GHOSTS OF THE PRAIRIE
Shrouded in mystery along the Kenosha, Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan is a hulking building that once once known as St. Claire Hall and is now remembered by the name that it went by in the years before it was abandoned... Kemper Hall.
The oldest building at the complex of brick structures is the Charles Durkee Mansion, built in 1861, and the home of the original owner of the campus. The house fell under the ownership of the local Episcopal Church in the middle 1860's and in 1867, it became Kemper Hall, a female seminary.
The walls of Kemper Hall reportedly hide many secrets... and many ghosts.
(photo courtesy of David Paul Schmickel)
In 1878, the Sisters of St. Mary took over the seminary under the leadership of Sister Margaret Clare, a stern nun who ruled the school with an iron hand. Many of the stories about ghosts at the school concern her. Legend has it that she either tripped on her habit and fell, or was pushed, to her death from the school's observatory tower. However this proved to be only a legend that had been passed on from student to student as Sister Margaret actually died in 1921 from a chronic illness.
Another ghostly legend concerns a student who committed suicide rather than leave her lover behind and attend the all female school.
And while this may also be nothing more than a school, a very real suicide took place at Kemper Hall in 1900. In the early days of that year, a Sister Augusta came from Chicago to attend an annual retreat at the seminary. While she was in Kenosha, she vanished without a trace, leaving nothing behind save for her handbag, crucifix and her insignia of holy Sisterhood. When it was learned that she was gone, the authorities were alerted and telegrams were sent to Chicago and to St. Louis, where he family lived. On January 5, a message came from Kemper Hall that the mystery of Sister Augusta had been solved. They told newspaper reporters and the police that she was safely in Springfield, Missouri. This would later turn out to be blatantly false.
A little before noon on January 8, a little girl named Bertha Smith and her younger brother were playing on the beach at the east end of Seminary Street (65th Place) when they spotted the black robes of Sister Augusta floating in the water. They ran home and told the mother and she called the police. The drenched robes were clinging to the lifeless body of the missing nun. She had been battered by the waves but her friends were able to identify her. During the inquest that followed, many of them spoke of her strange behavior on the night she vanished... behavior that had been covered up by the administration at Kemper Hall. According to testimony, Sister Augusta had become "mentally deranged from her work, which had been exceedingly hard during the last few months". She had requested time off and it had been granted so why she chose to take her own life is unknown. Two young girls testified that they had seen her walking on the beach on the night of January 2 and this was the last time that she was seen alive.
The coroner's jury ruled her death a suicide and she was laid to rest in her habit. The body was then taken to St. Louis, where her sister and her family buried her in Bellefontaine Cemetery. Is it possible that Sister Augusta might be the ghostly nun who has been seen wandering about Kemper Hall in recent years?
There have been other sightings of ghostly apparitions and weird incidents as well. One afternoon in the 1930's, a bakery worker at the school spotted a phantom dressed in a brown skirt clutching the railing of a stairwell. When she ran to tell the other kitchen employees of her encounter and then returned to the staircase, the figure was gone.
In 1985, a member of the Lakeside Players theater group had a strange encounter in Kemper Hall. She was standing inside of the old gymnasium when she stated that she sensed a presence in the back of the room... as if someone were watching her. When she turned, she caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and then the sound of scraping and footsteps climbing up the balcony staircase. The stairs were empty at the time and a search of the building revealed that no one else was present!
In October 1997, a crew from the local television news station (Channel Four) filmed a Halloween-related story inside of Kemper Hall. According to a source, the photographer who edited the tape began to experience bizarre problems with the tape that was shot. He was inside of the editing bay and each time that the tape would reach a portrait of founder Charles Durkee, the tape would go berserk. It would roll, and begin flashing with static, and then return to normal when the shot changed. Several co-workers came in to observe the problem and it happened every time. No one could explain why it happened.
Kemper Hall is located on Third Avenue (formerly Durkee Avenue) in Kenosha.
© Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Special thanks to Karen Spaeth and Dave Schmickel for additional information.
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