Tracking down the Amityville Horror house, the Beast of Bray Road, the witches of Whitewater and the grave of spiritualist Morris Pratt who opened the world’s only school of spiritualism in Wisconsin at the turn of the century.
The town of Whitewater in Southeastern Wisconsin is something of an enigma. It may have the highest concentration of weird history, folklore, ghosts, witches and monsters than any other part of the state.
I’ve been planning to visit the area for years, but after thoroughly researching its history for my Haunted Whitewater post, I decided it was time to take the trip.
Since I was going to be in the area, there were a couple additional stops to make, as well.
My first stop:
The Amityville Horror House
The massive, imposing haunted house in the 2005 Amityville Horror film is far from 112 Ocean Avenue where the Lutz family first shacked up with pure evil.
Wisconsin’s Amityville Horror house, where the remake was filmed, is actually a historic property known as Oakwood Manor. It’s located on the shore of Silver Lake in Salem, Wisconsin.
The production crew built the signature Dutch Colonial facade – with gambrel roof and spooky eye-like windows – onto the front of the house for filming. Those iconic windows, along with other props left behind when production wrapped, such as a bed used onscreen by Ryan Reynolds, were sold at an estate sale in 2017.
I never noticed the unusual concrete bridge in the film until I watched it again after visiting the property.
Recent renovations have removed the French windows that enclosed the porch, the separate building that housed a private turn-of-the-century bowling alley is now gone, and Rev. Ketchum’s subterranean torture chamber was fiction.
Although the area, like much of the state, is marked by numerous Native American burial mounds, none were murdered or buried here.
I wasn’t there at 3:15am, though, so who knows what goes on.
I bid the Amityville house farewell and departed Salem for “Second Salem.”
But first, a detour through Elkhorn.
Beast of Bray Road
John Fredrickson, an animal control officer for Walworth County in the early 90s, had a file of bizarre sightings from the area that he had labeled “werewolf.”
The upright canine creature – or wolfman, dogman, manwolf, whatever you want to call it – seemed to be encountered mostly around Bray Road, a short stretch of road just outside of Elkhorn where people have been terrorized by the beast for decades.
I was fortunate enough to find it on my first visit.
Fredrickson had also been investigating animal mutilations in connection with apparent occult activity in Wisconsin, which may have had something to do with the origin of the creature.
Next stop: Second Salem
Legends of Whitewater
The college town of Whitewater has so many witch stories that it has come to be known as “Second Salem.”
From the water tower in Starin Park and the underground tunnels running beneath certain historic homes, to the coven supposedly buried upright around their sacrificial altar, there is no shortage of witchy legends.
According to local lore, witnesses have seen a coven of witches conducting rituals around or inside the historic stone water tower.
This stigma only increased when the original fence was accidentally installed backwards. Spikes meant to deter trespassers were unintentionally pointing inward, as if to keep something inside the tower from escaping.
But the extensive tales of witches in Whitewater pale in comparison to the town’s real, bizarre history found lurking six feet under in its historic cemeteries.
The Grave of Nellie Horan
Buried in Calvary Cemetery on a hill overlooking the UW-Whitewater sports complex is a family plot attesting to a particularly tragic story from the town’s history.
Bridget Ellen “Nellie” Horan, her sisters Anna and Agnes, and their parents Joseph and Judith are interred in Calvary.
Nellie most likely killed them all.
The Horan family arrived in Whitewater from the nearby town of Koshkonong in 1880 with $5,000 – equivalent to about $127,000 in today’s money. They were described as being high-ranking members of the Whitewater community. But that wouldn’t last long.
Judith died first in 1882. Her death was unexpected and described as having been in “great agony” with symptoms acknowledged by physicians at the time as being consistent with poisoning. But there was no reason to suspect foul play, so no investigation was conducted. Joseph died six weeks later. He fell ill suddenly and “expired during terrible spasms and convulsions,” as reported by the New York Times.
They left their money to their four unmarried daughters: Gertrude (who didn’t live in Whitewater), Anna, Nellie and Agnes. As the youngest, Agnes was left the largest share.
At Joseph’s funeral, Agnes was said to be hysterical and threw herself upon her father’s grave.
Just over two months later, Agnes herself was dead at the age of 17. Her share of the inheritance passed on to her remaining sisters.
Whitewater authorities began to think someone had it out for the Horan family, though they were unable to identify any suspects or motives.
For Anna and Nellie, life returned to some semblance of normal after that. Anna was a dressmaker, and Nellie worked as a typesetter for a local newspaper called The Register. There were no more mysterious deaths for a couple years. The residents of Whitewater forgot about the tragedy that befell the Horan family.
Then, on November 30th, 1884, Anna suddenly fell ill.
After a few days, Anna asked her business partner, Miss Wakeman, to send for her sister. When Nellie arrived, she gave Anna a dose of what was supposed to be opium powder. But, after much suffering, Anna was dead just hours later on December 2nd, 1884.
