A haunting in Ann Arbor

Tuesday, February 5, 2019 - 10:23pm

Ruchita Iyer / Daily

Ruchita Iyer / Daily Buy this photo
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Walking around campus or the larger sloping grid of Ann Arbor, it’s easy to get the sense of an ever-present history. Plaques adorn buildings and pop up on street corners, boasting black and white photographs of old marches and speeches; campus tours recount legends and lore long sealed into the school’s character.

This history takes a presumably darker turn if you stroll through Forest Hill Cemetery, where the mossy gravestones dotting the hills date centuries back. Who were these children and parents and grandparents, now sealed away in mausoleums or beneath grassy statues? It seems as if something unusual and distant has brought them there, rather than, in reality, the natural processes of time that all of us can reasonably expect.

Dwelling on it long enough can give you an eerie and often unwelcome feeling of the uncanny. It’s the same sensation that takes over if you’re talking with your friends late at night, or when youre reading in your favorite coffee shop on State Street and find yourself relating a little too much to a ghost story. Or if you find yourself alone in an old building late at night, studying or working, and trying to convince yourself you’re just hearing things.

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“For me, I like the lore of it,” said Megan Muma, manager at Arbor Brewing Company on Washington Street. “I like thinking about history. I like the idea that history can affect our sensory experience of the present. And kind of peeling back the layers of what it is that you observe in your day to day life, and thinking about how that might be related to someone else that lived a long time ago.”

Muma has been working at the Ann Arbor Brewpub since 2013, and says she started hearing stories about ghosts her first day on the job. The haunting of the building began with mist in the game room and the basement, which soon progressed to staff members seeing a man wearing what they described as a mailman’s uniform, walking around the game room, the dart area and the brewing side of the basement.

“At some point, they figured out that this was the location of a murder,” Muma said.

She was referring to the murder of Clifford Stang, an off-duty police officer who was shot dead on the property — at that time the Conlin and Wetherbee Clothing Store — in 1935, after witnessing a robbery in progress. One of the two robbers, William “Shorty” Padgett, was arrested a year later. The other was never found.

Stang is perhaps the most famous ghost of the Brewpub, but according to Muma, he’s not the only one. Caretaker James Gertz, also known as Mr. Largebeat, started working here “right when it opened,” and claims to have seen a Victorian woman walking through the kitchen and the other side of the restaurant.

“He’s an old-timey rocker from way back in the day,” Muma said of Gertz. “He’s really into the paranormal and extraterrestrials and UFOs and all that kind of stuff. But he’s definitely spent the most time here as an employee, and then also spent most of the creepy hours here. Because he’s here in the morning, when it’s quiet and empty.”

An impression of the Victorian woman’s visage can be witnessed even during the non-creepy hours in one of the wooden booths at the Brewpub, where another staff member stenciled her silhouette.

“I think there are three types of ghost-presence here,” Muma said. “It’s the guy that was murdered, the lady and then there’s some kind of poltergeist activity.  You know how poltergeists are attracted to negative energy?”

She went on to describe a student riot that took place on the grounds in 1908, when the building housed the Star Theater (prior to the Conlin and Wetherbee Clothing Store). After learning that the theater manager had approached a star University of Michigan football player with a financial offer to “throw” a game, students hurled bricks from a nearby construction site at the establishment until it was destroyed. Sixty-two arrests were made in attempts from police, firefighters and University officials to end the riot, which lasted all night.

“Actually I just learned about it last year, when the Ann Arbor library posted a bunch of historical information around town,” Muma said. “It was the site of the largest student riot in U of M history.”

This is why — short of the appearance of the uniformed officer or the Victorian woman — some of the strange goings-on at the Brewpub are tough to pin to a single entity.

“This is a very large building, and we have a lot of loud equipment, but even at night, it quiets down to a point. Sometimes you just hear really weird stuff that doesn’t really sound like a condenser, or a dishwasher, or any of the brewing equipment, ’cause you know it’s been shut off for hours. So a lot of staff hear sounds, or sometimes you hear music or talking, when you know everyone has left,” Muma said.

One particularly harrowing experience occurred in 2017, when the old general manager arrived to open in the morning and found pots and pans all over the kitchen.

“He was understandably upset — like, who did the worst close ever and just threw stuff all around the kitchen?” Muma said. “So he started looking through the cameras, and what he saw was not someone doing their job improperly, but just a lot of weird stuff flying around at four A.M., after everyone had left. And kind of flashes on the camera.”

