Ham House

More From Dubuque More From Iowa

Spirits of a villain, a former owner and a suicide victim make life interesting.

Spirits from the Ham Family clan may come to visit the spirit of Mr. Ham.



“Southerner’s Open House.”

The Dubuque Historical Society has fully restored this gorgeous historic Victorian Mansion to the way that it was envisioned by Matthias Ham; his forever home.Tom and I enjoyed our tour of The Ham House and we felt that we had stepped back to the Victorian era and that the Ham family had just stepped out for a walk.

This lovely mansion started out being as a small, two story, five limestone room in 1839, built by entrepreneur Matthias Ham. It was an early Victorian styled stone block home for his family of then three children and his first wife. After his first wife died, in 1856, he made a grand addition of three more floors again made of limestone, and created a magnificent mansion of twenty-three rooms, beautifully decorated in the Antebellum, Victorian and Gothic style that was done in 1857.

“First floor, the most elegant area of the home and the scene of entertaining, had four large rooms, fourteen foot high ceilings, and central hall featuring most of the home’s decorative plaster work. Shutters folded back into the walls to be out of sight. This mansion was decorated inside with “plaster rosettes and moldings, intricate window casings, and burnished, walnut staircases.”

The second floor, with much less decoration, has five rooms while the third floor has seven rooms.
On the top floor, there is a staircase that leads up into a tall cupola, that covers the whole top of the mansion, and has a glorious view of the Mississippi River. This cupola was used to watch the city for fires and the river for pirates.

When he married his second wife, with whom he and she had two more children, there was plenty of room for his large family, who lived in style in the grandest mansion in town.

High quality furnishings could be found throughout the mansion. Mr. Ham thought of everything. The Hams shared their home with Dubuque  as they loved to entertain and host events. The Ham House was called “Southerner’s Open House.”

It was the perfect entertainment venue for parties. In fact, the mansion was the pride of Dubuque, and it was a great honor to be invited to come there. Visiting dignitaries would stay with the Hams while in Dubuque.

“When Catherine E. Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher came to Dubuque to dedicate the DUBUQUE FEMALE COLLEGE, they stayed with the Hams.”

The Dubuque Historical Society has done a fabulous job restoring and maintaining this historic mansion to its glory while at the same time providing an interesting picture of what life was like during the Victorian era with furniture, artifacts, stories and more displays.

Their special events include their Victorian Halloween Event, November and December Home for the Holidays, Sunday Summer Picnics, Craft Days, and the 4th of July Ice Cream Social; Free home tours, demonstrations, crafts, live music, and food for sale.

Besides the Ham House Museum on this property, visitors can also see the One Room Schoolhouse; (Iowa’s oldest standing building), Settler’s Cabin, a Granary and At the Lead Mines area display; all part of the Mathias Ham Historic Site. At The Lead Mines recreates the interior of a lead mine and a badger hole.


Matthias Ham was a high energy personality, who made his fortune from his successful businesses in lead mining, lumber, agriculture and shipping fleet. He sent his products up and down the Mississippi River.

From the cupola of his mansion, where he could see clearly what was happening on the river, he liked to watch his ships. One time, he was able to alert the authorities about the pirates harassing the ships on the river, and the naughty pirates were captured. Knowing that Ham was responsible for their arrest, they vowed to one day come back and get their revenge. Yikes! Apparently the pirates only got prison time instead of being hung; the fate of pirates caught in other places.

Though Matthias Ham made a fortune from his various enterprises, in his last venture, he made the mistake of putting most of his money into real estate, betting that the town of Dubuque would develop on the land just north, instead of where the city actually was established. He guessed wrong, leaving his bank accounts very empty indeed when he died. His widow and family just had the mansion to live in, and not the funds in the bank.

Mrs. Ham was just as resilient as her husband. She made lemonade out of lemons, and pulled through financially by renting out rooms in the spacious mansion. She adjusted to having to share her house with strangers but at least she and her family could stay in the family forever home.

By the 1890s, most of the family had died off, except Ham’s son and daughter, Sarah.  Sarah lived alone in the big mansion. One evening, while she was reading in her third floor bedroom, she heard someone prowling around downstairs, but whoever it was went away, as she was very quiet, and didn’t make a sound.

