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The Hauntings of The Wilder Mansion (Elmhurst, IL)

Wilder Mansion or Seth Wadhams Whitebirch

History of Seth Wadham's "Whitebirch"

Before the property that became Wilder Park was acquired by the Park District in 1921, it was carefully tended and landscaped by some of Elmhurst’s most prominent families.

Wilder Park’s development into a garden spot began in 1868 when Seth Wadhams purchased a treeless farm called “Burnhams Lot” and built a home, calling it “White Birch.”  At that time Elmhurst was still known as “Cottage Hill”  Seth Wadhams (1812 – 1888) and his wife Elizabeth Reed McKinney (1816 – 1849) were originally from Connecticut.  Seth was born in Goshen, Litchfield, Connecticut on October 29, 1812 to David Wadhams and Pheobe Collins.  He was the 13th of 16 children.   He and Elizabeth (daughter of a physician) married in Connecticut on June 4, 1849 and had two children of their own; a daughter, Emma, in 1850 and a son, Dana, in 1852.  They also adopted a boy named Frederick Eugene Holland who was born on January 26, 1853 in New York and later became a Chicago physician.  They came to the Chicago area sometime after 1853.  Seth became a millionaire ice dealer founding the Wadhams, Willard & Co. in 1859 

Wadhams surrounded his new home with as many species of trees that were able to survive in this climate, He also hired a landscaper, gardener and herdsman to care for the property.  In fact it was Wadhams and a gentleman by the name of Jedediah Lathrop along with several others that are credited with planting a large number of elm trees along Cottage Hill Road which is what gave Elmhurst its name.  Jedediah was related to Thomas B. Bryan another Cottage Hill resident who would later be responsible for bringing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to Chicago and to suggest the name “Elmhurst”

In addition to the home, Wadhams built a greenhouse for his wife to help her to overcome her grief over the death of her young son Dana Wadhams.  This greenhouse, still in use today, is located to the rear of the Conservatory and is the forerunner of the extensive horticultural activities which are currently taking place in Wilder Park.

The rebelious daughter of Seth Wadhams

Seth’s daughter Emma was somewhat of a rebellious free spirit and initially followed her father’s directives and married the son of a prominent Chicagoan named Edward R. Loring on March 15, 1870.  She lived in Peoria for a number of years but later divorced Loring without her father’s knowledge in order to marry an architect named Walter R. Colton on June 10, 1875.  Her father was furious and told her that she was forbidden to marry Colton and if she did “would never blacken my door again!”  Emma walked out and didn’t return.

His wife, Elizabeth, died on July 8, 1882 shortly after Emma had left and Wadhams soon found himself alone and by all accounts a broken man.

Seth Wadhams seemed to have had a change of heart concerning never wanting to see his daughter Emma again and for years searched for his daughter even enlisting the help of private detectives but to no avail.  Seth Wadhams died in San Diego California on February 6, 1888 never to have known the whereabouts of his daughter Emma or even if she was dead or alive.

Wadhams left a large part of his estate to his adopted son Frederick as well as leaving large amounts of money to various charities of Chicago including $30,000 to the Old People’s Home of Chicago which was located at Indiana Ave and 39th St.  He left the money with the stipulation that the money be used to fund the building of a home for elderly American-born men.   He also stipulated that his homestead of “white birch” be offered for sale at the price of $20,000 to Mrs. Henry (Aurelia Case) King, daughter of Seth’s lifelong friend, John R. Case and wife to Henry W. King who was owner of one of the largest clothing firms in the country. 