The security footage isn’t kept for longer than five or six months, but Muma, who has seen this particular footage herself, described it for me: “We have two cameras, one that’s facing inside the kitchen and one that’s facing kind of toward the door ... On the door side, there were a bunch of flashes and weird lights. And on the kitchen side, there was just stuff flying off the shelf. Like, not just getting knocked, but flying. It was really weird and eerie to see.”

The poltergeist idea is Muma’s personal theory, based on strange happenings just like the pots and pans story. But the idea of negative energy is a compelling one, to the point that she has done a little research of her own.

“I tried to do a little bit of digging into what this space was before it was downtown Ann Arbor, and I probably could have invested a lot more time on it, but there wasn’t a lot of information about whose land it was,” Muma said. “You know, like what colonizers came in and did what to it. But I think that might be another interesting area of exploration, as to why spirits feel trapped here, and what horrible things happened on these grounds before they were a business.”

With stories like the pots and pans and the sightings of ghostly figures, it’s no wonder Muma and other staff members feel “creepy” or “watched” when they’re walking around the brewpub or one of its three basements at night, after everyone else has left.

“I’ve definitely been afraid here after close, if I’m the only one in the building and I’m locking up, and I have to do a walk-around, you know, making sure everything is in its place, all the doors are locked. And it just feels like there is somebody here,” Muma said. “And they’re not going to leave.”

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So what is it that makes certain places — a brewery, a theater, a whole city — feel more haunted than others? If you ask Lilly Inverse, founding member of the Ann Arbor Paranormal Research Society, it has to do with the lives and events that preceded the ghosts: The history that fascinates residents like Muma, before it was history.

“In my experience, haunted places have one thing in common: A strong energy during the life of those who seem to linger,” Inverse said in an email interview with The Daily, citing the Michigan Firehouse Museum in Ypsilanti, which has burned down in the past, as one example. “Big events like fires, battles, murders, etc., seem to give those who were involved the ability to return to the location after they pass.”

Inverse founded the Ann Arbor Paranormal Research Society, which is always accepting new volunteers, in an effort to offer residents of Ann Arbor and beyond objective, fact-based assessments of potentially paranormal situations.

“We just wanted to avoid some of the big pitfalls that some investigators fall into, as well as offer the community the best and most genuine service that we can,” Inverse said.

In the Society’s investigations — requests for which come in at least once a week — this looks like a very specific process. The process involves conducting an initial interview to answer clients’ questions and learn more about potential “hot spots” and patterns of events, setting up a main “base camp” area on the haunted property, and then setting up a digital video recorder system (DVR), computer monitor and video cameras.

“Once everything is set up, one team member will sit at the DVR base camp and watch the live video feed,” Inverse said. “If something pops up in the video that seems interesting, they will mark down the timestamp and camera number for later review. Everyone else will go from room to room taking pictures, using other specialized equipment such as EMF detectors and MEL meters, and doing EVP sessions.”

This process is followed by an in-depth evidence review by the team, resulting in a formal report for the client. All of this is free of charge.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the depth and variety of the Society’s approach to investigation, there are some methods that they do not use. These include seances, spirit boxes, phone apps, Ouija boards and psychics. The reason is generally a lack of reliability: If something can be afforded a non-paranormal explanation, such as wishful hearing or planchette-pushing, it’s too easily disqualified as admissible.

“We want to be 100 percent sure that we are offering the best and most credible evidence to our clients that we can,” Inverse said. “We’re definitely not saying that some of the methods we don’t use can’t be used. But this field is the target of so much skepticism as it is, so if there is a natural explanation for a test that we use, we can never be sure that the result we record is actual evidence of something paranormal.”

Inverse has several fond experiences and memories associated with the paranormal, and notes that “everyone who enjoys this hobby has at least one experience that they love recounting.” For Inverse, standouts range from her first experience with the paranormal — a visit to a cemetery on Christmas Eve, where she captured a ghostly whisper (an Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP) on a camcorder — to her later visits to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, and the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky.

“These places were not happy places,” Inverse wrote of Waverly and Mansfield. “Overcrowding, over-extended stays in solitary confinement and countless other horrors awaited inmates at (Mansfield). It’s no wonder some of them can’t find peace even in death.”

Washtenaw County specifically seems like a magnet for such unresolved histories, at least if you ask around. Muma pointed me toward the Michigan Theater as another spooky place where strange noises are said to have been heard late at night, and Inverse adds the Firehouse Museum and Bone Heads BBQ to the list.

“I think most cities have their secrets, but Ann Arbor hides hers better than most,” Inverse said. “If you talk to many of the people who work in the older buildings downtown, many have stories to tell about the strange things that make them not want to be the last one in the building at the end of the night.”

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This past fall, Ann Arbor’s litany of public places, spanning from the Arbor Brewing Company to the University Bank on Washtenaw, found a tour guide: Sivan Jones.

