Morris Pratt Institute school of Spiritualism in Whitewater, Wisconsin

Haunted Whitewater – Witches, Spirits and Lake Monsters

Witches, spirits and lake monsters. Did experiments to commune with the dead leave Whitewater haunted and cursed?

Serial Killer Peter Kurten's head at Ripley's Believe It or Not in Wisconsin Dells

Into the Dark, Weird and Dead of Wisconsin Dells

A journey into the frigid wastes of Wisconsin for a meeting with the mummified head of serial killer Peter Kurten.

November 2019 Newsletter: Murder, Monsters, and Chocolate

Another trip down the weird back roads of Wisconsin in search of Satan and other wholesome family activities.

Entrance to the demolished Mirro Manufacturing Company in Manitowoc

The entrance still stands to the demolished Mirro Manufacturing Company in Manitowoc, once one of the world’s largest manufacturers of aluminum cooking utensils, whose early offerings were showcased at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Windigo Fest is an annual Halloween gathering held in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. With three days of live music, sideshow performances, haunted cemetery tours, celebrity guests and more, it’s become the largest Halloween festival in the state. Predictably, it sparked controversy from Manitowoc’s Christian community in it’s first year. One local business owner in particular seemed to have made it her mission to save everyone’s souls from eternal damnation.

“Jody Dubinsky, owner of Treasures in downtown Manitowoc, said this festival is darker than it seems on the surface,” the Herald Times Reporter wrote. “She became concerned when her own research turned up old Native American tales of a creature called the windigo, sometimes spelled wendigo, which eats human beings and devours their souls, particularly young children.”

But that’s not all. The festival was held on the first weekend of the Halloween season that year, October 6th and 7th. 6 plus 7 woefully equals the unlucky number 13. And if that’s not bad enough, the costume parade was planned to go backward up a one way street.

Clearly the work of the devil himself.

In addition to holding meetings to pray over the festival, Dubinsky and several others made their plea to the city council that allowing Windigo Fest to happen would be welcoming Satan into the community.

That’s when I decided I needed to be involved in Windigo Fest any way I could.

When my friend Matt Lombard, curator of the Heart of Darkness dark art exhibition at Windigo Fest, invited me to show my work this year, I knew I had to bring some Cult of Weird-brand history and lore to Manitowoc. Not to mention it would be an honor to have my work hanging alongside other amazing local and international artists including Matt himself, whose portfolio includes work with Cradle of Filth and Combichrist.

I chose photos of three Wisconsin locations seemingly cursed by their past and the legends that have grown around them. Places I’ve been researching for years and continue to find endlessly fascinating for their history and mythology. If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve no doubt read about them at some point.

But just showing poorly composed photos of a house, some graves, and a crypt without context was out of the question. The stories of each location’s significance had to be told, so I included cards with brief write-ups to hang beside each print.

I’ll only include a glimpse of that here because the experience of showing my work publicly (in real life, for better or worse) for the first time is not the point of this post.

What I’m actually working up to here is that while some fret that Windigo Fest brings Satan to Manitowoc, the city is no stranger to weird and evil. It is, of course, the setting of the controversial true crime docuseries “Making a Murderer” on Netflix, and, if this guy is to be believed, may even be home to a secret Satanic club comprised of Manitowoc’s elite who hold their rituals in an abandoned haunted school in St. Nazianz.

I decided to forgo dragging my kids to murder houses during our trip to California, but all bets were off in Manitowoc.

Place of the Spirits

Manitowoc, Wisconsin
Manitowoc, Wisconsin

“In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power,” Neil Gaiman wrote in his 2001 novel American Gods. “Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”

That particular passage was in reference to roadside attractions like Wisconsin’s own House on the Rock, but it’s an idea that can fit into a slightly more broad perspective, as well.

Dotted with effigy burial mounds and brimming with ancient lore, the physical and spiritual landscape of Wisconsin is largely shaped by its Native American heritage and their mystical places of power. The name Manitowoc, for example, is said to derive from an Anishinaabe word for the area that translates roughly to dwelling of the great spirit, or a similar word from the Menominee language meaning place of the spirits.

Is there something intangible about certain places that stirs up concentrated levels of strange activity? If so, the Manitowoc area may be one such vortex of weird.

The city sits on the shore of Lake Michigan and has its roots in Great Lakes shipping and shipbuilding. But for explorers of the strange and unusual like you and me, Manitowoc is significant for a few more peculiar points of interest which I vowed to visit next time I was in town.

But first, chocolate.

Beersten's candy shop in Manitowoc
Beersten’s Confectionary

If you’re familiar with Making a Murderer and the Steven Avery case, you’ll know why this candy shop is significant to that story. But more importantly, Beersten’s Confectionary is the eastern point of the so-called Wisconsin Candy Delta.

In this Devil’s Triangle of chocolate you’ll find sweets “made from 100-year-old recipes and sold in 50-year-old mom-and-pop bastions — heirloom chocolates fresh from the source” according to a 2008 New York Times article.

