Ham House

Ham House Elegant house in Dubuque, Iowa, now a museum, reported to be haunted and to have paranormal and Poltergeist phenomena. The house has an interesting history, but the legends credited with some of the phenomena have not been verified by historical fact.


The original owner of the house, Mathias Ham, was a prosperous 19th-century businessman with lumbering, agriculture and shipping interests. In 1837, he married Zerelda Marklin, who bore him five children before she died in 1856. In 1857, Ham purchased a quantity of limestone at a bargain price; the stones had been rejected by a federal inspector for a government project because of inferior quality. With these stones, Ham constructed a luxurious 23-room Victorian gothic mansion on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.

In 1860, Ham married his second wife, Margaret McLean, who bore him two children. The Hams lived peacefully in the house, and hosted lavish parties that were the talk of Dubuque society. In his spare time, Ham liked to retire to a cupola above the third floor, where he could watch activities on the river. Once he spied pirates in action, and his report led to their capture and arrest. The pirates vowed revenge.

Margaret Ham died in the house in 1874; Ham died in 1889. Two daughters remained in the house, the other siblings having departed for their own households. In the 1890s, May Ham died in the house, leaving Sarah Ham alone.

Haunting Activity

According to legend, the haunting activity was caused by a murder committed by Sarah. One night Sarah thought she heard a prowler and feared the pirates had returned for their revenge. She told a neighbor that if she heard noises again, she would turn on a light in a window as a signal for help. Several nights later, she heard noises again. She lit a lamp in her window, locked her door, picked up a gun and waited. She heard footsteps ascend the stairs and approach her bedroom door. She fired two bullets through the door. The intruder staggered down the stairs and fled. Later, the body of a pirate, shot twice, was found dead near the riverbank.

Sarah died in 1911. The house was bought by the Dubuque Park District to be used as a home and office for the parks superintendent. He, his wife and seven children made no reports of being haunted.

The house was turned into a museum in 1964 by the Dubuque Historical Society. Since then, museum employees have reported strange phenomena. A window in the upstairs hall, securely locked every night, is often found open in the morning. A light fixture in the same hall works erratically and comes on by itself, despite the fact that nothing is wrong with it. Icy breezes, cold spots and noises have been reported in various parts of the house, especially near the stairway leading to Ham’s hideaway cupola. According to another unsubstantiated legend, a man hanged himself in the tower sometime before the turn of the century. (See SUICIDE.)

The front lights in Ham House are turned off by unscrewing a fuse. A former employee once unscrewed the fuse and heard organ music coming out of the box. The sound ceased when she rescrewed the fuse, then started again when she unscrewed it once more. Ham House does have a pump organ, but it is in disrepair.

In 1978, an employee spent the night in the house to investigate the phenomena, and claimed to hear women’s voices in the yard at around 3 A.M., as well as footsteps and shuffling noises in the house.

There are no reports of visual Apparitions. It is possible, as some staff suggest, that the phenomena are misinterpreted or produced by expectation and imagination. The murder legend is undermined by the fact that none of the doors in the house—all original—show any evidence of patched holes. Nonetheless, Ham House is believed by many to be the home of unknown presences.



  • Riccio, Dolores, and Joan Bingham. Haunted Houses USA. New York: Pocket Books, 1989.
  • Scott, Beth, and Michael Norman. Haunted Heartland. New York: Warner Books, 1985.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007