A Field Guide to Ghosts and Cryptids of Southeast Wisconsin

by Jessie Lynn McMains

If you’re anything like me, the start of spooky season has given you the urge to seek out haunted places and creepy creatures. Actually, if you’re anything like me, you have the urge to seek out those things year-round, but I digress… Wisconsin has a wealth of ghosts and monsters. What follows is only a handful of my favorite haunts, in Kenosha, Racine, and Walworth counties.


Kemper Center (Kenosha)

photo of Kemper Center by William Garrett on Flickr

The place that is now known as Kemper Center was built as the private home of Senator Charles Durkheim in 1861. In 1865, it was converted into Kemper Hall—an Epsicopal boarding school for girls. At that point, they added new wings and buildings, including a chapel, and living quarters for the students and nuns. In 1975, the school closed, and it eventually became what it is today—an historic site, arts center, event venue, and very haunted place.

Human-shaped shadows gathering in corners and gazing out from the windows. Footsteps following close behind you, but when you turn around, no one’s there. These are just some of the things people have reported experiencing at Kemper Center.

There is some debate as to who—or what—is haunting the place. This is the story that was told to me:

Most of the students at Kemper Hall were troubled girls from wealthy Chicago-area families. It was the type of place where rich white girls who were running around with boys, or partying, or otherwise behaving in an unladylike or strong-willed manner were sent. Their families would no longer have to deal with them, and maybe at a school run by nuns they would find salvation…or have their sinful ways beaten out of them.

There was one particularly cruel nun, who would inflict corporal punishment and various other tortures on the girls for the slightest infractions. One day, some of these girls decided they’d had enough. While the Sister was in the observatory, the girls lined up along the spiral staircase which led to it. One girl stood at the top, another at the first bend, another at the second bend, and so on, all the way to the bottom. When the unsuspecting nun emerged from the observatory, before she had a moment to realize what was happening, the first girl shoved her as hard as she could, and sent her tumbling down the staircase. When the bend in the staircase slowed her descent, the next girl kicked her and set it in motion again. And the next girl, and the next girl, all the way down to the bottom, where she came to her final stop. Battered, broken, and very, very dead.

Her ghost still roams Kemper Hall, seeking vengeance for her murder. Seeking to punish some unsuspecting soul for their sins.

There are stories of other ghosts: a student who jumped off the roof, a young nun who went mad and drowned herself in Lake Michigan and whose body was later found by two young children. The latter is actually the most well-known legend surrounding Kemper Center, but because I heard the tale of the cruel nun’s murder first—and because it is far more gruesome—that is the one that haunts me.

As is the case with many hauntings, none of these stories are verified historical fact. But go visit Kemper Center for yourself, and tell me you don’t feel something there—something lurking in the hallways, watching you, making the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.


Rhode Center for the Arts (Kenosha)

photo of Rhode Center for the Arts by William Garrett on Flickr

In 1890, a German immigrant named Peter Rhode bought land in downtown Kenosha and built a 1,000-seat theater: the Rhode Opera House, which opened to the public in August 1891. In 1896, the theater burned to the ground, but it was quickly rebuilt and reopened. In 1927, the building was purchased from the Rhode family and torn down, and a new theater was built on the site—a movie theater. In 1988, that building was bought by the Lakeside Players, who renamed it in homage to the original owner: Rhode Center for the Arts.

There have been many strange occurrences there in the years since. The so-called ‘Lavender Lady’ is the most infamous Rhode ghost. She plays piano and leaves her signature scent of lavender wafting behind her in the rooms she passes through; her face has even been spotted in mirrors and peering from around corners. There is also an unnamed entity that lives in the basement, someone—or something—much darker than the sweet-smelling, piano-playing Lavender Lady.


Petrifying Springs/UW-Parkside (Kenosha)

photo of Petrifying Springs by Daniel Orth on Flickr

This story is based purely on my own personal experiences. Through all my research for this piece, I have found no corroboration that Petrifying Springs and UW-Parkside are haunted, or that anything I’m about to tell you ever happened there.

In the autumn of 2000, I briefly attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I often couldn’t stand being on campus, for reasons that don’t matter much here, so I escaped any way I could. I wandered the streets of Evanston and Chicago, or I returned to UW-Parkside—where I’d begun my college education a year prior—to visit my friends and my then-boyfriend.

One of those nights when I just had to leave, I hopped on board the last Metra train of the night that went all the way to Kenosha; the one which pulled into the station round about midnight. I hailed one of the handful of cabs that hung around the train station, and told the driver to take me to Parkside.

As we got closer to campus, nearing the dark woods of Petrifying Springs (the park which gives Parkside its name), the cabbie said: “You know these woods are haunted, right? And the campus, too?” He told me the tale of a professor, a depressive alcoholic tormented by terrible rumors some students had started, who chose to take his own life by hanging himself in the woods just at the edge of campus. He said that ever since then, his ghost roams the night woods and the campus, not looking for revenge but unable to rest, unable to pass on to his eternal sleep.

It’s very much an urban legend—many college campuses are purportedly haunted by the restless ghosts of students or faculty who committed suicide—and I can’t say I’ve ever really witnessed a ghost at Parkside or Petrifying Springs. But sometimes, on a winter’s evening when the bare branches spread like claws against the pearly-gray sheen of the sky, I swear I’ve seen the shadow of a body, swinging, swinging…


DeKoven Center (Racine)

photo by the author, of St. John’s Chapel at DeKoven Center

The first house I lived in after my family moved to Racine was not very far from DeKoven. My neighborhood friends and I would ride bikes down to the lake and then roam the grounds. We did not know much about the history of DeKoven (other than that it had once been a boys’ preparatory school and college known as Racine College), nor did we know anything of the history of the lakefront site across the street. No adults or older kids had told us tales of any hauntings, but we knew it was haunted. Whether it be the pseudo-Gothic style architecture of the buildings, the chapel (which is the burial site of both the Rev. Dr. Roswell Park, first president of Racine College, and the Rev. Dr. James DeKoven, former warden), or just a feeling that hung about the place…there was always something eerie about it. We made up our own stories to explain the things we experienced there—the voices that whispered from close by though we knew no one else was around; the figures in the windows watching, watching. (In later years, wanting to feel poetically spooked, I would go there alone and sit by the chapel, reading aloud from Keats, Shelley, Blake. I’m a goth. I do goth stuff.)

The history of DeKoven and the lakefront site across the street make them both prime locations for paranormal activity.

Evergreen Cemetery was opened in 1851, along the shore of Lake Michigan, close to the waters below. The first burial at Evergreen occurred in 1852, and shortly afterwards, the charter for Racine College was granted. The college was to share a border with Evergreen, on the southeastern corner of the lot.

After Mound Cemetery was built, Evergreen fell into disrepair. The property was sold to one Daniel Bull for the purpose of farming, and he was tasked with exhuming and relocating the bodies, but…he only found 76 of the likely hundreds of bodies buried there. Then there was a bunch of vandalism and grave robbery: medical students from Milwaukee and Chicago robbed some of the graves for cadavers and bones; and vandals (some of them attendees of Racine College) went after the remaining headstones. And there was also the matter of the lake—the water eroded much of the land there. Often, one could see coffins sticking out from the side of the embankment, and bodies fell into the lake on numerous occasions. By the late 1920s, the majority of the site had been completely washed away. Due to neglect and poor record-keeping, families whose loved ones had been buried at Evergreen were never notified if they’d been reinterred elsewhere, had been stolen by grave robbers, or had fallen into Lake Michigan.

There are still traces of Evergreen and those buried there. During construction jobs at nearby homes as recently as 2017, homeowners and construction crews have found human skulls, jawbones, ribs, pelvic bones, and various other fragments.

The first classes at Racine College began in 1852. Most of Park Hall (one of the campus buildings) was destroyed by fire in January 1864 (and almost all of former president Roswell Park’s library along with it), but was rebuilt within the year. The college continued to do quite well, and its expansion necessitated the construction of several new campus buildings in 1871 and ’72. In February 1875, another fire destroyed much of the interior of Taylor Hall, but the outside structure remained intact, which made it easier to rebuild.

James DeKoven, who had served as warden for two decades, died (suddenly, but purportedly of natural causes) on March 19, 1879. He was interred on site, just outside the wall on the south side of St. John’s Chapel—his favorite place on campus. After his death, the collegiate department of Racine College went into a rapid decline. In 1889, only ten years after his death, they closed the collegiate department. Racine College remained as a boys’ preparatory school until 1933, when the Great Depression forced it to close for good. The property changed hands and was put to many different uses over the years, before becoming what it is now: a community center, event space, and home to Spectrum School for the Arts.

See what I mean about these histories being ripe for hauntings? Forgotten corpses! Vandals and grave robbers! Headmasters buried on site! Two fires! (Although no one died in these fires, I do believe buildings can become entities unto themselves—so there has to be some site-specific trauma from something like a fire.) Not to mention the sheer number of bodies, both living and dead, which have resided in or passed through Evergreen Cemetery and the DeKoven Center.

And, to be sure, there are many and various purported hauntings at, and near, DeKoven. I’ve experienced whispering voices and figures watching from the windows. Others have reported ghostly figures in the hallways and basement and on the grounds, and even in nearby homes. Homeowners in the area have reported doors opening and closing for no reasons, appliances turning on and off, and sensations of being watched. On DeKoven’s grounds, there have been reports of cold spots, as well as a variety of auditory experiences: flute music, footsteps running up and down stairs, doors slamming, and more.

James DeKoven is purportedly one of the figures roaming the DeKoven grounds, but people have also seen a woman in a wedding dress gliding between the trees at night. And nearby homeowners have reported seeing a Union solder wandering through their homes.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, DeKoven Center and the surrounding area have a fascinating history, and it’s a beautiful location. Go check it out for yourself…if you dare.


Winslow Elementary School/St. Luke’s hospital site (Racine)

old postcard of Winslow School, found here

Before the area between what is now known as 13th and 14th Streets was Winslow School and St. Luke’s Hospital, it was Racine’s first official cemetery, established in 1842. In 1852, the location was chosen as the site of the Third Ward School (later Winslow), and the City Council passed an ordinance stating that all bodies buried in the Old Cemetery must be removed by January 1, 1854. There were several hundred bodies there, and most were moved to Mound Cemetery or Evergreen Cemetery.

Only…they missed some. As homes began to be constructed near the former site of the Old Cemetery, many homeowners found bones on their property. No one knows exactly how many bones have been found in the area, but at least two complete skeletons were recovered over the course of Winslow’s history. With those bones have come many legends and paranormal occurrences, both at Winslow and at St. Luke’s.

I attended Winslow in the fifth grade, right after my family moved to Racine. Some of the other kids told me the stories. Though the water pump in the schoolyard was long out of use by that point, kids still made up rhymes about ‘skeleton juice.’ It was also said that one could summon a Bloody Mary-esque entity via the mirrors in the girls’ bathroom, but I think most schools have a legend like that.

I never found any bones in the schoolyard, nor had any truly paranormal experiences of my own there, but the school did have some very heavy bad vibes. I was largely miserable there, as were many of my friends. But Winslow is also where I developed a love for writing poetry. After finishing a workbook page early, while waiting for the teacher to finish explaining it to the rest of the class, I’d sneak my journal out of my desk. (I had to be sneaky—I got in frequent trouble both for completing assignments before the teacher had explained them, and for doing non-assigned reading or writing instead of just sitting idle at my desk.) I’d hide my journal in my lap (along with my favorite purple pen) and write without looking down. My poetry at the time was clumsy and overwrought, but the act of writing was a small rebellion that made those terrible days bearable. Perhaps there were malevolent entities at Winslow who added to my misery, but maybe there was also a defiant, poetry-loving presence who took pity on a miserable kid and gave me a little nudge in the right direction.


Veterans Center and Legacy Museum (Racine)

photo by the author, of a door in the basement of the Veterans Center

Racine has an important history as a station on the Underground Railroad. Former slaves who escaped the south were brought here, where they were then hidden in safehouses until they could travel over land or by boat to freedom in Canada. Because of the necessarily secretive nature of an operation such as the Underground Railroad, it is difficult to find precise records of where exactly these safehouses were. What is now the Veterans Center in Racine was likely one of them. There is a door in the basement, leading to an inner room where escaped slaves could hide until they could safely travel to freedom. There have been reports of many odd happenings in that basement. Though it is not known if anyone died while in hiding there, I believe there are many types of hauntings. One type isn’t so much spirits of the dead, it’s more like—the place itself holds memories of things that happened there, which it replays over and over in an infinite tape loop. An experience as fraught as escaped slaves hiding in a cramped basement room while on their way to freedom would definitely be the sort of memory a place might hold onto.

