Creepy history, Criminals, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. Part I.

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Original publish date:  July 29, 2011

I speak often about America’s first serial killer, the evil Dr. H.H.Holmes, and his demonic doings in 1894 Irvington including his habit of selling the cadavers of his victims to Chicago area universities for $ 75.00 each. Today, these stories elicit gasps and disbelief from all who hear them. However, there was a time when grave robbing in our capital city was a very real threat indeed.
The act of grave robbing was so common that perpetrators began to look upon themselves as businessmen providing a much needed service rather than the night creeping, gutter crawling slags of humanity that they truly were. Often these ghouls ruled the nightlife scene holding court in local bars and taverns while regaling customers with their tales of dread from the boneyards of our dear city, with no real fear of retribution, much less prosecution, for their dastardly deeds. After all, their skill and services were in demand by uber-educated medical school professors, upper-crust physicians and high-bred college students from all four corners of the city, no questions asked.

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University students working on a cadaver.

In January 1875, a reporter for the Indianapolis Herald newspaper interviewed one such ghoul for an article on grave robbing titled, “How the Business is Managed at Indianapolis. Twelve ‘Resurrectionists’ engaged in it.” Sadly, the name of the intrepid reporter is lost to history, but his words live on and are offered here as proof that this gruesome occupation did in fact exist. Here is the article as it appeared almost a century-and-a-half ago.
A reporter for the Indianapolis Herald recently fell in with a resurrectionist, or body snatcher, who relates the following story: “Yes, I know it’s a shameful business. But I have no longer any capacity for shame. This (holding up his glass) has done the business for me. It has made me what you see me. Once I was a reputable physician with a diploma from ——– College, and a fair practice, and now I am a body snatcher, sneaking through the graveyards by night, and spending the proceeds of grave robbery in low down thief kennels by day. You don’t often see me here. Hunger-hunger for whiskey brought me here tonight, because I am more apt to sponge a drink or two among such tipplers as you than I would be among ruffians of my own sort. As I said, I have no shame, but I know how low it is. I know that a man capable of grave robbing for gain is cutthroat enough at heart to do murder if he were not too cowardly. Why don’t I reform? That’s a good joke. I look like it don’t I? I tell you it’s impossible. There’s no retreat for me. The only road open to me is in front, and it ends in hell. Another drink …..and a big one, to settle these grinning devils that have been dancing around me all night, and I will tell you all about the business. As the season is over and Dr.——– has promised to buy me a ticket to Memphis, I don’t care.”

HOW STIFFS ARE RAISED: “A ressurectionist’s kit is not very expensive, sir. All he needsz Grave_Robber is a rope with a hook at one end, a short crowbar, and a spade and a pick. He generally has a “pard,” as it is easier to hunt in couples. He is notified of the “plant” (body), and by personal inspection makes himself familiar with all the surroundings, before the attempt is made. The pick and spade remove the earth from the grave as far as the widest part of the coffin, and with the crowbar, the coffin is shattered, and the rope with the hook end fastened around the cadaver’s neck, when it is drawn out through the hole without disturbing the earth elsewhere. As soon as the cadaver is sacked, the earth replaced, and the grave made to look as near like it was as possible. There are some bunglers however, who have been guilty of leaving the grave open, with fragments of the cadaver’s clothing lying around. They are a disgrace to the profession, and have done much to foster an unfriendly public sentiment in this city.”
HOW A SALE IS NEGOTIATED: “No, there’s not as much difficulty in negotiating the sale of a stiff as you would imagine. The resurrectionist has no dealings with any member of the colleges. They are too smart for that. The janitor does the business. A wagon with two men in it drives up in front of a college. Maybe the streets are full of people….maybe not. It makes no difference any way. The wagon barely stops a moment, and one man shoulders the sack containing the stiff and shoots into the college basement, and the wagon drives off. Police? (The resurrectionist here shook like a mass of jelly with inward chuckles.) Why, bless your simple soul, there is no more danger of being interrupted by the police than there is of me dying a sober man. The police on the college beats are friendly to science. They wouldn’t, for two dollars a stiff, make a row about it, you bet. So all the digger has to do is put a mask on his face and slip in to see the janitor, who is provided with funds, and shells out without being too particular about identification.”
THE NUMBER OF RESURRECTIONIST: “There are at least a dozen diggers engaged in anticipating the tooting of Gabriel’s horn in this city. Some of them are working for other cities. There is Mr. ——-, a tall man, with long, dark hair, seedy clothes, and a sinister expression of countenance. He’s a man of education, and has respectable connections in the city. What brought him to it? What brings us all to it? Whiskey, of course. He works with Mr. ——-, a lanky, long haired fellow, with rebel looking clothes, and long, light, lousy looking hair, mustache, and goatee. Yes, it was him that was kicked out of the boarding house for talking “stiff” at the table. Then there is the brother of a well-known doctor, and a doctor out in the country, and others too tedious to mention. Some of the students, too, raise their own stiffs as a matter of economics. Material is getting costlier every year.”
z Milwaukee-Journal-August-3-1903THE MOST FRUITFUL FIELDS: “The most of the stiffs are raised at Greenlawn cemetery (in Franklin, south of the city), at the Mt. Jackson cemetery (on the grounds of Central State hospital), and at the Poor Farm cemetery (Northwest of the city). So far as I know Crown Hill has never been troubled. Many of the village cemeteries in the neighboring counties are also visited, however, and made to contribute their quota to the cause of science. Some of these village cadavers are those of people who moved in the best society, and besides their value in material for dissection, are rich in jewelry, laces, velvets, etc. The hair of a female subject is alone worth $25. Nothing is wasted, you may be sure. Even the ornaments on the coffin lids are used again..”
SMART ALECKS: “There is a good joke on the Marion County Commissioners. You may remember that, on account of so many complaints against body snatchers, these Smart Alecks had a vault built, in which to deposit bodies, and put a padlock on the door. You may believe the resurrectionist didn’t stop long for a common padlock. It didn’t take long to get an impression with a piece of wax, and any darn fool can make a key that will unlock a padlock. And the vault business saves a heap of hard digging. Many a stiff has been cut up in our colleges without having been buried at all. I know of one case where it came pretty near making a rumpus, and there was lively skirmishing for a time, I tell you.”
FURTHUR (sic) PROSPECTS: “Allred? Him? Why he could not stop a worm. He is devoted to science, and if he wasn’t, all we’d have to do would be to get him a bottle of Rolling Mill rot gut, and he would neither see nor hear. Do you s’pose that there could have been so much resurrection in Greenlawn, right in the heart of the city almost, if somebody hadn’t been fixed? I don’t know. Do you?” (Allred was apparently the superindendent of Greenlawn cemetery)
A MEAN TRICK: “Now I’m goin’ to tell you about what I call a mean trick. A stiff had been raised out of grounds supposed to be the peculiar property of one of the colleges, and sold to another. It wasn’t much of a stiff, a poor, miserable, emaciated Negro, that didn’t weigh more’n ninety pounds……but it made the faculty of ——– college madder’n hornets to think that a stiff out of their ground had been sold to a rival college. You know they hate each other like pizen anyhow. Well, Tuesday night of this week they broke into the college vault and stole the stiff, and the next day a Professor of the rival college lectured over it. Go to the law about it? Not much. They know how to leave well enough alone. But they were not about it, you better believe. Goin’, are you? Well, good night. The chances are that we’ll never meet again, an there’s nothing doing here, and I want to get to a warmer climate. Good night, Sir.”
z PhotoDeskThe night was a graverobber’s best friend. He lived in it, worked in it, played in it and hid in it. Late at night, these ghouls would steal into cemeteries where a burial had just taken place. In general, fresh graves were best, since the earth had not yet settled and digging was easy work. Laying a sheet or tarp beside the grave, the dirt was shoveled on top of it so the nearby grounds were undisturbed. Most body snatchers could remove the body in less time than it took most people to saddle a horse. They would carefully cover the telltale hole with dirt again, making sure the grave looked the same as it had before they came. Then hurriedly take the body away via the alleyways and sewers of the city, finally delivering the anonymous dearly departed to the back door of a medical school. In time, several of these ghouls began to furnish fresh corpses for sale by murdering the poor, homeless citizens of the city who once stood silent vigil in the alleys as the graverobbers crept past with their macabre cargo in tow.
Many tactics were employed to protect the bodies of relatives, mostly to no avail. Police were engaged to watch the burying grounds but were often bribed or made drunk. Spring guns, or “booby-traps” were set in the coffins but was an option available only to the wealthier citizens. Poorer families would leave items like a stone or a blade of grass or a shell at the head of the grave to show whether it had been tampered with or not. During this era, “Burglar proof grave vaults made of steel” were sold with the promise that loved ones’ remains would not be one of the 40,000 bodies “mutilated every year on dissecting tables in medical colleges in the United States.” Despite these efforts, body snatchers persisted.
Grave robbers part IIn the late 1800s in Indiana, it has been estimated that between 80 to 120 bodies each year were purchased from grave robbers to be used for medical instruction at medical schools and teaching facilities in Indianapolis. An end to the “big business” of grave robbing came as a result of twentieth-century legislation in Indiana which allowed individuals to donate their bodies for this purpose. In 1903, the Indiana General Assembly enacted legislation that created the state anatomical board that was empowered to receive unclaimed bodies from throughout the state and distribute them to medical schools. The act was “for the promotion of anatomical science and to prevent grave desecration.”
Before that landmark 1903 legislation, Indiana medical schools had access to only one type of corpse for dissection — the bodies of executed criminals, which provided a fairly small pool of available subjects. Only 9 people were executed in Indiana from 1897 to 1903, not nearly enough to supply the medical schools of the city. Strangely, there were 41 lynchings over the same period (26 whites and 15 blacks). As the number of medical students in Indiana grew, the demand for bodies for dissection became greater. As there were simply not enough bodies legally available, medical schools resorted to back door arrangements with resurrectionists. Occasionally, the grave robber was a doctor, teacher or medical student. For the most part, the medical community wrestled with the morality issues surrounding the procurement of corpses for dissection purposes, but it cannot be denied that the practice yielded dividends. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States led the world in advances made by anatomical studies through the use of the cadaver appropriation system.
By the way, on special occasions during the Irvington ghost tours, I sometimes bring along a battered, faded sepia-toned cabinet photo from the 1880s. In this photo, several University of Michigan medical students are posed standing around an emaciated, nearly naked corpse splayed out on a wooden table. The students pose somberly for the camera but one of them, a handsome derby hat wearing young man with a large walrus style mustache, stands with one hand behind his back and the other with fingers resting on the table surface near a pocket knife that he has obviously just pulled from his pocket. His expression seems to say, “Hurry up and snap that photo so I can cut into this body.” The subject, Michigan medical student Herman Mudget, better known as H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.
Next week: An Indiana body snatching connection to the United States Presidency and Irvington.

