witherells’ passing, the house was bought by Dr. Kenneth Stormo, a clinical and forensic pathologist who served for the United States Army and numerous hospitals throughout his career, as well as holding the positions of Assistant Medical Examiner for Milwaukee County and Fond du Lac County Coroner. Stormo even worked on the Jeffrey Dahmer case when the killer’s ghoulish collection of body parts was uncovered in his Milwaukee apartment.
Shortly after his death in 2013, one of Dr. Stormo’s daughters, Lesley-Anne, took to a Facebook group dedicated to haunted places in Fond du Lac to lay rumors about the old house to rest.
“I am the youngest of Dr. Stormo’s eight children,” she wrote. “I have five sisters and two brothers, and all eight of us grew up playing in and around ‘the farm’ (as we have always called it).”
She went on to describe the joy she and her siblings experienced growing up in and around the house:
The inside of the house used to be beautiful: the smooth, elegant wooden spindles that lined the staircase leading upstairs that also outlined the stairwell that divides the second floor in half; the gigantic, private rooms that screamed with character whether because of the intricately framed window panes or the “secret cubbies” (not very secret because there are very evident doors indicating their presence) where my sister and I would sneak into and read by flashlight. The dining area – at the front of the house, which actually used to be the main entrance and once entertained a full front porch wrapping from one corner of the house to the other – had great built-in china hutches in the corners and I would dust them religiously because I knew “special things” were going to be stored there; the gigantic living area off the kitchen was also beautiful and, for the longest time, had old curtains hanging from the rods and there was an old cradle that I would play with; upstairs, the built-in bookshelves that lined one half of the common area were stacked with old books, outdated copies of National Geographic, some medical anthologies, financial analytics, and some nature reference manuals. The kitchen always had a familiar musty smell and was fun to explore the contents of the cupboards and drawers because I always found something old and interesting. My next older sister and I would often move from room to room with buckets of Mr. Clean and wash the floors until they gleamed; we would talk about how we would arrange the rooms when we moved into the house together.
But that joy eventually faded as rumors that the house was haunted began to circulate.
As I grew up I noticed that a lot of times when we would get to the farm my dad was less-than thrilled,” Lesley-Anne wrote. “Eventually I realized that those days, instead of pulling out the tractor first, we took a tour of the perimeter of the house and then he dug around for large panes of thick vinyl windows, plywood, a hammer and some nails. He would ‘board’ up (with expensive vinyl) the windows that had been shattered or the doors that had been torn from their hinges. At some point I realized that he was trying to keep people who didn’t belong in our sacred space out. And at some point I realized that the uninvited people that still welcomed themselves into this space that clearly wasn’t intended for them were actually disrupting the enjoyment that my dad, especially, experienced there. He installed an alarm system which resulted in him receiving a higher volume of middle-of-the-night calls and trips out to the farm to meet the cops and the trespassers, but he still had to board up the windows and doors that the trespassers had violated before getting caught. And, while he never shared this information, I can probably count how many dollars of restitution he received from the trespassers. My breaking point came when I went to the farm with my dad the day after a break-in and someone/some group had destroyed the beautiful spindles on the staircase and stairwell. The spindles were chopped, broken and torn from the fixture, and the beautiful handrails were broken into pieces and used as firewood in the bedroom that was immediately off the kitchen and dining area. There, in the middle of the bedroom floor, underneath the area where the carpet had been rolled back, was a HOLE the size of a fire pit. There was a burn hole the size of a fire pit in the middle of a room in this sacred space I knew as ‘the farm’ and the beautiful spindles I loved to study had been destroyed, and the alphabetical system by which I had arranged the books and magazines had been disrupted.
In recent decades, however, it seems visitors have had somewhat more unusual experiences with the Witherell House, helping earn its haunted reputation.
“Today I had my senior pictures taken by it,” one commenter wrote in 2017, “and there was a shot of me in front of the house where you can see some figure in the left window.”
