While randomly digging through old newspaper articles I came across a story about a local haunted house. What caught my eye was that it made major news in Ogden. So much drama was stirred up that lawsuits were threatened. It also was the first time I heard the term pest house. The best part of the article was that it was close to paranormal investigations like we know them today. And it all took place 126 years ago in 1891!
Today, Burch Creek is a thriving family-friendly neighborhood in South Ogden, but in the late 1800’s it was sparsely populated. According to one newspaper article, Burch Creek was a “wild, gloomy, and dangerous” neighborhood that was shunned by all the farmers who lived nearby.
The Burch Creek pest house was located 2.5 miles south of what was the Reed Hotel (corner of 25th & Washington), now the Bigelow Hotel. It was located east of Washington Blvd where the Ogden Gold & Country Club is now. The pest house was used during the late 1800’s early 1900’s to quarantine people suffering from smallpox, and other highly contagious diseases. The area surrounding the pest house was also used as the city dump for dead livestock and leftovers from butcher shops. Imagine the smell, I’m sure it was lovely!
The pest house was described as a brick house, with 6 rooms, each with its own window. A hallway ran down the middle of the house with an entrance and exit on each end. If the weather was nice they would also have tents set up outside specifically for people suffering from smallpox.
Reports of Paranormal Activity
There were reports from the time that pigs and cows grazing nearby would become “crazed” and run off the edge of the steep foothills breaking their necks, or run wildly past the pest house “snorting and roaring”. A local farmer told the reporter that while walking past the pest house one evening he heard a man walking closely behind him whistling a tune. When he turned to see who it was, there was no one there. Stories like this quickly made its way into town, and that part of Burch Creek was avoided even more.
What brought the pest house to the newspapers’ attention was the reports of the Isherwood family. The pest house was no longer in use, and the city allowed the Isherwood’s to live there rent-free and care for the property. Thomas Isherwood told the reporter of the strange noises they would hear at night.
Knocking that would always come in groups of three, and always from a room that was unoccupied. As soon as he would open the door to investigate, the knocks would come from a different room. The family also said they would hear what sounded like someone walking down the hallway in the middle of the house dragging a body behind them. Thomas, his daughter Lucy, and a family friend also report seeing the apparition of a young man with dark hair and a mustache.
The family stated that the feeling of oppression was so strong in the house that none of them will stay there overnight if Thomas Isherwood is not there.
Investigating The Pest House
Shortly after the original article was published in the Ogden Standard on May 28th, 1891, the reporter decided that he would assemble a team of skeptics and a medium and they would investigate the pest house ghost.
What happened next would eventually cause an uproar throughout Ogden. At 7 pm on Thursday, May 29th, 1891, the unnamed reporter arrived at the pest house along with an unnamed medium, former Ogden City Street Commissioner J.E. Cooledge, and Baliff Gill from Judge Miner’s court. The commissioner and bailiff were brought along as disinterested, skeptical parties.
When they arrived at the pest house they said that the closest neighbor was approximately a half-mile away, and the place is in the “bottom of Birch Hollow, a narrow and tortuous gulch with precipitous sides covered partially in scrub oak.” The pest house sat on 46 acres of land, all of which were owned by the city.
Shortly after arriving, the Isherwood family left for the night. The reporter asked a young man who worked for Thomas Isherwood if he’s ever heard anything strange at the pest house. The man’s reply was “Oh yes, I hear them almost every night. They come into my room, but I don’t mind them now.”
Another man who worked for the Isherwood’s stayed behind to show the guests around the property. He gave them a tour of the pest house and the stables, and this is where I think this story gets really interesting! This man took the group to a “swampy area west of the pest house where a dozen graves lie.” There is no cemetery there now, and I could find no record of any graves being moved, so I’m guessing they’re still there somewhere. Just like with the Poor Farm Cemetery. The man explained that these graves were for the poor souls who died while at the pest house.
A Seance Is Performed
The group decided to perform a seance in one of the rooms which was now being used as a sitting room. After approximately an hour with no results, they decided to take a break. About 30 minutes later they formed a circle again and this time the medium seemed to be affected. The reporter asked the medium what was the matter and in a voice unlike his own, the medium started asking if there was a Swede present.
He then began to take notes of everything that the medium said. The reporter asked the medium who it was and he replied with Jan Jensen. According to the medium, this man died in the pest house from throat trouble. He was buried on the pest house grounds and according to the medium, he was buried while still at least partially alive.
At approximately 1 a.m. the reporter suggested that J.E. Cooledge walks down the hallway of the house alone to see if he comes upon anything strange. He did this and reported nothing unusual. The medium then asked the reporter to walk with him and when they went into the room where the Swedish man supposedly died, the medium suddenly sunk into a trance-like state and began speaking excitedly in Swedish. The reporter made a point to say that the medium was not Swedish and spoke only English.
Around 2 a.m., the group was ready to leave for the night when they began hearing rapping noises coming from this particular room. They ran to the room and found it to be empty. However, the bed which they say was made when they were in the room earlier was now unmade with the bedding in a pile on the floor.
After The Investigation
The reporter started looking for the pest house records, trying to find a list of those who died and were possible buried there. He went to the City Clerk and was told that they have no records for the pest house. The reporter eventually tracked down an elderly man who was a patient at the pest house. He asked him if he remembered any foreigners staying there.
The man said that he did. In fact, he said there was a man from Finland who was very ill and stayed at the pest house for a couple of weeks. The reporter asked what room the man stayed in. Turns out it was the same room that the strange occurrences had happened the night of the investigation.
Eventually, the reporter found that the old pest house caretaker had the pest house records. Asking to see them, the caretaker refused and said not without a court order. The reporter pointed out that these records belong to the city and should be kept by the city. He asked for a list of those who died while at the pest house and was again refused.
Apparently, the caretaker was afraid that the city would be in legal trouble for having burials at the pest house. He said that the city would have to exhume the bodies and re-inter them in the city cemetery. That would have cost the city quite a bit of money.
The Final Word
On June 2nd, 1891 the reporter published a final article about the haunting at the pest house. He was hopeful that the records would eventually come to light. He wanted people to know just who died at the pest house. And more importantly, if any of them were buried there. The talk around town was that the Isherwood family made up all of the ghostly tales. Mrs. Isherwood however, stuck to the original story that the pest house was haunted.
As to if there are graves somewhere in the area of the old pest house, it’s hard to say. Records, like those with the Weber County Poor Farm, are few and far between. Articles, like the one below, however, lead me to believe that there were burials near the old pest house.
The Burch Creek pest house seems to have just vanished. When the Dee Hospital opened, the pest houses slowly fell out of favor. I couldn’t find an exact date of when it was demolished. The Ogden Country Club was established in the area in 1914 so it seems likely shortly before then. Interestingly enough, I’ve heard people still talk of that area as being generally haunted. Is there some truth to the stories? Or are rumors and tales from over a century ago still making their rounds through the city?