Beersten’s in particular feels like stepping back in time, with antique cases displaying a vast assortment of chocolate in unbelievable shapes and sizes. I was so in awe of the place that I apparently only managed to snap a single photo while inside:

A life size chocolate telephone at Beersten's in Manitowoc

That’s right, a life size chocolate telephone.

We purchased strange and wondrous treats (several of them cow-shaped) from the mystical cases at Beersten’s and departed for the next destination, where the quiet streets of Manitowoc were bombarded nearly 60 years ago by cosmic Russian junk.

Sputnik Crashed Here

Sputnik crashed here in Manitowoc, Wisconsin

The Sputnik IV spacecraft was launched into space on May 15, 1960 to study life-support systems that were later used in the manned Vostok craft. Four days later, when it was suppose to return to Earth, the reentry procedure was botched and Sputnik went off course.

The craft ascended into a higher orbit from which it would not return for over two years. The descent module finally reentered Earth’s atmosphere on September 5, 1962, breaking up and scattering chunks of smoldering metal for miles.

Residents of Manitowoc reported seeing as many as 24 pieces falling from the sky that morning, some plummeting toward the ground with a sound like thunder. At the intersection of North 8th and Park, just feet from the Rahr-West Art Museum, a 20-pound piece of debris embedded itself in the street.

Two police officers on patrol spotted the chunk of metal in the street and, believing it fell off a truck, decided to leave it. It wasn’t until later, when they heard the news about Sputnik, that they realized what they had found.

A brass ring marks where Sputnik crashed
A brass ring in the street marks the exact location where a chunk of Sputnik landed

A brass ring in the middle of the street marks the spot where the debris was found. The nearby Rahr-West Art Museum displays a replica of the debris cast from the original. The annual Sputnikfest is held here, where visitors can enjoy a humorous, vodka-fueled reenactment of the Sputnik control room when things went wrong, the Miss Space Debris pageant, and other “wacky tacky” festivities.

Not far from Rahr-West is a WWII relic that seems to have a lingering member of the crew still aboard.

Haunted WWII Sub

USS Cobia haunted submarine in Manitowoc
USS Cobia submarine at the Manitowoc Maritime Museum

The USS Cobia was launched in 1943 and sank 13 Japanese vessels during it’s World War II duty. Today, the Cobia serves as an international memorial to submariners at Manitowoc’s Maritime Museum.

And it may still be the home of one particular crewman who didn’t leave his post alive.

“The Cobia did see some action in WW2 and a gentleman was killed on one of the guns,” a Cult of Weird reader said in an email a few years ago. “To this day they say he haunts the submarine. My pastor’s daughter used to be a tour guide on the submarine and can tell you stories about dropping keys through the grate on the floor and returning with them hanging on the wall.”

Making a Murderer

Avery's Auto Salvage
Avery’s Auto Salvage

A few miles outside of Manitowoc is Avery’s Auto Salvage, where the events documented in the Netflix series Making a Murderer played out. Whether the land where Steven Avery’s family still resides is the site of a brutal murder or an appalling miscarriage of justice, once a place has been marked with stigma, the curse doesn’t go away.

Much like the residents of Ed Gein’s hometown, locals here mostly seem to regard the unwanted attention as a wound on their community.

“I’d say the overwhelming opinion is it was just fabrication and just a pain in the butt,” one man told the Green Bay Press Gazette about the series in 2018, “giving the area a bad name through twisted facts.”

Avery's Auto Salvage sign

But, just like Plainfield, true crime enthusiasts and dark tourists make great pilgrimages to glimpse the infamous salvage yard. Out-of-state visitors frequently stop for selfies with the auto salvage sign, and the town has been forced to explore alternative methods of attaching the Avery Road sign to its post to prevent it being stolen again.

Avery's Auto Salvage

Avery's Auto Salvage

Avery's Auto Salvage

Bonus Weird Thing

Soon after returning from Manitowoc I found an email in my inbox from a couple who encountered a wendigo-ish sort of creature in nearby Two Rivers. I wrote about it here: A Wendigo Encounter in Manitowoc County?

My conversation with the witness began in the comments of something I had previously written about wendigo encounters in Wisconsin. But was it actually wendigo? Does the description even remotely match a wendigo? I dunno. Sometimes writing post titles is hard, man.

Weird News

A selection of the strangest and most fascinating headlines in science, history, archaeology, travel, and more from last month:

November Observances

November 1-2 – Dia de los Muertos
November 2 – All Souls Day
November 19 – World Toilet Day
November 21 – World Television Day
November 22 – Anniversary of the mysterious Max Headroom hack
November 30 – Saint Andrew’s Day

From the Cult of Weird Community

Share your art, oddities and weird adventures by tagging your photos #cultofweird

Send questions, photos of your favorite oddities, or share share your strange or unexplained experiences to be included in the next newsletter. Use the contact form or email [email protected]

Previous Newsletter: Cult of Weird goes to Hollywood

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Heart of Darkness dark art exhibition

September 2019 Newsletter: The Heart of Darkness

Cult of Weird will be bringing the historical weirdness to the Windigo Fest dark art exhibit in Manitowoc this year.