Creepy history, Ghosts, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

The first Irvington Halloween Festival and the law.

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Original 1946 Irvington Halloween Festival Ticket.

Original publish date:  October 16 2011

Next week, once again, Irvington will celebrate “All Hallows Eve” better than anyplace else in the Hoosier state by hosting the 65th annual Halloween Festival. Trick-or-treating, window painting, house decorating, and a costume parade down the middle of Washington Street are all cherished traditions eagerly anticipated by the participants involved. But what about that first Halloween festival back in 1946? What was that like? And most importantly, were Irvingtonians breaking the law by hosting it?
Disney Trick or treatWe’ve all heard the stories, legends and rumors surrounding that now legendary first event. It was sponsored by the Walt Disney company featuring costumed characters with a Disney based theme. The Disney folks gave away potentially priceless hand painted film production cels right here on the streets of old Irvington town. Walt Disney himself was seen walking down Audubon with Mickey Mouse at his side. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction nowadays.
However, a good place to start would be the history books. What was going on in the world back in October of 1946? Mensa was founded in Great Britain and the United Nations held its first meeting on Long Island. World War II ended a year before, yet the Nuremberg War trials concluded with the execution of ten German war criminals just two weeks before the festival. Among the adolescent ghosts and goblins wandering the streets of Irvington 65 years ago was a spectral leftover from the second world war looming menacingly over the costumed treat seekers. The specter of Sugar rationing. Really? Sugar rationing on Halloween?
When the empire of Japan conquered the Philippine Islands in the early months of 1942 the United States lost a major source of it’s national sugar imports. Sugar shipments from Hawaii had already been curtailed by fifty percent when cargo vessels typically used for transporting sugar from the islands to the mainland were diverted for use by the military. Seemingly overnight, U.S. sugar supply fell by more than one-third. To ensure adequate supplies for manufacturers, the military, and civilians, sugar became the first food item to be rationed during the war. Manufacturers’ supplies were reduced to 80 percent of pre-war levels and that percentage was further reduced over time.
On April 27, 1942, Irvington families registered for ration books at the local elementary schools. One book was issued for each family member. To prove they were serious about wartime rationing, the US Government required that these books were to be surrendered upon death of the recipient. In a drastic move that harkens back to FDR’s closure of the banks and financial institutions during the Great Depression, the sale of sugar was halted for one week to prepare for the program. During that sugarless week, to discourage hoarding, each family was required to report how much sugar they had on hand and a corresponding number of stamps were removed from the ration book.
z WWII OPA Rationing BookletA week later on May 5, 1942, every United States citizen received their much anticipated “War Ration Book Number One”, good for a 56-week supply of sugar. Initially, each stamp was good for one pound of sugar and could be redeemed over a specified two-week period. Later on, as other items such as coffee and shoes were rationed, each stamp became good for two pounds of sugar over a four-week period. The ration book bore the recipient’s name and could only be used by household members. Stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer. If the book was lost, stolen, or destroyed, an application had to be submitted to the Ration Board for a new copy. If the ration book holder entered the hospital for greater than a 10-day stay, the ration book had to be brought along with them. Talk about your red tape!

