This issue: Contents
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
  • Editor’s Note
  • WCHS News: Paranormal Investigations: Techniques & Theories
  • WCHS News: Give to the Max Day!
  • Photo of the Week: Gertrude Wolfer
  • Old News: I Can Totally Talk to Spirits!…No! You Can’t See My Research!
  • Featured Article: Finding History in Ghost Stories

Editor’s Note

As I put together this week’s edition of the Historical Messenger, I couldn’t help but have this song stuck in my head…accompanied by dramatic thunder claps, of course.

Halloween is just around the corner and goblins, ghosts and ghouls are on everyone’s mind! We’ll help you get into the spirit of the holiday in today’s special spooooky issue!

And I’ll start with the scariest bit of information you’ll hear all day – WCHS’ 2014 touring season is almost over! This Saturday is your last chance to check out the Hay Lake School and Erickson Log Home before we pack it up for the winter! Likewise, the Warden’s House is only open for another two weekends! Follow either link to find out how to schedule off-season tours.

Head down to our first News section to read about our second annual Paranormal Investigations presentation scheduled for this Saturday.

After recently sitting down with GiveMN’s training team, I want to join you in making this year’s Give to the Max Day! as successful as possible for WCHS. Learn how you can help in our second bit of News.

Today’s Photo of the Day features a tragic tale who some say has had supernatural consequences.

You won’t believe how excited I was to come across this article from 1911. It really fits into this week’s theme perfectly. So knock on the table three times, tell me what card I’m thinking of, and then scroll down to the Old News section for a “scientific” look into the unknown.

Finally, today’s Featured Article shares a few ghost stories of Washington County and addresses the role the paranormal may hold in a historical organization.

Have a Happy Halloween everybody!

Want to learn more about the history of Washington County? “Like” WCHS on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Sean Pallas

Historical Messenger editor and Warden’s House Site Manager


Paranormal Investigations: Techniques & Theoriessmaller_paranormal_flyer

This Saturday, October 25th, the Washington County Historical Society will be hosting the Johnsdale Paranormal Group for their second annual presentation on “Paranormal Investigations: Techniques and Theories”.

The event will be held at the Warden’s House Museum in Stillwater. They will perform encore presentations at 11:00AM, 1:00PM, and 3:00PM throughout the afternoon.

Since last year’s event, the group has investigated reportedly haunted locales such as St. Cloud State University, Palmer House Hotel in Sauk Center, the Mantorville Restoration House and, of course, another investigation of the Warden’s House itself.

During their presentation, founder Justin Miner and his co-investigators will delve into the evidence they have gathered over the last year and will also explain exactly what goes into a “ghost hunt”. Including a showcase of their state-of-the-art equipment like their latest acquisition a FLIR Thermal Imaging Camera.

This event is free and open to the public.


Give to the Max Day!

Thursday, November 13th, your gift goes farther on Give to the Max Day!

Organizations that raise the most money in their size brackets are granted additional cash bonuses and an extra $1,000 is added to one random donation per hour! Even a simple $10 donation puts our name in the hat!

Here’s what you can do to help:

Schedule Your Donation Early! Beginning November 1st, you can actually schedule your donation to be processed on Give to the Max Day.

– Spread the Word! Share our Donation Page on your social media pages or email it to your friends.

Wear Green! GiveMN is going to be meeting with folks on their morning commute along the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. If you’re wearing green near the light-rail station at Fifth at Nicollet, GiveMN may pick you out and make a donation in your name to the organization of your choice!

– Donate! The easiest way to make a difference for WCHS is simply by making a gift! GiveMN keeps it easy by accepting all major cards through their secure online payment system. You don’t even have to create any sort of account! Their website is designed with both PC/laptops and mobile platforms in mind.

Thank you all for your continued support of the Washington County Historical Society!

Photo of the Week

Gertrude Wolfer

Well here she is. Here’s the Warden’s House Museum’s alleged ghost. Pretty unassuming, right?

