Last week I wrote of Irvington namesake Washington Irving’s connection to the author most associated with the Victorian Era, Charles Dickens. While nearly everyone is familiar with Dickens classic seasonal ghost story, “A Christmas Carol”, not many have experienced the magic of a Washington Irving Christmas tale. Although Irving lived a portion of his life as a European vagabond meticulously chronicling the customs, traditions and lore that was fast fading away from the centuries old landscape, he is best remembered today for his American folklore stories like Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane.
For decades, Irving’s description of traditional English Christmas celebrations that influenced nearly every author that came after him were thought to have been formulated and influenced by parties and gatherings he had personally attended. However, its closer to the truth to say that Irving’s Christmas stories were not solely based on any holiday celebration he had attended, but rather many were accounts intentionally created by the imagination of Irving himself. In other words, Washington Irving’s masterful prose influenced generations of experts and historians through the power of his superior skill of embellishment.
In 1808, Irving created an updated version of Old St. Nick that rode over the treetops in a horse-drawn wagon “dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites.” Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long-stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad-brimmed hat. Irving’s work also included the familiar phrase, “laying a finger beside his nose” some 14 years before a Troy, New York newspaper published the iconic children’s poem “Twas the night before Christmas,” which turned Santa’s wagon into a sleigh powered by reindeer.
Irving describes St. Nicholas’ holiday activities by saying, “At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children.” These descriptions were first published as observances of New York’s old Dutch tradition. His “Old Christmas” tales, first published in 1820, are among the earliest popular accounts of 19th century English Christmas customs, many of which would soon be adopted in the United States and remain familiar to us today.
Irving’s stories are full of mistletoe and evergreen wreaths, Christmas candles and blazing Yule logs, singing and dancing, carolers at the door and the preacher at the church, wine and wassail, and, of course, the festive Christmas dinner. The description of Old Christmas as Irving experienced it in “Merrie Olde England,” helped to popularize these traditions in his native land.
The modern day reader might not realize it but Irving’s descriptions of his own Christmas vision were a subtle form of protest. In an era when our new nation was busy finding its own footing, barely two decades after the writing of the American Constitution, Irving’s first formations of the “New” Christmas were created in an attempt to pull the religious holiday away from the churches and government buildings and take it back where he felt it belonged, with the people. Irving describes it thusly, “Even the poorest cottage welcomed the festive season with green decorations of bay and holly…the cheerful fire glanced its rays through the lattice, inviting the passenger to raise the latch, and join the gossip knot huddled around the hearth, beguiling the long evening with legendary jokes and oft-told Christmas tales.” Irving, ever the bard, also wrote, “At Christmas be merry, and thankful withal. And feast thy poor neighbours, the great and the small.”
Irving’s work was our fledgling country’s first introduction to Christmas tradition and, although many of them survive to the present day, some have morphed into modern versions slightly different from those described by Washington Irving. The mistletoe is still hung in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas; and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.
The Yule-log is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house on Christmas eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with a piece of last year’s log. While it burned there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. The Yule-log was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered bad luck. If a squinting person come to the house while it was burning, or a barefooted person, it was considered bad luck. A piece of the Yule-log was carefully put away to light the next year’s Christmas fire.
Washington Irving profoundly influenced the modern day American Christmas in two distinct ways. First, his reinvention of jolly St. Nick into a gift toting ambassador gave hope to every child across the land. Second, the timing of the Christmas holiday during an other wise bleak wintry season offered an emotional waymark to a cabin-fever populace, both young and old. Within a decade of the publication of Irving’s Christmas “Sketch Book,” Americans were greeting each other with “Merry Christmas” wishes, and stores on main streets across America extended their hours to accommodate holiday shoppers.
So remember, this Christmas weekend, as you gather together with friends, loved ones and family to celebrate holiday traditions, think of Washington Irving, America’s Father Christmas.
Perhaps no single Indianapolis community has a stronger connection to the Victorian Era than Irvington. The Victorian era is defined as the period of British Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 until her death in 1901. Irvington was founded in 1870 at the height of the Victorian Era. The man widely acknowledged as the most prolific chronicler of this Era is English novelist, Charles Dickens. It is Dickens whom we look to when we envision a Victorian Christmas and it is Dickens beloved story “A Christmas Carol” that most Irvingtonians think of at Christmas. After all, it just wouldn’t be Christmas in Irvington without the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, now would it?
However, Irvington’s ties to a Dickensian Christmas are stronger than you might think. Charles Dickens drew upon many personal memories and influences while writing “A Christmas Carol”; grim memories of his father’s imprisonment for debt, his depressing year spent working in the cellar of a shoe factory as a 10-year-old, his outrage over the condition of the poor and uneducated (especially the children working in the mines and industry), and remarkably the influences he found in the works of his literary hero, famed American author and Irvington namesake Washington Irving.
Dickens’s memorable descriptions of Christmas scenes in “A Christmas Carol” owe a great deal to Irving. In February of 1842, while attending a New York dinner hosted by Irving, Dickens amusingly revealed his devotion to the great American author when he rose his glass in a toast and said, “I say, gentlemen, I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.”
Dickens drew upon Irving’s, “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon Gent”, to recreate the joyful warehouse party scenes that the ghost of Christmas past reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge at the start of Dickens classic novel. Irving’s “Sketchbook” featured a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s influence can be found elsewhere in the novel as Mr. Wardle tells the party that it is customary for party guests to play games or tell ghost stories until Midnight on Christmas Eve.
Irving traveled extensively throughout Europe recording his experiences in notebooks, and he was especially fond of England and its old world character. He spent a couple of years living in Birmingham, where he wrote “Bracebridge Hall” in 1822, a blend of fact and fiction centered on an old manor house, its residents and guests, and their elaborate parties and tales. It was here that Irving enjoyed and later chronicled the grand Christmas festivities and rituals that had largely faded from English history. Irving’s descriptions of the Bracebridge Hall Christmas celebrations, with their dancing, singing, games, tales, mistletoe and holly clearly helped to shape those seen in Dingley Dell, site of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, and at the home of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred. Not coincidentally, these Irving inspired Dickensian images are now the visions we dream of when we conjure up a Victorian Christmas.
