I sent in my manuscript for my book American Madness which will be out August next year. I also have a little book out about a year from now called Wisconsin Legends & Lore, which is a collection of some classic Wisconsin folklore, ghost stories, and urban legends. One of the stories I read about while researching is the tragic story of the Rouse Simmons, also known as the Christmas Tree Ship, a nice Wisconsin Christmas ghost story for you this Friday the 13th.
Every holiday season, Chicagoans eagerly awaited the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship, which would load up with evergreens in Michigan, then sail down to Chicago, where it would tie up to a dock. Families would head over, pick out a tree, and drag it back to their homes on a sled. The arrival of the Rouse Simmons meant the arrival of the holidays.
Captain Herman Schuenemann aka “Captain Santa” ran the business. He sold trees for fifty cents or a dollar, but he was known for generously donating trees to orphanages, hospitals, and poor families. His was not the only Christmas Tree Ship, but it would become the most famous. In November of 1912, Captain Schuenemann and his crew loaded 5,500 trees (imagine how piney that must have smelled!) into the Rouse Simmons, packing it as much as they could. There were supposedly bad omens, according to crew who declined to make the journey– rats seen abandoning ship, a crew totally an unlucky 13, and the ship leaving port on a Friday.
On November 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was sailing past Two Rivers, Wisconsin on route toward Chicago. A terrible storm hit Lake Michigan. The Rouse Simmons, already an old ship and overladen with thousands of trees, was thrashed in the wind, ice forming on the sails and ripping them. The Christmas Tree Ship (and a few other boats on the lake that night) and all hands were lost. Christmas trees from the boat washed ashore for years afterward.
Rather than be deterred by the lake that had claimed Captain Schuenemann’s life, his wife and daughters took over the business. The new Captain Schuenemann was his brave daughter, Elsie, who led the delivery of trees that same winter season of 1912. The family kept the business going until railroads and highways made the Christmas Trees ships obsolete in the 1920s and 30s..
The wreck of the Rouse Simmons was discovered by a scuba diver in 1971. They found that there were still needleless, skeleton-like trees in the cargo hold.
Legend says that you can see the ghost ship of the Rouse Simmons on Lake Michigan on stormy winter nights or on the anniversary of the night it sunk, struggling in the choppy waters to get south to Chicago.
A nice ending to this story is that a non-profit group called Chicago’s Christmas Ship, with the help of the Coast Guard, now continues the Christmas Tree Ship legacy. Using the sturdy Mackinaw, they’ve sailed to Navy Pier the last 20 years with a cargo of Christmas trees, where they work with community organizations to get trees to people who can’t afford them to make their holiday a little brighter.
You can find out more and donate here: http://christmasship.org/
More ghost stories! I host the Milwaukee Ghost Walk- Ghosts of Christmas Past tour tonight, tomorrow, and next weekend!: https://americanghostwalks.com/wisconsin/milwaukee-ghosts-of-christmas-past/
My latest book, Apocalypse Any Day Now makes a nice existential stocking stuffer: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow
I’m looking forward to seeing The Holzer Files, which premiers tonight on Travel Channel. The show stars Alexandra Holzer, daughter of pioneering ghost researcher Hans Holzer. Alexandra and her team reopen her father’s case files in new investigations. I had a chance to interview Alexandra at the Chicago Ghost Con in 2014 and wrote an article on her for the March 2015 issue of Fortean Times. This article appeared in print only, so I’m glad to share it here online for the first time.
One thing that really pops out at me re-reading this now is that when I spoke to Alexandra, she was concerned her father’s legacy was being forgotten. I’m sure her new show will help prevent that. Congrats Alexandra and team!
THE GHOST HUNTER’S DAUGHTER (originally appeared in Fortean Times, March 2015)
By Tea Krulos
“How many of you know about Hans Holzer?” Alexandra Holzer asks. She’s crowded in an elevator with about fifteen people at the Chicago Ghost Conference, being held at Carl Schurz High School. The elevator is heading up to the fifth floor for a short investigation of the school’s music room, where there are claims of spirits lurking in the corner and tinkering around on the piano.
Her question is greeted with an awkward silence.
“Oh boy,” she says, disappointed, and looks at the elevator wall. Later I ask her if she thinks this was just a shy silence.
“Maybe.” She answers. “His recognition is mixed and that’s not good enough for me. It’s got to be higher.”
