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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"The Woods Are Full of Ghosts!"


The source for today's Odd Wisconsin is a New York Times reporter who claimed (Dec. 7, 1902) only to "relate the tale as the Nashotah people tell it, and the reader can draw his own conclusions."

The Nashotah Theological Seminary in Waukesha Co. was founded by Rev. James Lloyd Breck and three companions in 1842 as a center for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin Territory, and received its official charter from the government in 1847. Breck went on to found many churches and other religious institutions across the upper Midwest before his death in California in 1876. After a few years, Episcopal leaders in Wisconsin asked that his body be brought back to Nashotah and that's when the trouble occured.

"After its arrival the casket containing the body of Dr. Breck lay for a time on the ground floor of one of the buildings, and watchers sat with it. On the night before the reburial, the watchers were the Rev. Charles P. Dorset, for fifteen years rector of St. James, in Chicago, now [1902] of the Diocese of Texas, and Dr. Wilson, now of Chicago. Along in the hours near morning Wilson stepped out for a breath of fresh air, but in a moment came rushing back, with the exclamation, 'Dorset, Dorset, the woods are full of ghosts!'

"Both clergymen went out. In every direction through the trees they saw figures darting hither and thither in a wild and fitful dance. The clergymen approached, but the figures drew back before them, forming to left and right of them, and it was impossible to get within close range. In the morning, when the casket was lifted, the floor beneath was found to have been blackened by fire, and a hole was actually burned through to the space beneath."

As if a forest alive with ghosts and a hole burned through the floor were not enough, the situation grew weirder as the reburial of Breck's body approached:

"At night the Faculty of the institution sat in the office of Dr. Gardiner, the President, discussing the strange events that perplexed them. Suddenly their discussions were abruptly terminated by a startling and tremendous racket just outside the door, a clattering and whacking that was deafening. Dr. Gardiner threw open the door. Not a soul in the hall. He returned to his room, but hardly had be sat down when the noises began again. Again a sudden dash into the hall failed to reveal any one. Nor did a search of the building reveal that outside the Faculty a living being was in it. A third time the noises began, and this time Dr. Gardiner spoke into the hall: 'If you are gentlemen, be still.' The noise stopped."

The interment of the remains proceeded without incident, probably to the collective relief of Nashotah staff who had witnessed the previous days' events. But "after the reburial of Dr. Breck, a photograph was taken of the cemetery. One of the students was the photographer. In the foreground of the picture can be seen two graves, just as they appear in the cemetery. But at the foot of each grave stands something no visitor has ever seen, and for the peace of his mind it is hoped never will see.

"At the foot of one grave stands the Rev. Dr. Cole, a former President of the seminary, in full canonicals [Rev. Azel D. Cole, who had died in 1885]. At the foot of the other grave stands the counterfeit presentment of its occupant, a woman who in life was a benefactress of the school.

"When these startling things appeared at the time the photograph was developed, the seminary authorities decided that possibly some well-timed conjunction of sunlight and foliage was the cause of the images; that they had no real existence -- were only shadows. So they had the picture thrown on a screen by a stereopticon. But the figures came out more plainly -- so plainly that there was no denying that they were the well-remembered features of Dr. Cole and the seminary's benefactress.

"Still, there were those who suspected the photographer of a trick and charged him with it. He denied the charge and offered this unassailable plea of innocence: there was no such thing as a photograph of Dr. Cole in existence and nobody had ever heard of one."

For more on the early history of Nashotah House -- without any supernatural tinges -- see these pieces in our online collection of Local History & Biography Articles.


:: Posted in Bizarre Events on August 6, 2006

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