City Life

Madison's mysterious tales and oddities

Try not to get spooked by the stories below

A sculpture without an origin, hauntings in a popular brewpub, a deadly corner, unidentified flying objects, a town that no longer exists and a team of paranormal investigators; Madison is a city laced with mystery and intrigue. Whether it can be seen, understood or believed is up to you. Try not to get spooked by some of the stories you read.

Perplexing Pyramid

What many call the “creepy mini-pyramid” in Hoyt Park is a mystery in itself. Haunting faces and designs are etched into a pyramid-shaped structure, located behind the Madison School and Community Recreation building in Hoyt Park. Very little can be found online regarding the sculpture’s origins.

In a journal titled “Historic Madison,” writer Scott Kasek describes the pyramid as a “5-foot-high homage to Chichen Itza,” an ancient Mayan city that was located in today’s Yucatán, Mexico. Kasek says the project was built by Hoyt School elementary students. Others have wondered if it was the work of ancient aliens. The most likely story is that it was built in the 1990s by children and staff from the Preschool of the Arts who left the heavy sculpture when the school moved. (But that’s some pretty detailed artwork to have been co-created by kids, if you ask us.) There is no signage nearby, so the pyramid’s origins officially remain a mystery. —MI

From the Depths of the Lake

Long before the encroachment of white settlers, Native Americans believed giant water creatures inhabited area lakes. By the 1860s, local newspapers reported sightings by excited citizens of a large serpent in lakes Mendota and Monona and within the Yahara River that links the two. No fewer than 22 witnesses claimed to have seen on nine separate occasions a serpentine monster ranging from 10 to 35 feet long in Madison waters, according to “The W-Files” by Jay Rath. Some have said the serpent’s name is Bohzo, and reports have described it as a large, 25-foot-long, snake-like monster with dark-green scales and huge fangs.

One fisherman in 1892 said he would never again venture onto Lake Monona after seeing a flat-headed, 20-foot-long creature pass beneath his rented rowboat. Five years later, another man claimed he shot at the creature twice, resulting in a newspaper headline “Bullets Had No Effects on the Hide. Looked Like Bottom of a Boat, But Twice as Long” 

Rather than a mythical monster, some have suggested that the creature or creatures sighted were unusually large muskies, northern pikes, eels or even crocodilians. Whatever it was — or is — Madison’s largest and deepest bodies of water provide plenty of room for something of considerable size to lie in wait, revealing itself only occasionally and memorably. —JP

The Witches of Picnic Point

In the 2011 book “Mysterious Madison,” author Noah Voss recounts some of the lore first written by Wisconsin historian Charles E. Brown. One of those stories involved a claim by Anna White, a local woman, that witches inhabited the area around Picnic Point, which juts into Lake Mendota’s south west side. The witches would lure small children and then fatten them up before eating them, White suspected. White also believed that their evil deeds were stopped when the “Earthmaker” captured the witches and turned them into hackberry trees rooted on that particular bit of land. —JP

The Ghost of Murals Past

At the Wisconsin State Capitol building, one mural with a ghostly likeness can be found in the Assembly Chamber.

The Capitol’s website says the mural “Wisconsin,” completed by Edwin Howland Blashfield in 1913, depicts “Wisconsin’s past, present and future.” Blashfield, who also painted the Rotunda dome mural, painted a badger over a painting of a Civil War soldier. Now that the badger painting is starting to fade away, the ghostly looking soldier is slowly starting to reappear.

The soldier appears above the badger in the painting. It’s easiest to see the soldier’s black helmet popping out on the lap of the monk. It’s as if he is looking to the left as his silhouette slowly starts to reappear. The only way to see this mural in person is to go on a Capitol building tour. —MI

A Hearse’s Final Resting Place

If you’ve ever driven down Speedway Road, you’ve probably seen the vintage hearse on display in a glass box at Cress Funeral & Cremation Service. Click here to read about its origins.

Death Corners

In the 1920s, the intersection of South Murray Street and Desmond Court — two streets that no longer exist — was known as Death Corners. In the span of six years from 1922 to 1928, five people were shot to death near the intersection.

Death Corners was a result of the “Rum War” in the predominantly Italian community of the Greenbush neighborhood. In an effort to gain control of the liquor trade during Prohibition, two gangs, one from Regent Street and the other from Milton Street, caused deadly mayhem in the area. In the 1920s, nearly 1,500 Italians lived in the Greenbush neighborhood. Historian Stu Levitan wrote in Isthmus, “Only a few of the Italian families were bootleggers or moonshiners, of course, but almost all the bootleggers and moonshiners were Italians.”

Levitan wrote that most of the murders were committed within “close range with sawed-off shotguns” to cause “a loud and bloody crime.” To this day, the murders are unsolved, and a redevelopment project in the 1960s destroyed the intersection, which is now UW Health 1 S. Park Clinic’s parking ramp. —MI

Bodies on Bascom

Before Bascom Hill became a symbol synonymous with the University of Wisconsin–Madison, it was the city’s first cemetery. From 1837 to 1846, the site was used as a cemetery for white settlers until eventually gravesites were moved to a different city cemetery.

But they forgot two bodies.

In 1918, when workers were excavating at the top of the hill to move the Abraham Lincoln statue (it was first installed in 1909) to its current location, two bodies were found. The first was Samuel Warren of Middlesex, England, who was killed in 1838 by a lightning strike, and the second was William Nelson who died in 1837 of typhoid fever. At first, the workers found only the lower sections of the two men. Four years later, they unearthed the rest of the remains.

Both Warren and Nelson are still buried on Bascom. You can see where their bodies are located by looking southwest of the Lincoln statues. Embedded in the stone stairs are two small bronze plaques reading “W.N. 1837” and “S.W. 1838.” —MI

Cops Go Ghost Hunting

Former police officers couple instinct with investigative experience to search for the paranormal. Click here for the full story.

Young Lovers

Before the American Exchange Bank on the corner of North Pinckney Street and East Washington Avenue existed, the site was — from 1838 to 1868 — a hotel and boarding home called the American House. It is said that two boarders, Rachel Sampson, a waitress, and Lewis D. Frost, a mail clerk, started a romance before the American House burned down in the fall of 1868.

As the story goes, during one of these romantic meetups, an accident with a kerosene lamp caused the entire hotel to go up in flames. Rumor has it that people still see two young lovers in the upper floor windows of the American Exchange Bank, in a deep embrace. —MI

The Hauntings at The Dane

American Ghost Walks, which hosts three ghost tours in Madison year-round, always starts its Capitol Square Ghost Walks across the street from The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. Lisa Van Buskirk, who is the “Ghost Host With the Most” for American Ghost Walks, consistently hears about ghost encounters at The Great Dane from employees when she asks. Read about these haunted tales here.

Haunted Hallowed Grounds

Forrest Hill Cemetery has as many as 339 unmarked graves and headstones that are too poorly engraved to identify the interred. Learn more about these grounds here.

A Shape in the Night

In April 1897, hundreds of Wisconsin residents as well as people in at least 18 other states reported seeing a fast-moving and bobbing airborne object. Witnesses in Madison said they saw bright lights on a cigar-shaped object. Elsewhere it was described as a huge ball of fire, possibly a dirigible. Some said the big airship hovered suspiciously over the Ringling Bros. Circus’ winter quarters in Baraboo, suggesting it was a circus-created hoax. 

In September 1910, reports of another UFO came in — this one approaching Lake Mendota from the north and hovering above the surface of the lake before flying southwest. According to “W-Files” author Jay Rath, the circus denied being behind the incidents, and a historian at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo cast doubt on the notion that the circus was working with large dirigibles at the time. The “Great Airship Mystery” remains just that: a mystery.

In 1952, military aircraft based at Truax Air Field National Guard Base in Madison were ordered to follow a group of four UFOs over the city, but neither radar, local commercial airlines nor the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s astronomical observatories could locate anything, according to Noah Voss in his 2011 book “Mysterious Madison.” Eyewitnesses on the ground and a government report described the UFOs as semi-circular with yellowish-white lights flying in formation. Since 1997, Voss has maintained the website UFOWisconsin.com, which cites more than 1,000 UFO sightings. Eleven years ago, he wrote the book “UFO Wisconsin: A Progress Report.” 

In “Mysterious Madison,” he includes a detailed account of a 1978 incident in which an air traffic controller in the Madison airport tower and a pilot in mid-flight reported a circling light, initially suspected to be a ground-based searchlight. But after asking McCoy Army Air Force Base and Army National Guard personnel if any aircraft operators were responsible, Voss wrote, “There were no explanations forthcoming.”

UFOWisconsin.com includes a woman’s description of a huge “scalene triangle” flying low near UW Hospital on the evening of Oct. 16, 2008. Six months later, a very different first-person account was given by a Madison resident, who said a large light in the sky suddenly dropped out of sight at high speed.

“I know what I saw and cannot explain it to myself how or why that light acted like it did. I mean, who do you tell this to but you guys?” the man wrote to the website. —JP

Strange Science

When people try to identify a haunted place in Madison, they frequently think of Science Hall. With its Gothic architecture, the building is an eerie site on campus.

“If any building has a right to be haunted, it’s Science Hall,” writes Matthew L. Swayne in “America’s Haunted Universities: Ghosts That Roam Hallowed Halls.” 

According to the university, the secret tunnels, architecture and bats in the attic commonly lead people to think Science Hall might be haunted. “America’s Haunted Universities” says that some deaths occurred as a result of the building’s construction.