This lack of familiarity is disheartening because if there ever was a Mount Rushmore of “ghost hunters,” Alexandra’s father—Dr. Hans Holzer—would definitely have his hawk-like features chiseled among them.
Hans Holzer was born in 1920 in Vienna, Austria. He studied archaeology and history at the University of Vienna, but with World War II on the horizon, his family determined they would move to New York City in 1938. Thanks in part to an uncle who told him ghost stories, Holzer had an interest in the supernatural since he was a young boy, and went on to study all things related to the paranormal. He authored more than 140 books on ghosts, UFOs, the afterlife, ESP, witchcraft, and other related topics. He also taught parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology.
“During the 70s and 80s, he was the ‘ghost man.’” Alexandra explains. She says her father’s collection of artifacts related to his studies and circle of friends involved in the paranormal field made the Holzer house “like growing up in a living museum.” Her mother was also unique. An artist and descendant of Catherine the Great, Countess Catherine Buxhoeveden married Holzer shortly before his first book, Ghost Hunter, was published in 1964. Countess Buxhoeveden joined him in his travels and used her artistic talent to do illustrations for his early books. They divorced when Alexandra was 13-years-old.
Alexandra became aware that her father’s interests might be termed “unusual” at a young age and it took a while before she grew to appreciate it.
“I was about eight years old when I figured out he wasn’t normal,” Alexandra smiles, “because when I started going to school my mother would wrap up my father’s books as gifts. Books on witches, warlocks, UFOs, Amityville Horror. The teachers would open up the gifts in the classroom and all the kid’s eyes grew, the teacher’s mouths dropped, and I sank down really low in my chair like I wanted to hide. I said ‘Oh my God, that’s him? No!’”
Rebel Without a Ghost
As she grew into a young woman, Alexandra went through a rebellious phase and tried to escape her father’s eerie legacy.
“I ran to art school to get away from my father because I thought he was weird. I wanted to get away from the paranormal and be with creative people. I really didn’t care, I was too young. When you’re at a certain age, you don’t get what your parent does, even if it’s as weird as that. He’d say ‘oh look I’m on TV!’ And I’d say, ‘yeah, that’s nice.’ I just didn’t get it.”
Alexandra might not have been getting it yet, but others were. Hans Holzer became renowned as the foremost authority on things related to ghosts. His expertise was used on shows like the classic In Search Of… and subsequent television shows and documentaries dedicated to the paranormal. Another contribution to pop culture Dr. Holzer helped inspire was the beloved horror-comedy Ghostbusters. Dan Aykroyd, who wrote and starred in the movie, has said he was a Hans Holzer fan and used reports of his investigations as the seed for the film idea.
“I became obsessed with Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever,” Aykroyd said. “That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born.”
Dr. Holzer’s most famous case that he worked on was the alleged haunting of the Lutz family on Long Island, New York, commonly known as the Amityville Horror.
The Lutz family moved into 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville thirteen months after the home was the scene of a gruesome murder of the former tenants, the DeFeo family. On November 13, 1974, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo, Jr., the oldest child, systemically worked his way through the house in the middle of the night, shooting his mother and father and four siblings in their beds. After the Lutz family moved in, they claimed that they were terrorized by entities in December 1975- January 1976, and abandoned the house just 28 days after moving in. The incident spawned a bestselling book (The Amityville Horror: A True Story by Jay Anson, 1977) followed by a long string of additional books on the case, Hollywood movies (11 to date, with a 12th slated for 2015), and documentaries.
Dr. Holzer traveled to the house in January 1977. He was joined in his investigation by medium Ethel Johnson Meyers. In addition to interviewing and research, Dr. Holzer often brought a medium with him on a case.
“A scientific investigation must have a well-trained transmedium for communication. It is the only way,” Dr. Holzer stated in an interview.
In the Amityville house, Meyers claimed that she had identified the house’s angry spirit: Shinnecock Indian Chief Rolling Thunder, which helped Holzer put together a theory that the house had been built on Indian sacred grounds, the cause of the malicious haunting.
The Amityville Historical Society has refuted claims that the house is built on Indian burial grounds. Other researchers who have investigated the Amityville case say that it is an opportunistic hoax contrived by the Lutz family and their lawyer, embellished and exaggerated to help make money off of selling a good ghost story.
Dr. Holzer wrote both non-fiction (Murder in Amityville,1979) and fiction (The Amityville Curse, 1981, and The Secret of Amityville, 1985) about the case.
