This Halloween, ditch the kitsch and get spine-tinglingly real at the most haunted places in Minnesota
Palmer House Hotel
Forget being the most haunted site in Minnesota. The Palmer House Hotel, in Sauk Centre, is one of the most haunted sites in America. No joke. Big-city ghost hunters—including, most recently, the crew from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventurers—flock to this antique 1901 hotel with such frequency that owner Kelley Freese has had to gently insist on some Midwestern spook manners: “Here, as in life,” she warns, “Please and Thank you go a long way.” In other words, don’t be a jerk to the ghosts. Especially Lucy.
The hotel’s most notorious “permanent, unregistered guest,” as Freese calls the ghosts, resides in Room 17. Guests can sit in one of the two high-backed chairs facing the bed, but not both, not at the same time. Why? It forces Lucy to the mattress. And she doesn’t like that, says Freese, “because of what her employer made her do there.”
Legend has it that Lucy was a prostitute working at the Sauk Centre House, a grim frontier brothel that occupied the current site of the Palmer. The Sauk Centre House burned down in 1900, and the Palmer was erected in its place the following year. But the new joint couldn’t shake the legacy of abused and murdered women. Lucy is said to dislike men. She reacts to male guests by slamming the room door so hard it rattles the artwork on the wall and aggressively dropping the temperature. During a recent investigation, a Chicago ghost-hunting outfit allegedly recorded a temperature of negative-one-degrees Fahrenheit during their stay.
Other active areas include the bar and Room 22, home to a rancorous entity named Raymond—rumored to be Lucy’s pimp. “My favorite is when guests complain about how noisy the people above them were,” says Freese. “Then I remind them: you were on the top floor.”
If the Palmer House is the most famous haunted site in Minnesota, then the Soap Factory—a cavernous 1883 warehouse on the Minneapolis riverfront, now an experimental art venue—is the fiercest.
It is “one of the most paranormally thick environments I have ever had the displeasure to investigate,” says Adrian Lee, a London-born historian and founder of the International Paranormal Society. And while Lee is loathe to speak in religious terms, he considers the entities there “bordering on demonic.” His four-year investigation of the space has found men getting attacked, a darkness so profound it blotted out infrared imagery, and—perhaps most disturbingly—the smell of sulfur. It seems this is the one place that truly flaps the unflappable. Lee doesn’t go in without a couple of pastors.
The Soap Factory was, of course, an old soap factory, pumping out suds during the soap boom of the 1880s. And you know what soap’s made from, right? Animal carcasses. Thousands of them. The flow of bloody skins through the factory rivaled the current of the great river next door, and at the turn of the century, the building’s appetite for flesh made it a repository for stray dogs that the city paid to be rounded up and strangled. Not gruesome enough for you? Consider, then, that before the warehouse was built, the site was home to a small business that produced artificial limbs for soldiers wounded in the Civil War. That’s some creepy stuff.
This month, brave souls are invited to venture into the Soap Factory’s bowels for the gallery’s annual Halloween Haunted Basement event. Even braver souls can volunteer to play ghouls for the production. But exorcists take note: “There’s a spirit that kind of takes over our actors,” says Tom Loftus, last year’s director. “It can get pretty wild.”
Chase on the Lake
You’ve got your EVPs, your Ghost Boxes, your EMF meters. But sometimes the best gauge of a hotel’s spookiness is to simply poll the teenagers working the front desk. “Oh, this place is SO haunted,” chirped one young employee. This summer, she said, a coworker was downstairs servicing the resort’s retro, two-lane bowling alley, when the nearby jukebox jolted to life. “And it was, like, playing his favorite song.” OMG. Other employee tales involve phantom children playing in the hallways, unplugged phones ringing, and the grandfather clock in the lobby spitting its key from its lock.
It’s all due to the Leech Lake resort’s “meta-narrative of death, violence, and sorrow,” claims Lee. While researching his new book, Mysterious Minnesota, Lee found that not only was the original Chase Hotel used as a temporary morgue for dead soldiers during the 1898 Battle of Sugar Point, but later, on the cusp of the resort’s first major renovation, the son of hotel founder Lewis “Bert” Woodruff Chase died of pneumonia, on May 27, 1922. The grand reopening, 11 days later, doubled as a wake.
When the Chase celebrated its 2007 renovation the family’s original funeral garb was trotted out for an exhibition in the lobby. And teen employees take note: guests witnessed the frocks sway in an unexplained gush of wind.
Yup, it’s not just club kids and rockers that haunt this legendary music venue. Ask any employee and they’ll confirm that, indeed, just as that ’80s Australian dark wave band insisted, the Dead Can Dance.