Another wrote that when he was 14, he and a friend were walking on the road by the house. There was a candle burning in every window, they heard screaming, and saw a large shadow pass by the front window. When he returned home and told his mom about it, she warned him to stay away from that house and said it was “cursed with death.”
The house is old, beautiful and eerie, and certainly has a way of capturing one’s imagination. Some have speculated that an evil presence may exist within it’s crumbling walls that the owner of the property is trying to protect people from. Or that the memories of the tragedy that happened there are too horrible to bear, so the house was closed up like a time capsule.
What really happened in the Witherell House?
Probably nothing, of course.
“If you have read the entirety of my notes, and you are still curious as to whether there is any paranormal activity on/in these premises or house,” Lesley-Anne concluded when she shared her story, “take it from one who spent her childhood there that there is NOTHING haunted. There aren’t ghosts or goblins or floating figures. The ‘apparitions’ some claim to see haunting the upstairs windows are contraptions that one of my family members gleefully created last summer while I was there; if I remember correctly they are made of an old rug, some hangers, a Halloween pumpkin decoration, some other random objects that trespassers have brought inside with them.”
There may not be spirits, but the house is a gateway into the fascinating lives of its occupants. If there was a stigma attached to the house before it fell into disrepair into the 1980s, it could be due to the strange life of its original builder.
Maybe the house isn’t cursed, but Colonel Elihu Phillips seems to have been.
The Seventh Son
On a plat map, the Witherell House is located in section 7 of Empire, a rural Fond Du Lac County township that has been home to numerous prominent Wisconsin residents, including territorial governors, senators, congressmen, physicians, and businessmen.
“The topography of the town was such as gave to men and boys a broad vision,” W. A. Titus wrote in 1923, “an outlook over the extensive prairies to the westward that seemed world-wide to the restricted view of the early dwellers in the wilderness.”
They built their farms on or below the Niagara Escarpment, a significant geological feature known locally as “The Ledge.” The ancient rock ridge is called the “backbone” of North America, stretching 1,000 miles across the Great Lake region. The glacier that carved out much of Wisconsin’s dramatic scenery during the last ice age was split in half by the escarpment. It was revered by early Native Americans, who used it for sacred ceremonies and burials. When the first settlers arrived, they discovered the Ledge was a great place to build lime kilns for producing the white lime powder used in mortar, plaster, and paint. Also, the layered stone was perfect for building churches, barn and farmhouse foundations, and other constructions.
Empire’s first land owner was James Duane Doty, who was pivotal in the formation of Wisconsin as a separate territory and the selection of Madison as the state capital. In 1838, Doty purchased the land where the Witherell House stands today, and built the first frame house in the county. He served as a congressional delegate for Wisconsin Territory from 1838-1841. President John Tyler then appointed him as the territory’s second governor, serving from 1841 to 1844. Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, Doty’s neighbor a few miles down the road and a devout Spiritualist who donated his land for a cemetery after spirits taught his daughter to play the piano, proceeded him as the territory’s third governor.
This was the perfect place for a wealthy, influential man like Elihu Phillips to make his home.
Final resting place of spiritualist Nathaniel Tallmadge and his family in Reinzi Cemetery
Elihu L. Phillips was born in Manlius, New York, in 1800. While he was successful in both business and public service, his private life was marked with sadness and loss.
“Elihu was the seventh son,” an 1889 biography states, “and many were the children brought to him to be cured of king’s-evil, etc., much to his disgust.”
The “king’s evil,” or scrofula, is a form of tuberculosis that causes swollen lymph nodes and oozing lesions on the neck. Until around the 18th century, European monarchs believed they had the divine gift of healing, and a royal touch was the only way to cure this malady. The king or queen would stroke the neck of the sick, then present them with a gold coin that depicted the archangel Michael slaying a dragon.
Scrofula eventually clears up on its own, so the royal touch appeared to work.
