Oct 06, 2022 I Brent Swancer

A Mysterious Spiritualist School and a Haunted Town

Some places just seem to attract strange tales and stories of hauntings. Whether it is their history, their location, or some other indefinable factor, these are those places that have managed to become lodged into history as magnets of the wierd. These can be buildings, natural features, or even whole towns, stories of the paranormal swirling about them until they become almost legendary. One place in Wisconsin, in the United States certainly has its own odd such location, and the town itself has become associated with all manner of bizarreness. 

In the 1850s, Morris Pratt emigrated from New York to the area of Whitewater, Wisconsin, where he established a successful farm. At the time, the Spiritualism movement had swept across America, with belief in the afterlife and communing with the dead very popular. Pratt was from New York, the very birthplace of the movement in the United States, and himself was an avid and devoted Spiritualist. When he arrived in Wisconsin, Spiritualism had not really caught on there to the degree that it had in other parts of the country, but Pratt was about to change that. He actively promoted Spiritualist beliefs, argued with Ministers who criticized it, held séances at his large country home, and invited renowned mediums and psychics from around the country, and before long Whitewater had a burgeoning Spiritualist community, much to the chagrin of the more traditional religious folk of the area and the ministers who cautioned their members against such beliefs and practices. 

Morris Pratt

During one séance in the early 1880s, Pratt was hit with a vision of starting a school for Spiritualism and the search for the scientific teaching of spiritual truths, and proclaimed to all present that if he were to ever become wealthy enough he would use his money to build such an institution, which would make it the first of its kind. One of those there that day was a woman by the name of Mary Hayes-Chynoweth, who was known as a psychic healer with the purported power to see sickness within people, reach in, and remove it to take it into herself, which would cause her to break out in rashes and blisters but leave the afflicted person cured. At the time, she had been traveling through the Whitewater area attending various séances, and Pratt’s idea hit a chord with her. 

Shortly after this, Mary went into a trance and had a vision of vast riches hidden on what outwardly appeared to be a barren, worthless swath of land in Northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, information she claimed to have gotten from what she called her “controlling spirit,” which in her case was a long dead German professor. Despite its worthless appearance, due to this vision she was nevertheless convinced the land was valuable somehow, and so persuaded the Hayes brothers’ mining company, with Pratt as a stockholder, to purchase the land and begin mining there. They started digging, and although the first couple of years turned up nothing Mary continued to insist that they would find something eventually. Then, in 1886, they hit pay dirt when a vast and very valuable Gogebic iron range was discovered on the property, making Pratt rich practically overnight, and he immediately went about fulfilling his promise to build his school for Spiritualism. 

When construction began, Pratt had no particular idea in mind for how it would all work or how successful it would be, but he was determined to make Whitewater a mecca of Spiritualism even as he faced detractors who called the whole operation folly. In 1889, construction of the elegant three-storied building was completed. The Morris Pratt Institute, which Pratt called his “Temple of Science,” was fully outfitted with three large lecture halls, a dining area, 12 dormitory rooms, and an apartment suite where he would live with his family, the whole thing decked out in ornate ceilings, huge iron pillars, various Spiritualist artwork, and maple wood floors. Although it was widely lauded as a beautiful structure and Spiritualists from around the United States and Canada came to its opening ceremony, Pratt had no real direction for it at first, and so the school served mostly as a Spiritualist meeting place and a venue for various speakers and conferences, and did not have an actual operating curriculum of classes until 1902, a year after Pratt’s death. When the school was finally open to classes, both men and women were admitted, and they could take courses in traditional subjects like mathematics, history, grammar, and literature, as well as ones focused on Spiritualism, such as psychic research, mediumship, psychic surgery, the science of séances, the philosophy of Spiritualism and psychic culture, among others, and the school prided itself on its mantra of “rejecting nothing because it is new and unpopular; it accepts nothing because it is old and popular. It seeks only truth.” 

The Morris Pratt Institute

While the school proved popular among Spiritualists, other apprehensive residents thought it was all a bit kooky, and nicknamed the institution “The Spook’s Temple.” It nevertheless saw some degree of success and served as a conversation piece for the town until the Depression, which would force the school to close its doors in 1932. Although it would reopen a few years later, by that time interest in Spiritualism had waned and there were few enrolled students. The building was sold in 1946, after which it changed hands several times, serving as a rest home for aged Spiritualists and as a girl’s dormitory for the nearby Wisconsin Teacher’s College, until in 1961 it was razed to the ground and the land used for a new office for the Wisconsin Telephone Company. However, the Morris Pratt Institute lived on when a new building was built for it in Milwaukee, where it remains in operation to this day as one of the world’s only schools devoted to Spiritualism. 