Irving’s descriptions of the short and cold winter days in his story “Old Christmas” make their way into the moral landscape lacking in Scrooge’s character in Dickens “A Christmas Carol”: “In the depth of winter, when nature lies despoiled of every charm, and wrapped in her shroud of sheeted snow, we turn for our gratifications to moral sources. The dreariness and desolation of the landscape, the short gloomy days and darksome nights, while they circumscribe our wanderings, shut in our feelings also from rambling abroad, and make us more keenly disposed for the pleasures of the social circle. Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused. We feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence upon each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms; and which, when resorted to, furnish forth the pure element of domestic felicity.”
Irving’s romantic memories of Christmas clash with his characteristic dark writing style prompting Dickens to offer his own vision, shaped by personal painful childhood memories from his past and his sympathy with the suffering of children brought on by the Industrial Revolution from his contemporary reality. Irving’s ancient Christmas rituals were set in an idyllic country mansion populated by stage coaches crowded with cheerful travelers over a broad, snow-covered landscape. Dickens places his Christmas tale squarely in the heart of London. Dickens setting is a claustrophobic fog choked, bone-chilling city seemingly caught in the grip of a final ice age: “the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in the brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice.”
Dickens Washington Irving inspired story popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas” and introduced the name ‘Scrooge’ and exclamation ‘Bah! Humbug!’ to the English language. However the book’s legacy is the powerful influence it has exerted upon its readers. A Christmas Carol” is widely credited with the “Spirit” of charitable giving associated so closely with the holiday today. Victorian Era examples can be found many places; in 1874, “Treasure Island” author Robert Louis Stevenson vowed to give generously after reading Dickens’s Christmas book, a Boston, Massachusetts merchant, expressed his generous hospitality by hosting two Christmas dinners after attending a reading of the book on Christmas Eve in 1867, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey and in 1901, the Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love.”
Historians claim that our modern day Christmas celebrations are largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by “A Christmas Carol”. Charles Dickens restructured Christmas as a family-based festival of generosity in place of the community-based and church-centered observations most prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries. Dickens Washington Irving inspired story influenced many aspects of current Christmas traditions found in Western culture, such as family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games, and a festive generosity of spirit.
Despite Dickens description, the cold London streets do not preclude the warmth of Christmas. Christmas, Dickens seems to be saying, can now be celebrated by anyone, that its rituals and joys are no longer the exclusive province of the upper classes in their country estates, but can be found in a London warehouse or in a simple London home, such as that of the Cratchit family. Because the population of London was growing exponentially its inhabitants could look to A Christmas Carol for much needed inspiration during a period of great economic and social stress.
Speaking solely for myself, I often find myself drawing upon Dickens description of Old Fezziwig when I think of how others may observe me. In the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Past conjures up the memory of Scrooge’s old employer, Mr. Fezziwig, who converts his warehouse into a festive hall in which to celebrate Christmas: “Clear away. There is nothing they [Fezziwig’s employees] wouldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.” Thus the ledger books, the daily grind, and the cold give way to music, dance, games, food, and fellowship.
As the ghost observes Scrooge wistfully watching the spirit riddled vision from his past he remarks, “A small matter,” mocks the Ghost of Christmas Past, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude. He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” To which Scrooge replies, “Fezziwig had the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lay in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gave was quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” I’ve often thought of this passage when I lament the high cost of Christmas and marvel at the eloquence of Dickens prose. I’m even prouder to learn that Washington Irving’s talent for the turn of a phrase contributed to that eloquence.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I must admit, I’m still stuck in Halloween mode. After all, despite the recent measurable snowfall, autumn is still in session and my thoughts always wander towards ghost stories at Christmas (remember friends, Scrooge is a ghost story). In a couple weeks, families will gather together to give thanks for all of the blessings bestowed upon them during the past year. While images of Pilgrims in high hats, square-toed shoes and plain brown clothing dance through our heads, it should be remembered that it was Abraham Lincoln who gave us the modern version of Thanksgiving. On October 3, 1863, three months to the day after the pivotal Union Army victory at Gettysburg, a grateful President Abraham Lincoln announced that the nation will celebrate an official Thanksgiving holiday that November 26. Well, the nation north of the Mason-Dixon line anyway.
Although Lincoln was the first to officially recognize the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, Halloween was just beginning to take root during the Civil War. Some historians credit the Irish for “inventing” Halloween in the United States. Or more specifically, the Irish “little people” with a tendency toward vandalism, and their tradition of “Mischief Night” that spread quickly through rural areas. According to American Heritage magazine (October 2001 / Vol. 52, Issue 7), “On October 31, young men roamed the countryside looking for fun, and on November 1, farmers would arise to find wagons on barn roofs, front gates hanging from trees, and cows in neighbors’ pastures. Any prank having to do with an outhouse was especially hilarious, and some students of Halloween maintain that the spirit went out of the holiday when plumbing moved indoors.”
So it is that the origins of our two most celebrated autumnal holidays trace their American roots directly to our sixteenth President. And no President in American history is more closely associated with ghosts than Abraham Lincoln. However, where did all of these Lincoln ghost stories originate? After all, they had to start somewhere because one thing is for certain, they didn’t come from Abraham Lincoln. Many historians believe that most of those stories (at least the Lincoln ghost stories in the White House) came from a middle-aged freedman born in Anne Arundel County Maryland who worked as a White House “footman” serving nine Presidents from U.S. Grant to Teddy Roosevelt. His duties as footman included service as butler, cook, doorman, light cleaning and maintenance.
Jeremiah “Jerry” Smith was a free born African American man born below the Mason-Dixon line in 1835. No small feat when you consider that, in 1850, 71 percent of Maryland’s black population was enslaved. Smith was an imposing figure, standing over 6 feet tall in an age when the average man stood 5 foot 8 inches in height. Although little is known about Smith’s personal history, by all accounts, Jerry had the manners of a country gentleman. During the Civil War, he served as a teamster for the Union Army, guiding vital supply trains made up of wagons, horses, and mules. It is believed that somewhere during the conflict, he made the acquaintance of General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, perhaps our greatest presidential horseman, no doubt appreciated Smith’s equine expertise.
At war’s end, Smith was working as a waiter in a Baltimore restaurant when his old acquaintance U.S. Grant came calling. After Grant was elected President, Smith went to work in the Grant White House and would serve from the age of Reconstruction through the Gilded Age and into the Progressive Era.
