Gravesites, Ghouls, and Secret Telling on Bascom Hill

share this article

On Bascom Hill - Madison WI
On Bascom Hill - Madison WI

Historically important places such as Bascom Hill, the centerpiece of The University of Wisconsin's park-like campus, are always likely to have associated ghost stories and legends. Atop Bascom, there is more than one reason to believe them. Only the most observant would be able to find the two grave markers on Madison's most  prominent hillside. This is the story of two-headed ghosts, flesh eating beetles, and 100+ years of secret keeping.


Grave marker of Samuel Warren - Bascom Hill Madison
Grave marker of Samuel Warren - Bascom Hill Madison
Bascom Hill is the University of Wisconsin's front yard, the symbolic core of the campus. Bascom Mall is it's official name; it was designed in 1851. North, South, and Main (Bascom) Halls were the original three buildings on campus.  In 1909 the Lincoln Terrace and Lincoln statue were placed. Old Abe keeps watch over the campus, State Street, and the State Capitol.

During the excavation for the Lincoln Terrace two graves were unearthed, accidentally releasing the spirits of two early Madisonians. The bones were left to lay and are today entombed in the stonework of the terrace. Two grave markers were embedded into the stone stairs Southwest of the Lincoln statue. They are hardly noticeable, with simple inscriptions: W.N. 1837, and S.W. 1838.

Grave Marker of William Nelson Bascom Hill Madison
Grave Marker of William Nelson Bascom Hill Madison
W.N. is for William Nelson, formerly of New York, who died of typhoid fever. S.W. is for Samuel Warren, formerly of England. Samuel Warren met his death in the house of a Mrs. Bird during a heavy thunderstorm in which the house was struck by lightning, instantly killing Mr. Warren. He was summarily carried out of the house on a stretcher and laid into a grave in the cemetery atop Bascom Hill.

There are stories told that at all of hours of the day, that those who have the sight can stand at the middle of Bascom Hill and look up towards Lincoln to see Lincoln with three heads. The two heads to the side are supposedly Mr. Nelson and Mr Warren.


Bascom Hill has long been used as a training site by student athletes. The athletes are made to run repeated circuits up the South side of the hill and down the North side, passing Old Abe on each round. A knock on Abe's foot marks the completion of one circuit.

Another tradition involves the hatting of Lincoln in winter or for festivities. Students are kind to Abe, placing earmuffs on his head on those superchilled Wisconsin winter snow days.

Graduation tradition on Basom Hill UW Madison
Graduation tradition on Basom Hill UW Madison
Their kindness is repaid at graduation. After commencement, each new alumn is tasked with climbing onto Lincoln's lap ... it looks easier than it is. My graduation was in December, and Lincoln was iced over and quite slippery, but with a boost from my brother, I made it to the top. While sitting with Lincoln makes for a great photo, the purpose is to whisper your greatest aspirations into Lincoln's ear. Doing this will ensure your success.

Another bit of Lincoln lore: As you pass by Lincoln, if he does not stand up for you, you have yet to earn his respect. A reminder to keep hitting the books.


On Bascom Hill - Madison WI

The University dermestarium is hollowed into the hill near Birge Hall. A small gray door leads to a chamber of 18x20 feet. The dermestarium houses a colony of half a million dermestid beetles who eat the flesh of dead zoological specimens. They are used to clean the flesh from the bones of the animals so that the bones can be used for research or put into museum display cases. They do a meticulous job.


Address for your GPS: 500 N Park Street, Madison WI
| Coordinates: 43.075075,-89.40064 |

Click to activate map

Click Map Image to load the full interactive map.