The ghost in the attic: Supernatural occurrences at the Whittemore House
The carpet gently crushes behind her—right behind her—so close she knows that if she turns around now, she will finally catch the joker. She will grab him by the collar and show him exactly how funny she thinks his stalking has been. The woman slows her gait and spins around.
There’s a man. A man with gray hair and a beard, clad in a red plaid shirt. In this moment, he looks like an out-of-place lumberjack, lost in the regal hall. Then she looks down. It’s what she sees next—or rather doesn’t see—that makes her scream. This mysterious man with gray hair and a red shirt has no legs. He’s a specter hovering in midair. The woman starts to run, but before she can, the man is gone, vanished as quickly as he came.
Built in 1912, the Whittemore House, which is located at 6440 Forsyth Blvd. (across from Mallinckrodt Center), now serves as Washington University’s conference center and private club. Weddings, lunches and holiday parties are regular occurrences. It’s the type of place that movies depict as the residence of millionaires, in which one can curl up in a winged armchair before a roaring fireplace.
But in this rich décor, one feels a slight unease. The house has the ornate nature of Disney’s Tower of Terror. Behind the opulent grandfather clock lurk sinister underpinnings. And perhaps with good reason, too.
Five people have died in Whittemore House, but they weren’t murdered in a grisly slasher-film fashion, the type infamous for fostering restless spirits. Rather, Heinrich Christian Haarstick—the man who built the Whittemore House—his wife, their daughter Ida Herf and her husband all died there of old-age-related natural causes. The fifth death, though, was that of an infant.
Henry, grandson of Haarstick, and Margie Whittemore adopted a baby from the Evanston, Ill.-based Cradle Society. The Cradle Society recommended that the Whittemores contract one of their certified nannies, but Margie refused. Instead, she hired a local woman.
Flash to New Year’s Eve of 1936: The nurse feeds the three-month-old baby, Leigh. She tucks Leigh tightly into her crib and leaves During the long night, Leigh spits up. Constrained beneath the taut covers and without the nurse to clean her, Leigh slowly chokes to death. The next morning at the Whittemore’s annual New Year’s Day party, one of the servants must inform the Whittemores of their daughter’s demise. The Whittemores bury Leigh in the Haarstick family mausoleum.
Roughly 30 years later, the widowed Margie Whittemore donated her house to Washington University. Soon after, the school decided to convert the Whittemore House into its premiere faculty/alumni club. Construction crews broke ground to expand the house’s dining areas.
“People say the spirits were stirred up when they added the dining rooms on in ’67 because they were digging outside and they unearthed human remains,” Art Casolari, general manager of the Whittemore House for more than 10 years, says as he ushers me up the house’s stairs, removes a heavy key and opens the creaky attic door. Allegedly, an experience in the Whittemore House was the inspiration for alumnus Harold Ramis’ “Ghostbusters”.
Those human remains the construction workers found—a skull and a leg—were small and childlike. Someone gathered them up in a plastic bag, and the bones disappeared. Today, no official record exists of anything being discovered during the excavation. They may have been those of baby Leigh, who now haunts these strangers in her house.
“I talked to the people who actually lived here [before], and they knew nothing about the ghost,” Casolari adds. “The residents of the house never experienced any sort of haunting…In ’67 after the dig, the spirit entered the house.”
As the University prepared to open Whittemore House, more strange occurrences surged, according to Casolari and a book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi” by Alan Brown. Art Kleine, then general manager, and Shirley Sweeney, his assistant, often perceived youthful giggles and sounds of childhood play. Willie Holt, the former groundskeeper and a current kitchen worker, heard party sounds and piano-playing. Eleanor Coyle, then an instructor at University College, felt a ghostly presence in the house and organized a séance with two local ghost hunters, Phillip Goodwilling and Gordon Hoener.
Four people—two employees in addition to Goodwilling and Hoener—gathered around a table in the attic. As the séance closed, a cold wind blew through the house’s attic, pushing open one of its windows. “Get out of my house,” a voice shrieked at Mary, a Whittemore employee and séance participant. “Death to Mary!”
Today, many tales circulate about the spectral happenings at the Whittemore House. At a wedding, a child reported seeing a lady upstairs in a rocking chair. During an anniversary party, a little girl met a black man upstairs selling roses. Both people, of course, had disappeared when someone went up to investigate. Ann Chanitz, a current employee, heard a child’s music box playing when alone one night at Whittemore House. A former assistant manager once closed up for the night and turned off all the building’s lights, but when he was about to drive off in his car, he saw that every light in the Whittemore House had turned back on. And one time, long ago, during the faculty club’s early years, a young female employee heard footsteps behind her and turned to find a ghostly half-man.
“It kind of spooks [people] out a little bit,” Casolari says. He shows me the window that flew open during the séance; he opens the doors of every room in the attic, revealing a once-lavish bathroom now filled with antique miscellany.
I let the attic overcome me. I stand in the shadows and hope the bare drawstring lightbulb will crackle off and a chill will sweep through the room. I imagine returning to the StudLife office and a seeing photographer waving me over, saying, “Check this out. That blur in this shot is half of a lumberjack.” I hear the hollow knocks of shoes on the attic floor behind me. Each footstep is suspect. I spin around, but it’s only Casolari, who has come to see me out of the attic.
Casolari leads me back down the stairs, locking the attic door behind us. My stay in the storied attic has ended uneventfully, save for a brief interaction with a bat. Gone is the lone Edison bulb dangling loosely from a chain in the attic. Gone are the claw-foot tub and the séance’s jarred window. Gone is the ghost.
“I haven’t had any experience with the ghost,” Casolari says as consolation. “Maybe I just haven’t been open to it. Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed around so long.”