One of the few detailed descriptions of Smith comes from Col. William H. Crook, a White House Secret Service agent and onetime personal bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln. Crook, in a book detailing his nearly 50 years of service in the White House, said that Smith was “one of the best known employees in the WH, who began his career as Grant’s footman, and remained in the WH ever since, and still was one of the most magnificent specimens of manhood the colored race has produced. In addition to his splendid appearance, he had the manner of a courtier, and a strong personality that could not be overlooked by anyone, high or low.”
Crook claimed that Smith was “incredibly superstitious and believed in ghosts the same way a five-year-old believes in Santa Claus – and no one could tell him any different. Since the WH has always been home to benevolent ghosts, Jerry Smith had a varied assortment of stories about the origin of the creaks and groans he heard, and happy to share them with all who would listen…he was always seeing or hearing the ghosts of former deceased Presidents hovering around in out-of-the-way corners, especially in deep shadows at sundown, or later.” Smith believed these ghosts had every right to haunt their former home and never questioned that right, “being perfectly willing to let them do whatever they wished so long as they let him alone.”
Jeremiah would often spin yarns for visiting reporters. Most of these tall tales were pure Americana always designed to bolster the reputation of his employer and their families, but some of Jerry’s best remembered tales were spooky ghost stories. Smith claimed that he saw the ghosts of Presidents Lincoln, Grant, and McKinley, and that they tried to speak to him but only produced a buzzing sound.
However, when it came to White House spirits, Abraham Lincoln’s ghost grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines. Smith most often held court at the North Entrance (where the press corps came and went) with his signature feather duster in his hand and a fantastical story at the ready (if needed). Soon, newspapermen began calling him the “Knight of the Feather Duster” and routinely consulted Smith for comment on days when Presidential news was thin.
One Chicago reporter said this about Smith: “He is a firm believer in ghosts and their appurtenances, and he has a fund of stories about these uncanny things that afford immense entertainment for those around him. But there is one idea that has grown into Jerry’s brain and is now part of it, resisting the effects or ridicule, laughter, argument, or explanation. He firmly believes that the White House is haunted by the spirits of all the departed Presidents, and, furthermore, that his Satanic majesty, the devil, has his abode in the attic. He cannot be persuaded out of the notion, and at intervals he strengthens his position by telling about some new strange noise he has heard or some additional evidence he has secured.”
Turns out that the noises in the attic were made by rats and the story of the devil was a ruse devised to keep young Nellie Grant and her girlfriends from playing up there. When McKinley was mortally wounded while standing in a receiving line at an exposition in Buffalo, it was Smith who first announced it in the White House by shouting the news down a White House stairwell, “The President is shot!”
Sadly, Smith was saddled with the social mores and ignorance of his era. Some members of the press derisively called Smith, a Civil War veteran with an inside track to his country’s chief executive, “Possum Jerry” and “Uncle Jerry” or caricaturized him as a “faithful old servant” and “Uncle Tom.” What was never in dispute was Smith’s grace, manners and deferential self-deprecating sense of service. Although highly intelligent, when quoted in newspapers, Smith always spoke with an overly exaggerated dialect. In one example found in a D.C. newspaper story about White House ghosts, Smith describes his communications with the deceased benefactor, President U.S. Grant as: “I done shore ’nuff hear de gin-al’s voice. I done shore ’nuff hear it jes de same as ef it was in dis room, so strong an’ powerful.”
Along the way, Smith’s close relationships with some of the Presidential Families added to his legend. For U.S. Grant’s wife Julia, Smith accompanied the First Lady on her rounds of daily “calls,” a popular tradition in Washington for several decades. Dressed in his finest navy blue uniform with silver trim, it was his responsibility to help the First Lady from the carriage and escort her to the door of whichever home she was visiting. If the lady was “at home,” he would stand by until Mrs. Grant was ready to leave and then escort her back to the carriage. If the lady was not “at home,” Jerry would take Mrs. G’s calling card from a silver case, and leave it with whoever answered the door.
Kind-hearted Julia Grant took a maternal interest in all the White House servants, paying special attention to Jeremiah. During the Grant’s eight years in the White House (1869-1877), real estate prices in the District were low, and affordable housing was available for the poor and minority citizens of Washington. Julia strongly advocated to her servants that they purchase houses as an investment for their golden years. At first, Smith resisted Mrs. Grant’s urging, and she is said to have scolded him, adding that if he did not make arrangements to purchase a house immediately, she would buy one for him, and garnish his monthly wages to pay for it. The result? Jerry bought a house.
There is a well-known story about Smith and First Lady Frances Cleveland, about to depart the White House following Grover Cleveland’s first term loss to Hoosier Benjamin Harrison. On March 4, 1889, as Mrs. Cleveland departed her White House home, she told the doorman to “be sure to keep everything just the same for us when we come back.” When Smith asked the First lady when she would be back, she replied “four years from today.” Sure enough, Grover Cleveland defeated “Lil Ben” Harrison in a rematch and she returned to the White House on March 4, 1893. By then, Smith was such a fixture at the Executive Mansion that several members of President Grover Cleveland’s cabinet attended the celebration of his 25th (Silver) wedding anniversary at his home in 1895. On the couple’s special day, Jerry completed his doorman duties as usual, including lowering the flag, and quietly disappeared for a small celebration only to be surprised by the White House delegation arriving to celebrate with the couple.
According to Crook, “And to that home, that evening, wended a procession of dignitaries such as never before had graced its precincts. Everyone who came to the White House during Jerry’s service there of nearly a quarter of a century, knew the old man, and thoroughly liked him. So great was the general regard, that not merely clerks and assistant secretaries went to his silver wedding, but one carriage after another drove up to his door, containing Cabinet Officers and members of the Diplomatic Corps, sending in to him and his wife some personal gift appropriate to the occasion.” A pile of silver dollars were left on his table as tribute. Jerry was the envy of all his neighbors.
During the McKinley administration, Jerry Smith’s title was the “Official Duster” at the White House because it was less physically demanding and stressful. He retired due to infirmity in 1904 during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Months later, shortly before Jerry’s death by throat cancer, TR visited the beloved “duster” at his home and sat with him for a while. It was same little house that Julia Grant had insisted that he purchase all those years before.
