Dr. Cutler never expected a ghost to haunt southern Wisconsin.
Night rolled into the sky when Dr. Cutler exited the patient’s house he visited and climbed into his horse drawn wagon. A lantern swung – rhythmically, back and forth – above his head, and shined a burnt orange light onto Old Military Road. The horses’ hoofs clopped while they stepped towards his home in Dodgeville, Wis. The wagon entered Ridgeway. Dr. Cutler looked up and began to shake.
A dark figure floated on the pole between the horses.
The reins slipped from his trembling hands. The horses galloped away – swift and wind-like. The figure never buckled, but vanished when it reached the top of the hill.
Ridgeway’s townsmen dismissed Dr. Cutler’s story, until the specter haunted Old Military Road again. And again. And again.
The New York Times reported Dr. Cutler’s story on December 7, 1902, along with a haunting in Nashotah, Wisconsin. More than a hundred years past and more than a hundred folktales and ghost stories have been told. Investigators have since researched southern Wisconsin’s strange phenomena and folklore, hunting for a truth in the state’s hauntings.
It was a slow news week, when Linda Godfrey received a tip that people around Elkhorn, Wis. had been seeing a werewolf.
“I thought it was crazy,” Godfrey explained about the sightings reported in her small town 45 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. “I never thought much about werewolves as anything based in reality.”
In 1991, Godfrey had only a month’s experience reporting at The Weekly, a county gazette, when rumors of the creature clawed through the town. While investigating, a County Animal Control Officer threw her a manila file folder labeled “Werewolf”, which contained unrelated reports of a strange animal, for lack of a better term, along Elkhorn's back route.
Old family farms are nestled between the rolling pastures and thick woods that border the a two mile long country road, Bray Road. The reports indicated a 5-7 feet towering creature with shaggy fur and white knives jutting down in the form of teeth prowled amongst the trees. The creature lurked on hind legs. It could not be a typical wolf.
“Anytime you have a county official that had a file folder marked ‘werewolf’, that’s news,” Godfrey stressed, her voice thick with pride.
Despite her doubts about classifying the creatures as “werewolves”, she thought the public should be warned about the animal. No one had been injured, but Godfrey believed locals should take precautions if there was a predator in their town. In addition, she said the hype over the creature was folklore in the making. She was driven to contribute to a story that could be told over Wisconsin campfires for years to come.
The Weekly ran the article in the January 1992 New Years Eve edition. The public believed her story and began phoning her about more sightings. Godfrey and her editors believed the story would buzz for about week and then die down.
But two weeks after initial print, “The Beast of Bray Road” roared on national news.
The Associated Press picked up the story first. The small-town Wisconsin werewolf even inspired a 2005 horror film. In 2009, Elkhorn’s creature appeared on The O’Reilly Factor.
Godfrey explained in the segment that Wisconsin has the most Native American made effigy mounds in the world. Maps of the mounds that are shaped with long tails are almost identical to a map of the upright canine, as she likes to call them, sightings people have reported to her since the original article print.
Wisconsin Effigy Mound
“I still to this day don’t really know what they are,” she confessed, despite ten years of analyzing pictures people send for her. “The editors really like the term ‘werewolf’ because it’s sexier and it does convey what you’re looking at.”
What she once thought was crazy turned into a career. After ten years receiving letters of interest about Elkhorn’s mascot and incidents of others like it, Godfrey wanted to document the sightings and the sociology of the canines. She then branched to other unidentified creatures . Although she always favors her upright canine of Elkhorn, Godfrey has written fourteen books about ghosts and strange creatures around the Midwest since her first article.
“It wasn’t anything I ever dreamed of, but it’s something that intrigued me and something I wanted to get to the bottom of,” she explained. “It resonated with people in a way that I never expected.”
After expanding her research from the Elkhorn werewolf, one of Godfrey’s investigations took her about an hour north to an old roadhouse. Her book, Haunted Wisconsin: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Badger State, profiles The Wonder Bar in Madison, the state capital.
Walking into The Wonder Bar might be like any other tavern in Wisconsin. Sit down at the bar, order a drink, and maybe nod to the person in the seat to the left. At the Wonder Bar, one might find himself settled next to a man with orange hair licking like flames beneath a fedora.
Except the fedora wearing man is dead.
Rewind to 1930, the Wonder Bar was a distribution center for illegal alcohol sales and a weaponry hideout in Wisconsin for the Touhy Brothers, rivals of infamous gangster Al Capone. Gangsters used the bar as a safe-house while bootlegging and shooting throughout the Midwest. Today, bar owners and patrons swear the gangsters never left.
Mr. Fedora Gangster is not the only ghost that is reported to slither behind the bottles and float above the stools. In 2004, apparitions of a woman in a billowing dress spooked the then manager, Kristen Olshanski, enough to contact the Paranormal Research Group, PRG. According to group founder Jennifer Lauer, PRG has conducted paranormal investigations with scientific research since its establishment in 1999. After the initial telephone screening, PRG agreed to investigate.