The next day she told her neighbors about her unwelcome visitor, and told them she would put a lamp in her window if she needed help. That evening, again while reading in her bedroom, she heard someone moving around the first floor. She received no answer after calling out in her hallway in a loud voice, “Who’s there?”

She quickly locked her door, put her lamp in the window, readied her gun, and waited. Like her parents, she was also a resilient  brave person, willing to do what she had to do. Sarah heard heavy footsteps quickly cross the front hall, as if this intruder now knew where she was. The heavy footsteps aggressively climbed the long staircase to her third floor hallway, and stopped right outside her bedroom door. Sarah kept her fear under control, and shot her gun twice through the door.

Neighbors who saw her signal came quickly to help her. They followed a blood trail that started from outside of her bedroom door and led them down to the river, where they found the then dead pirate captain.

Miss Sarah Ham was unlucky in love. Being like her father, a woman of action, decided to stand up to the narcissist George Potter who had strung her along for thirty years promising marriage and bullying her to stay with him despite his empty promises. She knew it would be ugly but it was the only way out of this control freak’s clutches. She had had enough of this selfish loser.

“After years of false promises, on August 29, 1903, a Miss Sarah Ham of Dubuque filed a lawsuit against the millionaire George Potter, accusing him of breaking his promise to marry her. Sarah argued that George had robbed her of her reputation and caused her mental and emotional pain and suffering. She accused George of breaking his promise to marry her and of enticing her to a restaurant during the early days of courtship ‘where she was drugged and ruined.'”

“Potter answered her petition by calling her a spinster, accusing her of blackmail, being criminally familiar with men, and denied ever having promised to marry her. He argued that the entire lawsuit was nothing more than an opportunity to steal money from him, money that he claimed he did not possess. Despite being rumored to be worth half a million by 1903, he claimed that he was worth only $150,000.”

“Over 3,000 love letters were submitted as evidence. The letters declared Potter’s undying love for Miss Ham, fidelity, promises of marriage, and were viewed as sickeningly sweet by court reporters.”  They had to be professional and not gag!

“Unable to defend himself from the information in the letters, George and his lawyers used delay and smear tactics.”  What a low-down skunk; a man with no shame!

After one week and fifty-five minutes of deliberation, the jury awarded Sarah $20,000. The trial was over, but the damage had been done.”

He had dragged her reputation through the mud twice, during and after this trial. His second round of allegations fell flat when witnesses stepped up to defend her against George’s lies and deceptions. What a piece of work was George!

George never paid her the awarded $20,000, despite being ordered to do so. He escaped to the west after hiding his money with his son. Hopefully Karma caught up with him and he eventually would get his just desserts.

Sarah Ham decided to lease part of her home to the Kegler Cancer Clinic around 1905, and lived in another part of the house, despite the fact that the Dubuque Park Board had been trying to buy this mansion to be a historical museum. She wanted to live there until she died.

Sarah Ham finally did sell her beloved forever home to the city of Dubuque, in 1912, under the deal that she could live there for the rest of her days. She lived there until 1921 when she passed away.

The city of Dubuque was thrilled to get a hold of such a treasured historic house, beloved by the citizens of Dubuque. Since 1961, the Park Board used the first floor of the mansion for city offices while the rest of the space was used as “living quarters for the park commissioner Richard Kramer and his family.”

The Dubuque Historical Society formed in 1950, with the goal of saving and restoring old historic buildings. In 1964, the Society leased the Ham House from the city of Dubuque and began in the process of restoration of this historic gem which the goal of having a house museum there. A private organization could raise funds better than a city could. “The funds received from a NEH challenge grant in 1983 were used to complete the Ham House restoration, and establish the education department of the museum and The Dubuque Historical Society’s first endowment.”

The Ham House had a happy ending, unlike some members of the Ham family or a dastardly pirate, or a man who killed himself there. The attachments are strong for a variety of reasons.


When people fall short of their goals because they died before they could complete this task, they sometimes strive to finish what they started while alive in spirit form.

Monravian College, PA (A male student who was killed in war, came back as a spirit trying to take the classes needed to complete his degree).

