Lake Geneva’s Most Haunted

The history of Lake Geneva is wrapped up in Chicago’s wealthiest families having their summer homes here. But even as early as 1912, when people were writing about the city, they said the second most significant thing about this town was the sanitariums. That’s right, Lake Geneva wasn’t just a getaway for the jetset, well, propellerset might be a more appropriate term considering the time period, but this was also known as a place for healing, where the ill could come to get better.

Photo courtesy of Sonja Akright, Lake Geneva Sanitariums Facebook Page

And when you think about a sanitarium, you think about some kind of dingy state-run facility with tiny prison cell-like rooms. Hellholes where poor souls are left to rot by uncaring staff. But the Lake Geneva sanitariums were more like country clubs. Instead of thinking of these places like some nightmarish bedlam though, try this on. Think of a rehab facility that Ben Affleck or Steven Tyler from Aerosmith would go to. Scenic lake views, green sprawling grounds, that’s what these places were like. There were just as much of a high class hotel as a hospital. On this property was the Oakwood Springs Retreat and Sanitarium, one of the most famous of the Lake Geneva sanitariums.

Opened in May of 1885, Oakwood was the dream of Oscar Augustus King, a groundbreaking physician who was a mixture of psychiatrist and neurologist. King even studied at the University of Vienna in Austria at almost the exact same time as the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Dr. King was a pioneer in the field and he lead the Wisconsin legislature to pass the first bills regulating mental health treatment so that he could build his sanitarium here. These bills turned Wisconsin into the mental health capital of America, and no other state had as many sanitariums in the late Nineteenth Century as our Badger State. That could also be because Wisconsinites are crazier than most.

Lake Geneva Regional Newspaper

His sanitarium showcased the most advanced psychological treatment in the world at the time. People paid up to $1500 a month to stay at Havenwood, and that’s Nineteenth Century dollars, so they were getting the best treatment possible, which were certainly becoming more humane than in the past, but still a little medieval. In fact, one of the proudly advertised treatments was “hydrotherapy”. Now, hydrotherapy doesn’t sound that bad, in fact, it sounds like it might just involve hanging out in a hot tub until you feel better. But it wasn’t quite as relaxing. Some patients could be wrapped up in towels like a mummy and then soaked in ice-cold water, others could be submerged for days, only let out to use the bathroom. It was cutting edge and better than the lobotomies or electroshock therapy of the 1940s and 50s, but it still wasn’t very much fun.

However, they also treated some mental illness with marijuana here, so it couldn’t have been that bad. And speaking of celebrities, it is a popular rumor that the famous actress Greta Garbo came here for treatment, but that would have been unusual. King died in 1921 and Garbo didn’t leave Sweden for Hollywood until 1924. Oakwood was on the way out by that point, eventually closing during the Great Depression.

The grave of Dr. Augustus King

As an abandoned building and grounds, by the 1950s people were convinced that the site of Oakwood Springs was haunted. It became a place where local kids would sneak in, run around, and scare themselves. After all, it was literally an abandoned and creepy old “crazy house”. The most popular story was that you could often hear screaming coming from the building, even when there was no one in it.

If you’ve ever played the game Dungeons & Dragons, one of the creators, Gary Gygax, used to run around the Oakwood as a boy and was inspired by its spooky abandoned halls when he was later creating the dungeon crawls of his famous game.

Gary Gygax in 2007. Photo courtesy of Alan De Smet

Now, there is a particular hypothesis about hauntings called “the stone tape theory”. It’s the idea that  ghosts and hauntings are like tape recordings, and that electrical mental impressions released during emotional or traumatic events can somehow be stored in rocks or walls and then will replay under certain conditions. That’s how old records work, you scrape a needle over a vinyl groove and you can hear the Beatles, could the same thing be happening under natural circumstances? People who are mentally ill are often under severe trauma, even if it’s in their own heads, it’s real pain to them. It doesn’t mean the energy is dark or evil, a lot of times, but could that energy have been saved in its surroundings, to be played back every so often when the conditions are perfectly right?

Well, probably not at the Oakwood. The sanitarium was eventually razed in 1959. Havenwood Apartments was built over the property, but that hasn’t stopped reports of weird sounds, footsteps, and yes, screams coming from the property. If these hauntings were just grooves in the walls, the walls aren’t there anymore.The patients at Doctor King’s sanitarium can sometimes still be heard in the halls of Havenwood over a hundred years later. Hopefully after death, they’ve been able to find some of the peace that they were denied in life. But with restless supernatural screams, it sounds like they still have a ways to go.

To learn more about the sanitariums of Lake Geneva, make sure to follow Sonja Akright’s Lake Geneva Sanitariums Facebook Page.

For haunted history tours in Lake Geneva, please check out American Ghost Walks – Lake Geneva.