Ghosts of the Wonder Bar
By Tobias Wayland; with images by Emily Wayland
Madison’s Wonder Bar Steak House exists within a squat, imposing brick fortress that once stood in defense of the Prohibition-era mobsters who commissioned its creation. Built in 1929, the building has two matching turrets standing watchfully above its entrance on either side, through which a gangster could angle the barrel of his Thompson submachine gun in case of an unexpected raid. The bar was run by Eddie Touhy, brother to Chicago’s infamous Roger “The Terrible” Touhy—famous for distributing alcohol illegally, and his rivalry with fellow Chicago mafioso Al Capone. A tunnel once led from the Wonder Bar to nearby Lake Monona to aid in the Touhy brothers’ bootlegging activities, although it’s since been filled in.
Emily and I meet our friend Lisa, host of Madison’s Ghost Walks haunted tour, outside of the Wonder Bar on a late afternoon in January, just after the bar has opened for the day. It’s freezing outside, but the interior of the Wonder Bar is warm and inviting; its dark, finished wood aesthetic creates a cozy environment to shield us from the Wisconsin winter’s brutal cold. We saddle up to the bar, where I order a coffee in contrast to the elaborate cocktails favored by my companions, and we settle in to the task at hand—telling ghost stories.
Lisa is outgoing and personable; she makes friends quickly and easily, and it’s apparent she’d been working her charm on the bar’s employees prior to the day’s meeting. The staff behind the bar are friendly, and clearly receptive to Lisa’s inquiries as to the building’s haunted reputation. They agree nonchalantly that strange things do seem to happen there with alarming regularity, but that’s just life at one of Madison’s most haunted hotspots.
Whatever is haunting the Wonder Bar has an apparent fondness for women, says Lisa. She tells us about how, one night, a waitress found that her till was short fourteen dollars. Upset, the waitress had little recourse but to close out the bar as normal. She headed upstairs at the end of the night to turn off the neon sign displayed above the entryway, only to find the missing money spread neatly out on a nearby table.
On another night, a bartender was performing the final check after closing, when he heard a stall door inside the men’s room open violently, slamming hard against the wall. The startled bartender cautiously checked the bathroom, but it was empty of any living occupants, and he maintains that there was no way any breeze or draft could have caused the commotion. The bar’s undead inhabitant seems to have a strange obsession with the men’s room, as one waitress tell it, because the door to that bathroom is often inexplicably opened, but the entrance to the lady’s room is always left undisturbed.
It isn’t just Wonder Bar employees who experience unusual activity, according to Lisa. One of her fellow firefighters—Lisa works fulltime as a firefighter for the city of Madison—told her of a time when he witnessed possible paranormal phenomena during an inspection of the building. The inspection took place when the bar was otherwise closed, and the inspector said that, after being let in by the bartender, he heard someone moving around upstairs on the top floor. He didn’t think much of it, having assumed that perhaps there was another employee present besides the bartender. The inspector went to the basement by himself, but heard a voice from someone walking behind him and turned to ask whoever was following him a question—only to discover that he was alone. Understandably unnerved, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. When he found the bartender upstairs and asked about whether anybody else was present in the bar, he was assured that he and the bartender were the only two people present.
By now we’ve finished our drinks and are contemplating where to have dinner, but we decide to take a quick tour before we leave. Emily and I are led upstairs by Lisa, and as we climb the narrow wooden staircase leading to the upstairs dining room we’re reminded of the apparitional old man said to sometimes be seen descending this very same staircase. The upstairs dining room shares the downstairs’ aesthetic, complete with a large, homey fireplace as the centerpiece. There’s a rumor that Eddie’s body was buried in that fireplace sometime after he went missing decades ago, but that’s never been confirmed. It’s something people point to when trying to explain the odd activity present here, though, and perhaps it could be perceived as comforting to have the spectral presence of the bar’s former proprietor around to watch over things, regardless of his past criminal associations. It’s something to ponder as we head back out into the frigid January air and onward to the rest of our evening—leaving the Wonder Bar for now, but certainly not forever.