The seventh male child born to a family, without any daughters in between, was also believed to have healing powers. Like the royal touch, people stricken with the king’s evil and other illnesses would come from far and wide to be healed by a seventh son. In France, a seventh son was called a “Marcou.” He would be branded with a fleur-de-lis, and healed the sick by breathing on the infected areas, or by the patient touching his fleur-de-lis. In Ireland, a ceremony was held when a seventh son was born wherein the mother would place a silver coin, salt, hair, or other object in the infant’s hand. Whichever object she chose, that would be used by the child later in life to heal. He would rub it, and then the patient would hold it to the infected area.
These practices were still alive in early 19th century America, and it seems Elihu’s childhood was scarred by an endless procession of the sick and dying.
A child with scrofula, also known as King’s Evil
Elihu married Harriet Tousley in 1825, but he buried his bride just six months later when she was consumed by tuberculosis. He married again a few years later in 1828, this time to a Maryland woman named Eleanor Jones. They soon had two sons—both who died in infancy—followed by a daughter, Ellen, who was described as an invalid.
In the 1830s Elihu served as a colonel in the New York State Militia. He was later elected Sheriff of Onondaga County, and then to the New York State Assembly.
But tragedy struck again when Eleanor died in 1838.
Elihu seemed to cope by keeping his head in his work. He and his brother Lyman, along with several partners, took contracts to build 60 miles of railroad from Niagara Falls to the head of Lake Ontario for the Great Western Railway.
By 1852, however, the brothers were ready for a change. Lyman had contracted a fever that caused him to lose an arm (must have been one hell of a fever), and he could no longer live the active lifestyle he was used to. Elihu, solely responsible for the care of his invalid daughter Ellen, thought she could benefit from a change of scenery.
Elihu and Lyman sold their shares of the railroad contracts to their partners and moved to Wisconsin, where they bought property in the town of Empire. The 1889 book Portrait and Biographical Album of Fond Du Lac County, Wisconsin says Elihu bought James Doty’s farm, and Lyman purchased nearby property from Colonel Henry Conklin. Elihu built a new house on the property—the same house that still stands there today with the odd windows—in 1853.
It seems Elihu left Doty’s original home, the first frame house in the county, intact, as Lesley-Anne notes there was an “earlier frame house near the creek” when she was growing up.
Lyman built a nearly identical house the following year. The two houses were so near each other, and so similar in architecture, that it seems one is often mistaken for the other in historical records. But while Elihu’s house still stands over 160 years later, Lyman’s was completely destroyed by fire in 1876.
In its place, a Catholic Congregation called The Sisters of St. Agnes eventually built a sanitarium where they cared for tuberculosis patients. They believed the fresh air and natural spring water flowing from the Ledge had healing benefits. The hospital was converted into the St. Mary’s Springs Academy boarding school for girls in 1909.
St. Mary’s Springs sanitarium c.1901
Elihu thought the move to Wisconsin would be good for Ellen, but she died just two years later—the day after her 22nd birthday. Elihu continued to live in the house until 1865. Then a state senator, he sold the farm to congressman Owen A. Wells and moved into the city where he founded the Fond du Lac Savings Bank. When his tenure as bank president ended, Elihu once again left the city behind. He bought farmland in the nearby community of Lamartine where he lived out the rest of his years alone.
“Being very deaf he lived quite a secluded life,” Elihu’s biography reads, “but always retained the same old-school gentlemanly manners and erect bearing, which were so characteristic of him.”
The Seventh Son, a man believed to have been born with the divine power of healing, seems to have lived a long life marked by death. While he lost all those he cared for throughout his life, he himself lived to be 84 years old.
Elihu L. Phillips died on January 10, 1884.
Maybe the monumental loss he endured left a residual stain on the beautiful home he built, the persistent stigma of a death curse. Or maybe, as local lore suggests, something more sinister happened in the following years to cement the reputation that haunts the house today. But it seems more likely that the blacked-out windows, the peeling paint, and the unsettling aura of an abandoned space have been stirring imaginations for decades.
Have you had an experience with the Witherell House?
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