As the daughter of the last Warden of the Old Stillwater Prison, Henry Wolfer, Gertrude spent a number of years as a child in the Warden’s House. When she was older, she eventually married the prison doctor and the newlyweds moved to Blue Earth, Minnesota where they had a son named Winston.

Unfortunately, Gertrude contracted appendicitis and passed away when little Winston was only 8 months old. Winston and her widower husband returned to Stillwater and took up residence with Warden Wolfer. Winston would live at the Warden’s House with his grandfather until 1914 when the new prison was completed and Wolfer stepped down from his position.

Some claim that Gertrude’s spirit made the trek from Blue Earth with her family to watch over her infant son’s formative years.

Does Trudy still roam the halls of the Warden’s House Museum a hundred years later? You’ll just have to attend our Paranormal Event on Saturday and decide for yourself!

Wolfer Family Photograph

Old News

I Can Totally Talk to Spirits!…No! You Can’t See My Research!

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a huge rise in the public’s interest in the supernatural. The fad even extended to the White House where Mary Todd Lincoln famously held a number of séances in attempts to reach out to her lost son. And by 1906, the American Association for Psychical Research had almost 700 active members.

The article below reports some rather bold claims by Harvard Professor of Ethics and Psychology, James H. Hyslop. By 1918 in his book, “Life After Death”, he stated: “I regard the existence of discarnate spirits as scientifically proved and I no longer refer to the skeptic as having any right to speak on the subject. Any man who does not accept the existence of discarnate spirits and the proof of it is either ignorant or a moral coward.”

Hyslop would be the greatest scientist in human history if he had truly discovered concrete proof of life beyond the grave. But I found his reluctance to elaborate on his findings more than a little suspect. “Oh no,” he says, “I can’t tell you what the ghosts said in this interview…you’ll have to buy my book!” …Uh huh…

Despite the confidence in his own claims I have to lump him squarely in the “quack pot” category.

I did chuckle a bit to read that a man who firmly believes he can talk to the dead does draw a line at the idea of weighing those disembodied spirits…That would just be silly.

Says Soul Has Talked to Him – Stillwater Messenger – October 21, 1911

With the positive statement that he has held several conversations with the spirit of the late Professor William James, the psychologist of Harvard, James H. Hyslop, secretary of the American Association for Psychical Research, has returned from Boston to New York with important material collected in a series of recent experiments.

“I can say nothing more now,” Prof. Hyslop said, “except that I have talked with the spirit of Prof. James.”

“I have talked with it several times in the last year. What the spirit said I am not ready to divulge. They have been trying over in England since Prof. James died to get in touch with his spirit, but from what I have heard, however, have had no success.”

Promises to Publish Proofs

Prof. Hyslop declared he is quite positive as to his facts and will make his proofs public within a short time.

“It would require volumes,” said Prof. Hyslop, “to detail just how I communicated with the dead and to prove that I did so; yet the fact remains that I have now proved that the souls of men and women – of little children, in fact – who have gone before, are capable of communicating with us as they please. In greater or less degree they are capable of making us know their presence. This is not spiritualism, but spiritism.”

Asked in a general way how he would proceed to establish the identity of a communicating soul, Prof. Hyslop said:

“It is accomplished in a way similar to the way of the living. For example, I might go to London and wire a friend a year later that I wanted to borrow $50, but the friend might say I was dead, and I would have to establish my identity. I could easily to do this by telling him what we had done the last time we met.”

Can communicate at will

“Souls or spirits of the departed make a similar course. They may turn somersaults; so do we. We are surrounded all the time by millions and billions of souls freed from their earthly casings. Not all of them are always present, yet any of them can communicate to us at will, and make their presence known, some of them, it is true, in a manner that seems laughable to those who cannot or will not understand.

“It required years of research for me to prove conclusively that the soul is material, and that it lives after the body has returned to dust. That the soul has material weight, however, as some say, has no claim in reason.”


Finding History in Ghost Stories

by Sean Pallas

As historians, should we distance ourselves from the paranormal? Can the Warden’s House Museum host the current warden of the Minnesota State Prison as a guest speaker and extend the same hospitality to a group of ghost hunters a few short months later?