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World War II War Sugar Ration Stamp.

Housewives learned to be creative, using saccharine, corn syrup, and even packets of Jell-O as sugar substitutes. Sugar beets became a staple of nearly every American dinner table. Women’s magazines featured recipes with reduced sugar or creative ingredient substitutes. “Victory Gardens” sprung up all over the cities and home canning was strongly encouraged during the war. However, canning requires sugar and to provide for this patriotic need, each person could apply for a one time only 25-pound allotment of lower grade canning sugar each year. Each local war ration board determined the quantity and season of availability based on the local harvest. A special canning sugar stamp was issued and included in the ration book. This special “spare canning sugar stamp 37” had to be attached to the government application. Problem was, that they looked exactly like the household sugar stamp and confusion reigned as many people mistakenly used the regular sugar stamp 37 in it’s place, invalidating it for normal household purchases. Did I mention the red tape?
z photo-1127-2013-conserve-sugar-posterTo make matters worse, just because you had a sugar stamp didn’t mean sugar was available for purchase. Shortages occurred often throughout the war, and in early 1945 sugar became nearly impossible to find in any quantity. As Europe was liberated from the grip of Nazi Germany, the United States took on the main responsibility for providing food to those war ravaged countries. On May 1, 1945, the sugar ration for American families was slashed to 15 pounds per year for household use and 15 pounds per year for canning – roughly eight ounces per week per household. Sugar supplies remained scarce and, just as sugar had the distinction of being the first product rationed at the start of the war, sugar was the last product to be rationed after the war. Sugar rationing continued until June of 1947, over six months after the first Irvington Halloween festival in October of 1946.
So, knowing this, can it be said that every sugary sweet handed out to euphoric trick-or-treaters in Irvington during that first festival was a violation of Federal law? Technically yes, but in reality, it might best be compared to ripping the tag off of your mattress today. Never fear, Irvington is not Australia and you are not descended from a colony of law breakers and felons. By the time of that first Irvington Halloween Festival, war time rationing was on the wane and most Americans were eager to celebrate after a long, hard fought war, too enraptured with the outcome, and their personal survival, to care much about wartime shortages. As evidence, one need look no further than the baby boomer generation, a direct bi-product of that euphoria.
z Halloween Festival (2)An argument can be made that it was events like the First Irvington Halloween Festival that kicked off the tradition of trick-or-treating as we know it today. Although the Halloween holiday was certainly well known in America before that first Irvington celebration, it was predominantly a holiday for adult costume parties and a chance to cut loose with friends playing party games while consuming hard cider. Early national attention to trick-or-treating in popular culture really began a year later in October of 1947. That’s when the custom of passing out the playful “candy bribes” began to appear in issues of children’s magazines like Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities, and in Halloween episodes of network radio programs like The Baby Snooks Show, The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Trick-or-treating was first depicted in a Peanuts comic strip in 1951, perhaps the image most identified with the children’s holiday in the hearts and minds of baby boomers today. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney debuted his Donald Duck movie “Trick or Treat”, and again when Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their popular television show. In 1953, less than a decade after that first festival in Irvington, the tradition of Halloween as a children’s holiday was fully accepted when UNICEF conducted it’s first national children’s charity fund raising campaign centered around trick-or-treaters.
z s-l640Most of this column’s readers are aware that part of my passion for history revolves around collecting, cataloging, displaying and observing antiques and collectibles. There exists in the collecting world a strong group of enthusiasts devoted to the pursuit and preservation of Halloween memorabilia of all types. Costumes, decorations, photographs, publications and postcards in particular. The origins of Halloween as we now know it might best be traced in the postcards issued to celebrate the tradition. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show costumed children, but do not depict trick-or-treating. It is believed that the pranks associated with early Halloween were perpetrated by unattended children left to their own devices while their parents caroused and partied without them. Some have characterized Halloween trick-or-treating as an adult invention to curtail vandalism previously associated with the holiday. Halloween was not widely accepted and many adults, as reported in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Sometimes, even the children protested. As late as Halloween of 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg.” Times have certainly changed since that first Halloween festival 65 years ago.
z 58bdce96102ac.imageA 2005 study by the National Confectioners Association reported that 80 percent of American households gave out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children, teenagers, and young adults planned to either venture out trick-or-treating or to participate in other Halloween associated activities. In 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and other related products accounted for $5.77 billion in revenue. An estimated $2 billion worth of candy will be passed out during this Halloween season and one study claims that “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and containing three pounds of sugar.” Yes, 65-years ago, Halloween looked quite different than it does today. Next week, doorbells all over Irvington will ring, doors will be opened and wide-eyed gaggles of eager children will unanimously cry out “Trick-or-Treat” from Oak Avenue to Pleasant Run Parkway.
z halloween festivalCostumed kids will be rewarded for their efforts with all sorts of tribute in the form of coins, nuts, popcorn balls, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys. As a casual observer born long after that first Irvington Halloween Festival and an active participant in the festivities that will begin next week, I’m glad that our Irvington forefathers skirted government regulations all those years ago. In fact, as a fan of all things Irvington, I’d go so far as to say that this community has played a big part in the Halloween holiday as we know it today. Because, grammar notwithstanding, nobody does Halloween like Irvington do.

 

Criminals, Ghosts

Gypsy Ghosts in Terry Hot. (Terre Haute, Indiana)

