Original publish date: 2004 Irvington Haunts. Haunted and Infamous Irvington. Weekly View publish date: October 24, 2019
Fifteen years ago, Russ Simnick and I published our first book, “Irvington Haunts. Haunted and Infamous Irvington.” That first volume was a collection of fourteen different ghost stories gathered from the pages of Irvington’s haunted history. A few of those stories have fallen off the radar screen over the years. Since it is Halloween time in Irvington, I have decided to revisit a couple of those stories in the spirit of the season.
This story, chapter two from that first volume, is titled “Bloody Mary Brown and the Ghost Horse. South Irvington Farm.” I wish that I could take full credit for this particular tale, but I must admit that this particular story was written by Russ and my role in it’s publication was minimal at best. The imagery of this spooky tale is a feast for the senses. So, tuck the paper under your arm, take it home with you, turn down the lights and pull down the window shades. For tales like this are best read in the dark. Not all the hauntings in Irvington confine themselves to homes. The streets of South Irvington are home to the spirit of a phantom horse and buggy searching for its owner who was brutally murdered.
On the evening of Friday, February 6, 1880, an area farmer named P.H. Fatout found a horse and phaeton buggy plodding along the Brookville Pike with no rider. On that blustery night, Fatout secured the rig and led it to his stable. What he didn’t know was that his find would turn into key evidence in one of the day’s most sensational murder stories. Once inside his barn, Fatout inspected the buggy with a lantern. He discovered its cushions were soaked in blood. The boards of the seats, under the cushions, were broken and the dashboard was heavily scratched, apparent signs of a struggle.
Shortly before daylight, travelers on Michigan Road, near the place it crossed the Belt Railroad, discovered a more gruesome scene– the lifeless body of Irvington Farmer John G.F. Brown. The cause of death for the 52-year-old farmer was first thought to be a bullet wound, but Farmer Brown turned out to be the victim of a brutal ax murder. Indianapolis police Captains Splann and Williamson began investigating the body at 9:30 that morning. They soon concluded that it had been dragged from the buggy and disposed of at the scene of its finding. Buggy tracks led to Irvington butcher Jacob Geis, but he was soon ruled out as a suspect as police correctly surmised that the tracks were a ruse designed to frame Geis.
Brown had just returned from prison to his forty-acre farm, located a half mile south of Brookville Road. As his one-year sentence for receiving stolen goods ended, he returned home to find a man living in his house with Brown’s wife. The man, recent divorcee Joseph Wade, ran a saloon on Virginia Avenue in Indianapolis. He was described as a “fighting man” to Brown by local attorney Nicholas Van Horn.
If he was fearful, Joseph Brown did not show it as he sat down for what would be his last meal. At 5:30 PM, Mary Brown sent her two older children to the Smith’s, neighbors whose home was frequently visited by Wade, the children and Mary Brown. Mary instructed the children that she would come to get them after dinner and that Wade would play fiddle that evening to entertain at the Smith home. During the course of the evening, Wade asked Brown to borrow his buggy. He stated that he wanted to sell a horse to Irvington’s Dr. long. Brown agreed. As dinner ended, Brown went into the front yard to work on an ax handle. Wade was hitching the horse to the buggy.
According to testimony by Mary Brown, as published in “The Indianapolis News” on February 12, 1880, the next events unfolded like this: “I went around the east end of the house to the front to see if Wade was gone. Then is when I heard a noise. I heard no words but a dull sound as if from a gun a long way off or a dull heavy blow. When I heard this I had just passed the southeast corner of the kitchen with my child in my arms. I heard no additional noise. The buggy stood nearby opposite of the gate.”
She soon saw the body of her husband. According to her testimony, she said, “My God, Joe, what have you done?” Wade replied, “I love every hair of your head better than my own life.” He added, “this will be all right. I will prove myself clear.” “It is a horrible picture of depravity and utterly inhumane heartlessness, when it is brought to mind that Mrs. Brown and Wade (who, if they did not both actually commit the murder, contrived it) should have so coolly eaten supper with their victim, and then so soon after dispatched him,” stated a local newspaper of the day.