When Smith passed away at age 69 in 1904, his Washington, D.C. obituary called him “the best gentility that democracy has produced.” A Los Angeles Times obituary noted, “He was not favored by position, for he was the dustman and the charman; but his dignity and his courtesy made him the most conspicuous and the most liked servant in the place. . . . He was not born to live a life of obscurity, for with dust broom he was as dignified in his bearing as a king on his throne. . . . For more than a quarter century he held his place, and the White House was more changed by his disappearance than by the architects who remodeled it.”
Luckily one photo survives picturing Jerry in his prime. Taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston in 1889, Jerry is posed wearing a full-length white apron, white jacket, plaid necktie, and dark skull cap. Smith stands on the North Portico of the White House smiling sweetly for the camera, the thumb of his left hand tucked inside the apron, his right hand holds his ever-present feather duster at a jaunty 45-degree angle. Although perhaps viewed at the time as the perfect illustration of domestic servitude at the highest level, Jerry Smith’s self-confidence, dignity, and authority dominate the pose. So, whatever one thinks about the ghosts of the White House (Abraham Lincoln in particular), Smith was certainly a memorable character at the White House. And one helluva storyteller.
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.
Magician Harry Houdini had a very unlikely boyhood hero. A hero adored by a generation before Houdini’s 1874 birth and a hero worshiped by generations hence. Harry Houdini’s hero was Abraham Lincoln. Houdini’s devotion to Lincoln could be found on stage during his shows. He traveled with a pet eagle named ‘Josephus Daniel Abraham Lincoln’ or ‘Abe Lincoln’ for short. Houdini’s eagle would materialize at the end of his Whirlwind of Colors routine culminating in a wild frenzy of scarves and other fabric pulled from a small container.
In Kenneth Silverman’s 1996 Biography “Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss : American Self-Liberator, Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker”, the author relays how Houdini referred to Lincoln as “my hero of heroes.” Houdini claimed to have read every book about Lincoln by the time he was a teenager. In William Kalush’s 2006 biography “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero”, there is a story of young Houdini attending a seance where the medium produced a message from our 16th President. Houdini, Lincoln expert that he was, then asked a question to Lincoln via the medium and was puzzled when the answer that came back was not correct. This encounter led to Houdini’s early discovery that most Spiritualists were fake.
As he grew older and more financially secure, Houdini began to amass a personal collection of Lincoln memorabilia, particularly letters and autographs of the Great Emancipator. He also collected handwritten letters of every member of the assassin John Wilkes Booths family, several in response to letters sent by Houdini himself. Spending much of his adult life on the road, in hotels and traveling for days on ships and trains, Houdini became a prolific man of letters. One such letter survives that illustrates his desire and devotion to add to his Lincoln collection, despite the constraints of his vagabond lifestyle.
The letter is written on the magician’s personal “Lettergram” form that featured two portraits of Harry at the top. It was written in Milwaukee on September 20, 1923. Houdini’s pictorial Lettergram began with a printed message reading, “Please pardon any incivility in this letter. It has been rushed to you under stress of business and written in the dressing room. Therefore all formalities like Dear Sir, Dear Madame. etc. have been omitted, not to be curt or brusque; but that it is deemed better to let you hear from me in a lettergram of a few words than not at all.” The Lettergram was sent to Anton Heitmuller, a Washington businessman who billed himself as “Specializing in Selling Collections of Autographs, Manuscripts, Historical Broadsides and Curios”.
Heitmuller was peddling artifacts related to John Wilkes Booth along with a collection of items of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for treating Booth’s broken leg after the assassination. Heitmuller saw a promotional opportunity for both he and Houdini in showing these materials; Houdini showed some interest but being at the height of his career, found it hard to find time to get to Washington to see the artifacts. Houdini’s typed letter reads, “I am on the road for the next four months, and there is a possibility of my reaching Washington about March or April. It all depends upon booking possibilities. Just rushing this to you to give you an outline of my route.” The note was signed in pencil by Houdini. Whether or not the meeting, let alone a purchase, ever took place is unknown, but the lettergram illustrates Houdini’s desire to acquire Lincolnania and the lengths he would go to find it.
Houdini became a friendly acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln. In one instance, a spirit medium claimed to possess authentic spirit photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Houdini sent copies of the photos to Robert Todd Lincoln and debunked them by proving that the images were manipulated from known photos of his father taken while Mr. Lincoln was still very much alive. To further prove his point, Houdini produced photos of himself alongside Mr. Lincoln.
On Feb. 13, 1924, a day after the 115th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Houdini typed out a letter to Mary Edwards Lincoln Brown, the grand-daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s sister. The letter, written from the dressing room of the State Lake Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, reads: “My dear Mrs. Brown: Enclosed you will find a Spirit Photograph of your renowned ancestor, and although the Theomonistic Society in Washington, D.C. claim that it is a genuine spirit photograph, as I made this one, you have my word for it, that it is only a trick effect. Mrs. Houdini joins me in sending you kindest regards, Sincerely yours, Houdini.”
Furthermore, Houdini also produced ‘fake spirit messages’ from Lincoln during his lectures to debunk spiritualism. Many spiritualists attempted to back up their fake photos and messages by claiming that Abraham Lincoln himself was a devoted spiritualist who had held seances in the White House. As proof, they cited a piece of British sheet music, published while Lincoln was President, which portrayed Honest Abe holding a candle while violins and tambourines flew about his head. The piece of music was called The Dark Séance Polka and the caption below the illustration of the president read “Abraham Lincoln and the Spiritualists”.
Actually it was Mary Lincoln who consulted a series of mediums in a desperate attempt to contact their dead son Willie, who died in the White House. Houdini naturally pointed out that President Lincoln was in attendance for only one such “call to the dead” and then solely to support his grieving wife. After the seance, Lincoln gently guided Mary over to a window that looked out over Washington and pointed to the lunatic asylum with a warning that if she didn’t stop this foolishness, she would end up there.
Clues to Houdini’s admiration of Abraham Lincoln can also be found in a couple of the magicians he associated with. One was a former Civil War veteran named Harry Cooke who first took up magic as a means to entertain his fellow soldiers in camp. Legend claims that Cooke once showed Lincoln an escape from a piece of rope and the president was so impressed he put him to work as a Spy for the Union Army. Cooke kept a two dollar bill given him by Mr. Lincoln on another occasion when he was performing before the president and his cabinet. Amazingly Cooke was also present in Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated. Harry Cooke and Harry Houdini knew each other well and Houdini considered the elder magician as an early mentor. Many historians credit Cooke as being the first escape artist in America. Houdini, of course, became America’s greatest escape artist.