Original publish date:  March 20, 2014

z timthumbWhen you hear the term “Gypsy”, what comes to mind? A vagabond road wanderer? A classic motorcycle? Maybe a Sonny and Cher song? Well, let me share with you a real gypsy story from a century ago that happened just up the National Road in Terre Haute. On May 16, 1914 three bodies were interred in “Terry Hot’s” Highland Lawn cemetery. According to newspaper accounts of the day, at the burial site “strange balls of incense” were placed around the graves. As the caskets were slowly lowered into the ground, veiled women wailed, tore at their clothing and pounded their chests. Their grief cut through the thick sickly sweet smoke hovering over the graves like a switchblade. When the graves were closed wine bottles were opened and their contents pored atop each grave in the shape of a cross.
Socca Demetro, her father Bob Riska and son-in-law Joe Riska were gone. The trio had been part of a group of about thirty Gypsies who had traveled north from their winter quarters in Kentucky to set up camp on the outskirts of West Terre Haute, arriving on May 1st, 1914 . They parked their wagons and pitched their tents along Paris Avenue, an area that 100 years later still carries a seedy reputation populated by strip clubs, bars, liquor stores and cheap motels. West Terre Haute was a known “friendly” stopover for Gypsy caravans and railroad hobos. The self described “King of the Hobos”, known only as “A-No1”, lauded the area in his 1911 book “Hobo Camp Fire Tales” as a place with two great “hobo jungles” and very tolerant citizens.
No small feat when you consider that back then, Gypsies were a much despised group most associated with “curses, kidnapping, thievery and general chicanery”. Stories were told of how the “filthy gypsies” would kidnap children and steal everything in sight. The gypsies encamped here sustained themselves by fortune telling, horse-trading, and selling their handmade goods to the townsfolk. It was considered high risk entertainment to brave a walk through these camps to witness the exotic women and ethnic traditions not usually found in the American heartland. Shopkeepers were eager to sell their visitors staple goods but were forever keeping a keen eye out for shoplifting connected to the Gypsy people.
z roma-childrenThe May Day visit began like any other visit to town by the Gypsies. But Sunday May 3rd would prove to be an especially raucous day in camp. No-one knows what the Gypsies were celebrating, but celebrating they were. During the day (and through most of the night) 8 kegs of beer, wine and ale were consumed in camp. Neighbors reported the “camp was a scene of brawling and hilarity.” Eventually, most of the Gypsies passed out cold in their bunks. But in the predawn hours of Monday, one man still stalked the camp: John Demetro.
John (Pronounced Tsine in the Gypsy culture), was a large, surly man with a commanding presence. He was a 55 year-old Brazilian who listed his profession as coppersmith, and most considered him to be a leader of the band. By 5:30 AM, a drunken Demetro was convinced that his wife Socca had been unfaithful to him and he felt his in-laws were covering it up. Around 6:00 the camp was startled awake by the sound of gunshots. Panic spread through the camp after 3 dead bodies were found in the Demetro tent. Big John was not among them. Terrified clan members ran to a nearby saloon and adjacent farmhouse to report the crime. West Terre Haute police were notified and quickly responded.
z gypsy-wagon-with-hohrseCamp residents warned officers to be careful as Demetro was still stalking around the camp, most likely armed with his 16-shot Remington rifle, and was sure not to go down without a fight. Officers found him sitting in front of his tent, gun laid across his lap, staring blankly at the ground. Policemen cautiously approached, guns drawn, ready for a gunfight. But instead of resisting, Old John placidly handed over his gun and calmly surrendered. When they drew back the tent flap, they learned that Demetro had first bludgeoned, then shot, his wife to death. He then turned the gun on her father Bob Riska and shot Joe Riska in the face. Socca and Bob were DOA but Joe, despite missing half of his head, was still clinging to life. They took John to jail and Joe to the hospital were he died of his awful shotgun wound the next day.
After John was taken to jail, the Gypsy “tribe” set about the task of the burying their dead. The bodies were taken to Hickman’s funeral home and the tribe moved east of Terre Haute away from the death scene. The tribe asked for the most expensive caskets and purchased them with cash. Soon, the upscale stores in town were visited by groups of exotically attired Gypsies who purchased the best clothing available for their dead. Socca was dressed in an expensive “silk dress of brilliant colors and oriental design.” Her head was wrapped a crimson red silk scarf, her feet covered by red silk stockings and red leather slippers. Her father, Bob, wore a fine dark suit and crisp felt hat. Son-in-law Joe was dressed in a light suit, expensive Panama hat and low cut tan shoes. Both men wore silk underwear. Pipes and exotic tobacco were placed in each coffin. The bodies were covered with white silk sheets.
When a reporter attempted to ask an aged woman a few questions, she broke down, wailing between statements in broken English and murmuring Demetro’s name in a thick accent while she mimicked the signs of a hanging. In the meantime, John was arraigned in city court on May 8th, ironically the day after Congress declared Mother’s Day a National holiday and the day before President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law. After entering a plea of not guilty, he was charged with murder four days later and a September trial scheduled. It was the beginning of a two-year process.
After two continuances, the trial commenced in September of 1915. Although nearly a year and a half later, members of the tribe flooded the town for the event, most staying in a boarding house on North 4th Street. The night before the trial, police responded to the boarding house on a report noted as a “babblement” by the dispatcher. A scuffle had started in one of the rooms when a supporter of the accused bellowed that he was going to pay $300 to get Demetro out of jail. Police had to push through a crowd of curious locals to get into the house. Once inside, police drew their revolvers when they were confronted by an angry crowd of Gypsies fighting among themselves. To diffuse the situation, they hustled seven men outside to a waiting paddy wagon and off to jail. After the situation calmed down, aided by nearly every police officer in Terre Haute, all but one of the men were released.
Later, around midnight, a member of the clan walked into the station to file a complaint against boarding house owner Charles Grubb. He accused the innkeeper of stealing $ 40 from under the pillow of Demetro John’s mother. Grubb was arrested. The next day at the trial the Gypsies were searched before being allowed entry into the courtroom. The accused sat in a chair surrounded by his son and 3 nervous deputies. After much legal wrangling, the case was postponed yet again. Prosecutor “Little” Dick Wereneke argued against it, citing costs of once again bringing back witnesses to testify, but failed. Defense lawyers argued that their client could not possibly get a fair trial in this town and asked for a change of venue, and succeeded.
The trial was moved to nearby Rockville in covered bridge country. In January, 1915 the court convened but this time, the John Demetro who appeared in court was a broken man. He had lost 60 pounds and he was pale as a ghost. Seems that jail had taken a toll on the man who had previously lived a life unbound by walls or borders. Jailers reported he had collapsed while making the short trip from the jail to the courthouse. They told the judge that John “worries about his problems and seldom eats.” In addition, Demetro was broke. He entered jail in 1914 with $ 5,000 in his possession but the costs of his defense had made him a pauper.
Once again, the trial was postponed. In April, 1916, a plea bargain was made. Two of the murder charges were dropped and the defendant plead guilty to the second degree murder of his wife. On April 20th he was taken to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to serve out a life sentence. The long ordeal was over. By now, he was 58-years-old and prison records list his mental condition as insane. He spent most of his time in the prison hospital. Astonishingly, the government of Indiana wanted this sickly Gypsy prisoner off its hands. On December 12th, 1916, within 18 months of Old John’s imprisonment and against the wishes of his own Board of Pardons, Governor James P. Goodrich paroled Demetro (longtime rumors persist that a bribe was passed). The parole stated that John “had no previous criminal record, was in poor health, bordering on insanity, and suffering from ‘locomotor attaxis’ which prevented him from walking.” He was to be transported back to Brazil by his son to die. He was released on December 13th.
z gypsyJohn Demetro’s wife and other victims lay in a Terre Haute Cemetery far from the lands of their birth. In Terre Haute’s Highland Cemetery Gypsies make almost annual pilgrimages to visit the graves each summer. Of course, there are numerous reports that the gravesites are haunted by “Gypsy Ghosts”, but most consider these stories as mere folklore designed to scare girlfriends and make kids nervously giggle. But, like every historical ghost story, there is truth behind the legend.