In the early 1900s, medical students performed autopsies on cadavers in the building. There was a lift to move the bodies from the basement morgue to the dissection laboratory on the fourth floor. Even after the Department of Anatomy moved in 1956, students found a preserved human foot in the attic in 1974. The university says there have also been leg bones found in an attic from a “tall man.” Once the body parts formerly used by the anatomy department were found, stories of hauntings and ghost appearances began circulating around Science Hall. —MI

Makes You Wonder

Wonder Bar Steakhouse’s history is laced with tales of the mafia, gambling and illegal spirits.
Roger “The Terrible” Touhy, an Irish American mob boss, Prohibition-era bootlegger and Al Capone rival from Chicago, gave money to his brother, Eddie Touhy, to start brewing beer and distilling illegal spirits in a location outside of Chicago.

Eddie Touhy came to Madison and ended up opening Eddie’s Wonder Bar, a castle-like restaurant complete with underground tunnels in 1929.

According to a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the tunnels, which ran toward Lake Monona and are now filled in, were used to smuggle booze and help others escape from hit men. Lisa Van Buskirk of Madison Ghost Tours says Wonder Bar was built as a place for mobsters to stop on the way up north. There were even holes that could be used to aim Tommy guns out of the building.

The business has passed into different hands and changed names throughout the years, but the name was changed back to Wonder Bar in 2009.

At the bar you can see a sign that says, “Closed for violation of National Prohibition Act,” a nod to the establishment’s mob past. —MI

A Disappearing Act

Dane County’s earliest town no longer exists.

Pokerville, Wisconsin, called “The Vanished Village” by the Wisconsin State Journal in a 1925 article, was Dane County’s first town. Originally called West Blue Mounds, the village became Pokerville in 1828 as it was a gambling hot spot for lead miners. It was a bustling area in the 1830s with saloons, a 10-pin alley, several general stores, a blacksmith, a harness maker, a carpenter and a physician.

Following the Civil War, there was a decline in lead mining — the main industry in Pokerville — which caused families and miners to slowly leave. As the city didn’t have a railroad, the final nail in the coffin for Pokerville was the choice to build a new depot in nearby Blue Mounds. What was left was an empty town, with former residents even picking up and taking their homes with them. Pokerville lasted less than 30 years before becoming the ghost town that it is today. —MI

Three Theater Hauntings

Lisa Van Buskirk, a tour guide for Madison Ghost Walks, says theaters are frequently haunted. “If you die in a theater, you most certainly will be haunting it,” she says.

In following that principle, three of downtown Madison’s theaters — Majestic Theatre, Capitol Theater and Orpheum Theater — have their own ghost stories.

Green Room Joe
The Majestic Theatre is Madison’s oldest theater. Van Buskirk says King Street was considered the center of the city and the place where Madison truly began after the city was founded. There are rumors about a ghost named Joe — who reportedly died at the Majestic — showing up in the theater’s green room. Van Buskirk, who stops at the Majestic on one of her tours, has been told by multiple mediums that the ghost requests to be called “James” or “Jimmy.”

Dance of the Dead
On the opposite side of Capitol Square in the Overture Center for the Arts’ Capitol Theater, Van Buskirk says an individual reportedly saw a ghostly couple dancing on the stage, who used to work there in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Oddities at Orpheum
Across the street from Overture is Orpheum Theater, where Van Buskirk says employees have experienced some odd occurrences. Once when a manager was alone in the theater, a heavy side door slammed when no one else was nearby. Another employee was working in the back of the theater when a shadow-like figure floated over the seats and then flew over the stage.  —MI

Spooky Events in Madison

Experience some of the mystery and intrigue of the city by taking a tour, visiting a haunted house or attending one of these events.

TOURS

Madison Ghost Walks | multiple dates | Capitol Square | americanghostwalks.com 

State Street Side Ghost Walks | multiple dates | Capitol Square | americanghostwalks.com

UW Campus Ghost Walks | multiple dates | UW–Madison | americanghostwalks.com

Wisconsin Dells Ghost Boat | Friday and Saturday nights throughout September and October | Wisconsin River | dellsghostboat.com

Haunted History Tour | Saturdays in September and October | Wisconsin Dells | dellstrolley.com

EVENTS

Fresco Opera’s Opera On the Point | 7 p.m. on Oct. 5 | Picnic Point | frescooperatheatre.com 

Wisconsin Veterans Museum’s Talking Spirits Cemetery Tours | noon-4 p.m. on Oct. 6 | bit.ly/2YVYUsd

Halloween Legends and Lore | Oct. 18-19 | Old World Wisconsin | bit.ly/2JCPNrh

Spooktacular Vendor & Craft Fair | Oct. 19-20 | Alliant Energy Center | bit.ly/2MfTkya

Downtown Madison Family Halloween | Oct. 23 | Downtown Madison Visitor Center | bit.ly/2kuigpx

Freakfest | Oct. 26 | State Street | madfreakfest.com

HAUNTED HOUSES

Wisconsin Scaryland | Waunakee

Screamin’ Acres Haunted Houses | Stoughton

Schuster’s Haunted Forest | Deerfield


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