Most establishments rumored to be haunted are too scared to play up that aspect, out of fear that it might turn away business.
But Shaker’s Cigar Bar, located since 1986 along a busy entertainment strip on South Second Street in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, fully embraces its haunted legend. Workers manning the grill don shirts with silk-screened ghost images, an eerie nod to the building’s infamous status as they assemble small plates like Voodoo Shrimp and bake specialty pizzas (from Wild Salmon to Cajun-Shrimp-ORama) in a brick oven. Black-and-white images of “Elizabeth,” one of the haunted residents (she fell out of an apple tree in the block’s former orchard), hang outside the women’s bathroom. On select evenings a local woman hosts séances on the bar’s second floor, in a room with, appropriately so, blood-red walls and high ceilings. The bar’s building, which dates to 1894 and has the original woodwork and leaded-glass transom windows, along with period décor like Tiffany lamps to prove it, has attracted ghost hunters from around the globe. Through the years the building has served as a cooperage, a bottling plant, a speakeasy and a brothel, and before that, the site was a cemetery and an apple orchard.
In 2011 Shaker’s debuted hour-long tours of the historic three-story building (the bar is on the ground level) four nights a week for groups of 13 or less. The cost to confront the supernatural is $20; to soothe your nerves, Prohibition-era and absinthe cocktails are available for tour-takers at a discount. But the tour’s highlight is a walkthrough of the third-floor “penthouse,” a former brothel during the early 19th century that is available to rent for $350 per night. Most people can’t make it through the night, too frightened to fall asleep or perturbed by strange happenings that include a laptop slamming shut and finding shoes in the bathroom sink.
On a recent Friday night, tour guide Lindsay Monyelle requests we follow her to the back of the bar. She swings open the side door to Shaker’s. We’re standing in a dark alley and about to enter a back door that once greeted guests to the speakeasy who used a secret password (“I’m here to inspect the soda bottles,” in case you are wondering). Next, Monyelle cautions “this is not a haunted house. If something happens, it’s legit.”
Monyelle has her own scary tales to spin. Although she’s only worked at the bar since the spring, doubling as a bartender, “I have at least one experience once a week. I’ve noticed the activity tends to happen in clusters,” she explains, meaning when one ghost pops up, more will come within the next 24 hours. Her scariest experience yet? “After the tour, I was standing in the back by the bar. I felt somebody pulling – violently – on the bottom of my skirt. But there was nobody there. It really made me jump.”
Participants in the tours are encouraged to bring equipment, such as cameras or anything designed to detect electromagnetic activity, to enhance their ghost-hunting experience. “The more stuff people bring, the more likely it is you’ll have an experience,” says Monyelle. But even if you don’t, there is plenty to digest. “Shadow people” roam the basement, slipping behind shelves. Objects mysteriously move around, like a chair or one night, a heavy wooden table that was never found. In the wee hours of the morning, women are often heard singing or arguing on the top two floors. A worker digging inside an ice chest in the basement felt a strong push from behind. Electronic malfunctions with cell phones and cameras have been reported numerous times in a corner of the basement when photos are taken.
At least one known death has occurred in the building, that of 16-year-old prostitute Molly Brennan in the late 1920s. It’s believed that a client strangled her before chopping her up and burying her body parts. When Shaker’s owner Bob Weiss removed a haphazard addition off the back of the building in 2001, he uncovered a pile of bones. The medical examiner determined they were from animals and humans, the human bones dating back about 70 years. Because there were no open cold cases that matched the age of the bones, they weren’t tested, but Weiss believes they were Brennan’s remains. He gave her a proper burial on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.
Weiss has frequently detected the presence of ghostly spirits in his bar. Devil’s horns mysteriously appeared on a framed black-and-white photo of his greatgrandparents (Joseph and Clara Weiss). In another Victorian-era photo bought at an estate sale, its subject unknown, a demonic image appeared above the child’s head.
As much as Monyelle loves leading ghost tours, she admits she’s a skeptic sometimes. “What you’re seeing is not so much a ghost, but their existence in another universe,” she says.
This article appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Wisconsin Trails.
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