Panicking, Wade had a body, but no place to dump it. Thinking quickly, he headed to butcher Geis’ home to “throw suspicion under the butcher.” This plan was foiled as Geis’ dogs began barking at the killer. He quickly changed plans. This time, he would make it appear as if Brown was hit by a train and proceeded to take the buggy to the Belt Railroad. “The Indianapolis Journal” (Feb. 11, 1880) reported that Wade intended to “leave the buggy with the body and it up on the railroad track, loosing the traces so the horse could walk out unharmed when the Belt train came along. The locomotive would strike the vehicle and it might be made to appear that Brown had been killed by the cars.” Apparently, there was an unusual amount of travel that night and approaching people did not allow him the privacy to stage the scene. He threw the body out and let the horse go.
The investigation by Coroner George Wishard, namesake of today’s Wishard Hospital, was thorough and damning to Wade. During his investigation at the Brown farm, Wishard “found a board, probably a small kneading tray, hidden away under the shed… Which is bespattered with blood.” Signs of a violent struggle and blood were found in the yard. The mountain of evidence was building against Wade. But did he act alone? Or was “Bloody Mary” Brown, as one of the contemporary newspapers dubbed her, more involved than she claimed?
News of the murder was watched with great intensity. The “Indianapolis Journal” declared in February 1880, “Every scrap of gossip, every item of information is readily devoured by eager listeners, all of whom, with varying comment, now look upon the unfaithful wife and her Paramore as the guilty ones.” One enterprising paint dealer, located on Meridian Street in Indianapolis, covered all the roads connected to the murder with signs advertising his business-360 in all-so that the steady stream of travelers and ghoulish thrill seekers from Indianapolis would see his advertisements.
Bloody Mary Brown was shown at trial to have more involvement than she claimed. She and Joseph Wade were both convicted of John Brown’s murder and sentenced to hang. But this was not their last day in court. At a retrial for Bloody Mary in January 1881, a jury once again found her guilty of murder but sentenced her to life in prison at the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls in Indianapolis. Upon the result of this trial, the public grew to believe that Wade should not suffer a harsher punishment than Brown. Dozens of men petitioned the governor to commute Wade sentenced to life in prison. Eventually, his sentence was changed to life.
The tragedy that befell Brown was not the end to this story. Many strange events occurred after the murder. Mary’s mother was placed in an insane asylum, and even though she had no involvement with the murder. Wade’s ex-wife, who he had divorced just prior to moving in with Mary, died days after the murder of an apparent heart attack. One of the oddest twists in this case involved the body of John Brown. While his corpse was taken to Kregelo’s undertaking establishment for examination by Coroner Wishard, his skull was taken to the Medical College of Indiana, located at the corner of Pennsylvania and Market streets.
Ominously, one of the largest fires in the history of Indianapolis ripped through the Medical College on February 9, 1880, just three days after the murder. Not only was Brown’s skull lost, but so were several of the corpses in the college’s dissecting room. “The stiffs were frying and frizzling in there,” said patrolman E. B. Clark to the “Indianapolis Sentinel.”
Even in this day of auto travel, Irvingtonians claim to have heard the clumps of horse hooves plodding and the screech of ancient buggy wheels turning on the southern streets of Irvington, just north of Brookville Road. This testimony can only be assigned to John Brown’s riderless horse, endlessly looking for its owner who was viciously murdered and whose body was left cold and stiff beside the railroad tracks just before Valentine’s Day more than a century before.
After all these years, Russ’s story, appearing here just as he wrote it back in the day, still holds up. Over the last 17 years of ghost tours, I have, more than a few times, encountered guests who have themselves witnessed the spiritual echoes of clip clops from long ago. That is the magic of Irvington at Halloween.