Abe Lincoln, Civil War, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours

Sons of Union Veterans Ben Harrison Camp # 356.

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Left to right: Dave Wilson, Bob Winters, Mike Beck, Past Department Commander (PDC); Tim Beckman, PDC; Garry Walls, PCC; Bruce Kolb, PDC; Jim Floyd.

Original publish date:  July 11, 2019

Sometimes you just need to step back, relax, reflect awhile and think about what it means to be a Hoosier. The fourth of July seems a perfect time for such reflections. I was born in Indianapolis, as were my parents, grand parents and great-grand parents. Like many of us, I had forefathers who served in the Civil War. In my case, I had gr-gr-grandfathers serving on both sides of the conflict; my maternal forefather was riding with Morgan’s Raiders while my paternal forefather was chasing him. Had one caught the other, I might not be here.
This past Memorial Day, I finally decided to venture out to Crown Hill Cemetery and attend the official ceremonies hosted by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War-Ben Harrison Camp #356. Dave “The King” Wilson had suggested I join a few years back and I just got around to joining recently. I’ve known Camp Commander Jim Floyd for nearly two decades and was delighted to be present as a spectator while Jim and Dave led the ceremonies. Truth is, I joined not only to honor the veterans in my past family but also to honor my muse of the past decade: Osborn Oldroyd.

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Osborn H. Oldroyd

As many of you know, Oldroyd has been on my mind lately. Not only was he the very first curator of a Lincoln museum, first housed in the Lincoln homestead in Springfield, Illinois for a decade and then in the House Where Lincoln Died in Washington D.C. for over three decades more. Equally importantly, he also served as Assistant Adjutant General of the Grand Army of the Republic in the District for over twenty years. Regardless of how I got there, I got there. And hopefully by the time you’re finished reading this article, you’ll decide you might want to join too.
The Ben Harrison Camp No. 356 SUVCW was originally founded on June 19, 1884 with 46 members, most of whom were “real sons”. After that first camp disbanded, it reorganized on March 8, 1897 with 32 members. It continued meeting into the early 1970’s before it disbanded again. In 1981, the Ben Harrison camp was organized once again and has met continuously ever since. Their mission statement, quite simply, is to “Honor Union Veterans and all who have patriotically served our country in any war, preserving & perpetuating the Grand Army of the Republic, and Patriotic Education.” All with the goal to help America become a better nation by helping to keep the stories and sacrifice of our Civil War ancestors alive.
The Ben Harrison camp “honors the soldiers who fought to preserve the Union and free an enslaved people through activities including: maintaining their graves, teaching patriotism, and ensuring future generations continue to learn from the mistakes of the past.” As for the parent organization, “The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) is the volunteer, non-profit, charitable, fraternal, patriotic and educational organization created by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), which was the largest Union Civil War veterans’ organization. The SUVCW is officially recognized as the GAR’s legal successor, and received its Congressional Charter in 1954.”

