It’s not really surprising that ghosts and unsettled spirits are woven into the history of Fort Leavenworth – after all, it is the oldest active United States Army post west of the Mississippi River.. Established in 1827 by Colonel Henry Leavenworth from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, Fort Leavenworth was to be a forward base protecting the Santa Fe Trail. Located in the bluffs along the west bank of Missouri River, the post often finds itself encapsulated by fog – the perfect spooky atmosphere for a haunting or two.
Fort Leavenworth is well-aware of it’s reputation. In fact, the Friends of the Frontier Army Museum organize an annual Haunted Fort Leavenworth Tour, an event where the public is invited to walk around post at night to visit haunted locations and listen to volunteers relay stories about the ghosts and spirits. According to a Military Times article, the museum has multiple binders full of stories of hauntings around post. And a handful of years ago, Army.mil picked up a Leavenworth Lamp article detailing one family’s experience living in the oldest home in Kansas, the Rookery on Fort Leavenworth.
We live in Infantry Barracks – a collection of multi-family homes built in 1903. While we haven’t personally seen any aberrations, ghosts, or spirits, we’ve heard strange sounds and rogue footsteps that we’ve chalked up to just living in an old home. But upon researching more about the haunted nature of Fort Leavenworth, I’m definitely going to more cognizant of the unexplained during the rest of our year here.
The following areas and buildings around post are thought to be haunted – this post is not considered to be a complete picture of Fort Leavenworth’s haunted history but rather a snapshot of some of the ghost stories associated with the oldest active Army post west of the Mississippi River.
An overwhelming amount of families who have been stationed at Fort Leavenworth have seen ghosts of soldiers dressed in Civil War-era uniforms on the parade grounds on the darkest of nights. The soldiers are both on foot and on horseback and seem to fade into the mist as quickly as they arrive. The parade grounds have been in constant use since 1827 and have served no other use than to be parade grounds. In fact, the current parade grounds are exactly the same as they were shown on the plan for Containment Leavenworth in 1828. Adding to the probability of a spirit or two is the fact that the oldest homes on post surround the Fort Leavenworth parade grounds.
Historic American Buildings Survey Douglas McCleery, Photographer June 1958
One such home overlooking the parade grounds is The Rookery. Built in 1827, not only is it the oldest home on post, it is also the oldest building in Kansas. The Rookery has been home to some famous names in American history – Lewis Clark is thought to have stayed there during a 1836 visit to Fort Leavenworth and some records indicate that Douglas MacArthur lived in the house while he was a young lieutenant. Since the turn of the century, residents have reported seeing a gray-haired lady in a long white dress who is believed to be the wife of a cavalry soldier who was away on a campaign. Some stories tell of how she was tortured and eventually killed during an Indian attack, which is why her soul is cemented in Fort Leavenworth.
When we first arrived on post and signed for our Infantry Barracks housing, we were told that residents of The Rookery must sign a waiver before moving in indicating that they understand they can’t break their lease due to strange noises, unexplained occurrences, or ghost sightings. I’m sure it is just hearsay for added effect but with so many previous families reporting such happenings, it’s hard not to believe that something is going on in the oldest building in Kansas.
Lady in Black
The Lady in Black is one of Fort Leavenworth’s more kind ghosts – over the years, residents of the Sumner Place, which also borders the parade grounds, have reported domestic chores being completed by an unknown presence. One family stated that their son informed them that a nice old lady in black would read him stories in the rocking chair before bed. Another family was so disturbed by her presence that they had an exorcism performed on the house. And many have reported seeing her black figure in the attic window. Interestingly, the lady in black doesn’t seem to take kindly to babysitters or grandmothers – giving them a firm push out of the children(s)’ bedrooms…perhaps she considers them competition?
United States Disciplinary Barracks
Fort Leavenworth has a lot of prisons. Some even swear there are secret prisons on the property. But perhaps the most recognizable is the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) that were in use from 1877 – 2002. The wall and remaining buildings of the original USDB loom over the historic area of post. When the new USDB (further away from main post) became operational in 2002, the largest buildings of the original USDB (‘The Castle’) were torn down due to their deteriorating state while buildings that were deemed salvageable were converted for other uses.
One ghost story about the old USDB involves military police occasionally hearing screaming from the elevator shaft in an administration building. Apparently, there was an uprising of prisoners during WWII and a prisoner was hung every hour until all involved had died. The gallows did not have enough space for said prisoners so the elevator shaft in the administration building was used. Screaming has been heard ever since.
Another well-known story has to do with Tower 8 – one of the remaining guardhouses that still stands today. Many years ago, well before the old USDB closed, Tower 8 was permanently unmanned after a guard committed suicide there while on duty. Despite Tower 8 being closed and unmanned, soldiers reported receiving calls from the abandoned tower and seeing shadowed figures keeping watch from inside.
