Author’s Note: My upcoming book, Monster Hunters: On the Trail with Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, UFOlogists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (June 1, 2015, Chicago Review Press) saw me travel through nine states to meet people who study and track unknown entities. Curious as to what I might be missing in my own backyard, I put out a call on social media for tips. I found out that Riverwest has more ghost stories than I expected!
But do ghosts actually exist? That is an age old debate between believers and skeptics. My goal here is not to endorse ghosts as being real nor to debunk these claims, but merely to share these interesting stories from the good people of Riverwest.
One of the fascinating things that I found is that almost all of the ghost reports came from a small portion of the neighborhood, centered in the area of the 700-800 blocks of Chambers. This proximity led Currents editor Jan Christensen to dub this zone “Riverwest’s Ghost District.”
A special thanks to Riverwest Currents summer intern Greta Jochem, who assisted by researching properties to dig up some interesting facts.
They Followed Me Here
2900 block, N. Fratney Street
Jeff Kerr is a 49-year-old writer. His home is classic Riverwest—an upper Polish flat, where he lives with his girlfriend (she’d rather remain anonymous), and his dog, Griff. Records show the house was built in 1905. Jeff is standing in the living room, showing me where he spotted a full body apparition who took a few steps toward the porch door before disappearing into thin air. Behind him are a wall of shelves filled with books and balls of yarn. Jeff’s girlfriend sits in a chair and knits a scarf while he talks. Griff walks over and sticks his head on my lap. They are preparing to move at the end of the month and might be leaving something strange behind.
I look up and right here, I saw a woman. A young woman, nice clothes, dark hair, as real as her or yourself (gesturing to us), she walked this far (he stops at the porch door) and disappeared. It didn’t scare me or freak me out, I was just like, “what was that all about?” It was in the day time. I did a little research to try and see if something happened here, I couldn’t find anything. This person looked like they lived here turn of the century maybe, judging by her look.
(He walks into the kitchen.) Other than that, this is not really in chronological order, this picture – I was at a dinner – and I won that in a raffle. (The picture is a print of a stoic looking Scottish man in a kilt, carrying bagpipes.) This dog, a lot of times he wouldn’t come in the kitchen, he’d just stand here and bark at it. Bark at it, bark at it.
(We walk upstairs.)
What happens up here is the bed starts shaking. I was laying on my side and I felt a finger poke me like that (he pokes the air) in my back. And she (his girlfriend) had the same thing happen to her. The dog was downstairs, I was outside doing something and she was in bed and she heard something move around in here and then knock against the bed. Another time she was laying here and it tried to do it and it started moving the bed around as she was laying there. So that’s about the extent of that.
(Jeff tells me about other unearthly experiences he’s had at other residences before he moved to Milwaukee.)
She swears that they followed me here. (Laughs)
Did you have experiences before he moved in?
GIRLFRIEND: No. Mm-mm. It’ll just be interesting if you notice any sort of spirits in our new place.
JEFF: Yeah, not again! Then we’ll know for sure. We’ll see what happens.
Dino’s Tavern, 808 E. Chambers Street
Jeff Kerr told me that he had also seen an apparition of an old man one night while he was at Dino’s Tavern. “He was leaning forward like he wanted to say something, then he disappeared,” he told me.
At Dino’s, I found my friend Jules behind the bar.
“You got to talk to Jane,” she said, wiping down the countertop. “Before she left, she told me it’s going to get me!” Jules gave me a business card for Jane Pankowski, 37, a former Dino’s bartender who works as an advertising account manager. I called her up.
First, I’ll preface this by saying I don’t necessarily believe in ghosts, but I do believe in energies. And when I’d be at Dino’s by myself closing down at night, I never felt like I was by myself. I always felt there was something there with me. It was spooky to the point that I would talk out loud to this non-existent thing and would be like, “don’t mess with me, I’m just going in the basement to get more ice.” I felt that if I just acknowledged it was there, nothing would bother me.
Outside of feelings and seeing things out of the corner of my eye…I was there one night, as a customer, with my boyfriend. Anthony was behind the bar, it was just the three of us there. We were sitting there, chatting, and in the corner of my eye, I saw a woman sitting at the bar. I didn’t think anything of it, but I didn’t remember the door opening. It was like a quiet person sitting at the end of the bar that wanted to keep to themselves. A couple minutes went by. I turned around, and there was no one there. I didn’t see the ladies room door open or the door to the bar. I looked at Anthony and my boyfriend and I said, “Wasn’t there a lady sitting there? Where did she go?” Both of them were like, “What are you talking about?” I was like, “I’m not crazy, there was a woman down at the end of the bar!” They were both kinda freaking out, like, “Oh, I can’t believe you saw someone.”
