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The Mathias Ham House

Dubuque, Iowa

Ham House

An historic house sits, no longer a home but a museum dedicated to the birth of a town and a bygone age.  Standing on the lawn, staring up at the windows, nearly every visitor would swear the house was haunted.  After all, it looks just like a house from the movies where restless spirits dwell.  High pillars stand over two entrances, with two stories above.  A tower rises from the center, and from its windows, one can almost feel eyes crawling over flesh.  Its history is marked by at least one tragedy, where either bullets or old age claimed several lives within its walls..  And while any serious paranormal investigator will tell you that most houses that look haunted are not, every stereotype has a source. 

History
Mathias Ham came to Dubuque many times prior to 1833, mostly on business.  Thorough his dealings on the Mississippi River, he was one of those early businessmen who prospered from the age of steamboats.  His assets, however, were varied, including lumber, agriculture, shipping, and mining.  He settled in a small limestone cabin in 1833, setting up his business headquarters on the banks of the Mississippi.  Four years later, he was married to a woman named Zerelda Marklin, who gave him six children. 

The size of his family, along with an influx of wealth provided by his fleet of shipping vessels, prompted Mathias to expand his home.  His wife, however, would not live to see the finished project.  By 1856, Zerelda had died, leaving her family in the vast twenty-three room Italian mansion.  Mathias, not one to stew on his losses and grief, was soon remaried to a woman named Maraget Mclean, who bore him two additional children. 

Mathias had a large observation tower built on the third floor, from which he could observe the movements of his fleet.  He and his second wife were reputed to retire to the tower after parties and watch the ships by moonlight.  It was the tower that allowed Mathias to discover the movements of pirates on the Mississippi.  His observations lead to the arrest and capture of a large band of buccaneers, who swore revenge on the family.  However, Mathias and his family paid no mind to the brigands, and resumed their happy lives. 

Maraget passed away in 1874, leaving the merchant in his home with his children, who were now mostly grown.  When he died in 1899 of natural causes, his two daughters, May and Sarah, took up residence in the mansion.  Rumors of the ghosts of the captured pirates from so many years before did not bother them, apparently, as they made no note of any strange happenings in the house.  However, after the death of Sarah, peculiar things began to happen.  May began hearing footsteps and whispers throughout the house, prompting her to believe that the pirates, all of whom were long since dead, had finally returned to make good on their threat.  So frightened was she that she set up a signal for her neighbors, a lamp in a particular window, that meant help was to be summoned. 

One evening, as she lay in bed, she heard the footsteps again, distinctly inside the house.  She lit her lamp, took up her gun, and locked her bedroom door and waited.  She could hear distinct footsteps creeping about on the first floor.  As she listened, she heard the prowler touch down on the stairs, climbing toward her room.  When it seemed that the source of the noise was just outside her door, she fired two shots through the door.  The neighbors discovered the front door open and a trail of blood leading down the stairs and outside.  The next day, the intruder was found, quite dead from two well-placed bullet wounds, on the riverbank.  The fact that he was a pirate was not lost on anyone. 

The city of Dubuque bought the house from Sarah Ham in 1912, who died in 1921.  It was used for a while as the home and office of the Superintendent of the Park District.  Then, in 1964, the house was turned into a museum, which is when the truly strange events began to happen.

Ham House River Boats

Ghosts
If there were such a thing as a "textbook haunting," the Mathias Ham House would be it.  So many of the phenomena recorded in the house seem to be lifted straight from a Shirley Jackson novel that one would be hard pressed to find a more perfect example.  And while there has never been an apparition sighted, the other phenomena more than make up for this minor slight.

The most prominent phenomena is that of phantom cold gusts that blow through the house, even though the doors and windows are shut.  Also, cold spots dot the house, most notably in the tower where Mathias would sit and watch his ships on the river.  Others have been reported in Sarah’s old bedroom, on the stairs, and in several other room that were reportedly well-used in the house’s role as a family home. 

Objects also appear to move unaided by living hands in the house.  Employees tell stories of objects disappearing from one room, only to mysteriously reappear in another, when the house is known to be empty.  This phenomenon extends to an upstairs window, which, when locked at night, has often been found unlocked and standing open the next morning. 

There is also strangeness afoot with the house’s electrical system, which has been checked repeatedly by electricians.  Though they find everything to be in working order, certain lights flicker, or stubbornly refuse to be turned off by the staff.  The porch light, according to some accounts, refuses to obey any switch, and must be activated and deactivated by unscrewing the old fuse.  There are also reports of a strange light moving from window to window after hours, when the building is supposed to be empty.  Some believe it to be the ghost of the pirate slain by Sarah Ham.

Perhaps the most unsettling occurrences in the house relate to phantom noises.  Footsteps are common, as is the sound of scooting chairs.  One employee, who spent the night in the museum in 1978, claimed to have heard whispering female voices.  One hard to believe tale concerns the organ, which has not functioned since the house was turned into a museum, playing by itself when an employee attempted to shut off the porch light.  it has even been reported that some have heard organ music playing from light sockets.

Present Day
Since 1964, the Ham house has functioned as a museum.  Now fully restored, its twenty-three rooms are furnished with antiques from the time of its construction.  Tour guides cheerfully relate the history of the house and of Dubuque, all the while dressed in period costumes.  Still, when asked, they tell stories of phantom encounters and noises heard.  They don’t seem afraid, however, as the phenomena seem to attract attention to the place, and provide the opportunity to preserve the house for future generations.

Best Times
The Mathias Ham House is open to the public on weekends in May, daily from Memorial day through September first, and on weekends in September through Halloween.  The hours of operation are from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  However, most of the strange events occur when there is no living staff there.  Those who have been brave enough to spend the night in the house report occurrences around 3:00 a.m., which is when Sarah shot her intruder.  Most phenomena in the house are reported in the tower, the master bedroom, the nursery, and in the servants’ quarters. 

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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