The owner of Quiet Hut Sports in Whitewater isn’t sure exactly what it was he saw, but people who come to his store have shared eerily similar stories of encounters at Hillside.
“I don’t know,” Saalsa said. “I don’t discount it. I’ve talked to people who have seen firsthand some strange things. There are logical explanations for things, but there are also legitimate goings-on that can’t be explained away.”
Saalsa will be one of the guides on Whitewater’s third annual Spirit Tour on Saturday, Oct. 8. The bus tour will take participants to various spots in the city that are associated with local lore and legends.
His longtime interest in local history was ignited when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 1970s. While working on a class project, he got to talking to a local historian and heard local legends, including one of Mary Worth, a self-proclaimed witch living in Whitewater during the 19th century. He learned that Worth put a curse on a Whitewater wagon manufacturer, and the company’s owners died not long afterward. People now living at the former house of one of those owners -- Lucius Winchester -- have reported hearing footsteps without seeing anyone and light switches mysteriously turning on and off, Saalsa said.
Then there’s the former Ruby’s Bar, now the location of the SweetSpot Café on Whitewater Street. Employees there often have strange experiences, like the woman carrying a tray of decorated cupcakes who felt something touch her cheek, but saw no one, Saalsa said.
“Whitewater cemeteries have a Revolutionary War and Civil War veterans buried there,” he said. “But there’s also a history of witchcraft connected to those places, which gave the city its nickname of Second Salem.”
He has heard of covens still practicing in local cemeteries like Hillside. According to local cemetery workers, circles of stones can be found on the property, and a pyramid-shaped cap that topped the monument on the gravesite of Morris Pratt, a Whitewater spiritualist, was stolen, he said.
Saalsa recalled at least one creepy incident on Whitewater’s campus as well.
“Back in 1971 when I was still a student, on Halloween night, one of the students broke into the crypts at the cemetery, stole a coffin and brought it to the fountain on the mall,” he said.
“We have to admit we have a rich history in Whitewater of all kinds of things, from stops along the Underground Railroad to a school for spiritualism, whose founder promised to connect people with the departed.”
That school for spiritualism in Whitewater, the Morris Pratt Institute, gave rise to much of the lore surrounding the city, local historian Carol Cartwright believes.
Pratt, a New York native, built the institute in downtown Whitewater in 1899. It was a three-story building with two auditoriums, one big enough to hold 400 people. The institute folded in the 1930s under the weight of the Depression, but it is currently operating in Milwaukee.
Some people dubbed the building the spook temple.
Spiritualism was on the rise in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America, but was still viewed with some suspicion, Cartwright said.
“Mainstream religions were never keen on spiritualists because spiritualism had a tendency to reject them, so there was never a good relationship between the two,” she said. “It was supposed to be a new scientific religion, but many pastors preached against getting involved with it.”
Cartwright thinks Whitewater residents were distrustful of the institute for a few reasons. Spiritualism was more prominent in larger cities than isolated rural areas, she said. The fact that only spiritualists could perform the séances or attend certain programs at the institute left the community wondering what exactly went on inside. And once it stopped operating, stories about the institute were likely to be embellished.
Before it was torn down in 1962, the institute building served as a women’s dormitory during the 1940s and ’50s, Cartwright said.
“There were 19-year-old girl students living in a place where séances were once held,” she said. “You can imagine how those stories picked up steam.
“There’s a lot of confusion between who the spiritualists were and what they were doing as opposed to other occult practices. Many of the spiritualist mediums were women. They were engaging in nontraditional activities for women, so making that step from mediums to witches was easy for some people to take, I think.”
The stories eventually created the Second Salem reputation. Draw lines through the center of all three cemeteries in the city -- Hillside, Oak Grove and Calvary -- and you get an isosceles triangle -- known as a witch’s triangle. That mysterious Gothic stone water tower, surrounded by a spooky iron fence, became a site where witches gathered. So did Calvary Cemetery, enclosed by the campus but sitting on the edge of town.
And Mary Worth? Cartwright said according to legend, she’s buried in an unmarked crypt in Hillside. The only problem is there is no evidence Worth ever existed, not as a name in the city directory, not in a census record.
“Stories have circulated for so long, I think they eventually became part of a composite called Mary Worth,” Cartwright said.
A decade or so ago, independent filmmakers started work on a film called “The Witches of Whitewater.” In the movie’s trailer, characters talked about an ancient “book of death” in the campus library, so horrible that a professor and three students who looked at it committed suicide.
Karen Weston, the archivist at UW-Whitewater’s Anderson Library, believes the legend can be traced to an oversized, 2-foot-tall black book with latches on it that was once kept in a locked cage area in the library’s archives.
“The book came from a monastery. It was a Catholic hymnal from the 1890s, never given a title, author or publisher,” Weston said, adding that she’s never heard of a book of death on Anderson’s shelves.
“And I’ve been here for 31 years,” she said.
More mysterious places
Whitewater isn’t the only community with an infamous reputation.
Black Point Estate is holding a Sordid and Scandalous Tour of Lake Geneva on the first three Saturdays in October.
The tour is a tongue-in-cheek look at the city, based on newspaper accounts of local events ranging from UFO sightings to shipwrecks and speak-easies, said Jill Westberg, Black Point’s outreach and educational coordinator.
While there are more mobsters than monsters on the tour, there is a sea serpent in Geneva Lake named Jenny or Jennie, according to accounts, whose history of sightings stretch back to early Native Americans.
“The Potawatomi wouldn’t go out on canoes during stormy weather because of it,” Westberg said.
She believes the serpent’s history is related to a legend that Geneva Lake held underground springs that were at one time connected to Lake Superior.
Mike Reuter, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society, said a few years ago, paranormalists went through the Lincoln-Tallman House in Janesville, searching -- unsuccessfully -- for signs of otherworldly activity.
This year, that 19th century architectural gem will be the backdrop for part of a three-act play that has nothing to do with the house or its history, but rather the mysterious imaginary fates of an innocent but cursed Victorian family.
The play is part of an October event called Spirits of Rock County. Reuter said there are no creepy clowns involved, but actors will lead play patrons across a lantern-lit lawn shrouded in fog and mist to and from two other settings, the Wilson King Stone House and the Frances Willard Schoolhouse.
“Visitors will meet with uncertainty and surprise, especially considering there is a Victorian séance in the first act,” he said.
Also part of the festivities is Chill at Oak Hill, a popular twilight tour of Oak Hill Cemetery in Janesville.
“I make it clear in my tour that while I love a good ghost story, I do not believe in ghosts,” said Sherry Thurner, a retired teacher who scripted and narrates the tour. “Oak Hill has the right atmosphere for a ghost story, though, with its mossy Victorian obelisks, old chapel and mature trees casting long shadows.”
Thurner also gives summer tours of the cemetery that are more historic, dealing with area residents buried at Oak Hill who were politicians, artists, war heroes and noted citizens.
“On this particular tour, the emphasis is on the strange. Think deadly accidents, murder and spiritualism,” she said. “I will tell stories about three people who claimed to have psychic powers, including a beautiful woman who ended up dead in the Rock River. The October twilight tour is reserved for the stories that make you go ‘Ewwww.’”