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Ghosts & Hauntings

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.

Lyman Phillips house from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin
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.”

Hwy K in front of the abandoned Witherell House

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.

Abandoned house in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin

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 Witherell House is private property

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
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
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 in 1901
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.

History of the haunted Witherell House in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Have you had an experience with the Witherell House?

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Ghosts & Hauntings

The Mirror Lake Michigan Hauntings

Ideally, institutions of higher learning are environments where young people who are first stepping out on their own are encouraged to become independent thinkers and dynamic individuals.

In the face of so much newness, university and college culture often develops systems of ritual and ceremony which provide a contrast to this independence as well as comfort and structure to students as they transition into adulthood.

This week is, typically, when many students at The Ohio State University would be participating in one of it’s best known rituals: jumping into a freezing Mirror Lake prior to a football game with it’s biggest rival, The University of Michigan.

Why jump in an ice cold lake in support of your school football team? The tradition seems to have it’s origins in a turn of the century hazing practice where upperclassmen would assert their dominance by tossing freshmen into the lake.

This became a common occurrence during “May Week”, an annual demonstration of school spirit. As the rivalry between Ohio State And Michigan State grew, May Week activities slowly shifted to the increasingly popular “Beat Michigan Week” and the tradition of voluntarily throwing oneself into the lake was born.

The idea of young people being cast into a lake before an important event has been around for centuries. The Aztec, Mayan, Celt and early Nordic cultures all participated in this practice as an offering to their gods during significant times of the year, and although the young people they hurled into the water were victims of human sacrifice, the Mirror Lake Jump certainly invokes thoughts of these ancient rituals.

In fact, it was the tragic death of a 22 year old Dayton man during the 2015 jump that caused the University to put a stop to the practice once and for all. My heartfelt condolences go out to the family of this young man.

Mirror Lake

According to the campus rumor mill, this wasn’t the only time this type of tragedy has occurred. Stories persist of a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi sorority that broke her neck during a Mirror Lake jump in the 1980s.

The legend states that her fellow sorority sisters carried the body back to the house and hid her to avoid the repercussions of underage drinking gone horribly wrong. Ever since, many have claimed to hear screaming and splashing in the waters of the lake only to see it’s surface mirror smooth when they turn to find the source of the commotion.

Another tale tells of a jogger that was killed near the lake during a mugging. This young man is said to be seen running by the lake, looking over his shoulder, before vanishing into thin air.

The most commonly spotted and well-established ghost of OSU goes by the name Lady of the Lake. Since the 1920s people have witnessed the apparition of a woman in turn of the century clothing glide across Mirror Lake on cold, wintry nights and mornings.

Some believe her to be a mysterious ice skater, but most know her as the wife of Frederick Converse Clarke.

Clarke was a professor of economics and sociology that lost all his money when he invested in a Georgia Gold Mine project that failed miserably. Aside from the obvious blow to his credentials as a professor of economics, the financial ruin left Clarke despondent and suicidal.

After airing his feelings to Dr. Oxley Thompson and getting no sympathy, the depressed professor took his own life on September 21st, 1903 in a garden overlooking Mirror Lake.

Clarke’s wife blamed the university’s insensitivity to her husband’s plight as the cause of his death and vowed to haunt the grounds after her passing.

In 1922 the university built Pomerene Hall on the site of Clarke’s suicide garden and it appears that the spirit of Mrs.Clarke decided it would be a fine building to inhabit when not gliding across the lake.

It is here that she is thought to be responsible for doors that lock and unlock of their own accord, the sound of footsteps across empty rooms and the manipulation of computer voice software, occasionally causing machines that aren’t even turned on to greet the living with a dull, electronic “hello”.

For reasons unknown she is most fond of room 213, where she is seen in a pink antebellum dress moving across to a window that overlooks the very lake that her husband last gazed upon before taking his life more than 100 years ago.

Today, Mirror Lake sits drained and fenced off awaiting a 6 million dollar renovation that will give it a “more natural appearance”. In an effort to end the tradition of the lake jump, the timing of this renovation was no accident, but some defiant students are vowing to leap into some body of water, even if it is the Olentangy River.

Source: Booze & Boos

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Ghosts & Hauntings

The German Navy’s Cursed and Haunted Submarine

From the time she was being constructed, in 1916, there was something sinister and evil about the German submarine UB-65.