Entering The Wonder Bar on an icy December evening was business per usual, Lauer recounted. Members set up their Direct Environmental Acquisition Datalogging system, called the D.E.A.D. system, which at first looks like two computer’s set up for DJing at a cheap college party. It is actually a PRG Science Director David Schumaher prodigy that records all environmental factors, including temperature, radiation and electromagnetic fields.
“It is a very important tool for us,” Lauer explained with the pride of a parent whose son is the football captain. “We’ve built this organization on proof, and I think it’s one of the reasons our group has been around for as long as it has.”
Motion cameras pointed at basement hidings to finish the preparations – eyes in search of the dead. After set up, the group sat Olshanski down for a preliminary screening: When? How many times? Sign for confidentiality. Olshanski described occurrences of the woman in a long dress floating up and down staircases and bottles shattered after all employees left the evening…
And then the motion camera shuddered.
The PRG members huddled over the D.E.A.D. system and watched in real time as the electoral magnetic field spiked and radiation dropped. Lauer translated that this indicated an energy entered the second story, then flew through the floors until it reached the basement. The cameras propped up captured four stills of this energy glowing in the dark, which PRG posted as thumbnail pictures on their website. Lauer said this made The Wonder Bar stand out among the investigations the group conducted.
“We consider[ed] that significant,” Lauer pointed to three elements PRG require for a haunting. The equipment reported the ball of energy, which is the first requirement. The still photographs of the energy ball fulfilled visual or audio evidence. The final piece required is a personal experience by one of the group members during the investigation. The personal experience requirement was unfulfilled, but the word “grandma” was heard during the interview with Kristen.
That night, PRG ruled The Wonder Bar was haunted.
But not all Wisconsinites believe their state is haunted.
Despite scientific equipment for their evidence, PRG encounters people who mock the group’s paranormal research. Lauer explained that others’ doubt whether sites are haunted. The D.E.A.D. system, for example, was built by one of the PRG’s own – it is easy to question whether the “energy” at The Wonder Bar was a spirit or a lie.
“I appreciate the ones who are skeptical because they require a little bit of proof,” Lauer defended. She said legal implications, such as law suits, could unfold if the group is not careful with their research.
Godfrey can relate and embraces criticism for her research.
“I think it’s a better to be a little on the questioning side than to be completely gullible,” she said. “What I do is try to keep my reporting hat on, cite incidents, try to theorize the best I can and allow people to make up their own minds.”
Some tales, however, do not have proof and are believed anyways. Cue folktales. It was, in fact, Dr. Cutler’s word that caught The New York Times’ attention to the small country town’s ghost.
Thirty-six miles west of the fedora-wearing-ghost in Madison, the mid-1800s Ridgeway was a small town plagued with gamblers, drunks and a phantom.
Charles Brown, the Museum of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin curator in the early 1900s, collected bodies of Wisconsin folklore, which he published into pamphlets from 1921-1945 for his teachings at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Within these texts, Brown reported the Ridgeway Ghosts’ origins and tales the locals told.
The spirit’s presence loomed over Old Military Road. According to a 1924 news article in the La Crosse Tribune, it is Wisconsin’s first road beginning from Green Bay and ended at Prairie du Chien. The Ridgeway ghost’s haunting ranged in the 25 mile stretch from Pokerville, now Mount Horeb, to Dodgeville. Ridgeway nestled between these two mining sites and frequented ox-drawn wagons carrying lead and supplies from Milwaukee towards Dodgeville. No less than ten saloons lined Old Military Road, drawing in miners with a thirst for booze and a brawl.
The miners’ trouble angered the locals. Brown’s legend suggests Ridgeway’s “ghost” was less than a haunting for the locals and more of a symbolic protector. Thought to be made up by practical jokers originally to scare off the troublemaking miner infestation, the prank soon spread and was adopted by the citizens of Ridgeway. Soon, even the locals believed Old Military Road’s phantom haunted with vengeance.
In 1857, ox-drawn wagon hauls ceased after the Chicago and Northwestern settled in a town next to Ridgeway, Mineral Point. The taverns dried. Consequently, Ridgeway’s vigilante was no longer needed.
“The ghost was reported to have once been seen seated on the cowcatcher of a railroad engine as it was leaving Ridgeway,” Brown wrote. "But the scare and superstition remained for many years."
Driving through Ridgeway, the miners still would still be in drunken heaven. PBR signs either glow above the multiple bars or swing in the wind. The town itself feels almost ghostly with houses miles apart and not a soul out on a blistery day.
A Cabin on the Strutt Farm
Despite the phantom’s reported departure, Ridgeway townies today still report its spirit lives on even a hundred years later.
The Strutt farm has been around the town since around the time the Ridgeway ghost stories circulated in 1850. It was sold sometime after, but the Strutts regained it in 1893 and have lived, farmed and herded there ever since. Steven, the youngest Strutt at 22, recalls memories of hopping around the back woods in his farm with his father, overlooking a setting sun painting sunburst orange between the trees on their land and getting spooked.
“I do not know any stories off the top of my head, but I remember my dad teasing about it as we were growing up,” he confessed.
Strutt explained that the ghost is part of the small town culture and makes his home unique.
“Whether the ghost’s real or not, it is cool we have something our own little campfire story that everyone in Ridgeway can laugh or be scared about.”