 

Ghosts, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture

Ghosts of the Vinton House. Cambridge City, Indiana

Vinton HouseOriginal publish date:  September 2, 2013

If you’re looking for something to do this weekend and want to get out of town for the day, I have a suggestion for you. Pack up the spouse, the kids, friend or significant other and head out to Cambridge City, 45 minutes east of Indy, for Canal Days festivities on the Historic National Road. Canal Days is a street festival in an old canal town that features some of the best antiquing and specialty shopping in the state. I’ll even take you on a ghost tour if you wish (there are 2 different tours this Saturday night) where you can visit one of Indiana’s most haunted antique malls, the Vinton House.
Canal Days is always held on the first weekend after Labor Day and I’ve led ghost tours in this community for nearly a decade. Similar to the Irvington ghost walk, Cambridge City tours begin at 6:00 PM for the west side of town and then again at 8:30 for the east side of town. The east side tour concludes near midnight in the abandoned Capitol Hill cemetery. The old cemetery, whose last burial took place in 1931, is the beneficiary of the tour with 100% of the proceeds going to it’s preservation. The one element that the tours have in common, along with the Lincoln Ghost train of course, is the Vinton House.
The Vinton House was the oldest continuously operating Hotel in Indiana until it closed in 1981. During it’s lifetime, aside from being a prominent landmark on the National Road, the hotel saw it’s fair share of famous guests including Henry Clay, Governor Oliver P. Morton and Irvington’s own George Washington Julian. One longtime rumor claims that Abraham Lincoln himself stayed at the Inn while traveling through Indiana in the 1840s campaigning for fellow Whig Party candidates. This legend, although unsubstantiated, is so persistent that one of the guest rooms was actually named “The Lincoln Room” by the hotel’s last owner.
For over a decade the Vinton House, located at 20 West Main Street in Cambridge, has been re-energized as an antique mall. Over those 10 years, the Vinton House has gained a strong reputation for carrying one of the best selections of country antiques and primitives in the Midwest. Add to that mix the town’s other fine established shops and malls like Building 125, the National Road Antique Mall and the Hole-in-the-wall, to name only a few, and you have some of the finest antiquing in the state all within a 2-block stretch known as “Antique Alley”.
The Vinton House was saved from demolition in the 1990s by members of Cambridge City’s historic preservation group (known as Western Wayne Heritage, Inc.) when the group purchased the famous old hotel and began renovations that continue to this day. Built in the 1840s at the intersection of the newly opened Whitewater Canal and the National Road, Aaron Reisor opened the opulent three-story hotel alongside the Canal bank. Although the Canal is long gone, it’s route can be easily traced by looking at the building’s west side.
The Vinton House is named for longtime owner Elbridge Vinton, who ran it from Antebellum times to Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era. After Elbridge’s death in 1908, his daughters ran the hotel until the Great Depression. During that near three-quarter century, the old hotel has seen innumerable comings-and-goings. It seems that many of those old guests, along with Elbridge himself, have never left the building. Contrary to what you may think, the ghosts of the Vinton House are not a modern day phenomenon. The wayward spirits of residents past date back as far as the World War II Era while the building was still an active hotel.
These wayward spirits were first brought to my attention by April Riggle, a dear friend and the previous manager of the antique mall. April, who unexpectedly passed away at age 43 in 2009, was very sensitive to the old inn’s spectral visitors and had many encounters during her many years at the Vinton House. The ghosts would most often manifest by the sounds of furniture scooting across the floor in the second floor “Lincoln Room” directly above the checkout counter. These sounds were heard when April was alone in the locked building after all guests and fellow employees had left for the day.
In time, these scratching and scooting sounds were being picked up on the security cameras within the building. When April, or other witnesses, would ascend the stairs to investigate the strange sounds, they could find nothing there. However, customers in the mall often asked the staff who the people dressed in period clothes were and remark about the strong smell of cigar smoke or alcohol that would accompany these sightings upstairs. Of course, upon closer examination, there was never anyone there to account for them.
This year, after we were kindly asked to resurrect the ghost tours after a 3-year hiatus, I visited the Vinton House to get reacquainted with the old building. Danny and Tammy Hall now manage the mall and, with an assist from daughter Lacy, work tirelessly to keep it’s shelves and cases full of high quality antiques and collectibles. “We get people in here all the time asking us about the ghosts and the tours” says Tammy. “But I’ve been in here at all hours of the night and day and have yet to experience anything.”
Danny, one of the area’s most experienced and seasoned pickers, echoes his wife’s sentiment. “I’ve been working in old buildings, barns and houses since I was a little kid and although I’ve found myself in the pitch dark going nose-to-nose with angry possum’s and raccoon’s, I’ve never seen a ghost.”
The couple walked me around the old building showing me the many improvements that have been made since my last visit. I asked Tammy if she shared the same passion for antiques as her husband does and she quickly answered yes. Danny, who I have personally run into on several occasions over the years at area antique shows lit only by the light of a flashlight before the show actually opens (an old pickers trick), has one of the keenest eyes in the region. “I get my biggest thrill cleaning and presenting the items he brings home to place around the mall” says Tammy. “But I’m ready to go at 2:30 AM if need be.”
Tammy has repainted nearly every square inch of the antique mall. Her attention to detail and sharp decorator’s eye can be witnessed in every room. Western Wayne has established a fine museum on the third floor that tells the story of the town, hotel and canal in meticulous detail. But, unlike many antique malls, the sales floor of the Vinton House “Ain’t No Museum.” Although many of the pieces in the mall are museum quality, the prices are affordable and the selection is widely varied. I have personally watched as a friend bought an old 19th century horse buggy and a casket (it was empty, don’t worry) on a single visit from Danny. A testament to the fact that you never know what you’re going to find there.
Cambridge City ghost tours always start in the cellar of the Vinton House, a long abandoned brick-lined space that was originally at Canal level. Segregated from the upper class guest rooms of the hotel, it’s history involved drinking, gambling and nefarious ventures during it’s century-and-a-half lifetime. The room is off limits to the public (except for ghost tour night) and always kept locked. This day was no exception. We entered the space for a quick survey in preparation for this Saturday night’s tours.
As we walked and talked, I explained what might be expected on tour night and told a couple of the cellar’s ghost stories to the couple (they had never heard them before). As we prepared to exit the cellar, this “Para-normally Challenged” couple stopped and shined a flashlight on a curious formation in the dirt at our feet. “That’s new. That wasn’t here the last time,” Danny said. Tammy agreed as we examined an area on the dirt floor where the sandy soil had been piled up carefully, by purposeful hands, with a central brick acting as a prominent fortress atop the mound complete with a small 8-to-10 inch tree twig flagpole rising from the center hole. The spooky looking little formation was not created by accident. “Leave that there, untouched.” I said, “I think people are gonna want to see that Saturday Night.”
See for yourself this Saturday September 7th (2013). Come spend the day at Cambridge City’s Canal Days celebration and stay for the ghost tours. First tour departs at 6:00 and the last tour at 8:30. It promises to be a ghostly good time.