There have also been reports of other activity on the ground level of the Veterans Center, particularly in the bar and the bathrooms. Some of it innocuous, if creepy, and some of it more violent and poltergeist-like. When I visited the Veterans Center during a ghost tour of Racine several years ago, a veteran at the bar regaled us with one of his own experiences: “I was in the bathroom, taking a piss, when the bathroom door flew open and hit the wall so hard I thought it would break. I nearly got piss all over myself, I was so scared, and when I finally got the guts to look towards the door…no one was there.”


D.P. Wigley (Racine)

photo of D.P. Wigley by Richie Diesterheft on Flickr

The D.P. Wigley building sits on the banks of the Root River, on Wisconsin Avenue just south of 3rd Street. It began its life around 1850, as a grain mill, and has been many other things during its over 150 years of existence. It is five stories tall, and the very lowest level rests only a few feet above the rushing waters of the river.

The first time I ever set foot inside the building was on that same ghost tour mentioned above. Owner Mark Flynn told us a story:

He was alone in the building one Sunday morning, and heard someone singing down by the river. He thought maybe somebody was under the dock, but when he went to check, no one was there. A little while later, he heard the voice again—a quiet voice singing an eerie, hymn-like melody in a language he could not decipher. The next day, a construction worker came in and said: “Did you hear?” While digging in the street outside, the crew had hit an old grave stone—the final resting place of a young Welsh woman.

I’ve been in the building many times since I first heard that tale, and it does feel haunted, as does any building with such a long and storied history. If you decide to visit for yourself, you may even get a bit dizzy, and find it difficult to breathe. Though, whether that’s from ghosts or simply the musty vapors of the river and the ancient grain dust hanging in the air—who can say?


Bray Road (Elkhorn)

photo of the intersection of Bray Road and Highway 11 near Elkhorn by Jennifer Kirkland on Flickr

If you feel like driving an hour or so west from Racine, you might have a paranormal encounter of a different sort. Not with a ghost, but with Walworth County’s very own cryptid—the Beast of Bray Road.

The Beast of Bray Road is described as a large (around seven foot tall) creature with a wolf-like face, yellow eyes, and enormous fangs. Its entire body is covered in coarse, grey-brown hair. It is said to be bipedal, and possessed of a greater intelligence than your average canid. Some people think the Beast is a werewolf, others say it’s more akin to a Bigfoot-type creature, albeit in a wolf-like rather than ape-like form.

It mostly stalks the country roads and fields in and around Elkhorn, though there have been sightings in nearby areas, and even as far away as northern Illinois.

The first ‘official’ Beast of Bray Road sighting was in 1936, though early settlers to the area described large canine creatures who would attack and then disappear without a trace. The most frequent Beast sightings occurred between 1989-1991, and some think the Beast died or relocated at that time. However, there have continued to be infrequent sightings from the late ’90s up through the present. Sightings have ramped up again in the past few years; there were several reported sightings of the Beast in 2020. (The earth is healing.)

I’m kind of obsessed with the Beast of Bray Road, to say the least. I’ve written a persona poem as the Beast. (I’ve also written a persona poem as the Hodag, Rhinelander’s famous cryptid.) Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, I had many friends who lived in Walworth County, and I spent a lot of time out that way. Some nights, those friends and I would hop into someone’s car and go out driving the backroads, looking for the Beast of Bray Road. Though I’m not sure if I ever actually saw her, I did hear growls and loud rustling in the corn fields, catch flashes of yellow fangs and yellow eyes in the headlights’ beam. Was it the Beast of Bray Road, or just a regular old coyote, misidentified? I can’t say. I was always a little too scared to get close enough, or stick around long enough, to find out.


Should you decide to visit any of the locations I’ve mentioned, please do your research beforehand. Some of these locations are open to the public, others are not. Of course, even if you can’t go inside a place, or walk on its grounds, you can always explore the area around it. But wherever you go, indoors or out, please be respectful. You don’t want to piss off the living…or the dead.


ENDNOTES:

I really only scratched the surface of the creatures and ghosties of southeastern Wisconsin. I didn’t even touch the haunted history of Milwaukee, of which there is an abundance. And there are so many strange and unusual (I myself am strange and unusual) stories from Kenosha, Racine, and Walworth counties which I didn’t have time or space to include. Not to mention the non-paranormal, but still very interesting, history of the area. If you’d like to learn more, many of my sources are listed below. Go ahead, visit them, and see what else you can…dig up. (Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all month.)

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