The coroner found strychnine in her stomach.
“It is believed that some person has been pursuing the family for years, and that Miss Anna is the fourth victim,” the Milwaukee Daily Journal wrote on December 6th. “Who that person is nobody pretends to say with enough facts to warrant an opinion. Officers are understood to be at work on the case, and should the chemist establish the girl was poisoned, some startling developments may be expected. The public is greatly mystified.”
Funeral preparations were underway when a young girl confessed to seeing Nellie buying strychnine at the drugstore a few days prior to Anna’s death. The contents of Anna’s stomach were sent to specialist Professor Bode in Milwaukee for chemical analysis, who confirmed the presence of the poison.
Nellie was soon charged with her sister’s death.
At her trial, Nellie said she bought the poison to deal with the rats at the office of The Register.
“She was prepossessing, though not beautiful,” the New York Times wrote of her appearance in court. “Tall and graceful, she was intelligent and striking.”
The jury had a difficult time believing she could have committed murder, and deliberated a mere 12 minutes before acquitting her.
The New York Times reported:
“There was a great sensation in court. The accused girl shook hands with the Judge, jury, and counsel, and left for Whitewater with her sister and the young man to whom she was to have married, and who stuck to her through the whole trial.”
Some papers falsely reported that, upon the discovery of strychnine in Anna’s stomach, Nellie ingested the poison herself and confessed to murdering her family, as well as an unknown fifth victim, before she succumbed.
In fact, after she was acquitted, Nellie married a man named John Byrnes and lived well into her 70s. She died of natural causes on October 23, 1938 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery beside her family.
All of whom, with the exception of Gertrude, Nellie most likely did murder.
The story of another strychnine murderer can be found not far from the Horan family plot. Calvary Cemetery looks out over the UW-Whitewater sports complex where “poison widow” Myrtle Schaude’s farm once stood.
Schaude poisoned her husband in 1921 to be with her lover. Soon after, she unsuccessfully attempted to do the same to her four children.
She spent a few years in prison, and then started a new family in Illinois.
The Grave of Morris Pratt
Wisconsin’s earliest, most influential residents arrived here here from New York. And they brought spiritualism with them.
The practice of communicating with the dead that began with the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York in 1848 found great enthusiasm in Wisconsin.
Whitewater was a spiritualist hotspot in the latter half of the 19th century, along with other parts of the state – some of which still exist and operate today. Among them is the Wonewoc Spiritualist Camp, whose defining tenet is, “We affirm that communication with the so-called dead is a fact, scientifically proven by the phenomena of Spiritualism.”
The dead don’t die. Rather, they are born or “transition” into Spirit Life.
Another Spiritualist organization still in operation today is the Morris Pratt Institute.
It is an academy dedicated to the teachings of “modern Spiritualism” where many Spiritualist pastors get their start.
Course offerings include:
- Spirit Photography
- Materialization & Dematerialization
- Teleportation & Apportation
- The History of the Human Aura
- Out-of-the Body Experiences (OOBE)
The institute, the only school of Spiritualism in the world, can be found in Milwaukee today, but it was founded in 1889 by Morris Pratt in Whitewater with money he made following the recommendations of renowned Wisconsin medium Mary Hayes-Chynoweth.
Prominent members of Whitewater society would attend seances in nearby Lake Mills, or host mediums from around the country to commune with the dead in their homes.
Pratt was already a believer, and it was through one of these Spiritualist gatherings that he met Hayes-Chynoweth. After following her business recommendations to invest in the Ashland Mine of Ironwood, Michigan – which she received from her “controlling spirit” of a long dead German professor – Pratt dedicated much of his new wealth to supporting Spiritualism by building the world’s first and only school dedicated to it.
Superstitious locals called Pratt’s school the “Spook Temple.”
Some of Whitewater’s more pragmatic citizens referred to it as “Pratt’s Folly.”
Locals were invited to participate in public seances at the school, and there was some interest, but the desperation following the terrible loss of life in the Civil War that fueled interest in Spiritualism had faded some by the time the Morris Pratt Institute opened around 1903.
Nevertheless, students came from around the country to learn how to lift the veil and commune with those beyond the grave.
Whitewater became the “Mecca of Modern Spiritualism.”
Pratt himself “transitioned” to the Other Side the year before the school opened, and it seems he’s been quiet since.
Visitors leave coins on Morris Pratt’s grave
Pratt is buried in Hillside Cemetery, one of three reportedly haunted cemeteries that form Whitewater’s notorious Witches Triangle.
It’s a beautiful place with some amazing monuments.
Hillside Cemetery’s public receiving vaults
“Count only the sunny hours” bronze sundial monument engraved with medieval printer’s marks and a winged hourglass symbolizing the fleeting nature of life.