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Left to right: Dave Wilson, Jim Floyd,  Bob Winters, Jim Floyd.
These fellows truly practice what they preach. In the past few years of outside observation, I’ve watched from afar as these men have repaired, reset, restored, cleaned and replaced the markers of dozens of Hoosier Civil war soldiers; led the charge by decorating soldier’s graves for memorial day at Crown Hill Cemetery and Remembrance Day every November in Gettysburg as well as protecting a Hoosier monument in distress at Vicksburg. This past effort is of particular interest to me as it was on this field that Osborn Oldroyd was wounded three times in battle. I’ve fairly worn out my family, friends and readers over the past several years by rambling on about Oldroyd, so I’ll spare you any further abuse on the Lincoln collector / curator…for now.
IMG_3521This memorial day, the Ben Harrison camp honored Hoosier Civil War soldier Captain Richard Burns. With temperatures in Indianapolis hovering above or around the 90 degree mark for nearly two months now, Captain Burns’ story seems apropos to the moment. For you see, Captain Richard Burns died of sunstroke. At 5′ 10″ and weighing 143 pounds, Richard Burns was light skinned with piercing blue eyes and prematurely gray hair. Burns first enlisted on September 21, 1861 as a private in Third Battery, Indiana Light Artillery. The unit was organized in Connersville, Indiana, and mustered in at Indianapolis on August 24, 1861. Ironically, the unit would muster out nearly 4 years to the day (August 21, 1865) at the same place.
Within weeks of his enlistment, Burns was appointed corporal on October 1, 1861. From there Burns advanced to squad sergeant then orderly sergeant. On November 25, 1862 he was appointed second lieutenant then rose to first lieutenant on October 25, 1863. On July 25, 1865 Burns was appointed captain, a rank he would retain until his discharge on August 21, 1865. While his rise through the ranks might be described as meteoric, it did not come without cost. During his service, Burns contracted typhoid pneumonia (more commonly known as consumption back then) and was plagued by chronic diarrhea for nearly all of his military service. The latter, while uncomfortable, was temporary. However, the Streptococcus pneumonia remained and slowly invaded and weakened his heart for the remainder of his life.
Before the war, Burns worked in the “burnt district” of Wayne County as a heavy machinist. After his discharge, Burns returned to Cambridge City but was confined to light duty, working as a grocery clerk and a brick mason. Burns relocated to Montana in 1867, presumably chasing gold or cattle alongside other fortune-hunting Civil War veterans, but moved back to Cambridge City the next year. From there, Burns moved to Anderson and finally to Indianapolis.
According to an article titled “THE OPPRESSIVE HEAT” found in the August 16, 1888 Indianapolis Journal newspaper (page 8), “The remarkably cool weather of the first three days of the week was followed by a hot wave yesterday that raised the mercury to 91 degrees at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The air during the afternoon and early evening, in the absence of any breeze, was very oppressive, and as people were not prepared for the sudden change there was much discomfort. At 5 o’clock in the evening Richard Burns, a brick-mason, living at No. 90 North New Jersey street, was prostrated on Hadley avenue, where he was working. Kregelo’s ambulance was called, and the attendants were taking him to the City Hospital when he died. He was fifty years of age.”

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August 16, 1888 Indianapolis Journal newspaper

The Indianapolis News of that same day, reported “Yesterday afternoon the temperature mounted to an uncomfortable degree, and the heat was very oppressive. Late in the day Captain Richard Burns, residing 90 North New Jersey street and employed on Hadley avenue, was overcome by the heat, and he died while Kregelo’s ambulance was removing him to the hospital. He was aged about fifty, and was a member of Chapman Post, G. A. R., and a pensioner. he leaves a wife, but no children….” He was buried on Lot 49, Section 4 in Crown Hill Cemetery on August 19, 1888 at 2:00.

This memorial day’s ceremony at Crown Hill was solemn, stirring and well organized. However, it wasn’t until afterwards that I learned of a connection between Captain Burns, myself and Irvington. The Third Light Battery was assigned to General John C. Fremont’s Army of the Tennessee and accompanied it in the campaign through southwestern Missouri in the Western Theater. In December, 1863, the battery moved to Columbus, Ky., where it served in the winter campaign through western Tennessee before it moved to Vicksburg and joined Sherman’s army on the expedition to Meridian, Miss., in Feb., 1864. From there, the battery assisted in the storming and capture of Fort De Russy. It then served at Memphis and Tupelo, Miss. In Jan., 1865, the unit moved to New Orleans, where it took part in the siege and capture of Fort Blakely, which resulted in the surrender of Mobile. It next moved to Montgomery, thence to Selma, Ala., where it remained until July 30, 1865, when orders were received to proceed to Indianapolis. It was mustered out Aug. 13, 1865, numbering 3 officers and 71 men, having lost 64 in killed and wounded.

Captain Richard Burns served in in the Third Battery, Indiana Light Artillery alongside fellow Captains James M. Cockefair, Thomas J. Ginn, and Watton W. Frybarger. Capt. Frybarger was promoted major and was wounded in the head during the Battle of Shiloh. After which he was ordered back to Indianapolis to organize all of the state’s artillery units by his pre-war friend, Indiana’s Civil War Governor Oliver P. Morton. It should be noted that Frybarger has the distinction of organizing the Hoosier state’s only artillery battery in place BEFORE the war. Frybarger went to work shoring up the southern border of Indiana by placing guns at several places along the Ohio River. His invasion fears were realized in early July of 1863 when Morgan’s Raiders invaded the state via Kentucky. Yes, Major Frybarger was a born artillerist.

