Some believe the strange experiments in communicating with the dead that took place at the Morris Pratt Institute, the only school of spiritualism in the US, left the town of Whitewater, Wisconsin haunted by restless spirits.
“The Morris Pratt Institute, singular of birth, unusual of purpose, sheds a weird intellectual light in a world of great darkness,” historian Fred L. Holmes wrote in 1939. “The school attempts to ‘radioize’ students to catch the spirit messages from the world of the ether.”
Wisconsin is a long way from Spiritualism’s 1848 birthplace in the home of the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York, but it wasn’t long before it became one of the most important centers for the practice in the country. Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox Valley area were all home to large Spiritualist communities by the late 1800s.
One of Wisconsin’s earliest supporters of Spiritualism was Nathaniel P. Tallmadge, a senator from New York who was appointed the third governor of the Wisconsin Territory by President John Tyler in 1845.
Tallmadge had recently purchased land in the territory in preparation for his retirement, but he decided to move his family there when he accepted the governorship. Nathaniel and Abby Tallmadge’s 19-year-old son William visited from law school to see the family’s new home in the spring of 1845. He fell in love with a large hill on the property, telling his family that one day, when he died, he wanted to be buried there.
Just two weeks later, William’s life came to an abrupt and unexpected end, and he was buried in his spot at the top of the hill.
By 1853, Nathaniel was a devout Spiritualist. In a book published that year, a letter Tallmadge wrote to one of the authors described how his youngest daughter Emily, then 13 years old, was being taught by spirits to play the piano.
The final resting place of the Tallmadge family
Morris Pratt, another New York native, emigrated to Wisconsin in the 1850s. He built a successful farm in the Whitewater area, where he and a number of neighboring families who frequented the seances in Lake Mills would host renowned mediums from around the country to commune with their dead loved ones in their homes.
Pratt was known to frequently argue with ministers who criticized Spiritualism. He was forcibly ejected from a church on more than one occasion. Frustrated, he wished for a way to teach what he believed were the scientific truths of the spirit life. During a seance in the early 1880s, Pratt vowed that if he ever became wealthy, he would dedicate much of his money to Spiritualism.
To his good fortune, a powerful mystic was present that day whose psychic abilities would soon help him achieve his goals.
Mary Hayes-Chynoweth was 27 years old in 1853, a school teacher in Waterloo, Wisconsin. She was in her kitchen when an unknown force took control of her body. She dropped to her knees and began to pray in a language neither she, nor her father nearby, could recognize. The “force” told her that she would spend the rest of her life healing others.
Afterwards, she discovered she had the ability to peer into the bodies of the sick, to see the diseases ailing them, and remove them. She would take the sickness into her own body, which would cause her to break out into blisters and rashes.
As spirit knocking and other supernatural phenomena – which Mary believed were mostly hoaxes – swept the nation, Mary was travelling around the state or seeing people in her home, using the “Power” she said was given to her by God to help those in need.
“Mrs. Hayes was not a medium,” her son J.O. Hayes wrote in 1938. “In her young womanhood she became very much interested in the question of man’s immortality and prayed for two years very earnestly and devotedly that she might know the truth regarding it. As a result of this effort she passed through an experience somewhat similar to that of Jesus in the wilderness as recorded in the Bible. She spoke in tongues unknown to her; she restored those possessed to a normal condition and did untold miraculous things that could not be explained by the use of any ordinary human methods. From that time until her death a large part of her time was given to healing the sick, and she did this without charge or financial compensation.”
Psychic healer Mary Hayes-Chynoweth, 1905
Pratt’s vow captured Mary’s attention. She had been attending seances in Lake Mills and Whitewater at the recommendation of her friend Warren Chase. Chase published a weekly newspaper called the Spiritual Telegraph, and is credited with being the first to spread Spiritualism around Wisconsin and Illinois. He had expressed to Mary a desire to open a school in the area.
“Do you intend, if made wealthy, to carry out your promise?” Mary asked Pratt.
Pratt confirmed that he meant what he said – he would use his money to support the movement of Spiritualism.
Mary then told Pratt, along with her two sons who were lawyers with interests in mining, to invest in a barren and seemingly worthless tract of land in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mary claimed to have been guided to this land by her “controlling spirit,” an old German professor, while in a trance.