In April of 1911, some 23 years after the death of Seth Wadhams, a 62 year old woman stood in the doorway of the Old People’s Home.  Her name was Emma Wadhams Green.   This was indeed the long lost daughter of Seth Wadhams.  It seems that Emma’s second husband, Walter R. Colton,  had died a few years back and she was now married to a poor man named Green who was staying with relatives in Michigan.  She had no way of supporting herself and was looking to the Home for assistance.  They told her that her father had left a good amount of money to the institution and that they could give her a couple of dollars per week to sustain her.   She accepted but soon after hired an attorney named John Colburn to look into the matter of her father’s estate.  Following a legal battle of roughly four years the courts sided with Emma Green.  It seemed that her father had donated the money to The Old People’s Home with the stipulation that it be used to build a home for elderly, American-born men and it had merely been invested for 22 years.  Her lawyer argued that since the money was not being used for its intended purpose the money should revert back to Mrs. Green.  In November of 1915 her appeals finally payed off and since Frederick Wadhams (her adopted brother) had passed away in 1913, the $30,000 plus interest (currently $86,000) was awarded to Mrs. Emma Wadhams Green, her father’s sole living heir.

Other owners of Wilder Mansion

Following the death of Seth Wadhams in 1888, Mrs. Henry (Aurelia Case) King, daughter of Seth's lifelong friend, John R. Case, purchased the home for the price stipulated in Wadham’s will as a summer home for the King family.   After the Kings moved into the White Birch Estate, King employed none other than landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to landscape the area surrounding the home.  Olmsted was the same landscape architect who designed the Village of Riverside, New York’s Central Park and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 to name a few.

Aurelia Case King continued the tradition of her predecessor, becoming interested in gardening and establishing a library on the subject. She created an herb garden, based upon the descriptions of Erasmus, a Dutch humanist; and a flower garden, modeled after the one at Mount Vernon, Virginia. In 1890, Aurelia and Henry's son, Francis, married Louisa Yeoman.

After the death of Henry King in 1898, the Francis Kings moved into the home of his mother. During this time, Louisa became interested in the gardens of her mother-in-law. However, it was not until Louisa moved into the McCormick home (1898) at Claremont and Prospect Avenues that she established her first garden. This began her lifelong avocation with gardening and horticulture. Her contributions include several books on these subjects. She dedicated her last book, "From A New Garden," to her mother-in-law. Louisa received many awards and honors, including a memorial planting of dogwood in the National Arboretum in Washington D.C. and a rose named in her honor.

After the death of Mrs. King in 1901, the estate was sold to Mrs. Henry Gorden Selfridge, and later was purchased in 1905 by Thomas E. Wilder. Wilder renamed the estate "Lancaster Lodge," after his original home in Lancaster, Massachusetts.

Before his death in 1919, Mr. Wilder offered the northern six acres of the estate to the City of Elmhurst, with the stipulation that a library be built within five years. Unable to fulfill its commitment, the City called a meeting of the Park District Board and the Library Board. An agreement was reached whereby the Park Board would purchase the southern six acres for $45,000.

Upon completion of the purchase, the City would cede the northern six acres to the Park District. The City would then purchase the Wilder home and one acre surrounding it for $14,000 and cede that to the Library Board for the establishment of a library. Upon completion of these transactions, the Wilder estate became Wilder Park, containing the original greenhouse on the southern six acres.

In 1923, the Elmhurst Park District Board added a conservatory to the original Wadhams greenhouse. The conservatory was erected by the American Greenhouse Manufacturing Company for a cost of $6,950. In 1926, a second greenhouse was built by the Foley Greenhouse Manufacturing Company for a cost of $2,350. In subsequent years, the Park District added a storage area and a third growing house.
Today the conservatory, the greenhouses and the Wilder Park gardens continue to provide beauty and serve the varied interests of Elmhurst residents.

In 1922, the Elmhurst Library moved into the first floor of the building, having purchased this and an acre of land from the Park District. In 1936, an 8-month remodeling project was finished, which completely changed the exterior of the building, added pillars and a south wing, and removed partitions on the second floor. A second addition was completed in 1965.