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The W.W. Frybarger ring on Dave Wilson’s finger.

If you have taken my October tours of Irvington, then you’ve met Major Frybarger. Well, sort of anyway. I conclude every tour of Irvington with a stop at the spot where Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train slowly steamed past in the pre-dawn hours of April 30th, 1865. As I share with my guests, many years ago I was offered some of the personal effects of Major Frybarger. Among those effects were an ancient leather-bound album full of family tintype and CDV photos, a lock of his hair, a large silver platter, and his regimental ring. The platter, which at 21″ tall and 33″ wide, is quite large. It is inscribed “Presented by the 22nd and 23rd Indiana Mounted Artillery to Mrs Major W.W. Frybarger Indianapolis March 1863” and was given to the Major’s wife by grateful soldiers in thanks to the Major securing the southern Indiana border.

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Major W.W. Frybarger

Equally important to the Frybarger saga is his role in the Lincoln funeral here in Indianapolis. As every Hoosier student of Lincoln knows, when the martyred President’s remains arrived in Indianapolis, it arrived in the midst of a torrential downpour so strong that the official public ceremonies had to be cancelled. For that evening of April 30th, 1865 Mr. Lincoln’s body remained in the rotunda of the old statehouse. Who was in charge of the decorating and care of the railsplitter’s body that night? Major W.W. Frybarger. I tell October visitors to Irvington that story while placing the ring on the finger of every guest I approach with the admonition that Frybarger’s regimental ring may well have touched the body of Abraham Lincoln.

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Major W.W. Frybarger.

Now, thanks to the impeccable research of Sons of Union Veterans Camp Commander Jim Floyd and Eliza E. George Auxiliary No. 356 Secretary / Treasurer Jennifer Thompson, I now have another connection to Frybarger. I should note that by the time you read this article, I will have joined the Sons of Union Veterans Ben Harrison Camp No. 356 as an official member. I am sure that the brothers would be happy to have you in their ranks as well. For more information, contact http://benharrisoncamp.org/ Or drop me an e-mail and I’ll steer you towards this fine organization.

 

 

 

 

 

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Rhonda Hunter with flowers at the ceremony.
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Dave Wilson, Rhonda Hunter & Jim Floyd.
Criminals, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours

IRVINGTON’S LINK TO THE FORMATION OF THE F.B.I.

Holmes-Dillinger

Original publish date:  January 19, 2009

Reissue date: June 6, 2019

This article originally ran in the January 19, 2009 edition of the Eastside Voice. I spent this past weekend with the Great-great-grandson of H.H. Holmes, “Bloodstains” author Jeff Mudgett, and the film crew from Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” series. We gathered to tape a show inside the home where Holmes committed one of his most heinous crimes: the murder of 10-year-old Howard Pitezel. For that reason, I thought this might be a perfect time to revisit one of the few positive aspects of that crime and highlight Irvington’s role in the saga of Federal law enforcement in this country. While the society has faded away, the meeting place has closed its doors and the article’s agent provocateur has become a fellow columnist, the subject matter retains its relevance a decade later.

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H.H. Holmes murdering 10-year-old Howard Pitezel in Irvington.