According to a Harris Poll from last year, 42% of Americans believe in ghosts; I am not one of them. I’ve never seen pots and pans unexplainably crash to the floor nor doors fling themselves open. I’ve always said that if I see a ghost floating from room to room in the museum – I’d be more concerned with my own mental health before imagining I was a witness to the supernatural. And yet, I defend the coupling of hauntings with WCHS’ goals of preservation and dissemination because at the heart of every good ghost story is at least a kernel of history.

arcolabridgeIn a Pioneer Press article from 1995, Prof. Elizabeth Bird, of the University of Minnesota Duluth, recounted the tale of a spectral lantern carrier who supposedly haunts the Arcola High Bridge just north of Stillwater. Apparently, during World War I, an oncoming ammunition train forced the unfortunate railroad worker to leap from the side of the bridge only to perish in the waters below. Now, “on the midsummer anniversary of his death”, a mysterious light can be seen shining on the tracks.

Although a relatively simple legend on its surface, as author Paul Auster once wrote – the truth of the story lies in the details. What kind of train? An ammunition train. When does he appear? On the anniversary of his demise, naturally. And by placing the story in the historical context of the First World War, the haunting gains further credibility.

A proper investigation of this story would begin by confirming these all-important details. A truly interested party would seek out cargo manifests, military orders, train schedules, etc., etc., and suddenly the paranormal researcher has become a researcher of history.

Of course, the researcher must be prepared to discover contradictions.

According to the “Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations”, the Water Street Inn in downtown Stillwater is haunted by the spirit of an alcoholic Confederate officer. Employees have reported smelling a strange musk in the air and even seeing a young man in the grey uniform of the Confederacy. There is even a review of the hotel on from as recent as June of 2013 entitled, “Haunted!” The hotel guest reported that she “woke up to something crazy! I swear it was like someone got in my bed with me. I couldn’t move, then I found a picture taken on my phone of me sleeping. I stayed there alone with the dead bolt locked. I can’t explain it but I also smelled body odor randomly after I woke up at 4 am.”

Like the story of the haunted bridge, this ghost story clearly isn’t lacking in details. The peculiar odor is even seemingly corroborated by multiple sources. But the historical facts highlight some major issues.

The building that now houses the Water Street Inn was built in 1890 and after the Confederacy was dissolved at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, there just weren’t a whole lot of folks wearing Confederate uniforms – especially in the staunchly Union Minnesota. Furthermore, the building didn’t become a hotel until the current owners renovated the property in the 1990s. The building originally housed business offices and there are simply no reports of anyone passing away at the site. Whatever is going on at the Water Street Inn – it seems highly unlikely Johnny Reb is to blame.

The big question we in the world of history must constantly ask ourselves is, “How do we stay relevant?” Tales of ghosts and the paranormal can be exciting introductions to elements of local history that are unfortunately often overlooked. So for now, here at the historical society we’ll continue to occasionally delve into the realm of the supernatural with the hopes that although people might come for the ghosts – they’ll stay for the history.




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Preserve the Past, Share in the Future!

Become a member of the Washington County Historical Society!

Membership is one way that you can help support the Washington County Historical Society. Your membership helps us collect, preserve, and disseminate the history of Washington County for county residents and visitors in the belief that a historical perspective enhances our understanding of community and sense of place.

Benefits of membership:

  • FREE admission to the Warden’s House Museum in Stillwater and Hay Lake Museum Complex in Scandia
  • Discounts on purchases in the museum gift shop (10% Individual & Family members, 15% Patron & Sustaining members)
  • FREE use of WCHS library and research center
  • Subscription to Historical Whisperings, the society’s quarterly newsletter
  • Discounts on tickets to membership meetings
  • Knowing that your membership dollars support the preservation of our treasured past for generations to come

The Washington County Historical Society has depended on membership ever since it was formed in 1934. Please show your support for the organization by becoming a member today.

More: WCHS Membership >>>

Washington County Historical Society

Mission Statement

Washington County Historical Society collects, preserves, and disseminates the history of the county and state of Minnesota.

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