Creepy history, Ghosts, Witches

Witch Marks.

w1Original publish date:  July 14, 2010

In the spirit of the approaching Halloween season, I’d like to share a story with you that combines many of the elements that peak my curiosity and fuel my passion for history and folklore. Recently, transplanted British antique dealer and collector Rick McMullen traveled back to his motherland in search of merchandise to sell in his shop or add to his home, which he describes as “virtually architecturally antique.”

Rick journeyed to an antique fair near Lincolnshire County in the Midlands of Great Britain where he found a curious large hand-carved oak panel. The 200 pound panel stood over 7 feet tall and was over 4 feet wide and was made in the “Carolean” style dating to sometime in the 1600’s. He had the panel shipped back to the states along with a Gothic-Victorian Era staircase and a 16th century oak timber frame with the intentions of incorporating all of them into his Virginia home.

However, it was that panel that made Rick’s mind race. What was it? What would he do with it? Where did it come from? When Rick’s wife saw the panel, she thought it might make a good headboard for a bed, but Rick quickly nixed that idea. Instead, the panel was set aside for future consideration while ongoing remodeling projects took precedence. There it would rest in peace until one fateful October evening when Rick was watching the history Channel and he saw something that seemed “hauntingly” familiar.

w2He was watching a documentary about witches and soon a segment flashed across the screen that told about the superstitious markings made by ancient people used to ward off witchcraft. The program talked about an English estate called “Kew Palace”, built in 1631. The owners were particularly superstitious, and believed that evil influences or witches could enter the house disguised as cats or frogs and cast spells on people while they slept. To ward this off, the original carpenters who made the roof carved special secret signs near windows, doors, fireplaces and other vulnerable places, to protect themselves from evil. ( Other ways of protecting a house included hiding old shoes, mummified cats and kittens under the floorboards, or ‘urine bottles’ filled with hair and nail-clippings in special, secret cavities.)

Rick immediately realized that he’d seen these very same markings before but couldn’t remember where. He searched his home and inventory looking for something that might jog his memory. He was about to give up when it came to him. It was the panel.

He turned the panel around and discovered about 40 hand carved figures and markings. These hand-cut marks varied in design and structure from interlaced V’s that more closely resemble fancy old English W’s to numerour carved daisy wheels. McMullen learned that these marks were called “ritual marks” or “apotropais”, a Greek word meaning “Intended to ward off evil” and were an important part of the folklore of Great Britain from the 15th to the 17th centuries. They were designed to keep witches, evil spirits and things that go bump in the night out of the home.

Among the Ancient Greeks the doorways and windows of buildings were felt to be particularly vulnerable to evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures would be carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Those other openings, fireplaces or chimneys, may also have been carved. Rather than figural carvings, these seem to have been random simple geometric or letter carvings.

Contrary to what you may think, these ritual marks were not displayed prominently in the British Isles. It might make sense to put them over doors and above windows, but they were most often secreted away in hidden places to prevent a witch seeing and combating them. There is evidence of these “witches signs” appearing in churches, homes and other stone buildings all over the British Isles dating back to the late Medieval, Jacobean and Carolean Eras.

w3Rick has no idea where the panel originally came from but he suspects that the symbols were cut into the item by the resident family before being affixed as a softening decoration to an ancient stone wall. That way the marks would be unseen by the casual observer, presumed witch or evil spirit, but still provide protection for the family at the same time. Rick quickly discovered that there has been little formal study of these “witches signs” and historians have offered little support to his theories, choosing instead to dismiss them as silly superstitions.

Rick McMullen surmises that the two sets of deeply carved double V’s invoke the protection of holy Mary, “Virgin os Virgins” and mother of Jesus Christ. He believes that the carved daisy wheels, one of which is 18 inches in diameter, represent the “circle of life” with the petals overlapping each other to effectively become one.

McMullen admits that his theories are based on the scant available research and conjecture on the subject. “It’s quite bizarre,” he says. “But I believe it’s the only one in America…to my knowledge, these ritual marks predate Jamestown (1607, the first English settlement in the United States) and by the 17th century, it’s believed the marks were no longer used.”

However, the tradition can still be found in the often grotesque exaggerated faces carved into pumpkin jack-o-lanterns displayed each Halloween on porches and in windows of houses all over central Indiana. These cute childish symbols of Halloween were originally designed to avert evil and ward off the souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walking the earth at that time.  Today, carved pumpkins are considered to be a wholesome part of the Halloween season shared by children and their parents in kitchens all over the state. A far cry from the origin of the mysterious ancient cravings known as “witch marks.”

Ghosts, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Clifton Webb’s Ghost-Forgotten Hoosier Hollywood Icon

webb1Original publish date:  November 9, 2008

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you should recognize the name Clifton Webb. If you’ve never heard of him, but consider yourself a fan of old Hollywood movies, don’t despair as you’ve probably seen Webb in one of his many old movies or television appearances made during his long career in Tinseltown. He’s one of those great character actors whose face is very familiar but whose name escapes us. So great in fact that he was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globe awards ( winning one in 1946) during his career. His story is sadly sweet.

If you’re a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you should recognize the name Clifton Webb. If you’ve never heard of him, but consider yourself a fan of old Hollywood movies, don’t despair as you’ve probably seen Webb in one of his many old movies or television appearances made during his long career in Tinseltown. He’s one of those great character actors whose face is very familiar but whose name escapes us. So great in fact that he was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and 2 Golden Globe awards ( winning one in 1946) during his career. His story is sadly sweet.  Clifton Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck to a multi-generational Hoosier farming family in Marion County on November 19, 1889. If you find a biography on Mr. Webb, it will most likely claim that he was born in Beech Grove. However that information proves faulty when you realize that Beech Grove wasn’t formed as a community until after he was born. Beech Grove as we know it was not formed until 1906. Before that time it was known as a region known for the many Beech trees that populated the area. The town of Beech Grove was formed when the Big Four railroad began to use it as a hub during the early 1900s.