One final connection between Houdini and Lincoln is magician Signor Blitz. During the Civil War, Blitz performed at hundreds of Union Army Hospitals. His act was made up of several parts, including magic, ventriloquism, plate spinning and the command of trained birds. Blitz was apparently one of the first performers to use a dummy during his ventriloquism thereby setting the stage for future generations. His favorite trick was the Bullet Catching act (snaring a gun fired bullet between his teeth). However, a number of close calls persuaded the magician to remove it from his show. The final straw was when an audience member took out a six shooter and yelled “if you can catch one, you can call all of them!”. Fortunately, Blitz was able to stop the man from shooting.
Blitz once performed at a July 4th function where Lincoln and his son Tad were present. The incident took place near the Summer White House on the grounds of the Old Soldier’s Home in the Rock Creek section of DC, today it is known as Lincoln’s Cottage. Lincoln often used the cottage during the summer months to escape the brutal foggy bottom heat of the Executive Mansion. In early July of 1863, President Lincoln took a break from his duties to watch a rehearsal of the upcoming July 4th parade. Numerous people stood along the street watching the rehearsal, among them Signor Blitz.
The sly magician reached out and produced a bird from the hair of one of the girls in the parade. The rehearsal parade came to a sudden stop and now all eyes were on Blitz. Thinking fast on his feet, the magician quickly produced an egg from the mouth of a child standing nearby. Blitz had no idea that the child was none other than the President’s son, Tad Lincoln. Blitz was soon formally introduced to the President and one of the most remarkable impromptu conversations of the Civil War ensued. Lincoln surprised the magician by saying,”Why, of course, it’s Signor Blitz, one of the most famous men in America. How many children have you made happy, Signor Blitz?” The magician answered “Thousands and tens of thousands”. The President then dolefully replied, “While I fear that I have made thousands and tens of thousands unhappy. But it is for each of us to do his duty in this world and I am trying to do mine.”
This exchange took place just as the Battle of Gettysburg was winding down. Lincoln had not yet heard news about the outcome of the battle. What neither knew was the Union victory at Gettysburg, combined with the siege conclusion at Vicksburg, had just turned the tide of the war for the Union. Of course, Houdini was keenly aware of the connection between Blitz and Lincoln. After Harry Houdini died on October 31, 1926 in Detroit, Michigan, he was buried in Machpelah Cemetery in New York City. About a hundred yards away is the grave of Signor Blitz.
Hannibal, Missouri is an easy 1 1/2 hour drive west of Springfield, Illinois. Rhonda and I stayed at the Wyndham Best Western on the river, located downtown. The hotel is clean and convenient, the staff is friendly, but it may be a bit dated for some people’s taste. If you’re a baby boomer, you’ll recognize the style. Indoor pool, large foyer with ample seating, rattan wallpaper, sliding glass door closets and lightswitches on the outside of the bathrooms. The kind of place that was once considered the swankiest address in town back when Don Knotts, Debbie Reynolds and castoffs from “The Love Boat” might stay while starring in traveling dinner theatre productions. Personally, we loved it because of it was within easy walking distance of the Mississippi River, Mark Twain’s childhood home and historic downtown. Not to mention, Rhonda loved the free chocolate chip cookies, which were hot, soft and plentiful.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Hannibal and arrived there hoping to chase Mark Twain’s shadow the same as I had done with Lincoln in Springfield. The town rests in a valley between two large cliffs directly on the Mississippi River. A lighthouse rests atop one cliff and a romantic, jagged crest known as “Lover’s Leap” rests atop the other. While beautiful to look at, the result for today’s visitors is terrible cell phone reception. That is unless you find yourself on top of one of those cliffs, where service zips right along. And, just like the land of Lincoln, Mark Twain casts a large shadow in Hannibal, Missouri.
Located directly across from the hotel is the Mark Twain Diner, famous for its fried chicken and homemade root beer. In fact, the building is crowned by a gigantic root beer stein that spins slowly in the sky beckoning travelers to come in and sample a frosty mug. Also located one street over are the homes of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher and Huck Finn. Although literary characters, all are based on real people from Twain’s childhood. The street, open only to foot traffic, slopes down to the Mississippi River. It is easy to envision what this little stretch of cobblestone road must have looked like in the 1840s when the author and his family lived here.
In one of the more brilliant uses of tourist object marketing that I have ever seen, outside of the Tom Sawyer house is the famous white picket fence which the young rascal tricked his naïve young friends into painting for him. Bolted to the sidewalk in front of the fence is an old-fashioned wooden bucket containing large wooden paintbrushes tethered by wire ropes to the bottom of the bucket. By my observation, these props are irresistible to every passerby who encounters it. The urge to pick up a brush and pose for a picture is too perfect to pass up. While there, I saw many cars pull up on the street below, jump out for a “pretend paint” picture and jump right back into their car before heading on down the road. This was their chosen Tom Sawyer memory.
The Mark Twain House offers an excellent tour for a reasonable $12 per person that encompasses the homes of all of those familiar Tom Sawyer characters found in Mark Twain’s books. The tour concludes in the Mark Twain Museum located in the historic downtown district and features priceless relics, mementos, artwork, furniture and assorted objects once owned by and associated with Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). After the tour, it is highly recommended that you take the short walk down to the shore of the Mississippi River.
I ventured down to the Big Muddy to skip stones across this legendary river that I daydreamed about as a child. Little did I know that our trip came a mere two weeks after a devastating flood visited Hannibal, destroying much of the riverfront. The backhoes were in place and temporarily idled from their duties of plowing out mud and repairing the riprap. If ever I saw tired looking machines, these were it. However, their presence offered me a unique opportunity. As part of their operation, the machines clawed up about 8 to 12 inches of topsoil in an area that was once home to a Gilded Age amusement park. The result was the accidental unearthing of ancient ink wells, medicine bottles, insulators, crockery and broken china that now rested like ancient talismans there for cultivating.
