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A return to the Whittemore House and electromagnetic haunts

| Scene Reporter

It’s hot. Really hot. And it’s not a tolerable dry heat. Rather, it’s the humid St. Louis heat, the kind that leaves you dewy, the kind that makes you want to shower despite how drenched you already are.

Ronald Franklin, a two-year employee at the Whittemore House, and coworker Lee Banks, are horsing around, trying to escape the scorching summer heat on the house’s top floor.

The attic is stuffy and hot, but Franklin and Banks search its entirety for a breeze, prying open every door they can in hopes of stumbling onto refreshment. Then they find it—the cold they’ve been searching for the entire day. It envelops them in its frigid arms. But Franklin notices something odd. He can see his breath. On this 95-degree day, he’s watching his exhalations condense in front of him.

“I’ll never forget it,” Franklin says now in one of the Whittemore House’s regal dining rooms. “I’ve had two experiences with the ghost. My first was [that] summer—it was hot as all get out. Everywhere else in that attic was hot, but walk into this one room—it was ice cold…Lee Banks said, ‘Ron, let’s get out of here.’ And we ran down the stairs…I can still show you the room. I’ll never forget it.”

Franklin’s second experience followed a late-night banquet at the Whittemore House. He and then-manager Raymond Gonzales closed up for the night—making sure to turn off all the lights. Both got into their cars, started the engines and left. But as he turned the corner, Franklin caught something in his periphery: The top floor remained aglow. For good measure, he drove around the street again; this time, though, each window was dark. “Raymond [Gonzales] stopped me in the middle of the street and said, ‘Ron, I cut those lights off.’ He said, ‘But look at them now.’ Nobody had been up there all day. Now that could have been an electrical problem—”

“No, no,” a quick-tongued older man interrupts. “It was the ghost.”

I’ve returned to the Whittemore House today to delve further into the rich stories surrounding the phantom-filled edifice. I sit at a table with Willie Holt, the quick-tongued older man from before and the authority of all things related to the Whittemore ghosts, Ronald Franklin, a 17-year Whittemore veteran and Art Casolari, the general manager whom I have interviewed before. I’ve come for their ghostly tales, the accounts that have captivated countless newspaper reporters and ghost-story anthologists before me.

The story I presented before, though, was merely the tip of this otherworldly iceberg. Yes, the hauntings started after construction started to convert the formerly residential mansion into a faculty-alumni club. And yes, the construction crews discovered a leg bone and a skinless human skull, as Holt, a witness to the unearthing, attests. But few know the rest of the story: In addition to the leg and skull initially found underneath the pool, workers discovered the skeleton of a neighbor boy in the backyard. Holt says, “Back in 1910, 11, 12, the living room was your funeral home, and the land was your cemetery.”

“It all started after [the bones were found],” Holt says. He takes me through his experiences with the ghost from the period in 1967-68 when he lived in the attic—the sounds of people climbing up the stairs, a player-less piano serenading his late nights, the time he had to sleep next door to escape the taunting noise. He even recalls once descending down into the kitchen to find the doors flapping open and closed. “I came downstairs,” he says, “and the lights are on in the kitchen. Everything [the appliances] off was on.”

Art Kleine, the manager of the Whittemore House at the time, couldn’t believe Holt’s nighttime haunts. “[Kleine] said, ‘I’m going to stay here tonight and see what you’re talking about,” Holt says. “He stayed by himself [in the attic]. He didn’t believe what I was saying. But he heard the same thing. He said, ‘You are right. There’s something wrong with the house.’”

“I never did see anything, though,” Holt says. “I just felt someone—like a person—pass me coming by in that hallway…It’s like people were in here, but as soon as five, six o’clock in the morning, it would go away.”

“Can you think of any other explanation for the ghost?” I ask.

Holt shakes his head. “Well, they found that leg and skull.”

“So that’s the explanation? Digging up the bones?” Casolari clarifies.

“Yes,” Holt says. “[Because] they found that leg and skull.”

But perhaps disturbing the backyard grave isn’t the real reason behind people’s strange experiences in the Whittemore House. Michael Persinger, a neuroscience researcher at Laurentian University with more than 200 peer-reviewed articles to his name, has a different view on ghost hauntings and paranormal experiences: “A paranormal encounter,” he says, “is one in which the experience is interpreted as meaningful but not typical with connotations of alterations in space-time or sense presence.”

Most of the so-called “haunts,” Persinger claims, are due to electromagnetic fields affecting the brain, especially the right temporal lobe. “Most sensed presences or visual experiences are along the left visual field,” Persinger says. “For example, Soviet cosmonauts reported visual sensations in the upper left peripheral visual fields during geomagnetic activity…We can simulate these effects in the laboratory.”

Though not specifically about the Whittemore House, Persinger’s findings nevertheless illuminate the house’s ghost sightings—the woman seeing the half-lumberjack, the child spying the lady in the rocking chair, the girl meeting a black man upstairs selling roses—but the term electromagnetic fields sends me reeling. It’s so highly scientific I wonder how a normal house could possibly produce this energy. Sure it could happen in a space ship—who knows what all goes on up there—but in a mansion? Persinger points me to a 2001 publication detailing his research on a young woman plagued by a ghost that visited her nightly in her bedroom, shook her bed and impregnated her. She could later feel the infant clinging to her left side. The cause of this spectral encounter? An alarm clock near her head generating 4 microT magnetic pulses. Once it was removed, the nocturnal visits ended.

So can something as commonplace as an alarm clock create a “spiritual encounter”? Yes, as it turns out, it can. In 2000, Persinger, Tiller and Koren learned that weak magnetic fields (1 microT) could produce an appearance of a sentient-like being in about 50 percent of normal men and women when left for 20 minutes in a dark, quiet setting. Persinger’s 2001 case study states that this 1 microT magnetic field could be produced by a refrigerator or heating system. The Whittemore House’s attic contains a labyrinthine heating system. When on the top floor, you’re surrounded by its ductwork, which quite possibly generates a weak magnetic field—the same kind Persinger correlates with supernatural experiences.

Through Persinger’s neuroscience lens, most Whittemore sightings can be explained. The apparitions, the chilled room, the piano music and the sound of steps on the stairs, the feeling of passing an ethereal body in the hall. However, some occurrences remain a mystery. How could Holt go downstairs to find all the kitchen appliances on? How could Franklin and Gonzales see the attic’s lights on from the isolated shells of their cars? If they were going to see lights, wouldn’t they see them while still in the house, not yards away from the building’s exterior? Some things, perhaps, are best explained by the answer Holt has championed since the beginning: a ghost.

“There’s something going on up there,” Franklin says before I leave. A few years ago a psychic examined the Whittemore House. She sensed a strong spiritual presence on the second floor—but as she neared the stairway the leading to the attic, she stopped. She felt a lot of energy wafting down from the attic.

“[The ghost] starts in the attic,” Holt says. “Then it comes down. That’s where it comes from…It will always be there [in the attic]. It’s not leaving.”