Considering the building’s reputation as a mecca for Spiritualists and séances, it is perhaps no surprise at all that the Morris Pratt Institute and the surrounding area have long attracted rumors of the paranormal. When the original school was still open there were rumors that occult rituals were performed in both the building and tunnels beneath it, and they were rumored to carry out bizarre Spiritualist experiments in there as well. In the years between owners when it sat abandoned it was said to be prowled by ghosts, and indeed the whole Whitewater area would become steeped in tales of spirits and witchcraft. 

One of the more popular legends of the area revolves around the town’s water tower, otherwise known as the “witches tower.” Built in 1889, it is said to be haunted by witches who were supposedly buried on the land it sits on. There is also the so-called “Witch’s Triangle," which is a supposed nearly perfect isosceles triangle of cemeteries that forms a sort of vortex or nexus of supernatural activity, with the center being the original location of the Morris Pratt Institute. One of these is the Hillside Cemetery, which is the final resting place of Morris Pratt himself, and also said to be the resting place of the self-proclaimed witch Mary Worth, who claimed to have cursed several members of the community, including the prominent Winchester family, resulting in the deaths of three of the family members in short order due to freak accidents and disease and the collapse of their business. She also supposedly cursed the entire Whitewater area when they denied her wishes to be buried in hollow ground and instead interring her in an above ground crypt. Of course, her ghost is said to roam the grounds, although oddly Pratt’s spirit has never made an appearance. There is also Oak Grove Cemetery, said to be the site of ritual sacrifices in the 19th century, with those who participated buried upright in the cemetery around their altar and their spirits running amok at night. Rounding out the Witch’s Triangle is Cavalry Cemetery, said to be haunted by the ghost of Myrtle Schaude, also known as the “Poison Widow,” who killed several consecutive husbands and her children with strychnine. 

Another haunted place in Whitewater is the Andersen local library, which is said to have a book locked away in the basement that will drive readers insane and cause them to commit suicide. There are also the residence halls at UW-Whitewater college, where a little girl dressed in white is supposedly to run around the halls giggling. Local paranormal investigator Sam Azzaro, leader of The Second Salem Paranormal Investigation Team, has said of it:

So with the residence halls here at UW-Whitewater there have been sightings of a little girl dressed in white. She supposedly goes around through each building. She’s been sighted in quite a lot of the older ones such as Clem, Bigelow, Lee, Wells, Knilans and Wellers. A lot of giggling and running up and down the halls and into the rooms has been claimed by a lot of students here on campus particularly myself. My first year here I lived in Wells East on the seventh floor and I would always feel creeped out walking through the hall by myself. On the day of family fest I was in my room watching TV with the door open. Most people were at the football game or gone for the weekend. I was facing away from the door and heard a little girl giggling in the hall. I poked my head out and didn’t see anybody. I poked my head into the bathroom and in the other wing and nothing. I went back to my room and sat down and heard it again.

Whitewater Lake has its fair share of strangeness as well. In the 1920s, several local fishermen claimed to have been attacked by a large monster with tentacles, and reports of the creature have come in occasionally ever since. Even weirder is the idea that this creature is some kind of demon being conjured by black magic occultists. There have been reports of black robed figures carrying out rituals here on the beach, after which the monster appears. In 1992 there was one such report from three Whitewater students who were renting a house on the lake. They say they saw a trio of robed figures chanting and swaying on the beach, after which a thick glowing fog rolled in and they could notice strange activity out on the water. One of the students would say:

We heard the water start splashing and this deep gurgling noise. We all just looked at each other, but when we heard this slurping sound and saw something coming out of the water, we ran like hell.

When they returned the next day, they say they found remains of some occult ritual, including small bones and rocks arranged in strange patterns in the sand. What was going on here? What is going on with Whitewater in general and why is it so chock full of paranormal strangeness? One stubborn rumor that has long hung around is that the Morris Pratt Institute was heavily involved with finding ways to open portals between our reality and the spirit realm or other dimensions, and that they opened something they were not able to close, allowing in mysterious energies and producing the heavy saturation of hauntings and other bizarreness here, which has remained even with the closing of the original school. One argument for this case is that the paranormal activity only started when the school was built, after which their sinister experiments tinkering with the spiritual realm allowed the place to become a thin spot between the world of the living and that of the dead, and there is the idea that the location of the school was intentionally chosen to form that triangle with the cemeteries. Is that what happened here? Did Pratt’s school basically make the town haunted? We can't know, but whatever the case may be, the Morris Pratt Institute is a strange and interesting look into the town’s history, and its legends of hauntings and other strangeness persist to this day.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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