It’s much more accurate to say that Clifton Webb was born nearer to Brookville Road in the South eastern area of Marion County. So it’s accurate to say that Webb started life as an east-sider. However, he did not stay long. Webb’s father, Jacob Grant Hollenbeck (1867-1939) , was an Indiana farmer and sometime green grocer. His domineering mother, Maybelle A. Parmelee (1869-1960) was the daughter of a railroad conductor. Maybelle insisted that her “Little Webb” keep her family name along with that of Webb’s father. She moved with her “little Webb” to New York City after her husband’s job as a ticket taker did not suit her plans for her son’s career advancement in the theater.

Maybelle was known to tell anyone she came in contact with the “We never speak of him. He didn’t care for the theater.” Maybelle had “little Webb” enrolled in singing, dancing, & acting classes in New York City by the age of 5. Maybelle was an effective and aggressive stage mother who managed to get “little Webb” his stage debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of only 7 in a play called “The Brownies”. Webb was so effective in this first role that he was signed up to tour with a traveling vaudeville acting troupe. Shortly afterwards he was tapped for lead roles as Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist. Maybelle kept “little Webb” busy between performances with painting and opera lessons. Webb quite school by the age of 13. He was performing opera solos on stage by the age of 17.

By the age of 19, Webb had dropped both the Parmelee and Hollenbeck names and adopted the stage name we know as “Clifton Webb”. He was performing regularly on Broadway and it was not unusual to find his mother Maybelle’s name listed in the playbill along with her “little Webb” as a minor scene player or extra. During this period, Webb co-starred with legends like Will Rogers and Al Jolson in plays and musicals written by luminaries like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, the Gershwins and Jerome Kern. Webb received billing above Humphrey Bogart in Bogie’s first stage performance. Although he appeared in a few silent films in the 1920s, he stuck to Broadway until 1944.

webbclifton01Webb was tapped by director Otto Preminger to appear in the classic “Laura” alongside Gene Tierney. He would receive his first Oscar nomination for this appearance, even though he was relatively unknown to movie fans. 2 years later in 1946 he again starred with Tierney in the cult classic film “The Razor’s Edge”. He received his second Oscar nomination for this role. Webb’s created the lasting character “Mr. Belvedere” in 1949 for the film “Sitting Pretty” and would reprise the role 2 more times. This character would earn him his third and final Academy Award nomination. This same “Mr. Belvedere” character would be retooled as a TV show and played by 4 different actors from the 1950s thru the 1980s.

Some of Webb’s other films (He made 25 films in all) include: “The Dark Corner” in 1946, “Cheaper by the Dozen” with Myrna Loy in 1950, “For Heaven’s Sake” in 1950, “Dreamboat” in 1952, “Woman’s World” in 1954, “Titanic” in 1954 (He played Barbara Stanwyck’s doomed husband), “Three Coins in a Fountain” (1954), “The Man Who Never Was” in 1956, “Boy on a Dolphin” (1957), and “The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker” in 1959. It’s been claimed that Webb’s real life persona was most like that of his “Mr. Belvedere” character, described as being somewhat of a “Sophisticated, stuffy, effete snob” by some who knew him. It was no secret that Clifton Webb was gay. This at a time in Hollywood when it was an unwritten rule in Tinseltown to “Don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Clifton Webb’s elegant style landed him on Hollywood’s best dressed list for decades. Webb was the subject of many great stories and quotes in Hollywood. One of comic Bob Newhart’s favorite stories is to relate how while he was a young & naive star in Hollywood at one of his first exclusive parties, Clifton Webb approached this wide eyed newcomer and startled Newhart by asking him if he wanted to dance. Despite this obvious frankness, Clifton Webb managed to keep his personal life out of the Hollywood tabloids. Although the rumor in late 1950’s Hollywood was that Webb was once romantically linked with fellow Hoosier icon James Dean. It was widely known that Webb openly flirted with young, good looking men at parties in Hollywood, taking satisfaction in garnering more attention from them than the women in the room.

However, this is all unsubstantiated Hollywood gossip. Webb was never seriously linked to anyone in Hollywood, male or female. He never married. This is at least due in part to his abnormally close relationship with his mother, who seemed to be the sole object of Webb’s tenderness and love. She lived with her son until her death at age 91 in 1960. Webb was distraught. So much so that his friend Noel Coward tried to get him to snap out of the deep depression months after her death by telling Webb, “It must be difficult to be orphaned at 70, Clifton.” As for trivia, cartoonist Jay Ward claimed that he modeled the “Peabody” character from the Rocky & Bullwinkle show on Clifton Webb.

Direct quotes attributed to Webb include, when speaking of his alternative lifestyle, he said “It’s never morals, it’s manners.” and “You can be rich and dull or poor and amusing–but you must always contribute something to the community.” On the subject of wearing a partially exposed handkerchief in a suit jacket pocket, Webb said “Never pointed, never square…it should always be, of course, pear shaped.”

Clifton Webb never really recovered from the loss of his mother and his health began to suffer for it. He reportedly locked her room and refused to remove her belongings, choosing instead to leave everything just as he left it. He spent the last 5 years of his life as a sad, lonely recluse in his Beverly Hills home. Sadly, upon her death he slipped into a prolonged period of denial and depression going so far as to contact dozens of clairvoyants and spirit mediums in an effort to contact the spirit of his dead mother. One of these mediums was the former Blonde Bombshell star Mae West, who was herself known for a powerful spiritually intuitive gift of communicating with the spirits of the dead.

Clifton Webb died of a heart attack on October  13, 1966 at the age of 76. He was awarded his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame. It’s located at 6840 Hollywood Blvd. He was interred in a burial vault at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. His is crypt 2350, Corridor G-6 in the Abbey of Psalms. Why so much detail about Webb’s burial spot? Because it’s rumored to be haunted by Webb himself.

Rarely will you find accounts of ghosts “haunting” their gravesites, but Clifton Webb is the exception to this general rule. Clifton Webb’s restless spirit has been seen haunting the crypt in the section known as “The Sanctuary of Peace” where his mortal remains were laid to rest. Mr. Webb is always seen fastidiously dressed in his dapper suit and sometimes has been known to startle visitors by yelling at them in his distinctive voice. There are even a few accounts of Mr. Webb haunting his old house at 1005 Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills before it was torn down many years ago. It has been claimed that the reason for his haunting is his reluctance to relinquish his fame and the fear that his legacy might be forgotten. The precursor for these ghostly visits by Webb in his burial vaults is the unnerving sound of the marble slab that covers the opening shifting back and forth.

Clifton_Webb1I can tell you from first hand experience, this slab does indeed move to and fro within the slot that covers the burial cavity. I had heard these legends and visited the Hollywood Forever cemetery 9 years ago to test the theory. I will tell you that it’s an eerie feeling and an even stranger sound. If I were alone in that vault and heard that sound without explanation as to whom or what was causing it, I would not stick around to see if it was my famous fellow Hoosier, Clifton Webb!

