The University of Wisconsin has a storied history with dark legends and exciting tales filled with ghosts of people of the past.

Looking back on the individuals who came before us is important to do, Laura Markowitz, a senior writer at the Wisconsin Foundation and UW Alumni Association, said.

“Everywhere you step, someone else has treaded that ground, going through something beautiful or horrifying. My goal is to remember it,” Markowitz said. “Because when we forget that we are capable of monstrosities ourselves, we begin to justify what we do and that’s how history repeats itself. That’s why ghost stories are important.”

The Union Theatre

There are two ghosts who linger in the halls of Union Theatre, Ralph Russo, former theatre director, said.

Unexplained sounds of  footsteps, doors locking themselves and lights turning on and off have been reported. 

The ghosts are supposedly the spirits of two men who tragically died there. 

One figure who has been seen hanging out in the area above Shannon Hall was a construction worker back in 1939. Legend has it, he was working on the original building and tragically fell. He died shortly after at the hospital. 

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UW Archives. The Union Theatre as seen from the Union Terrace shortly after the Theatre opened.

The other phantom presence is thought to be the ghost of Samuel Segal, a timpanist with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of the renowned director Antal Dorati in 1950. The percussionist suffered a heart attack and died onstage during the performance, Russo said. 

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Unaware of what had happened to their colleague, the rest of the orchestra continued playing until intermission. 

An account from a student, Vernon Owen Anderson, who witnessed the performance was published by the UW Alumni Association

“At the conclusion of the selection, the front curtains were slowly drawn shut. There was no applause; the audience sat in rapt expectancy. Very soon, a member of the orchestra appeared and announced that the timpanist had been stricken with a heart attack and had died instantly. It was further announced that the program would now be terminated, but the orchestra wished to play their deceased member’s favorite piece as a tribute,” Vernon said.

As they say, the show must go on. 

They finished the rest of the show with Beethoven’s appropriately solemn Seventh Symphony, according to the UW Alumni Association

Bascom Hill

Want another reason to dread the trek up Bascom?

Bascom Hill was used as a cemetery for white settlers in Madison from 1837 until about 1846, according to Daniel Einstein, Historic and Cultural Resources manager at the University of Wisconsin, as reported by the Badger Herald in 2014. 

UW Archives. Men and women walk on the paths in front of Bascom Hill, sometime between the construction of the north wing (1906) and the burning of the dome (1916).

The bodies of two men were discovered in 1918 when workmen were digging the foundation of the bronze Abraham Lincoln statue.

The first man whose remains were unearthed was William Nelson. Nelson was supposedly the first white man to die in Madison. He had fallen ill with typhoid and died in 1837. 

The second body was the remains of Samuel Warren. A gravemarker found with his body informs us that he was a workman on the original State Capitol Building and hailed from Middlesex, England. He was struck by lightning and killed in 1838. 

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The bodies were reburied underneath the south steps leading to the Lincoln statue, marked by two small brass plaques with the men’s initials on the side of old Abe.  

Samuel Warren’s headstone was taken into the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection, but then removed in 1966 and forgotten about.

In 2011, a Madison resident found the headstone in her backyard, but how it got there remains unanswered, Einstein told the Badger Herald. 

Science Hall 

The legends of Science Hall seem to live on through campus tour guides’ retellings of tall tales intended to spook potential students and make the old, brick edifice seem even more daunting. Science Hall is the second-oldest building on campus, and is cherished as an icon at UW. For decades, it has carried on an aura of awe, fascination and mystery that stems from a 132-year-long history.  

In the early 1900s, medical students in the anatomy department performed autopsies on cadavers in the upper floors of Science Hall. “Study specimens” were accidentally left behind in storage after moving buildings in 1957, according to an article by Markowitz all about the legends of Science Hall. 

In 1974, while cleaning and painting room 470, Jon Kimberling, found a hatch leading to the attic, and crawled inside to discover an embalmed human foot — plus five inches of ankle — skin and all, Markowitz reported.

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UW Archives. A 1960s photograph of the 4th floor of Science Hall, which housed the anatomy department.

Leg bones were discovered in a fourth-floor attic around the same time. According to “Science Hall: The First Century” by Clarence Olmstead, the bones were found by Shirley Paley, administrative secretary of the geography department at the time, while she was looking for storage space. 

Tales of a cadaver chute where remains were tossed for disposal have long been told, but Markowitz did a bit of digging and found that the slide that used to be in the south rear tower was really just a fire escape. Sadly, it was replaced with stairs years ago.  

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Two men — that we know of — have also tragically died at Science Hall, Markowitz said.  

In 1885, Henry Hoven, a construction worker, was mixing concrete in the basement, laying the foundation of the building, when a guide-wire on a derek crane snapped. Others saw it falling, and they tried to call out to him, but his attempts to run were useless as the crane hit him in the head. He died days later. The university paid his wife $1,850 in a wrongful death lawsuit — equivalent to about $46,000 today, Markowitz said. 

The newspaper had a very tactful headline: “Done by a derek.”

In 1900, UW German professor, William H. Rosenstangle, or “Rosie,” tragically died in Room 180 during a faculty meeting, possibly of a stroke, Markowitz said. 

Room 180 is still used for faculty meetings today, and is the room that most closely resembles what it originally looked like.

Science Hall was also the inspiration for the setting of former UW professor Samuel Rogers’ novel, “Don’t Look Behind You!” published in 1944. Clearly Science Hall has carried its spooky appeal for decades.

The novel was turned into an episode of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” in the 1960s. 

If you’re ever in the mood to visit a spooky place on campus, take a stroll backstage at Union Theatre, look for two brass plaques on the side of old Abe or travel to the fourth floor of Science Hall.