Fond Du Lac, WI – You are running, not just for your life, but for those of your children and their children after. Traveling by night, you listen for the bay of dogs on your trail, watch for the faint glow of torches. They’re coming, close on your heels, and relentless. In the darkness, across the hostile land, stands a man with a lantern, beckoning. You follow because it’s what you’ve been told to do.
He leads you into an oddly-shaped house, up the stairs, and through a hidden door to a space too small to crawl, then he shuts the door behind you. Cramped you are, yes, but in this instance you finally feel safe. Your pursuers will still follow, but the man with the lantern will keep you from harm for the night. They follow you not because of some crime you committed, but for the color of your skin.
One of the most interesting parts of writing this column is that, as someone who tells ghost stories, I’ve become something of an arm-chair historian by exposure. Battlefields and butchery, enraged lovers and ships at sea all tell a distinctive story that gives reasons behind the paranormal experiences other have had in certain places. Most often, it seems, hauntings are not just caused by violent deaths or tragedy, but by high emotions. Intense fear, love, hatred, or even joy can leave imprints behind for future generations to see. In some cases, the repercussions of those actions stand as monuments for future generations in the form of expanded rights. In others, those actions live on as ghosts.
It’s hard to believe in modern times, but the area now known as Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, was once wild territory, complete with predators of every variety. Among the things early settlers had to defend against were Native Americans who didn’t take kindly to squatters taking their land away. In 1856, a trader named Isaac Brown built the structure to be an Indian fort, with the notion that should the natives become truly restless, those inside would have to hide. To this end, the house featured a staggering nine secret passageways and chambers that were just big enough for a frightened person.
Not long after, the war of Northern Aggression broke out, and the hiding spaces came to a different, more noble use. The house became a stopping point for the fabled Underground Railroad, where slaves trying to gain their freedom would hide until they could make good their escape. One of the nine tunnels, which ran from the house to the woodshed in the back yard was dug specifically for this purpose. The house also served as a post for the Women’s Relief Corps, who acted as angels of mercy during the American Civil War. These dedicated women marched into the battlefields nearby to bring fallen soldiers medical attention, water and food.
Before his death, Isaac gave the house to his son, Edwin. While there doesn’t seem to have been any tragic deaths in the house during Edwin’s life there, he and his wife, Ruth, did have three children before his death at the battle of Antietam. The house, despite its importance, became a rental property in 1900, and stayed that way for more than six decades, and began to fall into disrepair. It was placed on the national register of historic places in 1972, but by then the house was so dilapidated that it was scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for a new high school. Seeing the worth of such an historic building, a dressmaker and antiques-dealer named Marlene Hansen saved the house.
There seems to be quite a variety of paranormal activity that occurs in the house, with just as many sources. From the beginning, Hansen has been quoted in newspapers, radio programs, and television features about the paranormal activity in the house, and for good reason. The house has been investigated by several paranormal investigative groups, most notably Southern Wisconsin Paranormal Research Group, all of whom have declared the haunting genuine.
One of the phenomena reported in the house is the sounds of playing children accompanied by cold touches by unseen hands. Most believe the sounds to come from the Edwin’s children, still playing after more than a hundred years. Another centers around reports of objects being moved about without assistance from mortal hands. Still another occurred when Hansen’s mother was pushed down some stairs by something unseen. Hansen herself was also pushed, narrowly avoiding injury by grabbing the handrail. Perhaps the most tragic phenomenon is the apparition of Ruth, Edwin’s wife, whose maiden name was Pier. One night, while hanging wallpaper, Hansen turned to see the transparent figure of Ruth leaning in a doorframe, watching her. When Hansen tried to speak, the apparition faded away.
For more than thirty years, Marlene Hansen has worked to keep the house in its beautiful condition. It now operates as a museum and touring house, with attention paid to its significance in the fight for African-American freedom and the Women’s Relief Corps, as well as an historic dining experience in which guests can dress in the Victorian period. There is also a place where visitors can squeeze into a hidden chamber to see a hand-scratched message from a runaway slave. And while candle-lit tours of the tunnels and passages are offered, many get more than they bargained for in the form of paranormal experiences. Guests often report hearing or seeing things they can’t explain, as well as touches from unseen hands.
Far from being frightened by their other-worldly residents, the museum seems to revel in them, opening up the house for an annual Halloween dinner with candle-lit ghost stories told. Of course, there are other events during Christmas and Mother’s Day, but the best chance of getting a chill, whether from the storyteller’s skill or from a paranormal experience, seems to be right at Halloween. The phenomena, however, go on year-round. To find out more about the Octagon House, visit them at their official website.
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