Dave Schrader, the bald-headed, bad-ass host of 103.5 FM’s nightly paranormal show “Darkness Radio,” has investigated the venue numerous times, and alleges that the upstairs dance lounge, the Record Room, is one of the most active areas of the site. “Deejays frequently report hearing strange things over their headphones,” he says. “Growls, voices, screams. It’s pretty off-the-hook-bizarre.”
But the greatest First Ave legend has to do with the building’s former self: the great Art Deco Greyhound Bus Center that opened on Seventh Street in 1937. The story goes that a young woman went to the station to meet her boyfriend, who was returning home from World War II. When she was informed that he had died in combat, she lurched into the restroom and hanged herself. In recent years, multiple First Ave staffers have reported seeing a ghastly scene in the fifth stall of the women’s bathroom: a full-bodied apparition, throat wrenched to the side by a noose. The woman—always in a green army jacket—is sometimes seen dancing at the club, along with other legless ghosts. Cue the “Thriller” video.
If you’re an actor, all the world’s a stage, right? So why wouldn’t the next world be one, too? For the spirits of the Historic Mounds Theatre, considered the most paranormally active building in St. Paul, it is. The 1922 playhouse enjoys long stretches of emptiness—the jewel-box theater only opens a couple times a week for rehearsals and productions—and is professionally equipped, making it the perfect space for fame-hungry phantoms to privately act out their dreams. Consider it the haunting version of singing in the shower—and the ghosts get just as peeved when they’re interrupted.
Jackie Day, who re-opened the theater in 2001, attests to getting physically grabbed by a spirit while working late one night on a poster. Investigators prowling the basement have left with claw marks on their backs. And in the projection booth—still dominated by a pair of hulking reel-to-reels—a foul-mouthed entity named Red has been known to hurl both obscenities and objects at women. (Actors, man.) But the spooks aren’t all jerks; the theatre’s most notorious ghost is a young girl in a pink dress, often seen bouncing a ball on the stage.
St. Anthony Main, along the Mississippi Riverfront, is old. Super old. It’s the city’s most elderly street, its limestone buildings bellied up against the cobblestone pavers since 1855. “If the spirits aren’t there,” says Curt Hansen, “where are they?”
Hansen’s a guide for the Real Ghost Tours of St. Anthony Main, Minnesota’s only year-round ghost tour outfit. On Friday and Saturday nights, he escorts the curious along the “Spirit River,” a metaphysical subway line that tour organizers believe carries entities beneath the buildings on Main. But ask him nicely, and he’ll give you a bonus spook: an investigation of the shadowy green spaces beneath the Hennepin and Third Avenue bridges. That’s where the real action is.
A few years ago, he snapped some photos of the dark tunnel where a tailrace enters the Pillsbury A Mill. The images revealed hundreds of “white bats”—an orgy of spectral beings, bursting from the tunnel in a murder of avian frenzy. Why so much death?
Hansen notes that when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came to Minneapolis, in the 1950s and 1960s, to construct two sets of locks at the lower end of the falls, they destroyed the old Spirit Island—a body of land used as a burial ground by Native Americans. Bad juju.
Then, too: “There have been hundreds of suicides off the Third Avenue bridge. There were four last year. Every time they take a body out of the water, the shore line lights up with EVP”—electronic voice phenomenon—“for two to three weeks.”
Certain developers and condo hunters won’t want to hear this, but the august, architecturally arousing Schmidt Brewery building—erstwhile home to Minnesota’s Ur-lager maker, future site of affordable artists housing—is mad haunted. Like, people-died-there-in-horrible-ways haunted.
The physical building has been vacant since 2004, but the Schmidt family’s cinematic history—random shootings, gangland kidnappings—has made it a magnet recently for ghost hunters. In fact, Lee claims it as an inspiration for Mysterious Minnesota. The place “still sends a chill down my spine,” he says.
In 1884, Jacob Schmidt, a Bavarian immigrant, settled in St. Paul and began making beer as a joint owner with the North Star Brewery, located at Commercial Street and Hudson Road. Nine years later, he was detained by police—but never charged—for allegedly shooting some random pigeon hunters docked on the river behind the brewery. In the late 1890s, Schmidt Brewery was officially born. A year later, it burned to the ground. At the height of Prohibition, in 1934, the son of the owners, Edward G. Bremer, was kidnapped by the infamous Ma Barker Gang and held for $200,000.
But intrigue aside, most of the hauntings have to do with ordinary brewery workers dying in horrendous ways. In 1896, two perished in an explosion. In 1902, a cooper plummeted down an unmarked elevator shaft. And in 1904, Matthew Kohler, a guy whose job it was to light gas lamps in the brewery, died from (no kidding) “inhaling flames.”
During a recent investigation, Lee communicated with Kohler in the bowels of the building. It was, he says, “a complete vindication” of ghost hunting and the psychic process. And it creeped him out. Bad.