Learn about Milwaukee’s folklore, history, and architecture through the ghost tours given by Gothic Milwaukee.
The name of this website, as you can see above, is Spiritual Travels. And sometimes that means spiritual as in spirits.
In particular, I’m a huge fan of ghost stories. So it’s not surprising that ghost tours are one of my favorite ways to be introduced to a city. Travel + ghost stories = a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.
On a recent trip to Milwaukee, I found a kindred spirit in Anna Lardinois, the founder of Gothic Milwaukee. She leads tours that blend folklore, history, and architecture, all laced with her infectious sense of humor. I’ve been on ghost tours in many cities, and this was one of the most enjoyable.
Anna launched her business in 2012 after taking ghost tours in many other cities. “I used to be a high school English teacher, and on my spring break each year I’d visit a different city,” she said. “In the evenings I didn’t want to be on my own, and so I went on ghost tours as a way to socialize with interesting people and learn about the city I was visiting.”
Anna’s tour company has been so successful that it’s now her full-time occupation. It’s also led to other endeavors, including a weekly radio show, Haunted Heartland, that airs on 104.1 FM Milwaukee.
“Wisconsin is said to be among the most haunted states in the nation—though I actually think every place is a good place for ghost stories,” she said.
Dressed in a hoop skirt, Anna may look Victorian and prim, but her stories are anything but. Though remaining family-friendly, they touch upon the city’s colorful past, which has a large quotient of rakes and scoundrels.
“Rascals make for good stories,” she said. “But I think another reason we have a lot of ghost stories is because of our long winters and the European heritage of many of our citizens. Think of the German tales of the Brothers Grimm, for instance.”
On our 90-minute tour of Milwaukee’s downtown, we stopped every block or so to hear a tale. At a nineteenth-century structure with a shop on one level and apartments above, for example, we learned of the ghosts that are said to reside there.
“More than a century ago, a young woman who lived here fell in love with a man who was a scoundrel,” Anna said. “When she found out he was married, she told him she wanted to break off their romance. The cad murdered her and then ran to catch a train out of town. But his hands must have been sweaty from running, because when he tried to board the train, he accidentally slipped and was dragged underneath its wheels.”
Anna flashed a brilliant smile, obviously pleased with the man’s comeuppance, then continued. “But here’s the interesting thing. Each evening, the two lovers are said to re-enact their last meeting. He walks up the stairs, and she opens the door for him, over and over again. Many people have heard the steps coming up the stairs and then the door opening.”
One of the most famous ghost stories told by Anna involves the Pfister Hotel, a downtown landmark built in 1893. Charles Pfister, the original owner of the hotel, was such a die-hard sports fan that after he died, he’s said to haunt the rooms occupied by visiting sports teams. By keeping them from getting a good night’s sleep, he helps out the home team.
“National news outlets have covered this story, including ESPN,” said Anna. “Dozens of out-of-town players have had such unsettling experiences in the hotel that they say they won’t ever return.”
A more poignant story concerns the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Hans, a young choir boy who perished in a fire many years ago. Local children, especially, love to look for him in the windows of the church’s steeple. Anna said that while she hasn’t seen Hans herself, she thinks he’s pleased that his memory isn’t forgotten.
Anna clearly loves telling the ghost stories, but she also enjoys introducing people to the historic architecture of downtown Milwaukee.
“Milwaukee is a wonderful city for architecture, in part because we’ve kept many of our old buildings, unlike a lot of communities that tore them down for re-development projects,” she said. “There’s so much rich detail in these beautiful structures.”
Anna’s introduction to Milwaukee helped me understand, too, how this city famed for beer and baseball is undergoing a renaissance. Gothic Milwaukee is just one of many creative new enterprises in the urban area.
But most of all, Anna’s stories helped me see the city in a deeper way, peopled with characters long dead, but still living in the imagination.
If You Go: The Gothic Milwaukee Classic Tour departs from Cathedral Square, which is at the corner of Jackson and Wells Streets. Reservations are recommended. Anna Lardinois also leads a Ghosts of Yankee Hill Tour, which tells stories connected to what was once Milwaukee’s toniest neighborhood, East Town’s Yankee Hill.
If you’d rather explore on your own, download Anna’s audio tour The Grand Walk, which covers the history and architecture of Wisconsin Avenue.
For general tourism information about the city, contact Visit Milwaukee.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.