Ghosts of the Third Ward’s Italian Community Center
By Tea Krulos, Paranormal Author and Milwaukee Ghost Walks Guide
A great fire destroyed most of Milwaukee’s Third Ward in 1892. Before the fire, the area had mostly been Irish, but after the fire, it was the Italians who rebuilt the neighborhood. The Italian legacy of the Third Ward still has a home at the Italian Community Center (ICC), which hosts events, meetings, weddings, and is a hang out spot for those celebrating Italian culture. The ICC began building their current location in the 1980s and opened their 60,000 square foot location in 1990.
As Italians settled into the third ward, they brought with them their customs and folklore. They might have told tales of Thyrus, an italian dragon, or the frightening stegge or striga, a monster described as part woman, part rat, part dog, part bat. Italians have a celebration similar to Saint Nick’s Day, but in their version La Befana, a witch, makes the visit on Epiphany Eve (January 5). Befana rides her broomstick around Italy, delivering gifts of fruit and candy to sleeping children, placing the treats in their shoes.
One Italian belief (also found in many other cultures under different names) was that you could be cursed with malocchio or “the evil eye.” You could be cursed with this by someone with powers of witchcraft. Italians wore talismans to protect them from this curse and if they believed they were afflicted with malocchio they would see a specialist who would recite certain prayers to break the spell.
There have been many ghost reports at the Italian Community Center. A manager at Cafe La Scala says he heard the sound of a baby crying coming from the ceiling one night and employees have experienced ghostly voices, and doors banging loudly by themselves. Another employee saw a man in a dark suit and a top hat on a security monitor who strolled out of the bocce ball courts…and disappeared into a wall. The bocce courts are apparently also where “the ghost children” like to hang out, another person from the ICC told us. Sometimes when the staff comes in, they’ll find that the cleaned up courts have balls scattered around. It seems as if some ghostly children have played the game to keep themselves entertained during the witching hour.
This might be a bit puzzling at first, since the building was constructed in 1990, not exactly the image of a decrepit old haunted house. But if you peel a layer back, you’ll find that the entire area used to be the Milwaukee Coach Yards, and the ICC sits where the Chicago and Northwestern railway lines crisscrossed. You can still find remnants of these railway tracks in the ICC parking lot and on a nearby sidewalk. People sometimes died on these racks, by suicide or accident. We found a particularly sad report from 1881 about a 10-year-old girl who died just north of the ICC on Buffalo Street as she was trying to pick up pieces of coal that had fallen off a train. Perhaps spirits found at the ICC might be lingering on from this time period.