Minnesota is defined by its seasons. And no season is more exciting in the Land of 10,000 Lakes than fall, when temperatures drop, trees shed their leaves, the air gets crisp and electric and incensed with woodsmoke — and the boundary between the living and the dead becomes less pronounced.
Halloween, believed to be the Christianized version of the Gaelic festival Samhain (when livestock were slaughtered for winter), is a time of year that brings with it a feeling.
Call it nostalgia, melancholia, or restlessness brought on by change ... or perhaps the spirits of the dead get a little more active around Halloween, reminding us that there are things we can never understand. The paranormal has been called many things: residual energy, stubborn or lost spirits, figments of our imaginations. But whatever it is, it's exciting.
Unexplained phenomena add a layer of thrill to our lives, and human beings have been fascinated by haunts throughout history, from early Mesopotamia, to Homer's “vapor, gibbering and whining into the earth,” to the séances of the Victorian era.
In honor of the season, we're exploring the “haunted” spots in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Read on ... if you dare.
The Joseph Forepaugh House, a Victorian mansion which now operates as an upscale restaurant in St. Paul, has a chilling history. It was built in 1870 by Forepaugh, who made his money in the dry goods business, according to general manager Mimi Doran. “He lived here with his wife and children, until the incident,” she says.
On the third floor, we enter Molly's Room. “The story is,” Doran says, “that Mr. Forepaugh had an affair with an Irish maid named Molly, and she became pregnant with his baby. When Mrs. Forepaugh found out, she moved the family to Europe, and when that happened Molly committed suicide.”
Doran points to a small window. “For many years, people thought she'd went out through this window. But the truth of the matter is...” she opens a door, leading out to a small landing off a nondescript staircase “...she hung herself here.”
Years after Molly's suicide, in 1892, Joseph Forepaugh took a walk, pulled out a pistol and shot himself. When reporting the high-profile suicide, the Tacoma Daily News reported that, “No reason is known.”
“There have been things that have happened in every single room here,” Doran says, ragtime jazz playing overhead, “and it's pretty much a daily occurrence.”
Wabasha Street Caves
“Everybody that works here has had some experiences,” says Wabasha Street Caves owner Donna Bremer. “Everything from hearing things to actually seeing things.”
The caves (seven total, which are technically hand-carved silica mines built into the sandstone bluffs on Mississippi's south shore) date back to the 1840s. Over the years, they have served a number of purposes: a mushroom farm in the late 1800s, a prohibition speakeasy in the 1920s, a disco in the 1970s.
“This was a big hangout for gangsters,” says Cynthia Schreiner Smith, guide and researcher for Wabasha's Ghosts and Graves Tour. “And, in fact, we did have a gangster murder that occurred in 1934, where we're standing.” She gestures at the enormous stone fireplace in the arched dining room. “Three guys were killed with a Thompson submachine gun, and we're pretty sure, from an eye witness, that the bodies were dragged back into the unfinished caves, and that's where they were buried, and, most likely, that's where they stayed.”
We head in back, to the unfinished caves. “It does seem as we get closer to October,” Smith says, “more stuff happens. The theory is that the barrier between this world and the next gets thinner and thinner as you get closer to All Hallows' Eve.”
The First Avenue and 7th St Entry building first opened in 1937 as an Art Deco Greyhound bus station (not to be confused with the haunted Greyhound Bus Museum in Hibbing). These days, it's the premiere Twin Cities music venue, and was the starting point for acts like Prince and The Revolution, The Replacements, and Hüsker Dü.
I meet up with Ashley Ryan, Marketing Director, who leads me into the women's restroom on the second floor. “Probably the most circulated story,” she says, “comes from an ex-employee. She came into this room, and she was doing a club check on the bathroom stalls, opened the fifth stall and saw a woman hanging. Like, from a rope. She screamed, slammed the door, ran out, and then caught herself, came back in, opened the door and there was nothing there.” According to legend, a young woman went to the bus station to meet her boyfriend, who was returning home from World War II. When she was told he'd died in battle, she slipped into the restroom and hung herself.
“Another thing,” Ashley says, heading over to the main upstairs bar, “and this is not haunted, but people kind of find it weird.” She points above the bar, to a disturbing black-and-white painting of Boschian macabre, like Edward Gorey meets Stephen Gammell.
“Here, and then also in the stairwell, a former staff member painted these murals. But they're all really kind of dark, a lot of grim imagery, fallen angels and death.” She pauses. “I do know that when Prince played here in the past, he would ask for those to be covered up.”
The Fitzgerald Theater
The Fitzgerald Theater is the oldest theater in St. Paul, and has been in almost constant operation since 1910. “There are a lot of ghost stories around theaters,” says Tom Campbell, production and facilities manager.
“We were doing a show, and it's a ghost story itself called ‘The Woman in Black.’ It's the story of two people and a ghost woman. And every time the ghost is seen by somebody, children die.” We're standing on the stage of the ornate 1,000-seat theater, and it's a little creepy, the way many empty spaces can be.