Suddenly I was a 10-year-old boy joyfully picking up bits of glass, rusted metal and broken crockery all the while convincing myself that any one of which surely belonged to a steamboat captain, riverboat gambler or a pirate. Such are the trinkets that dreams are made of. Should you prefer your treasure of a more cultivated nature, Hannibal has many hole-in-the-wall antique shops featuring more relics from the past. Hannibal is unique among tourist river towns because it has not yet been overtaken by commercialized establishment chain restaurants or stores. Its streets are not overrun by the Harley crowd. Oh, there is an upper-class motorcycle crowd element here, but these riders seem content to park their bikes and walk the town rather than to ride it.
Most importantly, Hannibal, Missouri is home to some of the friendliest people I have ever met. I was met with a friendly greeting by nearly every person I encountered, whether on the street or in a shop. While visiting one such antique shop called “Savannah’s” on Main Street, a wicked storm moved into town. Moments after we completed our purchase, the storm blew in and the power went out. Our hotel was over a mile away and we were on foot.
Rhonda & I exited the shop, which luckily had a recessed doorway covered by a large tarp to keep us dry and out of the wind. We watched and waited for some 20 minutes to see if the storm would blow over; it didn’t. Rivulets of water filled the street while sizable metal flower stands blew down the darkened roadway like tumbleweeds. When it was apparent that the storm was not going away, the shop’s attendant, a woman named Phyllis who had been checking on us every 5 minutes or so, opened the door and said, “Come on you two sugar babies, I’m driving you back to your hotel.” Turns out that our guardian angel was a retired teacher with over 30 years experience, many of those years teaching special needs students. No wonder, she was our angel.
The next morning, while again scrounging for more waterfront treasures, I met a friendly local who educated me about life on the river, barges and bridges, giving me a general outline of what I was looking at and for. He explained that these floods come about every 10 – 15 years and some are worse than others. Seeing that I was a cigar smoker, he suggested that I go halfway up the cliff where the lighthouse rests for a perfect perch.
I took his advice and ventured up the hillside. There I found a quaint little pocket park created from an abandoned roadway and concrete bridge footing of a steel suspension bridge that once spanned the mighty Mississippi to Illinois on the other side. The bridge had been dedicated in the 1930s by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself with then-Senator Harry S Truman assisting. As I sat there puffing and reflecting, an older gentleman, climbing the stairs for exercise, walked by and said good evening. He stopped for a moment and, excited by my discovery, I said something silly like “Cool to think that FDR and Truman were here.” He shook his head and continued with his exercise.
Some 15 minutes later the older gent, retracing his route, remarked, “I walk these steps 2 or 3 times a week and you know most young people don’t bother to talk to me. They don’t even notice me, their faces usually buried in their cell phones. You know, I was here when FDR came. I was 3 years old and my dad put me on his shoulders because he wanted me to see FDR. I didn’t see Truman though.” We talked for a while and he revealed that he had lived in Hannibal all his life, graduated from the local high school in 1950 and was shipped off to Korea in 1951. I asked if he saw active combat and he said “oh yeah.” The admission was no big deal to him, but it floored me. We talked a little bit longer, he told me how much he loved Hannibal and, after I thanked him for his service, he bade me good night.
The next day Rhonda and I went to visit the former home of the Unsinkable Molly Brown, the suffragette heroine who survived the sinking of the Titanic (and several other disasters). It was her 152nd birthday. Margaret “Maggie” Brown (the name Molly was a Hollywood invention) was born in Hannibal in 1867 and lived in the home during her childhood. Later she married a poor Colorado mining engineer who struck it rich in the mines of Leadville which immediately catapulted Ms. Brown into high society. It was well worth the trip.
However, I came to visit Mark Twain’s cave. As many of you know, I collect old paper, particularly old photographs, letters and brochures. I recently ran across an old tourist brochure from the cave, made sometime around World War II, and decided I had to visit. Mark Twain’s cave is purportedly the same literary location featured in his Tom Sawyer book. Here young Sawyer, Huck and Becky chased ghosts, dug for buried treasure and discovered the outlaw “Injun Jim” (or “Injun Joe” depending on who you talk to), who really wasn’t an outlaw at all.
A tour of Mark Twain’s cave, while a feast for the imagination for any Samuel Clemens fan, is probably the most commercial experience you are likely to encounter in Hannibal. The tour guide walks guests briskly through the cave while reciting a very mechanical script committed to memory for 6 tours a day. The well rehearsed stories of Tom Sawyer characters mingle with tales of dead bodies, Wild West outlaw Jesse James, young Sam Clemens and even artist Norman Rockwell, to make for an enjoyable experience, but it does not leave much room for discussion, discovery or exploration.
Luckily, we also toured Cameron Cave, resting nearby on the same property, but separate (both in location and admission) from Mark Twain’s cave. Unlike the more commercial Twain cave, discovered in 1819, the lesser-known Cameron Cave was first discovered in 1925 and remained a closely guarded family secret until the early 1970s. The family offered limited tours over the years, mostly for special events and visiting dignitaries, but nothing like Twain’s cave. Our tour of Mark Twain’s cave featured some 20 guests, but our tour of Cameron Cave was just Rhonda, myself and our young guide Nathan. Now THAT was a cave.
Nathan was able to guide us through the cave at an easy pace affording us plenty of time to explain each and every aspect, formation, discovery and historical anecdote along the way. Cameron Cave rests below an Irish Catholic cemetery which led to stories of ghosts in the cave. Nathan stopped at the entrance and demonstrated what the old cave guides used to call a “spook horn”. It consisted of a rock ledge outcropping that, when banged on with a closed fist, emits an echoing sound like a musical instrument. 3 bangs on the spook horn chased the ghosts away, 2 bangs invited them back at the conclusion of the tour. How can you not love folklore like that?
This trip, when carefully considered, is perfect for Hoosiers because of its relatively short travel time (you can make it back from Hannibal in less than five hours), its Midwestern familiarity, rich history and friendly people. it seems fitting that when you visit Springfield and Hannibal, you lose an hour. Because, one thing is for certain, visiting these places sure feels like you are stepping back in time.
Halloween is over and once again, it is time to box up the decorations and compost the jack-o’-lanterns to get ready for the next holiday season. This October I spent some time tracking an old muse from my childhood, George Pogue. Not only is Pogue Indy’s oldest cold case, he is also the Circle City’s oldest ghost story. Over the past few weeks I have re-shared past stories on Pogue’s run and the story of his disappearance. This week I’ll talk about his legacy.
