What happened inside this abandoned house in Fond du Lac to give it such a sinister and bizarre reputation? The Witherell House has a long and mysterious history.
On County Highway K, outside of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, is an eerie old house set back from the road. Though not much is known about the property, its unusual architecture and local legends have made it a point of interest for what may be decades of restless teenagers.
Which is exactly how my fate became entwined with this cursed place.
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I was 18 years old. It was 1999, and I was living with friends in a backwoods town about an hour north of Milwaukee in the heart of Deliverance country. As can be expected when you live in the sphincter of the great Dairy State, we were horrendously bored and desperate for adventure. We were sharing stories about haunted locations, as the night before we had been creeping around the woods near Rienzi Cemetery in search of witch graves and gates to Hell.
A friend from nearby Fond du Lac shared a story he had heard about an abandoned house in the area. According to local legend, a man murdered his wife and mentally ill daughter there. And he knew the location of the house. As a matter of fact, it was just down the road from Rienzi.
How could I possibly resist?
So a group of us jumped in the car and headed off into the wild unknown, completely unaware of the misfortune we had just consigned ourselves to.
Today, the trees and bushes have been trimmed back, and a neighborhood of modern houses spring up beside the house.
16 years ago, though, the property was isolated, ominous, overgrown and barely visible from the road. White paint was peeling off to reveal the gray, weathered clapboard beneath. Most of the windows were broken, gaping black voids. A sun room in the back had collapsed inward.
The door in the back was padlocked shut. A large NO TRESPASSING sign should have been enough to deter us at that point…but the house seemed completely neglected. It was falling in on itself. How would anyone notice, or possibly even care, if we went in and looked around?
Well, it turns out someone cares very much.
Someone in our group pushed the door open, probably breaking the latch off the rotting door frame, and we crept inside. I didn’t expect to find anything, but of course I was hoping for anything to substantiate the legend – 100-year-old blood stains, human remains, anything.
The first thing I remember seeing was a mattress on the bare wood floor of the living room, in front of a large fireplace. On the mattress was a Ouija board and some burned candles.
There were cans of paint and other supplies covered in layers of dust in the kitchen. I found a few receipts laying around on the counter, the most recent dated 1987. Whoever was attempting to fix the place up seemed to have given up a long time ago.
Musty books were piled on the floor of an upstairs room in front of the built-in bookshelf they used to occupy. I examined a few of them, which appeared to be old pathology texts with obscure symptoms and disorders underlined throughout.
The fieldstone basement was extremely dark, so we didn’t go too far down there. I remember noticing a few pieces of rusted metal, perhaps a water heater and furnace, resting just beyond the light that shone down the narrow staircase.
Back upstairs, along the side of the wall in which the fireplace had been built, I found a single square cupboard door. It opened downward to function as a writing surface for a secretary desk-style compartment in the wall. It was empty, but I noticed an ornate wooden handle at the back. I tugged on it, and realized the whole desk was just loosely set into the wall. I carefully slid it out…to reveal a letter that had been hidden behind it.
The paper was stiff and yellowed, handwritten in pencil. It was addressed to a Mr. J. Witherell, an apology from the Fond du Lac sanatorium that, since the facility was closing, his wife and daughter would have to be discharged. Was this evidence that some unspeakable tragedy may have actually happened there? If the letter was real, how had it never been found before?
Excited by actual, physical evidence that in the moment seemed to support some semblance of the story I was there to find, I slipped the letter into my back pocket and started toward the door. Just as I was about the exit the house, a Fond du Lac County sheriff rounded the corner from the front of the house and was approaching the door. I quickly alerted the others, but there would be no escape. Through the large front windows, we could see firetrucks and squad cars lined up out on the road.
While most of us were exploring, two members of our group had apparently been throwing around wood and other junk they found laying around. In the process, they managed to knock a fire detector off the ceiling, which triggered an automated alarm at the fire department.
There was a moment of panic, then we decided to go outside and face the firing squad. I wasn’t keen on the idea of a theft charge, so I left the letter on the mantle of the fireplace before stepping outside.
As we were explaining ourselves to the officers, an older woman (the owner or caretaker of the property) walked around the house, surveying the damage. She claimed she lived nearby, and had heard the sound of smashing glass from her home. She said something to the effect that she had been there the day prior and that all the windows were intact. As a result, not only did we all get fined for trespassing, we were assessed restitution for property damage totaling $1,500 each.
We were told that trespassers were pulled out of that house frequently. But why is a dilapidated house that’s been vacant for decades so heavily protected? Why is the grass mowed and the property regularly maintained?
History of the Witherell House
I’ve come across several recent references to the house, suggesting rumors still persist. Its reputation for being wired with motion detectors and other security measures is well known.
In a 2014 episode of Real Ghost Stories Online (listen below), hosts Tony and Jenny Brueski briefly discuss the house. They theorize that maybe the owner is trying to protect people from a dangerous presence inside.
I’ve often thought that, if something tragic did in fact happen there, maybe the family couldn’t bear to let the memory wither away with the house. I felt differently in 1999, though. I was angry and highly suspicious. Someone was trying to cover up a violent and brutal crime from their family’s past, and the letter to J. Witherell was the evidence that would justify the outrageous fines I couldn’t possibly afford to pay.
Until recently, I had never found any factual information on the house. I was searching for a record of a sanatorium in Fond du Lac the other day when I stumbled upon a searchable database on the Wisconsin Historical Society website. Much to my disbelief, Fond du Lac’s most mysterious (and arguably most feared) abandoned house had a history. According to the historical record, it is an 1873 Queen Anne known as the Witherell House. This is the first reference I’ve found to the name on the letter, giving credence to its authenticity.
From the description of the property:
Two story, Late Picturesque frame house with clapboard siding. Gable roof with bargeboards. Oddly shaped windows. Pictured in 1874 Atlas of Fond du Lac County.
Phillips, the former sheriff of Onondaga County, New York and a state representative, arrived in Fond du Lac County in 1852 with his brother Lyman Phillips. Primarily a farmer, Phillips was also elected to the state Senate in 1860, and provost marshal of the Fond du Lac district in 1863-1864. Elihu was also the founder and first president of the Fond du Lac Savings Bank.
The Lyman Phillips (Elihu’s brother) house was very similar in design and appeared on Bogert & Haight’s 1862 Map of Fond du Lac County Wisconsin. This residence, however, was destroyed by fire in 1876.
As you can see in the photos above, the house was in much better condition when it was the subject of a historical survey in 1974.
Searching for the Fond du Lac Sanatorium
Postcard from St. Mary’s Springs Sanitarium c.1901
I have yet to find a record of a facility specifically called the Fond du Lac Sanatorium. Just down the road from the Witherell House, however, is St. Mary’s Springs Catholic high school. It was built in 1901 by the Sisters of Saint Agnes to serve as a sanitarium, but it closed in 1909 to become a girl’s boarding school.
Is that what the letter was referring to?
What happened in the house after J. Witherell’s sick wife and daughter returned home?
It’s worth noting that St. Mary’s Springs, the Witherell House, and Rienzi Cemetery are all on Hwy K within just a few minutes of each other. At the back of the cemetery is a single monument and four small cornerstones possibly marking the perimeter of a mass grave. This is the infamous Witch Circle, rumored to be the final resting place of nuns from St. Mary’s Springs who were excommunicated for practicing witchcraft and getting pregnant.
Real Ghost Stories Online: Abandoned Haunted House?
Have you had an experience with the Witherell House, or have some insight into its real history?
Please share it in the comments below.