Pratt and Mary’s sons did as Mary instructed.
The Hayes brothers’ company, with Pratt as a stockholder, bought the land, opened the Ashland Iron Mine and began digging. The land yielded nothing for the first couple years. Pratt came to Mary with doubts on several occasions, but she urged him to be patient.
Then, in 1886, a discovery was made.
The land Mary recommended was found to be the heart of the massive Gogebic iron range, and was filled with high grade Bessemer ore – some of the best in the region. Pratt and the Hayes brothers became wealthy practically overnight.
Pratt set out to fulfill his promise without hesitation. In 1888 he laid the foundation for a building in Whitewater without knowing exactly what purpose it would serve. He just told people it would be used “in the interests of Spiritualism.”
Locals scoffed. The construction became known around town as “Pratt’s Folly.”
But Pratt didn’t back down.
“I made a vow before I made my investment that I would erect a temple to the spirit world with a share of the profits I was to realize,” he told his detractors, “and I intend to do so.”
Upon it’s completion, Pratt and his wife left their farm and moved in to occupy several rooms within the ornate 3-story building. They held public seances there for many years before Pratt decided to make Whitewater the “Mecca of Modern Spiritualism” by opening the world’s only school dedicated to the study of the spirit world.
Morris Pratt Institute for Spiritualism in Whitewater, Wisconsin, 1899
In 1902, while making plans to open the school, Pratt’s health began to give out. He reportedly gave the deed to the estate to seven unknown Spiritualists, a sort of board of trustees, whose names have never been accounted for in any written documentation.
Pratt died just a few months later.
His funeral was presided over by a man named Moses Hull, a former Seventh Day Adventist minister turned Spiritualist whom Pratt had tapped to carry out his plans for the school.
“In his discourse Mr. Hull game the Spiritualists’ idea of death and Spiritual world,” a paper reported of the funeral. “He claimed that death was neither to be dreaded nor feared; it is as natural as any event in life – in fact, it is only a birth out of the physical body into the spiritual world.”
Portrait of Morris Pratt
Hull carried out Pratt’s wishes, and the doors of the Morris Pratt Institute opened the following year. Students came from around the country to study general subjects like mathematics, history, grammar, and literature, as well as the Philosophy of Spiritualism and Psychic Culture. It had living quarters and facilities for up to 50 students, seeing as many as 45 at a time at its height from 1910-1915.
The school was known by that time to apprehensive Whitewater residents as the “Spook Temple.” Still, the curious public showed up when the doors opened every Sunday evening for seances or educational lectures like the 1924 program “Mediumship Explained.” On the walls hung Spiritualist iconography, memorials to the original Hydesville community, and artwork like the piece Holmes described when he visited in the 1930s – a “painting of a beautiful woman, who, according to the medium, returned from the spirit world to speak for a moment to earthly loves ones and tarry long enough to be sketched.”
The third floor, however, was off limits to everyone but members of the Spiritualist church. That space was a hallowed chamber where everything was painted white, a space “not to be profaned by a non-believer,” an editor of a local newspaper once described. He, too, had been denied access to the room.
Famous Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow, known for his agnostic beliefs, once visited the institute. Of his experience there, he said he was “unconvinced, but mystified.”
Funding for the Morris Pratt Institute dried up during the Depression, forcing the school to close its doors in 1932. It reopened a few years later, but to considerably fewer students than before. Interest in Spiritualism had long since faded.
The institute sold the building in 1946. The new owners briefly opened it as a rest home for aged Spiritualists. Later it was used as a girl’s dormitory for the nearby Wisconsin Teacher’s College. It was torn down in 1961 and replaced by a new office for the Wisconsin Telephone Company.
Recalling the paranormal history of the town, a 1981 issue of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater newspaper The Royal Purple wrote, “Long-distance communication with the dead had been replaced by long-distance calls to the living.”
But that wasn’t the end of the Morris Pratt Institute. After selling the building in Whitewater, the school moved to Milwaukee where it still exists today, remaining one of the few places in the world dedicated to the study of telepathy, clairvoyance, mediumship and psychic surgery. Graduates go on to serve in one of more than 90 churches and camps around the country that belong to the National Spiritualist Association.