The city of Indianapolis owes George Pogue a debt of gratitude. It was Pogue whom most historians credit as being our city’s first white settler. In 1819 Pogue followed a meandering narrow deerpath paralleling the banks of a pristine little stream that eventually fed into the West Fork of the White River. The Genesis of this once craggy little creek can be found near the intersection of Massachusetts and Ritter avenues on the east side. It spills into the White River south of the Kentucky Avenue bridge in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Prior to Pogue’s arrival, native American Indians would often follow Pogue’s Run hunting the wildlife that naturally gathered there. 58-year-old George Pogue, a blacksmith from Connersville, blazed the trail present-day eastsiders know as Brookville Road. Depending on which historian you talk to, on or about March 2, 1819, Pogue built (or occupied) a cabin where Michigan Street currently crosses Pogue’s Run for his family of seven. After Pogue’s mysterious disappearance in April 1821, the creek he followed to arrive in the Whitewater basin became known as Pogue’s Run.
If you Google Alexander Ralston’s original plat map of the city of Indianapolis, you will see Pogue’s run traversing diagonally across the southeast portion of the “Mile Square” area like a giant black snake. Just as Pogue’s mysterious end did not fit the desired narrative put forth by Indianapolis’ founding fathers, Pogue’s run disturbed the orderliness of Ralston’s tidy grid pattern. Before the state government could be moved to Indianapolis from Corydon, fifty dollars was spent to rid swampy Pogue’s Run of the mosquitoes that made it a “source of pestilence”.
Seems that poor old Pogue’s run never had a chance. It was too small to be a canal and too big to be a latrine. So city planners decided that the troublesome trickling waterway needed to be “straight jacketed” once and for all. Pogue’s run was prone to flooding and it had a funky odor hanging over it that wrinkled the tapestry the city’s elite were trying to create. So, beginning in 1914, a year long, million-dollar project variously known as the “Pogue’s Run Drain” and the “Pogue’s Run Improvement” was undertaken to hide the historic waterway. City planners felt that the stream’s submersion beneath downtown Indianapolis (from New York Street on the east side to the White River on the west side) would make the perfect aqueduct to alleviate flooding in the Circle City.
Sounds like a reasonable, viable engineering solution made by concerned public servants to obviate a city eyesore while protecting the citizenry at the same time, right? Well, it may run a little bit deeper than that. A number of factors influenced the decision to “straitjacket” Pogue’s Run, including the economic and human costs from decades of violent flooding, public health risks from diseases, and the stream’s unsightly and unpleasant smell due to years of sewage and industrial pollution. The covering of Pogue’s Run paved the way for the expansion of railroad track elevations, which in turn alleviated congestion on Indianapolis’ busy streets and avenues. It also enabled the city to create Brookside Park in 1898 at the spot where Pogue’s run enters downtown Indianapolis.
Although the legendary waterway now more closely resembles a drainage ditch, make no mistake about it, Pogue’s Run is real. It runs under the city of Indianapolis for nearly two-and-a-half miles, and it’s possible to walk from one end to another. Every underground tunnel presents an irresistible mystery, but Pogue’s Run has a more ghostly history than most. The Pogue’s run tunnels are reportedly home to the spirit of old George Pogue who lords over the dozen or so unfortunate victims of the floods that plagued the city via the waterway for nearly a century before it was covered over.
As detailed in previous articles, one morning George Pogue walked out his front door in search of his lost dog and disappeared forever. He was also trailing a Native American man known as “Wyandotte John” whom he suspected of stealing horses from his farm. Pogue walked over hill and was never seen again. His body was never found. Even though Pogue vanished nearly 200 years ago, his name hits the headlines every few years. It seems that whenever a foundation for a business in downtown Indianapolis is dug and human remains are found, the ghost of George Pogue rises from his unknown grave.
The first widely used cemeteries in Indianapolis didn’t start popping up until long after George Pogue disappeared. While the “City Cemetery”, ironically located on Kentucky Avenue near the White River where George Pogue disappeared, can be traced back to 1821, it was not at all what we would consider a cemetery today. Greenlawn Cemetery was added around 1834 as an 8 acre addition. By 1852 this pioneer cemetery had reached 25 acres and was quickly running out of room. Crown Hill opened in 1864 and Greenlawn quickly fell out of favor. By the 1890s, Greenlawn was gone. In George Pogue’s time, people were often buried where they were found or nearby where they worshiped, worked or lived. Burial records are scarce, wooden markers disintegrate and landmarks disappear. So it is not uncommon for human remains to pop up from time to time even today. So, needless to say, George Pogue does not rest in peace.
When the city of Indianapolis buried their troublesome waterway in 1915, Pogue’s run, like its namesake, disappeared. The trickling little stream is now forever trapped underground. And so is the ghost of George Pogue. Legend claims that Pogue is doomed to walk this underworld purgatory until his remains are found and he is given a proper burial. Pogue leads a small army of ghosts whose souls were lost in the flooding that once plagued the area.
Today, no one thinks much about the creek that runs underneath downtown Indianapolis. True, Hoosiers cling tightly to the White River by naming parks, streets and events in its honor. But unlike other major American cities, the Circle City has very few myths or legends surrounding its chief waterways. That is unless you count the tales of late-night TV host David Letterman and his friends attempting to traverse the central canal via canoe back in the “naptown” days. As a homegrown Hoosier, it has always been a mystery to me why the Pogue’s run waterway has not been more prominently featured in our city’s weird history.
During George Pogue’s era, antebellum times and the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction, flooding was not really a concern in Indianapolis. The Circle City really had no riverfront development to speak of, roads were sparse and unpaved and any excess winter water thaws had plenty of places to go. In past columns I have detailed a few of the many floods that plagued Indy in the years before the Pogue’s run tunnels were created. The Easter Sunday floods in 1913 brought twelve inches of rain in a five day period and the White River crested to 31.5 feet; 19.5 feet above flood stage. No one knows what the true crest was because the city’s measuring equipment and gauges washed away at 29.5 feet. 70,000 cubic feet per second, an amount 50 times greater than normal, sent torrents of water rushing through the city. In Indianapolis, 7000 families lost their homes and over 25 deaths were reported as a result of this flood. Statewide, 200,000 people lost their homes and over 200 lives were lost. More than a few of those bodies were never found and their spirits, like that of its namesake, haunt the Pogue’s run tunnels today.