Hunt Phelan House, TN (The spirit of a servant was in charge of hiding valuables for his employer during the Civil War.  When it was safe to do so, this servant was supposed to tell his employer where everything was hidden, but the servant was killed before he could do so. Uh oh! he is still searching for his employer or someone else where he hid the valuables).

Ham House, IA (A spirit of a pirate who had planned on murdering Sarah for the actions of her father that ruined their robbing lifestyle and sent them all to be in stir. The pirate captain was stopped from doing so by being shot by Sarah herself. His spirit can’t accept that once again his plans were thwarted).

People who have regrets about their life sometimes are still restless about them but try to find peace in a place where they loved.

Brumder Mansion, Wi (A spirit of the former Speak Easy Mob enforcer; Joe, has deep regrets about what he had to do while alive in that job, wishing that he had chosen another path. He finds some peace being in the basement theatre and by helping the living).

Captain Bailey House, NE (Captain Bailey is deeply disappointed that he didn’t figure out that his neighbor poisoned his wife and then him as well. He takes comfort in the house that was their home together).

Ham House, IA (Mr. Ham is still upset that he lost all his money which left him with nothing to pass down to his wife when he died. Sarah Ham may also visit him and enjoy the house as well that she loved).

People who loved their forever home while alive, often like to visit it or even reside as a spirit. They like to keep an eye on the living as well.

Joslyn Castle, NE (The spirits of George, Sarah and Violet have decided to spend their afterlife in their forever home, keeping an eye on the living as well).

Martha Washington House Museum, VA (The spirit of Martha loves her earthly home too and she also keeps a motherly eye on the docents who give the tours through her home).

Hearthstone Historic House Museum, WI (The Spirit of Albert Priest still loves his forever home. While he is at it, he likes to supervise the docents and the repairs done for maintenance).

Ham House, IA (Mr. Ham is keeping an eye on his mansion; a home that he loved while alive, and a place where he had many happy memories. He too likes to supervise the living, being helpful when he can).

Spirits who kill themselves find out that death doesn’t take away emotional turmoil. They sometimes find themselves stuck where they died; still feeling the emotional trauma and also reliving their deaths.

Clifton House, OH (Two spirits who killed themselves in this structure are still here, wallowing in their pain and reliving their deaths).

Stranahan House, FL (The spirit of Mr. Stranahan who killed himself by jumping into the river with a millstone around his neck, still repeats this action when he isn’t inside being host to live visitors).

Whaley House, CA (The spirit of the Whaley daughter, Violet, still is grieving and in pain, finding out that she wasn’t relieved of her overbearing grief by shooting herself).

Ham House, IA (A boarder who had rented a room from Mrs. Ham was pushed over the emotional waterfall and hung himself from the tower, in a fit of despair).

When a spirit decides to stay in this world, spectral family members may decide to stay with him to keep him or her company, or just visit often).

LeDuc Mansion Museum, MN (When the spirit of General William Gates LeDuc decided to spend his after-life in his forever home, the spirit of his daughter, Alice stayed with him).

Irma Hotel, WY (When the spirit of Irma decided to stay in her favorite spot in this world, a hotel that her father Buffalo Bill got for her, the spirit of Buffalo Bill likes to come for long stays to visit her and supervise as well).

Kelton House Museum, OH (The spirit of matriarch Sophia Kelton decided to spend her after-life in the place that she loved dearly and where she had control. The spirits of her son Oscar and her husband, Fernando stay as well, keeping her company).

Ham House, IA (The spirit of Mr. Ham may have spirits from his family come and visit him to keep him company and try to give him comfort and peace so that he will be able to leave his forever home someday; or not).



It is thought that at least three spirits haunt the mansion for very different reasons. There is a spirit determined to wreak revenge, a spirit who found out that death doesn’t take away troubles or emotional pain, and a spirit who regrets the last deal of his life. All three are attached to the Ham House Museum.

Other spirits from the Ham family may also visit.

Employees of the Dubuque County Historical Society have had the following experiences:

Spirit of the Pirate

Many parts of the mansion make the living feel “ill at ease”.

On the third floor, unexplained icy winds, and strange chills have enveloped many people in this area.

The atmosphere is uncomfortable. (It is theorized that the pirate captain haunts the stairs and the third floor where he met his end).