Before she was even launched, an accident in the Hamburg shipyard occurred, where a steel girder broke from a crane, crushing a ship builder to death. A second worker was also badly injured.

Investigators could find no reason for the accident, and within a few months, the submarine had put to sea, undergoing trials. Three engineers, testing the ship’s batteries, were overcome with deadly fumes. Again, an inquiry was launched, but failed to determine the cause of their deaths.

Despite her early record of tragedy, the submarine was commissioned, and placed under the command of Kapitanleutenant Martin Schelle, a 29-year-old veteran of the Kaiser’s Navy.

She soon put to sea in an operational capacity, and found herself in the middle of a fierce storm. Captain Schelle used this opportunity to test his boat’s ability to surface in rough seas, and upon breaking the surface, a sailor was washed overboard to his death.

German U-boat

Unexplained Malfunctions Aboard UB-65

Soon after, ballast tanks sprung a leak, and the submarine plunged to the bottom of the sea. Seawater rushing inside caused the dry cell batteries to leak the same toxic fumes that had earlier killed the engineers.

This time, however, the crew was fortunate and suffered no fatalities. UB-65 remained on the bottom of the ocean for 12 long hours, before she was finally able to surface.

Returning to harbour, engineers could again find no explanation for the malfunctions. The crew were beginning to feel their ship was cursed, and many no longer wanted to serve on UB-65. She had soon earned the nickname “The Iron Coffin” within the U-boat fleet.

After leaving port, another tragedy occurred. An exploding torpedo killed the second officer, and wounded several others. Schelle returned to port, the officer was buried, and things started to get really eerie.

Ghost of the Second Officer Appears

While still docked, shortly after the funeral, a seaman claimed to watch the dead officer walk up the gangplank, towards the bow of the ship, and disappear before his very eyes.

More sightings were soon being reported. A lookout claimed to have seen the dead officer standing on the deck of the ship, in rough seas. At first, the commander dismissed the ghost stories, but then he reportedly came face to face with the dead man himself. Whether he admitted it or not, Captain Schelle was now a believer.

The high command finally agreed to have a priest bless the ship, a feat almost unheard of in the no nonsense German Navy. She docked in a port in Belgium, where the ritual was carried out.

After the ceremony was completed, the crew was broken up, and assigned to other ships in the fleet. A new crew was assigned to UB-65, and the captain demanded there was to be no further talk of ghosts.

The change of crew seemed to have no effect. The ghost of the officer was reported on several more occasions, once walking through a steel bulkhead. A torpedoman, terrified by the spirit, jumped to his death in the sea.

The Strange End to UB-65

In July of 1918, off the south coast of Ireland, a U.S. submarine sighted UB-65. Before the American crew could take any action, the German boat mysteriously exploded, seemingly on its own.

UB-65 took her entire crew to the bottom of the ocean, leaving only a patch of oil, some debris, and mystery behind.

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Ghosts & Hauntings

The most haunted house in England ‘The Cage’ has finally sold after 12 years

Vanessa Mitchell has owned a two-bedroom house ‘The Cage since 2004 and often reported seeing ghosts and other spirits. The ghost and spirits would regularly disturb and scared the woman.

The owner insisted she had to leave the house after the horrific incident happened when the ghosts physically attacked her at home. Years Later, it was revealed that the house was used to hold prisoners accused of Blackmagic and witchcraft in the 16th century.

She states she was walking over the stairs and suddenly got pushed over while pregnant and saw mysterious blood spatterings appear.’

Electric gadgets have also turned themselves on, and doors started slamming while walls inexplicably were covered in blood.

After this horrific incident, she decided to move out in 2008 – just four years after purchasing it – buyers were wary and doubtful of taking the house.

Now the haunted house The Cage, in St Osyth, Essex, has finally sold, subject to deal, after nearly a dozen years on the market.

Guests often reported hearing women’s voices and cries from the storeroom even though no one was there when they checked for it.

The claims led to paranormal detectives who regularly came to the haunted house, and it was also a matter of many documentaries.

A plaque on the rear of the house depicts the plight of Ursula Kemp, who was jailed in The Cage on doubt of witchcraft before being hanged in Chelmsford in 1582.

Source: The Digital Wise

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