The Hauntings

Sometime after the remodeling and additions had taken place there were reports of a resident “mischievous spirit”.  Employees of the library reported that books and other artifacts were being moved from one location to another without the help of a living assistant.  It never seemed to be a malevolent entity just more of a nuisance than anything.   Some believed that it was the spirit of Seth Wadhams who had never planned on his homestead becoming a library or being renovated without his approval.  Others believe that the spirit could easily have been the tormented spirit of Elizabeth Wadhams who had lost her son, Dana, at the tender age of 6 and who died before ever knowing the whereabouts or condition of her only daughter, Emma, who was told never to return by an angry father.  I, along with Kirsten Tillman and Beth Shields of have talked to current and former librarians as well as former patrons who verified that there was indeed a presence of some sort in the house and that the presence seems to stronger near the north end of the second floor of the mansion. 

One patron of the building shared a story with us about her grandmother who was a frequent visitor to the library.  Her grandmother had told her that she was researching information of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II and a young lady in what she described as "an antique dress" came up to her and asked her was she was reading.  As she looked down to give the woman the name of the book and looked back, the woman had disappeared. 

Another patron had told us the story of when she was a young girl and had visited the mansion when it was still a library.  She told us that she had walked in the front door and there was a staircase to the left that led to the second floor.  As she came close to the stairway she heard the voice of a woman calling her name from the second floor.  She was curious and started up the stairway when she saw what she described as "a fog" coming down the staircase.  Just then a librarian called to her from the first floor saying that she wasn't allowed on the second floor and she started back down the stairs.  She never went near the staircase again after that.

Interestingly enough, before we had spoken with witnesses to some of the manifestations, Kirsten and Beth had told me that after an investigation of the site they had narrowed down the north side second floor of the building as being the most active area of the building.  They had even captured a number of recordings of EVP or "electronic voice phenomena" from the area.

Currently the Park District does not entertain the idea of ghost or hauntings but individuals have confided in us that while the building is no longer a library there are still strange things going on in the building.

Remnant of Chicago Fire of 1871 and The Hauntings of the Chicago City Courthouse

Seth Wadhams was also a bit of a souvenir collector.  On October 8, 1871, the fledgling City of Chicago was engulfed in flames.  When it was over, 17,500 buildings were destroyed.  One of those buildings was the Chicago/Cook County Courthouse whose bell tolled the alarm that alerted the city to the fire.  Seth Wadhams had sent a wagon into the city and retrieved two of the cement urn-like capstones from the top of the newly built wings of the courthouse.  He had them brought back to his property and one still remains near the southwest corner of the Wilder property. 

Now the city Courthouse that existed before the fire was reported to be haunted by the ghost of a prisoner who was executed by hanging.  According to a Chicago Tribune article dated December 21, 1871, the ghost was said to make “dismal noises” at midnight scaring the prisoners and prison turnkeys alike.  It was said that this “ghost” was returning to torment those who had assisted him to the gallows.  It has been theorized that “ghosts” or remnant energies of those that have passed on to the next life can somehow be absorbed by the buildings that they had once occupied.  Could some of that energy remain in the only known existing piece of the pre-fire courthouse?

In 1994, an intergovernmental committee was created to discuss other uses of the Wilder Mansion should the Elmhurst Library build a new facility. It was agreed that the Park District should have use of the Mansion once the library moved out of the building. After extensive discussions and community feedback, the Elmhurst Park Board decided the next step in the future of the Wilder Mansion would be to remove the 1960s addition and remodel the original 1860s portion of the Mansion. This would not only preserve the Mansion without compromising the historic architectural features, but also takes into consideration the feedback and sentiments of the community.

In June 2000 the Park District Board, Library Board and City Council signed a land exchange agreement giving the library land in the north end of Wilder Park on which to construct a new building. In April 2001 Elmhurst residents approved an $18.7 million bond issue to build a new 80,000 square foot library. The new building opened October 4, 2003. 

Currently the Wilder Mansion is owned by the Park District and is available for rent for special occasions or meetings.

Research Sources:

Collections of the Elmhurst Historical Museum
Chicago Tribune Historical Archives
Personal Interviews with witnesses