Other popular non-fiction volumes Dr. Holzer has written on the topic of ghosts include Ghosts I’ve Met (1965) Hans Holzer’s Haunted Houses: A Pictorial Register of the World’s Most Interesting Ghost Houses (1971) and Great American Ghost Stories (1990).
“Probably my late 20s I started to mature a bit and when I started to see the people he’d have over, I’d think, ‘these are really interesting people, they’re very spiritual, some are a bit wacky, but there’s something to what he does.’ But I didn’t have a pinnacle moment of understanding who he was until my 30s, where I was like ‘ok, I get it.’ Then I had my own awakening and epiphany and it just kind of vibed at that point, so I’d say it took almost two decades to get to that point.”
Alexandra says that epiphany came when her aunt passed on.
“At her service, I felt her come over and hug me. My whole body went warm and I’m sitting there crying hysterically because I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it. I felt she was hugging me because she knew out of everybody except my mother I was destroyed (by her death). I knew it was her, I don’t know how to explain it, I just knew. That flipped me.”
Alexandra says the experience helped inspire her to follow both investigating and writing. She wrote a sci-fi/ fantasy novel, Lady Ambrosia: Secret Past Revealed (2007), and a memoir of her family, Growing Up Haunted: A Ghostly Memoir (2008).
Dr. Hans Holzer died on April 26, 2009. After his death, Alexandra stepped up actively investigating, using the family formula for ghost hunting, which she calls the “Holzer Method.” Alexandra runs her group Hunt With Holzer with fellow investigator David Lawson. “We create events with people and give that personal contact and have groups investigate using my father’s method. We learn about other people’s methods and keep it unified, help and learn and move on and document.”
Back at the Carl Schurz High School investigation, her group has moved from the 5th-floor music room to a smaller music room filled with rows of keyboards on the 4th floor. An electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) session is happening. Investigators are asking questions in the dark room, hoping to elicit a response. After a minute of silence, Alexandra addresses the group, telling them that she is still in communication with her father.
“My father comes through when we’re doing things,” she informs. “So if anyone wants to ask if Hans Holzer is here, it’s actually pretty normal. I mean it’s a little paradoxical, but feel free to ask him a question.”
Alexandra is seated near the teacher’s desk at the head of the classroom. On the desk in front of her is the REM-pod, a device that measures fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. Triggered lights and sounds on the device is said to be an indicator of a potential ghostly presence.
“Hans Holzer if you’re here, can you put that green light on?” A participant asks from the darkness.
Silence. The REM-pod light does not turn green.
“You should ask him, he’ll listen to you.” Another participant directs to Alexandra.
“He did not listen to me in life!” She laughs. “You think in the afterlife he’s going to listen to me? Really?” The group breaks into laughter in the darkness.
“Daddy you want to play with some lights?” Alexandra asks. The REM-pod remains idle.
“Do you feel he follows you around?” Another participant asks Alexandra.
“He does. He’s a pain.” A second of silence. “Did someone just hum?”
“I heard it!” A participant says. “I heard hmmm from over here.”
The group listens to an audio recorder and hear a ghostly sound they determine is an EVP they’ve captured of a girl saying “daddy.”
“It’s basically combining science with metaphysics,” Alexandra explains, describing the Holzer Method. “My father had his predecessors and everybody was very scientific, and then he had the mediums and intuitiveness. Although he was a skeptic, he believed if you combined the two, you’d have better results, so that’s when the method was born, it was his brainchild to say we’re going to do it this way and we’re going to do it that way and we’re going to get more data so that we can understand what happens when we die and not everything is science and not everything is spiritual, there’s a combination of the two.”
In addition to Hunt with Holzer, Alexandra visualizes a documentary or feature film based on her father’s life. She says it’s a longtime goal of hers, one she spoke to her father about, that she’d like to see visualized. She feels Holzer’s place in history has been forgotten and overshadowed and hopes such a project will help her father’s legacy live on.