At night, for many years, mysterious lights have been seen, moving throughout the mansion’s dark hallways and staircases.

Some speculate that it is the ghost of the pirate still trying to find Sarah in order to get revenge, as he was killed by Sarah before he could carry out his planned, dastardly deed.

As he wasn’t a very nice person in real life, the ghost is restless, perhaps because he has unfinished business with the Ham family.

Suicide Spirit

While standing near the stairway to the tower, unexplained, odd noises can be heard coming from other parts of the mansion.

His lifeless body has been seen hanging from the tower on moon lit nights.


Apparently, the spirit of Mr. Ham likes a light to be on at night.

One summer night at closing time, the assistant curator was unscrewing the light fuse, in order to turn off the lights in the front rooms.

As she was unscrewing the fuse, she was startled by hearing the loud sound of a pump organ.

When she quickly screwed the fuse back in, the loud sound stopped. Some unseen presence wanted the lights on that evening. The mansion’s pump organ isn’t working, and is closed up.

Being disrespectful about the existence of spirits in the Ham House will be delt with. As a man who had been joking about the spirits being there, found that the door was jerked out of his hand as he was leaving with his wife. The door slammed hard after he stepped outside. Some spirit was offended; probably Mr. Ham.

Mr Ham Escorts

The head curator, Ms. Griesinger, got a call from the police, that a light had been left on in an older section of the mansion.

After arriving at the mansion, she went down the pitch black hallway to the fuse box, with the idea of screwing in the light fuse, so she could see her way to the area where the light was on.

In the pitch black hallway, she became aware of, then felt a strong unseen presence, that followed her around, like an unseen escort, as she went about the task at hand.

Feeling unnerved, “ill at ease,” she did what she had to do as quickly as possible. Was this Matthias Ham himself supervising this employee’s efforts in his house?

Unknown Spirits

One night, in 1978, a tour guide by the name of John, spent the night at the mansion. He immediately felt a strong presence in the house as well. John wasn’t the kind to be easily scared, so he stayed where he was supposed to be.

About 3:00 am, the unseen entities made their presence known to their young guest, John. He awoke to hear women’s voices in the yard outside his window. When he went outside to investigate, there was no one living there.

Inside the mansion, he heard distinct footsteps on the second floor of the original part of the mansion. Again, no one visible was there.

He heard soft, shuffling noises in the basement, as if someone was leaving or entering through a tunnel. (There is a tunnel about twenty feet beyond the basement wall, that collapsed many years ago).

Fresh Air Please!

A spring-locked window in an upper hall has occasionally been found open in the morning by museum personnel after being spring-locked the night before.

Some entity likes fresh air once in a while, despite the living’s wishes to have a secure museum.

Box Seven: Douse the Light too!

In this same upper hallway, a well-repaired light only works part of the time, much to the puzzlement of the electrician.

Some spirit perhaps thinks that a lower wattage bulb should be used, or perhaps it is the spirit of the pirate who wants it dark to better surprise his long-gone target.


People who work in this museum recognize all the tell-tale signs of spirits keeping them company, that even offering moral encouragement when maintenance is done.  These spirits are well mannered; even the spirit of the pirate by not appearing to the living, but find other ways to announce their presence; auditory, tactile and the visual moving of items.

The exception is the suicide spirit who does show what he did to himself occasionally but not frequently.

No formal paranormal investigations have been allowed because the spirits don’t interfere with the museum, and are harmless; even the pirate. Why rock the spectral boat?



Yes Indeed!

While no psychic research has been done or hard paranormal evidence has been caught, the evidence from personal experiences suggests that perhaps a variety of spirits inhabit or visit Ham House, adding to the brooding atmosphere of this grand mansion. Current suspected entities are the pirate captain, Matthias Ham, perhaps members of his family, and the man who committed suicide.



2241 Lincoln Street,
Dubuque, Iowa 52001

Matthias Ham chose to build his home on a “wind-wracked” bluff above the Mississippi River, which was located in the northern part of the city of Dubuque, Iowa.

Since 1964, The Matthias Ham House, has been a museum, run by the Dubuque County Riverboat Historical Society. Tours are given to the public. Tom and I enjoyed the tour of the basement and first floor, and grounds!




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