“We're doing the play, and we're getting maybe three-quarters of the way through the first act, and all of a sudden — we had an invited audience, about 50 people on the main floor, and about half of them all looked up at that box at the same time,” Campbell says. “Then, at intermission, people were like, ‘That was really cool when the woman appeared in the box up there!’ And I'm like, the woman doesn't appear in the box up there. First time she's seen is at the end of the act, she walks down this aisle. And they're like, ‘No, she must've been playing because she was up there.’ And, no, she was backstage the entire time.”
But Campbell remains a skeptic.
“In 25 years, I've never had a ghost experience in my career,” he says. “But there are a lot of things that have happened in this theater that have left their imprints on this space — from great performances, great performers, to audiences who've had wonderful experiences. I think all of those kinds of moments haunt this place more than a specter or an individual ghost.”
Minneapolis City Hall
Minneapolis City Hall is an example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, named after venerated architect Henry Hobson Richardson (whose signature take on revival style was first used in his Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane). The massive exterior, in the heart of downtown, is constructed of Minnesota rose granite, and its spires and copulas and round-headed arches form its own skyline.
Inside, the five-story rotunda is all majestic Italian marble and stained glass. And there's a feeling, a dizziness. But the most terrifying part (of my entire haunted sojourn, actually) comes when City Clerk Casey Carl shuts us both into a tiny service elevator (“We have to get really close,” he says, “and act like we like each other.”) which takes us slowly and precariously to the top of the 345-foot clock tower — on the 13th floor.
“One time, on the weekend, I was here late,” Carl tells me. “It was winter, dark out. And I was in the library. It's a beautiful space, but, you know, when you're here alone at night on the weekend, it's kind of a frightening space.”
“And suddenly the lights went out. There are no automatic lights; you turn the switch on, you turn the switch off,” he says. “I was scared to death. I called out, ‘Hey, I'm up here!’ Because I thought somebody must've come in and turned the lights off. But I never heard a door open. I had to literally crawl on my hands and knees down the stairs.”
James J. Hill House
Unsurprisingly, the James J. Hill House looks straight out of Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” But, according to Site Manager Christine Herbaly, the 44,552-square-foot mansion (which from the outside looks less like a residence and more like a Gilded Age asylum) “is not haunted.”
“I don't live on-site, but I'm here all the time, and I've never experienced anything strange or out of the ordinary,” she says. “I think people really want this house to be haunted, but it's not.”
The interior is beyond opulent. They call it “Minnesota's ‘Downton Abbey’,” but since I've never watched ‘Downton Abbey’, I'd liken it to Versailles.
“Nothing bad happened here,” Herbaly maintains. “This was a happy family home.”
But when I meet Echo Bodine, “psychic, spiritual healer, ghostbuster, author,” for coffee, she tells me, “You know who I saw at the James J. Hill House? Servants. They're still there. There were a lot of servants down in the kitchen, and down in the laundry room.”
“What we know about Victorian class and culture is that the servants were always sort of creeping in the shadows of their masters,” Bodine says. “I feel like, whenever we start to tell the spooky tale of Victorian life, that is it. If there's going to be someone who's disgruntled or unhappy, the servants are those people.”
Grey Cloud Island
There's a potent aura surrounding Grey Cloud, just outside the Twin Cities, but it feels foreign, distant, like a sparsely populated Quebecois key. It feels vaguely Floridian, almost Cajun.
The locals don't wave, they watch. There's a secretive church camp, which fits the picture of a cult's compound (rumors abound). When I'd reached out to various members of the historical society for a guided tour, I was met with resistance and ultimately denied. This only made the place more intriguing.
Grey Cloud Cemetery sits at the end of a fenced, unmarked road. It's small, well-maintained, with headstones dating back to the early 1800s. Story goes, the descendants of a Mdewakanton chief still roam the island after dark, carrying green lanterns, often passing through the cemetery. Even if you could visit at night (you can't), you wouldn't want to.
St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse
It's the classic ghost story formula: Build a structure on a site with a horrific past, and horror ensues.
With the St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse, that formula happens to be true. The 20-story Art Deco skyscraper was built in 1932 on the site of the old Ramsey County Jail and the jail's gallows. The most notable execution would be Minnesota's last: On Feb. 13th, 1906, the rope used to hang convicted murderer William Williams ended up being too long. Williams dropped through the trap door, hit the floor, and took 14 minutes to die of strangulation. Opponents of the death penalty used the horrific incident to argue against capital punishment in the state. (It was abolished in 1911.)
“You see the rule of three a lot in architecture,” says tour guide Kassie Bradshaw Kmitch, “but Art Deco kind of takes it into overdrive. Things are grouped together in threes. For example, the rings on the light fixtures, the door handles. It can be little, tiny details like that.”
Perhaps it should be noted that, while the number three symbolizes many things, occultists hold this number in especially high regard: Not only does it represent the Pagan Trinity, but, according to something called the “Principle of Intensification,” 333 becomes a secretive way of symbolizing 666.
“In this building,” Kmitch says, “the devil's in the details.”