Old American House Haunted by Two Lovers

The American House, circa 1838

The American House, circa 1838

The American House was a popular Madison hotel and boarding house located on the corner of Pinckney and E. Washington (at the site of the current American Exchange Bank building, 1 N. Pinckney St.).

The American was originally built in 1838 and was operated by James Morrison and A.A. Bird. It became fiercely popular with the early territorial settlers. In fact, in May of 1839, the first election of the Dane County board of commissioners was held here, which at that time was the only voting place in the county.

The American was later purchased by J. W. Jefferson, who expanded it to triple its original size in 1858. During these years, it remained a favored establishment of state senators and representatives, but it was often maligned for its somewhat lower-class amenities and home-style food. In fact, it was said that those venturing to eat a meal at the American required “sharp teeth and strong knives.”

Shortly before the hotel burned down in 1868, a Summer romance blossomed between two American House boarders,  Rachel Sampson, who was a waitress in the American dining room, and Lewis D. Frost, a delivery clerk for the local Post Office. By that Fall, the romance was on fire — literally. Though never confirmed, a kerosene lamp accident was the most likely cause of the blaze that totally destroyed the American on the night of Sept. 5, 1868.  Was this accident the result of certain activities occurring during  a secret late night rendezvous between Miss Sampson and Mr. Frost? Perhaps. Today, the site of the old American is thought still to be haunted by these two young lovers, who have been seen through upper floor windows in an impassioned embrace.

Sources: Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles, Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin