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?