That was the only time I saw what I guess you could say was an apparition or whatever, but to me, it was a hundred percent real. But the spookiest thing was feeling like I wasn’t alone when I was alone there.
700 block, E. Chambers St.
Real estate agent Claudine Lineau, 46, is wearing a spandex cycling uniform and sitting in a lawn chair in her garage. This is the headquarters for her team participating in the Riverwest 24 bicycle race. Some of her teammates are milling about the garage with beverages. A neighbor has stopped by to hang out. He’s dressed wizard casual – he has a white beard and a walking stick, but is also wearing jogging pants and a flannel shirt.
We moved into the house 21 years ago this summer. We had tenants the first while that we lived here. I didn’t notice anything when we first moved into the house. But then when our second son was born in ‘97 we moved into the whole house.
I would see this man walking through the kitchen upstairs, while I was up there. I’d be in the hallway into the kitchen and he’d be walking past, out towards the stairs. That happened frequently. As my older son got older, he started seeing him also. My son would be like “Did you see the man?” And I was like, “Oh, okay, you can see him, too.” (Laughs)
We were trying to find more history of the house and it turns out it was a rooming house for a while, so it’s been hard to track down who the individual is. We’ve never figured out who this guy could have been, always wearing dark clothes, like a dark baggy jacket, long black pants, sometimes a hat, like a bowler hat. I never really saw features on him, just a side view as he walked across my path. Just looking straight ahead like he was going somewhere, not noticing anyone around him. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him for a long time. It’s been about ten or twelve years since we’ve seen him.
Claudine’s wizard-like neighbor joins in the conversation and tells of a nearby house with mysterious activity and an evil force released when nearby St. Mary’s was remodeled.
WIZARD: There was something really bad when they started tearing up to rebuild the school and the church and there were some really bad vibes coming out of there. A witch, a Nordic, and I did a ritual and apparently sealed it up pretty effectively. But we never did determine exactly what it was.
Julia’s Helping Hands
Milwaukee School of Massage, 830 E. Chambers St.
I’m sitting in the school’s waiting room when the school’s owner and chief administrator, 66-year-old Wanda Beals, walks in. She’s wearing sunglasses and a floppy pink sunhat. She leads me through a corridor downstairs to the main classroom and into a reception area near her office. Beals was looking for a building that spoke to her when she found the Chambers Street location, which was drastically remodeled and opened in 1999.
You know how some spaces you go by them and you’re like, “Hmm I don’t want to go there. No. Nah.” It’s not something that’s scary, it’s like “Eh, I think I’ll cross the street.” It had a little off-putting feel to it.
I don’t know what type of people were up there (pointing), but knowing my own life experience, when we’re younger we kind of dabble in things in the occult. It’s not good or bad, it’s just something people are curious about. And they had upstairs, in what are now therapy rooms, these faces about this big (she holds her arms apart as far as she can) painted on the wall, devil faces. So that was off-putting! (Laughs) Three of the four rooms had them… I figured the task at hand was to get the energy shifted in the building and get it more comfortable. I had people from different traditions come and do blessings on the space and I think it really made a difference. I think maybe it’s like if you keep washing the walls you eventually feel they are clean.
I do feel we have spirits here, I like them. They’re playful. Some students have commented that they’ve felt the presence of beings and others have absolutely no experience of it.
We used to have funny things happening when I was lecturing. When I was getting to be terribly boring, glaze going over the student’s eyes, things would fall off the wall. (Laughs) One time someone came in and said, “Well, what’s the spirit’s name?” And immediately Julia popped into my head. And that’s not a name I’m easily associated with, it’s not a common name for me.
There’s some joking amongst the staff that if you don’t treat her well, things will go wrong. Like you get locked out, or do things that are silly.
I had a very funny experience once… well, it was funny to me. I was massaging a woman on her right leg and she said, “Wanda, who’s doing my left leg?” I said, “Oh!” She was a woman very much into spirituality. I said, “Oh, it ain’t me. I’m only doing one leg, but I think it’s Julia, she’s getting quite handy.” (Laughs) She laughed and said, “Your ghost?!” And I said, “Yeah, I kind of suspect.” (Laughs)
I’m sure a lot of people might think we’re kind of loopy about this stuff, but it’s playful, getting out of the hardcore reality based, it’s fun, so we enjoy it.
Café Corazon, 3129 N. Bremen Street
The popular restaurant is housed in a peculiar triangular building with a colorful history. The building was for a long time called the Lighthouse Tap Tavern and was a hangout spot for Milwaukee’s notorious biker gang, The Outlaws. A 1977 Milwaukee Journal article reports on a Common Council meeting where the tavern’s proprietor, August W. Notbohm, was criticized for his inability to control his rowdy clientele.