Windigo Fest, Wisconsin’s largest Halloween festival, is happening this October, and I have the honor of showing a selection of photos at the dark art exhibit. Curated by artist Matt Lombard, The Heart of Darkness will feature bizarre and disturbing works by local and international artists. The 3-day festival in the heart of downtown Manitowoc (a town you may recognize as the epicenter of the Steven Avery case from Netflix’s Making A Murderer) is billed as a “festival of folklore, freaks, and all things Halloween.” So I decided to bring some Cult of Weird-brand folklore and dark history.

I’ll be showing three photos from different locations with unusual stories Cult readers will be familiar with because I’ve been visiting, researching, and writing about these fascinating stories for years. But for many who call Wisconsin home, these histories are completely unknown but for fragments passed around in local legends.

See the photos and read the stories at Windigo Fest – October 4-6th, 2019. There’s more than just grotesque art, too. Stick around for macabre fun with sideshow performances, live music, Halloween parade, the actor who played Gage in the original Pet Cemetery, the killer car from Christine, hearses, vendors, and more.

Windigo Fest dark art exhibition in Manitowoc, Wisconsin
The Heart of Darkness dark art exhibition

The week before Windigo Fest I’ll be in California standing up in my best friend’s wedding, which will be equally bizarre. Elusive, hairy, and strange, we’ve long suspected him to be an actual yeti. I guess we’ll know for sure when the wedding photos turn out blurry.

It’s been 20 years since my last visit to Los Angeles, so I’ve got my list of cemeteries, murder houses, and other morbid destinations at hand if there’s time. I’m sure he’ll understand when I’m late for the ceremony because I had to make a stop at the Museum of Death.

Weird News

A selection of the strangest and most fascinating headlines in science, history, archaeology, travel, and more from last month:

HEADLINE OF THE MONTH: Don’t Lick Sexy Pavement Lichen

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The crypt of Wisconsin's little-known incorrupt priest Father Ambrose Oschwald, who was removed from his position in a church in Germany's Black Forest for "mystical and heretical works." He and some of his congregation, which have been referred to as a "Catholic mystic cult," left the country for America in search of religious freedom and arrived in Wisconsin in 1854. There, Oschwald and his followers claimed a white heifer lead them to the sacred ground where they would make their new home – a small rural community known today as St. Nazianz. The night of Oschwald's death in 1873, people throughout the town reported ghostly knocking on the walls of their homes. Since his death, Oschwald's body has been viewed three times, once more than 50 years since he passed. Each time it was noted that, like the incorrupt saints of Europe, his remains bore little sign of decomposition and had no smell. Today, some believe certain hardships the community has endured in the years since Oschwald's passing are the result of a curse Oschwald placed on the town while on his death bed. A now abandoned Catholic school and Salvatorian seminary on the grounds near Oschwald's crypt is believed to be haunted by past students and teachers alike who have had strange experiences in the building. This was my first visit here since 2012 and my @cultofweird article about the town's peculiar history. Finding Oschwald's crypt open was like Christmas morning. #cultofweird #oddities #paranormal #occult #wisconsin #weirdwisconsin #stnazianz #jfkprep #haunted #hauntedplaces #cemetery #cemeterylovers #crypt #wisconsinhistory #onlyinwisconsin #travelwisconsin #explore #exploremore #cemeterylife #wisconsinlore

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September Observances

September 7Sputnikfest
September 20 – Storm Area 51
September 21 – Storm Loch Ness
September 21Hearse Fest
September 29 – National Ghost Hunting Day
September 30 – International Blasphemy Day

Send questions, photos of your favorite oddities, or share share your strange or unexplained experiences to be included in the next newsletter. Use the contact form or email [email protected]


Windigo Fest Halloween festival in Manitowoc, Wisconsin

When the inaugural Windigo Fest was announced in 2017, an alarmed Manitowoc-based Christian group petitioned the city council to ban the event, saying it would welcome Satan into the community. To support their claims, they noted the dates the festival would be happening that year – October 6th and 7th – added up to the number thirteen. If that wasn’t enough, the Halloween parade was sure to summon the devil by going backwards down 8th street.

If Satan was going to be there, I knew I had to get involved in Windigo Fest somehow.

Previous Newsletter: Mary Nohl’s Witch House

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Stuff You Should Know podcast Ed Gein episode

Ed Gein’s Real Life Horrors on Stuff You Should Know Podcast

The story of deranged Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein is featured in the latest episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast.

The most recent episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast recounts the grisly details of Ed Gein – his traumatic childhood, his extracurricular activities with human remains, how he claimed to tear his mother’s head from her body when he opened her grave.

Did you know filmmaker Werner Herzog once visited Plainfield Cemetery with a clandestine plan to verify Gein’s account by exhuming Augusta’s corpse under the cover of dark?

Also, Cult of Weird gets a nice little shout out for the story of Ed Gein’s cauldron. Thanks guys!

Listen to the episode right here.