The mighty Mississippi River has been of major importance to the settlement of the Midwest by transporting food, goods, livestock and materials from Louisiana in the south to Minnesota in the north; thereby, playing a major role in the expansion of the American frontier. Fortunes where made using these major rivers, but many criminals also found ways to exploit these early settlements, which lacked proper protection of civil authorities and institutions. River pirates terrorized the two major rivers in the Midwest; the Mississippi and the Ohio. During the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century river pirates, often robbed, captured or murdered river travelers to gain access to cargo, slaves and or livestock, to be later sold down river. Many river pirates where known to enter homes along rivers to steal food, weapons and valuables.
Mansions built along these rivers often incorporated a belvedere as a look out for marauding pirates. Home owners in smaller communities often needed to be armed to keep their family and valuables safe since these early establishments lacked proper law enforcement.
One legend from this dangerous time is of Ham House, a large stone mansion that sits on top of a bluff overlooking the turbulent waters of the Mississippi River in Northern Iowa. The mansion became the setting for love, loss, death, revenge, murder and where phantoms of the past refuse to remain as history. Built by one of the earliest settlers of the area, Mathias Ham used his fortune from lead mining, lumber, agriculture and his shipping fleet to build his house in 1856 for his wife Margaret and their six children. Ham became one of the most socially prominent families in Dubuque at the time. The house was designed by architect John F. Rague who also designed other well-known buildings in the Midwest from the original state capitol buildings in Springfield, Illinois to the old state capital building in Iowa City, Iowa.
Ham adored his three-story home and decorated it in the most opulent way; from plaster rosettes and moldings, to ornate walnut staircases. He furnished his home with Victorian furniture. Ham would often watch boat traffic move along the Mississippi river from the belvedere perched at the top of the house. However, one seemly normal day of river watching would change the course of his family and leave their souls to haunt the beloved home forever.
Ham spotted river pirates harassing his cargo ships. He quickly contacted the authorities and the pirates were arrested. The pirates knew Ham was reasonable for their capture and vowed to take revenge on him and his family.
That event seemed to be a turning point for the family. During the next few years, Mathias Ham began to lose his fortune in several bad real estate deals and from the financial crash of 1857. Mathias and Margaret died within a few years of each another. By the 1890’s, most of the family died off; leaving his last surviving daughter, Sarah, to inherit the house and what was left of the remaining fortune.
Living alone in the empty mansion, Sarah began to have problems with prowlers late at night. Speaking to her neighbors about this, they suggested she put a light in her window to signal to them if she needed help. A few nights later, Sarah was reading in her bedroom on the third floor when she heard an intruder inside the house. Sarah locked her bedroom door, put the lit lantern in the window, and grabbed a gun. As Sarah waited in silence, straining to notice the slightest sound, she faintly began to hear footsteps slowly creeping up the staircase and moving slowly along the creaking floor. Footsteps shuffled in front of her bedroom door. Sarah nervously called out to ask who was there, silence. She raised her gun and shot twice at the door. Hearing the gunshots, the neighbors peered out toward Sarah’s house to see the lantern glowing in the window. They rushed over to the house and up the stairs to find her bedroom full of smoke, the scent of gunpowder hung heavy in the air and Sarah still holding the gun and upset from the event tried to explain what had happened. As they began to investigate what had happened, Sarah and her neighbors saw among the splinters of wood that lay scattered on the floor in front of the damaged bedroom door, a trail of blood was leading down the stairs, out the front door, towards to the banks of the Mississippi. At the end of the blood trail and laying in the thick mud of the river's edge was the lifeless body of a river pirate, who had recently been released from prison and returned to seek his revenge on Ham.
As the years went on, Sarah found it more difficult to maintain her home financially and was forced to sell the mansion in 1912 to the city of Dubuque. Sarah died in 1921. The Dubuque County Historical Society converted the mansion into a museum in 1964.
Over the years, the mansion has developed a reputation for being haunted. Victors as well as employees at the museum have seen several phantoms throughout the house and have experienced several unsettling events that have been difficult to explain. The ghost of the vengeful pirate is said to haunt the main staircase and third floor where he is still trying to seek his revenge. From the belvedere, Mathias Ham can still be seen watching the boats move along river. Hushed sounds of footsteps, whispered voices, crying and faint screams have been heard throughout the house. Locked doors and windows have been found wide open for no reason. Doors will open and close by themselves. Lights flicker on and off and the nonfunctioning organ has been heard playing on its own at night prompting workers to leave the house as soon as possible when tour hours are over. Unusual cold spots have been felt. Objects have been known to vanish and later reappear in a different location. Ghost lights have been seen to drift throughout the house and have even been spotted floating outside at night. Many museum workers and visitors have had uncomfortable feelings of being watched.
As for the reason why the spirits of the dead choose to remain at certain places and not others are not fully known. Many investigators in the field of the paranormal often think when someone has a deep love for a place or has experienced a traumatic event that has led to their death, a spirit may remain earthbound; not realizing they have died or has unfinished business. Those spirits can’t pass over till they come to terms of its previous actions or their mortality. I find it ironic that the only true way to know how the spirit realm works is when we pass through the thin vail of death and into the spirit world, by then it’s often too late.