Around the end of September, Jones decided it could be a good idea to set up a haunted tour of Ann Arbor. She did the research, going through local history books to investigating crimes and murders reported by the Ann Arbor Police Department, then figured out a route and set up an Airbnb page. The tours, which went through the end of November (“the Halloween season,” Jones called it), were an hour and a half long, at $22 per person. They were packed.

“You have the people who are really into the local history, but then you also have the people who really love being scared,” Jones said.

Her research unearthed a wide-ranging scale of creepiness. Some of the stories are what Jones deems “hearsay” accounts, ones she’s gleaned from personal conversations and word-of-mouth, like the little girl who is said to hang out in a studying cubicle on the lower floor of the Bentley Historical Library, or the woman who haunts the stacks of Hatcher Library.

“Several students have seen her late at night,” Jones said. “And multiple people have told me that. Again, it’s something that you can’t really research. I researched the history of the library, and nothing bad has ever happened there.”

The stories gleaned from Jones’s research range from places like these, personal stories that are tough to physically confirm, to well-documented and verified instances of unsavory history. One example is Randall Laboratory, the University’s original medical campus.

“They used to steal bodies,” Jones said. “It used to be illegal to use corpses for science, so they would have to dig up graves ... So they hired these shady guys, and they would dig up the graves and then bring it over to the medical college and sneak it into the building. This was for a couple years, until it became legal.”

This isn’t necessarily proof of paranormal activity, but it does seem to fall into place alongside the theories from Muma and Inverse about what leads to a haunted reputation: A twisted history.

So — aside from the education of local history, or the excitement of wanting to be scared — why do these twisted stories so often intrigue people?

Jones’s answer: “It starts with a character,” she said. “People love imagining themselves as the person ... I have some stories from the seventies, and people are much more scared by those than stories from the 1800s, because then they can imagine themselves as that person. It’s like it’s close to home. And then the person goes through something scary or something mysterious, and then it’s never quite resolved. So it gives you this thrill, and you don’t know if it’s going to happen to you.”

Often, she continued, her guests on tours will take this habit of imagining one’s own way into a ghost story even farther. It is common for tour-goers to share their own personal stories and anecdotes, whether from Ann Arbor or from other places they’ve lived.

Ruchita Iyer / Daily

Ruchita Iyer / Daily Buy this photo
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“I really like leading the tour to help people connect with each other and share their stories, too. So it’s kind of like this interactive thing,” Jones said.

This communal exchange of supernatural encounters hasn’t only enhanced the tours; it’s also affected Jones personally. Her interest in giving tours was sparked by her love for Halloween and going to haunted houses with friends, but she didn’t actually use to believe in ghosts. Now she’s afraid of them.

“I started out kind of being skeptical, ’cause I work in a science-based field,” Jones said. “I thought it was a lot of people with overactive imaginations. But then as I went through the tour, I kept meeting people, and they just seemed like very logical, smart people. Like they genuinely had something happen to them that could not be explained in any other way. And honestly, I truly do believe in — I believe in the paranormal now, I do. Because these people, they weren’t pulling my leg or anything. They genuinely saw something or felt something or heard something, and I believe them.”

She even went so far as setting parameters: You’re welcome to tell your own ghost stories on the tours after they start back up again in April, just as long as you don’t make them too scary.

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I was surprised, conducting all of these interviews, to learn the extent to which pockets all around Ann Arbor are considered haunted by their residents. Maybe this is true of every city. But even after living here four years, I didn’t know beyond a general feeling that dark and strange histories are continually existing here — many of them revisiting us night after night, repeating themselves over and over — around every corner.

They make themselves known to expert paranormal researchers, armed with well-tested equipment and years’ worth of knowledge and experience. They present themselves also to unsuspecting students or employees working late in the evening, alone and just trying to finish up a long night, but finding themselves followed by an unnameable other-worldliness that just doesn’t seem to go away. These are stories that are best told in groups, shared and bonded and laughed over, yet that also seem to prey on some of our most innate and instinctual senses of the danger that is tied to being alone.

Yet perhaps these stories, and the different ways they have found into our lives — whether we have witnessed them firsthand ourselves or still remain skeptical — reveal something surer about the sense that we fail to make of death. In a subjective sense, it seems irrational that a story or an experience that is unsettling by nature could produce some kind of joy or bring people together. But maybe the whole point is that there are things about living (and maybe about living in this city in particular) that we aren’t meant to understand, and never will. Sometimes all we can do is wade through the histories that inevitably surround us, sentient or not, invisible but thick, and listen honestly to the stories that we’re telling each other.