A couple of Sundays ago I was joined by several Irvington Ghost tour volunteers in a search of the Pogue’s run tunnels. Rhonda and I were joined that day by our daughter Jasmine, friends Elise Remissong and Jada Cox, Kris and Roger Branch, Steve Hunt, Tim Poynter, Christy and Cameron McAbee, Trudy and Steve Rowe and Cindy Adkins. WISH-TV Channel 8 TV’s Joe Melillo also joined us for a pre-Halloween trek in search of the ghost of old George Pogue. The results of our trip can be found on the WISH TV website under Joe’s banner. Joe’s segment captured only a fraction of what took place down there.
That day, the Colts were playing the Buffalo Bills at Lucas oil above us. (the Colts won 37 to 5) Inside the century old pitch-black tunnel the water had slowed to a trickle. The entrance to the Pogue’s run tunnel is hidden in a thickly wooded area within sight of the downtown skyline. The city of Indianapolis maintains Pogue’s run very nicely and has recently constructed a two-story wooden walkway leading down to the tunnel entrance. Upon entering the mouth of the tunnel the original stream can be seen entering the concrete spillway looking much as it has for nearly two centuries.
The concrete walls leading into the tunnel are festooned with spray-painted graffiti indicative of its big city location. The water stream is contained down the center of the trough with dry foot paths on either side. About 100 yards down stream inside the tunnel, a separate parallel tunnel is revealed through large round vents in the walls that are easy to step through. The upper channel is the spillway used for relief of excess water flowing through Pogue’s run when necessary. These walls are also peppered with graffiti as expected. Mostly introspective, sometimes profane, the graffiti is often nonsensical; logical only to whomever placed it there.
There are rats down here along with spiders, snakes and the occasional stranded fish from floods past. There is also evidence that the homeless population of Indianapolis occasionally seek shelter in the tunnels, but most of that evidence gets washed away by the floodwaters on a regular basis. The temperature outside is just above freezing, but it is warm here in the tunnels. So warm that it is easy for our team of urban spelunker’s to feel overdressed. The water can be deep in places depending on the rainfall. The total blackness of the Pogue’s run tunnels cannot be understated. Without the aid of a trusty flashlight or lantern, it is impossible to see your hand held in front of your face.
The ceiling and sidewalls are cracked in places, betraying rushing floodwaters of years gone by. The side tunnels are made of brick and occasionally they branch off the main route to parts unknown. Cell phones are useless in the tunnel; there ain’t no service down here . There are manholes and open grates that I suppose could be accessed to determine one’s location, but thanks to Stephen King’s “It” (and Pennywise the sewer clown) I wouldn’t recommend it. In places, perhaps owing to the day’s Colts Sunday atmosphere, it is possible to hear activity on the streets above including music and conversation. But mostly it is quiet. Occasionally cars passing above make high-pitched traffic sounds that can be confused with the cries of a baby or wounded animal, but the logical mind soon determines the source. Once in a while one of these vehicles will pass directly over a manhole with a thunderous result that echoes through the tunnel and shakes even the most resolute of subterranean urban explorers.
Upon closer examination, evidence remains of those original pre-World War I era tunnels. Brick troughs and well foundations pepper the tunnels as do the rotted remains of wooden trusses and the occasional displaced iron train rail, the presence of which immediately elicits the thought “how did that get down here?” Oddly, there’s not much of an echo down here. The voice carries, but it doesn’t carry far. When the visitor cups the mouth and lets loose a “Hello”, it rolls only a few rods before disappearing into the darkness. But is there anything else down in the old Pogue’s Run tunnels?
As a student of history, I often find myself asking that question. Is there anything else? I rely on a few friends with deeper insight in that department to answer that query. Tim Poynter, founder of the SPIRIT Paranormal team, observed a few spirits lingering in the tunnels of Pogue’s run, “I encountered the spirit of a light-skinned black man dressed in mid 20th century clothing within a few hundred feet of the opening. His attitude seemed to be one of ‘stay back’which is not uncommon. I imagine this was the spirit of a homeless man who passed while living down there in the tunnels.” Intuitive Cindy Adkins echoed Tim’s feelings at the mouth of the tunnel, “I did not see the gentleman until we got into the tunnel. I was not getting a bad feeling at all just that we were invading his space and he did not like that too well.” Cindy would encounter this man further down in the tunnels of Pogue’s run.
WISH-TV Channel 8 TV reporter Joe Melillo segregated three of our number, Cindy Adkins, Christy McAbee and Steve Hunt, deep within the depths of the Pogue’s Run tunnel. Here, light and sound go to die. Joe watched as the trio “spoke” with the dead. Cindy Adkins is a gifted intuitive and the only person I have encountered who has had an actual conversation with a ghost on tape (or EVP). When Joe Melillo turned on his camera, this man’s spirit came out to play.
“The gentleman is over 6 feet tall,” says Cindy. “He told me there was a house fire and his big two-story home was completely engulfed in flames. He told me his family was killed in the fire. His house was near Pogue’s run and he lived down there in the tunnels. He likes it down in the tunnels and he doesn’t want to leave. But while we were down there and Joe was taping, a woman joined us. Her initials were C. L. and I kept getting the date 1964. She was lost down there in the tunnels and said that she died of a drug overdose. Christy, Steve and I managed to clear her spirit and send her on her way to the light. But the man is still down there. He just laughed when I asked him if he wanted to leave too.”
As I write this article, Joe Melillo’s segment has yet to air. His WISH-TV Channel 8 Pogue’s run segment airs on Halloween morning. When asked for his thoughts and impressions on the Pogue’s run adventure, Joe Melillo siad, “I would say the best way to describe the experience for me was stifling… Almost suffocating. Very dense down there and it made me have a headache. Overall I did feel something, but I am more of a history guy so the paranormal things don’t hit me as hard. When we sat with the group of paranormal investigators I was there to document the exercise, but nothing happened to me specifically. I was so ready for someone to touch me or to see a shadow figure, but I got nothing. At least this time. Maybe next time I’ll have better luck.” Yes, Joe, maybe next time. Sounds like the Pogue’s run entities will still be there, waiting for you.