As the weather turns crisp and cool and the nights grow longer, it is the perfect time to explore the spookier side of Wisconsin. The state is home to many unexplained happenings and ghostly tales, so we rounded up a few of our favorite spots where things may go bump in the night. All locations are accessible and open to the public – so take a tour, wander the halls, sip on a cocktail and experience for yourself the mysterious tales and Wisconsin haunts.
Grand Opera House
Located in Downtown Oshkosh, the beautifully opulent Grand Opera House was built in 1883 and is on both the state and historic registers. Today, the “Grand” is a thriving community theater and home to more than 25 public performances a year. However, live theater is not all that calls the opera house home. Staff members tell us there a few ghosts that roam the halls of the 139-year-old building. Stories like that of the prankster boy in the basement, often heard laughing down the halls or trying to poke or trip patrons. He is believed to have been a coal boy who helped shovel coal to heat the building back in the day. The most prominent spirit from this haunted Wisconsin venue is that of the “girl in the balcony” who has been spotted on numerous occasions wearing Victorian-era clothing. She appears to be anxiously awaiting the opening night of “The Bohemian Girl,” which was the first opera performed on the Grand’s stage. Not all who linger there are human – rumor has it there is a phantom dog who roams the halls and makes appearances on stage!
Let your imagination run wild and experience the ghosts of the Grand Opera House yourself during its Haunted Happenings Tours in October, with both family-friendly and late-night options. For more information, dates and times, visit thegrandoshkosh.org.
This neoclassical turn-of-the-century library in Kenosha was designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham and has quite the history. Formally known as the Gilbert M. Simmons Memorial Library, it is named after the son of early Kenosha mayor Zalmon Simmons. Simmons donated money for the building’s construction on the condition the building would bear his son’s name, Gilbert, who died of pneumonia in his 30’s. On the lower staff-only level, there’s a room with two older architectural archways said to lead to Gilbert and Zalmon’s tombs. Both archways are now bricked over, and it is unclear what lies beyond them. The library was also built on the log cabin home of Charles and Catherine Durkee, early settlers to the area. A young and vibrant woman, Catherine died at age 25 after an illness on this site. She would also be the first person buried at Kenosha’s historic Green Ridge Cemetery. According to previous newspaper articles and staff reports, the library has its share of unexplained happenings like papers moving around, giggling from the spiral staircase, tapping noises, apparitions, lights diming and shadows that dance among the bookshelves. Many suspect it is Catherine roaming the halls or perhaps father and son tapping from the underground tombs. Simmons Library offers a very limited amount of self-guided haunted tours in October each year. For more information, visit mykpl.bibliocommons.com.
The perfect way to see Simmons Library and hear stories of other Wisconsin haunts is with Lake Shore Pedal Tours, an open-air 14-seat pedal bike. Part party on wheels and part historical tour, this two-hour BYOB experience through town also makes a few stops at downtown watering holes for some “spirits” and is a fun engaging way to learn Kenosha’s history. Tour-goers will hear about Native American burial practices, the Rhode Theater’s Lavender Lady, the SS Wisconsin that went down off shore in 1929 and the brutal murder of Bridget McCaffrey by her husband, John. After John’s botched execution, Wisconsin passed a law to abolish the death penalty, and his is the only execution to have ever happened in the state. To book your tour, visit lakeshorepedal.com.
Shaker’s Cigar Bar
Voted as one of the top five haunted bars in the United States, Shaker’s Cigar Bar in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood is a must-stop on a spooky Wisconsin tour. Built on a former graveyard, Shaker’s was once a speakeasy and brothel owned by the Capone brothers during Prohibition. Delight in Shaker’s lavish decor, sip a cocktail like Death in the Afternoon or, if cigars are your thing, select a hand-made, premium cigar housed in a 1905 glass-topped humidor. Shaker’s also has an open-air rooftop bar open in warmer months.
Shaker’s runs hour-long tours during which guests can experience myriad stories and spaces like the basement, home to shadow figures, a murky cistern, bodies that are buried beneath the concrete and a safe that even the best code crackers can’t open. Perhaps whatever or whoever is inside doesn’t want to be disturbed? Visit the women’s restroom where the spunky ghost of 8-year-old Elizabeth tinkers with the toilet paper, giggles and toys with the guests’ hair and dresses. Tour the upstairs brothel area and spend some time with Molly, a favorite spirit among staff who brutally murdered in the space. Her body was burned in the fireplace and her bones scattered among the location.