Alexandra Holzer’s website is alexandraholzer.com
#ClownWatch2019: September 23, 2019, approximately 9:30 PM: My friends at the Singular Fortean Society reported on a clown encounter on a rural Arkansas road. A vehicle of teens on their way to Pottsville Lake found the clown digging at the side of the road with a shovel, yelled at it and backed away as the clown stormed toward them. Actual clown about town or staged video? Read more and see the clip here: https://www.singularfortean.com/news/2019/9/30/creepy-clown-caught-on-camera-by-arkansas-teens
Links and Shout Outs
-If you want to read more about the lives of ghost hunters and other paranormal investigators, check out my book Monster Hunters: https://www.chicagoreviewpress.com/monster-hunters-products-9781613749814.php
-Great conversation on the Ghostly Talk podcast out of Michigan with hosts Scott L and author Amberrose Hammond. It was a nice way to start October and we talked about all of my published work so far. You can listen to the episode here: https://ghostlytalk.com/episode-91-tea-krulos
–Kelly Anderson Dance Theatre is performing “The END is HERE and that’s ok” in Milwaukee at Danceworks this Saturday and Sunday. It’s being described as “brilliantly funny and meaningful.” They’ll be giving away copies of my book Apocalypse Any Day Now at each performance! Here’s more info: http://www.kellyandersondancetheatre.com/tour-the-end-is-here-and-thats-ok.html
.-Thanks to Old Baraboo Inn for having me as part of the World’s Largest Ghost Hunt last week. I gave a presentation titled “Chasing the Ghost of Al Capone.” Always a fun time there!
Tea shares his weird week with you every Friday.
When I was a kid, my family knew I was into “weird stuff,” so my parents and grandparents sometimes saved newspaper articles they thought I might be interested in.
The ones I remember vividly were the Tallmann House poltergeist of Horicon, Wisconsin, that grabbed headlines in 1988 (and appeared on Unsolved Mysteries) and the Beast of Bray Road, which howled and broke loose in 1991. They were probably the first newspaper reports I read, and I thought about them a lot, drawing pictures of what the apparitions in Horicon might look like, and imagining werewolves lurking in the Wisconsin cornfields my family drove by.
Not shared with me, by the way, were reports on Jeffrey Dahmer and his arrest the same year, 1991. I would learn about that by eavesdropping on my grandma and mom talking about the case in hushed tones as they drank coffee at the kitchen table, while I hid around the corner.
Many years later, I was thrilled to meet Linda S. Godfrey, who was the reporter to break the story of the Beast of Bray Road and has since become a prolific author. Me and my friend, photographer Lacy Landre, drove out to meet her for lunch in Elkhorn and then me and Lacy cruised down Bray Road to see the stomping ground of the Beast. I wrote about Linda and the Beast in my book Monster Hunters: On the Trail with Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, Ufologists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (2015, Chicago Review Press) in a chapter titled “The Accidental Werewolf Chronicler.”
An excerpt of that chapter was also part of a werewolf themed issue of Fortean Times magazine (July 2015).
Linda has gone on to write many books and I’m glad she’s also been a part of the Milwaukee Paranormal Conference every year, and was presented with the first “Wisconsin Researcher of the Year” award at our year one event.
The Beast, meanwhile, has become a permanent part of Wisconsin lore, still very much talked about. For proof go no further than Seth Breedlove’s excellent The Bray Road Beast documentary, part of his highly recommended Small Town Monsters doc series.
I was happy to be asked to lead a discussion and Q and A with Linda for her new book I Know What I Saw: Modern Day Encounters with Monsters of New Urban Legend and Ancient Lore (Penguin/Random House), a great new collection of weird monster sightings. It’s happening Wednesday, July 17, 7pm at Boswell Book Company.
Here’s a short article I wrote on the book for the Shepherd Express: https://shepherdexpress.com/arts-and-entertainment/books/linda-s-godfrey-looks-for-monsters-in-i-know-what-i-saw
And a link to the Boswell appearance event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/454343315368924/
It’s sure to be an interesting discussion!
I’m glad to say I’ll get a chance to revisit the Beast myself (along with the Tallmann House poltergeist and much more) in my book Wisconsin Legends & Lore, out early in 2020 (I have two books out next year!) from The History Press.
The Week in Links
I’m the tour guide for the Milwaukee Ghost Walks Third Ward Tour (almost) every Saturday evening. Friday tours will be added starting next month. You can get tickets here: https://americanghostwalks.com/wisconsin/milwaukee-ghost-walks/
I’m still working on developing Cream City Tours. We’re doing a Riverwest Pinball Wizards tour Sunday, July 28 at 5pm, Facebook event here: https://www.facebook.com/events/727504021015028/
Get a copy of my new book Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers: www.chicagoreviewpress.com/ApocalypseAnyDayNow