Creepy history, Ghosts

The Spooky “Hidden Mother” Photo.

Hidden Mother photo side blanketOriginal publish date:  August 21, 2015

If you like haunting antique shops and shows like me, I’m about to give you a new hobby, or at the very least blow your mind a little. Next time you find yourself walking by a table with a shoebox full of old CDV’s, tintypes and cabinet photos (they seem to appear everywhere) pick them up and look carefully at the photos of small children and babies. You might just find a “Hidden Mother” in one them.
Back in the stone ages before the advancement of digital imaging, cameras required film which then required development at a photo lab. The lab would take the film, create a negative, print your image and Eureka, you had a photo you could actually hold in your hands, not just look at on a screen. The first practical digital cameras started popping up in the 1980s, but before that, there was no “photoshopping” people out of negatives. True, negatives from commercial cameras from the 1930s on could be manipulated by the skillful use of a razor blade and a re-shoot, but they were clunky and easy to spot. In the case of Civil War Era CDVs (Carte de Visites) and tintypes or Victorian Era Cabinet photos, editing was nearly impossible, so other methods were utilized. In early photographs, a subject had to sit still because of long camera exposure times, usually 10-15 seconds depending on the lighting.
The longer the exposure, the better the image. That is, of course, unless the subject was a squirming baby, distracted pet or active small child. In those instances, these subjects were sometimes held in a deftly disguised lap or reassured by a disembodied adult hand just out of range of the camera lens. In some cases , this was accomplished using a photographer’s assistant but in most cases it was a relative, a nanny, or father, but primarily it was the child’s mother. Collectors make no distinction and photos of this description are always known as “hidden mother photographs” of “hidden mama photos.”
Back in the horse-and-buggy days there were really only a few ways to have your picture made. You either visited a photography studio (every town had one), went to an event like a Carnival, Amusement Park, State or County Fair to visit the photographer’s tent, or took advantage of traveling photographers who routinely roamed the back roads (often with an adorable pony in tow) to make a picture of the family for a quarter. Since many parents wanted photographs showing only the children, photographers had to get creative to block out the person in charge of corralling the child.
This was accomplished a couple of ways: a mother would drape herself in fabric and hold the squirming child on her lap or she would attempt to hide herself out of the camera’s view. This resulted in photos that at best subtly hid the caretaker from view or, at worse, created an image that looked looked like there was a creepy old ghost in the room. In in the case of the undisguised “hidden mama”, the mother’s features were confined to a far edge or an upper corner, that way, after the photo was developed, it could be placed behind an oval mat or frame which would crop out the mother, thereby deceiving the viewer into thinking the child was posing alone.
There were many techniques used to disguise the mother and a good photographer could make her nearly invisible, but she was never quite completely gone. If you look closely, you’ll see a hand, a set of fingers or the outline of an arm (sometimes the silhouette of an entire body) hidden within the photo. Just as digital photography changed the camera industry forever, improvements in technology led to exposure time being drastically cut down from minutes to seconds by the close of 19th century. Those uncomfortably long exposure times gave us some unmistakable Victorian Era photography peculiarities that you’ll find in every photograph from that age, regardless if you’re lucky enough to find a “hidden mother” photo or not. These include the stiff postures and unsmiling faces of subjects trying to remain perfectly still during the excruciatingly long time it took for the photographer to remove the lens cap and expose the film. Having had several of these photos made of me and my family over the years, I can testify that you can remain itch free for hours until the moment that a box camera photographer tells you “Okay, stand still” and counts off the seconds. One unconscious twitch or involuntary movement would result in a ruined picture. You could blink your eyes and not have it appear in the finished photo, but that was about it.
Now that you know about these photos, I suspect you’ll start looking and finding them on your own. Obviously, you first need to find an old fashioned photo of a child, but failing that, you can also look at the photos of the adults, usually when they are posed standing alone in a studio. Sometimes, the cast iron photographer’s stand can be seen behind them. Look first at the floor behind the subject’s feet and then look at the neck. These bulky stands looked like an old floor lamp with tripod footing and a U-shaped topper that was placed behind the neck to hold the subject still. Most of these are subtle, but some are quite obvious when you know what to look for.
In the case of “hidden mother” photos, the mother is most often “seen” disguised as a chair or camouflaged under decorative throws behind or holding the child. The throws can be as simple as a black or white tablecloth (the white tablecloths REALLY making it look like a ghost) or bulky Persian rugs and drapes with heavy backings that surely made the “disguisee” herself wriggle uncomfortably during the process. Another interesting subset of the “ghost mother” phenomenon has developed more recently. That is the debate among fans of this type of photo asking, is the child dead or alive?
Post Mortem photos were very popular during the same era. While the practice of taking a photo of a dead person, particularly an infant, appears macabre, perhaps repulsive, to people today, it has a plausible explanation. The Post Mortem photo was often the only photo the family had of that person. Most of these photos are of the very old or the very young. The argument in the late 1800s to early 1900s was that elderly folks were born before the advent of commercial photography and usually lived their entire lives in rural settings with no opportunity, or need, for a photo to have ever been attempted of them. For babies and small children, the argument would be that parents believed there would be plenty of time to have photos made of the kids down the line. An unexpected, early death would hasten that schedule.
Quite obviously it would be highly unusual (and very creepy) to find a hidden mother in the photo of an adult. But not so unusual in the instance of a photo of a dead child. Grief and mourning for lost children was the same then as it is now. Depending on the timing of the sad event, the parent may have been reluctant to allow the child to be removed from their clutches while awaiting burial, particularly in the very early stages of infant death. The principal question is, if the child is dead and not moving, why is the mother hidden?
Well, just as photographers used cast iron braces, officially known as “posing stands”, to keep a wavering subject steady during the prolonged exposure process, perhaps the “hidden mother” was used for the dearly departed child because the parent refused to have their baby propped up by cold steel. After all, a concerned mother would want her precious child to appear as lifelike as possible and in fact many Post-Mortems have accomplished just that and are hard to distinguish by any but the most expert eye.
I’ve included a trio of photos of the “hidden mother” variety for you to see. But there is at least one obvious example of a Post Mortem hidden mama photo that you can easily view on the net by simply typing “hidden mother Post Mortem” into your browser bar. I decided to omit that photo from this article for the sake of propriety choosing instead to let you the reader make that choice for yourself. So if there is one obvious example of a Post Mortem “hidden mama”, there surely must be more. Regardless, the next time you pass one of those shoeboxes full of old photos invariably marked as “Instant Relatives”, pick up a stack and peruse them. Pay close attention, you might just find a “hidden mother” of your own.