Shaker’s Cigar Bar offers nightly tours along with three fall seasonal offerings: The Whoring 20’s, The Milwaukening Dead and the Cream City Cannibal tour which features stories of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer’s time spent at Shaker’s during his Milwaukee killing spree. Patrons can also spend the night with resident ghosts with an overnight stay in the Wisconsin haunt’s third-floor penthouse – not for the faint of heart! To book a tour or overnight stay, visit www.hangmantours.com.
Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Club
Washington Island, Door County
Built in 1899, Nelsen’s Hall & Bitters Club is a Door County gem only accessible via water ferry on Washington Island. During Prohibition, owner Tom Nelsen kept the bar running all because of his pharmacy license that allowed him to serve 90-proof Angostura bitters, a medicinal stomach tonic that was used to cure various ailments. Nowadays, visitors from far and wide flock to Nelsen’s Hall to take a shot of bitters, earn their card and join the “club.” Nelsen died many years ago in the upstairs apartment, and the tale goes he is still around, evident by reports of apparitions, cool breezes and some “cheeky” activity. Nelson is known to pinch or pat females on the backside and many have experienced happenings in the women’s restroom. Stop in, join the club and raise a glass of bitters in the longest-operating bar in Wisconsin. (This writer has – minus the pinching!) To learn about this Wisconsin haunt, visit www.facebook.com/nelsenshallandbittersclub.
Sheboygan Falls Asylum
Sheboygan Falls Area
On the back roads of Wisconsin farmland between the towns of Waldo and Sheboygan lies a large unoccupied 1940’s building. Or is it occupied by something more sinister? Once serving as a nursing home facility for mentally and chronically ill and a drug- and alcohol-dependent center, the location closed in 2002. Legendary tales of tortured souls who lived here are prevalent and activity including screams, loud noises, slamming doors, shadow figures and physical attacks have been reported by those who visit.
Ghost Hunters USA offers exclusive access to the Sheboygan Falls Asylum including the morgue, electroshock rooms, tunnels, chapel and much more. For more information, visit ghosthuntsusa.com.
Towering above Starin Park adjacent to the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater is Witches Tower, an 80-ft. stonemason tower supporting a 20-ft.-tall water tank. Legend has it that witches would perform rituals in the wee hours of the night around the water tower. Nowadays, there is an iron fence around the tower with upward-pointed spikes to keep the witches at bay, if you will. Other stories tell of bodies floating within the tower, hanging from nearby trees and one story says the tower rotates on Halloween night when no one is around – not sure we will stick around for that one! Touted as the “Second Salem” by many, it is believed that Whitewater’s witch tales started in the late 1800’s when the Morris Pratt Institute, which specialized in spiritualism, was built. It has been thought that Whitewater was home to an active coven of witches during this time and beyond. Whitewater is home to three cemeteries, which all form a triangle (often referred to as the witches’ triangle); inside this area, there has been a high number of reported hauntings over the years.
The Whitewater Chamber of Commerce hosts a historical haunted tour each fall which talks more in depth about Second Salem, the occult, the town’s serial killer and much more. Note: The 2022 tour has already taken place. For more information, visit www.whitewaterchamber.com/spirit-tour.
The Stones Throw
The Stones Throw is home to a vibrant music scene in Downtown Eau Claire and has been reported to have paranormal activity for years. According to The Wisconsin Road Guide to Haunted Locations, the story tells of a man who hanged himself in the building in the 1900’s. Originally built as a bank in 1893, it’s been reported that patrons and staff have experienced noises and whispers, flickering lights, misplaced objects, footsteps and smashing bottles in this corner gothic building. Truth or the stuff of long-ago folk lore? See for yourself. Check out a local band, grab a craft beer and see what happens after dark in Eau Claire. For more information, visit www.facebook.com/stonesthrowdt.
Great Dane Pub
A hot spot in Madison for Badger fans and beer lovers, Great Dane Pub also brings some spook to the Downtown State Street area. Once serving as the Fess Hotel for more than 130 years, stories of apparitions, internal ringing phones, whispers and other strange happenings have been told by employees over the years to various news outlets. Once a “dry” hotel without a bar, one theory is a frequent guest of the hotel and temperance-movement supporter was upset that alcohol is now being served and caused a bit of a fuss. Stop in for some great food and drinks and ask the staff if they have any stores. To learn more about this Wisconsin haunt, visit www.greatdanepub.com.
To learn more about Great Dane Pub and other Madison haunts, Destination Madison offers various walking ghost tours during the month of October. For more information, visit www.visitmadison.com.
Grand Opera House photo credit: Thompson Photo Imagery