In 1875, flames overpowered the St. Ignatius Chapel with a young priest, Father Fred, inside. The church burned down and took the life of Father Fred. There is some disagreement over the site of the original chapel – some believe it is where Otis Hall currently stands while others are adamant that a private residence was built on the sacred ground. Rumor has it that materials salvaged from the fire were used to build that residence, including scorched bricks – many of which bear numerous names, including Father Fred.
Many who have lived in that house over the years have claimed to feel the presence of Father Fred. He can be seen and heard walking up the stairs and apparently in 1973, his image appeared in a Polaroid photo taken at a dinner party. Unfortunately, a digital image of said Polaroid does not seem to exist. Why Father Fred has continued to make his presence known to Fort Leavenworth families over the years is unknown. He is showed himself to be friendly and not in the habit of purposely scaring the inhabitants of the residences built on or near the original site of St. Ignatius Chapel. It’s said that on the quietest of nights when the people living in the house aren’t home, you can hear Father Fred using their sewing machine to repair his robe. Years ago, one family reported finding thread all over the floor on occasion and at first, rationalized the sewing machine running by itself due to old wiring in the house. But over time, they attributed the sewing machine use to Father Fred.
One famous story about Father Fred involves a maintenance man who was working in the attic alone on a hot summer day when he suddenly felt someone place a cold rag on his neck. Assuming it to be a fellow maintenance worker, he quickly turned around and soon realized that he was still alone. The maintenance man packed up his tools and never returned unless he was accompanied by another person. Another popular story has to do with six inmates from the USDB who were working in the attic of the then-empty house many years ago. Almost immediately after beginning work, all six men ran out of the house back to the USDB – banging on the door and asking to be admitted back within the confines of the stone walls. The six inmates never shared what they saw but all refused to return to the house.
A more recent Father Fred experience is him saving a teenage girl who lived in the house from choking on a pineapple in the kitchen while her family was outside blissfully unaware of her affliction. The teenage girl reports feeling two hands preforming the Heimlich maneuver – she assumed that a family member had finally heard her choking. But when she turned around, no one was there.
Sadly, the second St. Ignatius Chapel that was built in 1889 burned down in 2001. As of 2015, a third St. Ignatius Chapel has not been built.
Like many Americans during the late 18th century, the Sutler Family – Hiram, Catherine, Ethan, and Mary – left their home in Indiana to venture west. The family set up camp at Fort Leavenworth in early winter, intending to just stay a couple of days before continuing on to the Oregon Trail. Catherine sent the children to collect firewood for the family. That night, Ethan and Mary never returned. According to some accounts, Hiram eventually returned to Indiana but Catherine refused to leave Fort Leavenworth in hopes of finding her beloved children. All that winter, Catherine was seen walking throughout the snow-covered bluffs calling for Ethan and Mary. She soon developed pneumonia and succumbed to the illness. The story goes that after Catherine died, Hiram received a message that his children were alive – rescued from the Missouri River by a group of Fox Indians. The children were taken care of by the group throughout the harsh winter and by the spring thaw, they were able to make the journey with the children back to Fort Leavenworth. Since then, various residents have reported seeing Catherine roaming around post with a lantern and other have insisted they’ve heard the calls of “Ethan” and “Mary” on the coldest of nights.
Office of the Staff Judge Advocate Building
And finally – the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate. Located at 615 McClellan Avenue, the building is on the site of the first hospital on Fort Leavenworth. Soldiers who have worked in the building after hours over the years, report hearing strange noises and feeling the presence of someone behind them, only to discover that they’re alone in the building.
Perhaps Fort Leavenworth is haunted because the Commanding General’s house was built on the site of the former Burial Ground for Enlisted Men – that can’t be a good thing, right?
In all seriousness, Fort Leavenworth is a beautiful post that is rich in history that captures the spirit of the pioneer days. Should you find yourself stationed at Fort Leavenworth or just in the area for a visit, be sure to take a walk around historic post at night. You never know what or who you might see. If you’re aware of other hauntings in Fort Leavenworth or the surrounding area or have details to add to the stories discussed, please do not hesitant to comment!
- Fort Leavenworth: The most haunted base in the Army? Soldiers Magazine
- Ghosts of Fort Leavenworth Prairie Ghosts
- History & Hauntings of Fort Leavenworth Legends of America
- The People Behind the Names Quentin W. Schillare
- National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Fort Leavenworth
- Rookery Reopens After Renovations – The Leavenworth Times
- The United States Disciplinary Barracks Collection
- Ghost Stories Shared on the Walking Tour – Ft. Leavenworth Lamp