Wilhelmina Benninghofen has some ideas about the decor in the formal parlor.
But since she’s been dead since 1890, it’s hard for her to get anything done.
She had her chance to speak up last weekend, however, when the Tri-State Ohio Paranormal Society did an investigation of the Benninghofen House, now a part of the Butler County Historical Society Museum.
While the investigation turned up more than a dozen spirits in the old house, Wilhelmina was the chattiest, said Historical Society Executive Director Kathy Creighton.
Fortunately, they’re all friendly spirits.
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Hamilton resident Lynne Bell, who likes to use the phrase “spirit beacon” to describe her skills, was one of three mediums and several technicians and videographers to spend two evenings at the Benninghofen house, taking readings of electromagnetic activity and room temperature as well as trying to communicate with the many spirits living there, some more willing than others to share their stories, some of them taken aback by the buzzing and flashing electronic equipment the investigators brought with them.
“There’s a lot to be learned from the past,” Bell said. “They’re aware of how things have changed.”
Bell could sense Wilhelmina’s presence as soon as she walked into the room with her entourage of technicians, museum volunteer Marlene Carmack, and Hamilton resident Chris Carroll, a descendant of the Benninghofen family.
“She welcomes us,” Bell said, noting that Wilhelmina was in a sofa in the formal parlor. “But we look strange to her. It’s not every day that people interact with spirits.”
Bell told Carroll that Wilhelmina wanted her to sit on the sofa next to her.
“She’s admiring you,” Bell told her. “She’s very proud of you as a person.”
Using a pair of divining rods to aid in communication, Bell learns that Wilhelmina is very concerned about the people who come to the house museum for tours.
“Some of them are rude and disrespectful,” Bell said.
As the divining rods begin pointing to various objects around the room, and with the help of some probing questions from Carmack, Bell discovers that Wilhelmina wants some things moved around.
She doesn’t like the vase of flowers on an end table by the sofa, but she would appreciate some fresh flowers on the table in the middle of the room as long as no one disturbs the centerpiece that’s already there. When she was the living lady of the house, Wilhelmina purchased a bust of the Virgin Mary that now stands in the corner behind the door. Wilhelmina wants it in a more prominent place.
“She wants it protected, but she wants it to be seen more,” she said.
And she most definitely wants the painting of Cleopatra out of the room and back at the top of the stairs where it came from. Wilhelmina apparently finds the bare shoulders just a little too racy.
When the divining rods start scanning the room, Bell interprets as “She’s looking around the room to see what else you can do for her.”
Carroll, who looked a little uncomfortable under her ancestor’s scrutiny, later said she just wasn’t sure about it all.
“Part of you wants to think there are answers out there,” she said. “I would definitely do it again.”
Bell also had a conversation with a Dr. Kelly, a dentist from around the same time period whose tools are set up in a display in the museum’s basement.
“He says he likes helping people even though it seems like he was cruel in some ways,” she said, noting that she sensed something mischievous about him, that she couldn’t trust everything he said.
Brigadier General Ferdinand Van Derveer, a Civil War leader whose bust stands in the house’s library, told Bell to ask Carmack and Carroll to tell people about him, about the good things he’d done.
When Bell asks him if there are other spirits in the house, the divining rods spin like a pair of ceiling fans.
“There are no secrets in death,” she said he told her.
Bell said that she has had a gift for as long as she can remember.
“It used to terrify me,” she said. “I would see spirits. I would hear them call my name.
“But it doesn’t scare me anymore.”
The change came when Bell got involved with the TriOPS, first by simply tagging along when they would do ghost tours of Ryan’s Tavern in Hamilton until they asked her to start leading the tours.
“I started looking for proof, to ask why no one else can see and hear these things,” she said.
According to TriOPS spokesperson Brad Vanoff, when the group does investigations of places, they take more than one medium. Three different mediums worked on the Benninghofen house.
“We compare notes about what they see and sense,” he said, “and then we try to match that up with the electronic evidence.
“We don’t say that a place is haunted or that there are ghosts,” he said. “But we will say that there is paranormal activity if their observations match up with the readings from our equipment.”
Bell said that there are many kinds of spirits. Some of them, like Wilhelmina, will linger around a place they loved. In a follow-up visit to the house, Bell said that Wilhelmina kept an eye on visitors moving through other rooms, but never left the formal parlor.
She also appears to be in her late 20s or early 30s, Bell said, about the age she was when she married John Benninghofen and moved into the house, even though she died at age 58.
Other spirits can attach themselves to objects, like Dr. Kelly’s tools, and can probably move around freely if they chose.
“I’ve heard of cases where people would buy an antique and would suddenly start having paranormal activity in their house,” Bell said.
One of the strongest feelings she got in the house, she said, came from the battle flag that belonged to General Van Derveer, a native of Middletown who later became a judge in Hamilton. It belonged to the 35th Ohio Infantry and had been in the battle of Chickamauga.
“I could hear the explosions and see images of a battle,” she said.
There’s also a third kind of spirit, one that had never lived as a human, but are “elemental spirits.” Bell said she encountered one such spirit in the library of the Benninghofen house and believes it was the spirit of the wood from which a piece of furniture had been made, that sticks around to provide the piece with protection.
Creighton, who described herself as “a skeptical believer,” said that of all the spirits that have turned up in the investigation, she was most surprised that the spirit of James McBride was in the house, apparently attached to his writing desk on the second floor. McBride was a pioneer statesman, Hamilton’s first mayor and Butler County’s fifth Sheriff.
She said, however, that the results of the paranormal investigation (she’ll get a formal report from TriOPS in a couple of months) won’t influence the way that she conducts tours of the Benninghofen House.
“People ask me all the time if the place is haunted or if there are ghosts here,” Creighton said. “I try to deflect it and ask them what they believe. I don’t want anyone to be afraid of the house.”
Bell said that it makes sense that the Benninghofen House would be so alive with spirits, not just because of the age of the house but because of all the artifacts that have been brought into it.
She also said that a person could go a little batty trying to find definite answers to this kind of activity.
“The more questions you ask, the more questions start coming to you,” Bell said. “I’ve gotten many headaches trying to figure it all out.”