Notbohm was no slouch, though. In 1994, 65-year-old Notbohm saw two men approaching his bar wearing ski masks. He sat in a dark corner near a pool table. When the robbers entered and tried to grab his cash register, he shot one of them with a .38 handgun. A friend of Notbohm’s later dropped off a coffin and propped it against the side of the building, with a sign affixed to it that read: “IF YOU ROB ME, I WILL SHOOT YOU AND PLANT YOU IN THIS COFFIN – AUGGIE.”
Restaurant owners George and Wendy Mireles remodeled and opened Café Corazon in 2009. Walking in, I happened upon 38-year-old Justin Wobick. He’s one of Café Corazon s bartenders and was on a break, eating some enchiladas.
I’ll tell you about my own personal experiences and I can tell you things that staff say. Coming into this place, the kitchen staff claimed there was a little boy spirit that lived in the basement and messed around with them, a prankster. Moving things around down there. I forget… they have a name for him, too. That’s our basement ghost, apparently. (He calls over to a cook.)
Hey Mike, what do you guys call the weird little boy ghost?
MIKE: Stevie. Stevie’s not a ghost. He’s very much alive.
JUSTIN: Alright. Ok. (Laughs)
The other ghost that people say is here is an old woman. The place she apparently hangs out at is the ladies’ bathroom, in the broom closet. A summer ago one of the bartender’s friends was here hanging out and went to the bathroom. She came running out minutes later screaming. She said, “Someone was staring at me from the broom closet!” The door was open a crack and she said it looked like there was a little old woman in there.
There’s a server who swears every time she opens the broom closet door, she feels something behind it, pulling it shut. Like, “Don’t bother me, stay out, leave me alone.” When I hear these things, see I get goosebumps (he shows me his arm, which has indeed erupted into goosebumps) immediately.
Two weeks later, I come in to serve and there’s a woman and an older gentleman sitting in the corner table. She beckons me over. She says, “This is my first time here. I’m a psychic and I sense there are spirits here.” I said, “Can you tell me about them?” And immediately she says, “I sense two spirits. I sense an old woman, and I think there’s a little boy.”
It’s kind of cool. It scares me, but I like it. I think half of the staff believes it and the other half is just like, “You guys are crazy.” (Laughs)
There’s also an old upstairs apartment, we use that as a stockroom now. I had a personal experience up there. When you’re leaving the room you have to turn the lights off and exit in the dark. I loaded up my stock, shut off the lights and walked toward the door. I heard a man’s voice whisper to me “Hey, what are you doing?” I heard it clearly and I didn’t say anything back, I shut the door, ran down the stairs.
600 block, E. Locust St.
Jenny Hazard, 55, describes herself as an “unemployed social worker.” She is crowded on the couch with granddaughters Jenna, 11, wearing a shirt with Batman and Robin on it that reads “the buddy system works,” and Alita, 13, wearing a shirt with Tupac Shakur on it. A family friend is also hanging out. The living room walls are covered with paintings by family members and friends.
We all have independently had an impression of a younger woman here, kind of a hippie-ish, maybe from the ‘70s. I’ve tried to research the history of the house …we were told there was a man who was killed in this house. I haven’t been able to verify that. Supposedly it happened right in this hallway. There’s a closet right there, I’ll show it to you. (It’s full of coats and boxes and bags).
It’s a small space but because we’re so crowded, we wanted to make use of it, but anytime anyone goes in there to organize, shit falls down on our heads from the shelves. It’s really difficult, you go in with this great plan of and you get this feeling of… what’s the point? Almost despair.
We heard it was a domestic violence situation, plus they were after him for something else, the police came in – didn’t he have a gun or something?
JENNA: He had a machete to his stepdaughter’s throat and a gun to his stepson and he had started to cut (moves fingers to neck) and the police shot him.
JENNY: The only thing that makes me skeptical about that story is why would they shoot him with the kid right there? I guess, you never know. We’ve never felt anything dark or creepy, it’s just sort of mischievous, so we’ve really taken the attitude of, “Okay, you lived here before we did, we’re going to co-exist but we’re going to put down some ground rules,” like you would with any roommate.
What are some of the ground rules?
Not scaring the girls when they’re alone, especially in the bathroom or their room. You don’t mess with the girls at night when they’re going to sleep. (Laughs) We would definitely prefer to not have things get broken. It hasn’t happened a lot lately, because we really put our foot down.
The author is looking to expand this article into a small book/e-book. If he missed your Riverwest ghost story, drop him a line: teakrulos @gmail.com.