No matter how many years have passed since Pratt’s spirit house was razed, however, Whitewater was forged from the earliest of its traditions and remains haunted by the superstitions of its practices.
Hillside Cemetery in Whitewater, Wisconsin c.1900
Whitewater today is so steeped in legends of ghosts and witchcraft that it has come to be known as “Second Salem.” Rumors abound of dark rituals carried out in secret tunnels beneath the city and around the historic stone water tower in Starin Park, of a forbidden book in the basement of a local library said to drive readers to madness and suicide, and of a haunted triangle formed by the city’s three cemeteries – the center of which is the original location of the Spook Temple.
The cemeteries themselves are full of legends – some historical fact, and some folklore.
Legend says an old crypt in Oak Grove Cemetery is the final resting place of Mary Worth, an axe-murdering witch who not only cursed the town when she was executed for her crimes, but went on to become the inspiration for the urban legend of Bloody Mary. Her ghost can be seen wandering among the tombstones on Halloween.
Oak Grove is also said to be the site of ritual sacrifices in the 19th century. Those who conducted the sacrifices, local lore says, are buried upright in the cemetery around their altar.
Nellie Horan, suspected of murdering her parents and siblings with strychnine poisoning between 1882 and 1884, is buried in Calvary Cemetery. Authorities thought someone was out to get the family, but they didn’t suspect it was an inside job. That changed when, after the death of Nellie’s sister Anna in November 1884, a witness reported seeing Nellie purchase rat poison just a few days earlier at the drugstore. Funeral preparations were halted, and an autopsy revealed strychnine in the deceased’s stomach.
Nellie stood trial in February 1885. She testified that she bought the poison to kill the rats at the office of the Whitewater Register where she worked. She was acquitted due to insufficiently clear evidence and lived well into her 70s.
Another notable Calvary interment is Myrtle Shaude, the “Poison Widow,” and her husband Edward whom she murdered with strychnine in 1922.
Morris Pratt himself is buried in Hillside Cemetery, but for a man who dedicated his life to communication from beyond the grave, he’s been surprisingly quiet.
A few miles south of the city is Whitewater Lake, where fisherman in 1923 claimed a large creature with tentacles overturned their boat and dragged them under. They fought against it and eventually broke free, but found themselves covered in small bite marks.
Residents of Whitewater Lake also tell the story of a series of strange (unspecified) events that happened over the summer of 1944. To make it stop, men from the area gathered at a small local cemeteries, where they are said to have dug up all of the coffins there – each one had been buried vertically in the ground.
The men brought the coffins back to the lake, weighted them down with rocks, and threw them in. That put an end to whatever strange occurrences had been plaguing those who lived on the lake.
Decades later, in 1992, three Whitewater students who were renting a house on the lake stumbled upon a late night ritual being performed on the beach by four men dressed in strange black clothes. They were chanting and swaying. At first the students just thought the men were drunk. But then a thick fog rolled in from the lake, and a green light glowed through it.
“We heard the water start splashing and this deep gurgling noise,” the students said. Their names were withheld from the reports, as they were scared and wished to remain unidentified for their safety. “We all just looked at each other, but when we heard this slurping sound and saw something coming out of the water, we ran like hell.”
Another resident also witnessed the incident and called the police. They weren’t able to respond right away, but by the time they arrived in the morning, the group was gone. On the beach, however, they found small bones and rocks arranged in strange patterns in the sand. Cult activity was suspected, which had also been prevalent in an area just a few miles away, where the Beast of Bray Road was terrorizing residents of the Elkhorn community.
A sketch of the ritual from the Whitewater Police Department, 1992
Did experiments to pierce the veil and reveal the mysteries of the spirit world inside Pratt’s restricted inner sanctum open doors for sinister energies to take hold in Whitewater? Or is it that the town’s unusual history, as it is whispered around the UW-Whitewater campus year after year, is filled with just enough mystery that our imaginations can’t resist filling in the blanks?
“How much communication, if any, the students managed to experience between the Spiritual world and themselves is unknown,” The Whitewater Register wrote in 1972. “We can be certain, however, that legends surrounding the Pratt Institute will be alive in Whitewater for many years to come.”
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