During the inaugural meeting of the “Ichabod Crane Society of things that go bump in the night” at Book Mamas in Irvington held Saturday January 17 2009, I learned something interesting I’d like to share with you. One of the guests, Irvingtonian Steve Nicewanger asked me if I was aware that Irvington had a connection to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Steve informed me that the F.B.I. had been formed to track down one of Irvington’s most infamous figures, America’s first serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes. Holmes was alleged to have killed over 200 people in Chicago in 1893. His story is well documented and his spirit is rumored to still haunt the Irvington bungalow where he murdered and desecrated the body of a 10 year old boy named Howard Pitezel. Holmes came through Irvington in the autumn of 1894 while being chased by a dogged Pinkerton Detective named Frank Geyer. I thought I had researched the Holmes saga pretty thoroughly, but I must admit that I had never heard of this possible connection. I was intrigued by the thought of it.
z john-dillinger-wanted-posteI have always attributed the genesis of the F.B.I. to another infamous Hoosier with Irvington ties, John Dillinger, who robbed an Irvington drug store and soda fountain in the summer of 1933. The building still stands and is home today to DuFours restaurant on the northwest corner of Washington and Audubon (now the Lincoln Square Pancake House). At the time, Dillinger allegedly lived on a property known as “Rickett’s Farm” near the Kile Oak in Irvington. I knew that J. Edgar Hoover, the man most people credit with forming the present day F.B.I., was a little known Washington D.C. bureaucrat until Dillinger came along. Hoover made his reputation by expanding the law enforcement powers of his obscure bureau to track down Dillinger. Dillinger became the bureau’s first “Public Enemy # 1” on June 22,1934, which ironically was John’s 31st birthday. Hoover’s G-men would kill Dillinger barely a month later outside of Chicago’s Biograph Theatre on July 23, 1934. Hoover would display Dillinger’s death mask on the wall outside of his office for the next 40 years.
Intrigued by Mr. Nicewanger’s statement, I immediately began research to see if indeed this connection could be made. Sure enough, it’s true…at least in theory. Quoting the Bureau’s official website; “The FBI originated from a force of Special Agents created in 1908 by Attorney General Charles Bonaparte during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. The two men first met when they both spoke at a meeting of the Baltimore Civil Service Reform Association. Roosevelt, then Civil Service Commissioner, boasted of his reforms in federal law enforcement. It was 1892, a time when law enforcement was often political rather than professional…Roosevelt and Bonaparte both were “Progressives.” They shared the conviction that efficiency and expertise, not political connections, should determine who could best serve in government.”

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Benjamin Harrison

A young Teddy Roosevelt campaigned in the Midwest for Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 presidential election, including many stump speeches here in the Hoosier state. As a reward, President Harrison appointed Roosevelt to the United States Civil Service Commission, where he served until 1895. It was during this time that H.H.Holmes was fast becoming America’s version of “Jack the Ripper”. As he fled Chicago in 1894, Holmes used the inability of local law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other to evade prosecution. During this period, the Bureau was a branch of the “Secret Service” staffed by former “Pinkertons” from the legendary detective agency founded by Allen Pinkerton. Upon Pinkerton’s death in 1884, the Pinkertons were mostly known as thugs whose job it was to break up early labor union rallies and for their role in the hounding of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. Holmes would be captured and hung in Philadelphia on May 7, 1896. The ability of Holmes to evade capture while his heinous crimes were reported on the front pages of newspapers across America would lead to the conversation of a unified national law enforcement reporting and evidence gathering agency by Roosevelt and others.

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Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s career ended with his defeat to Grover Cleveland in 1892. Ironically, one of the first things he did after leaving office was to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in June 1893, an event closely associated with H.H. Holmes. As Harrison’s career waned, Roosevelt’s career was catching fire. From his post on the US Civil Service Commission, Teddy became President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York and Vice-President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1901, five years later, Teddy dedicated Fort Benjamin Harrison in the former president’s honor in 1906.
Shortly before Fort Ben’s dedication, Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte Attorney General.

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Teddy Roosevelt and Attorney General Charles Bonaparte

In 1908, Bonaparte applied their shared philosophy from 1892 to form the Department of Justice by creating a corps of Special Agents. It had neither a name nor an officially designated leader other than the Attorney General. Yet, these former detectives and Secret Service men were the forerunners of the FBI. In the forty years between Holmes in 1893 and Dillinger in 1933, the bureau would slowly expand it’s law enforcement responsibilities. If the 1893 Bureau had encountered the evil Dr. Holmes, the best they could do would have been to gather information to assist in his arrest. In 1933, the Bureau’s powers had been expanded to the point of using deadly force upon first contact with John Dillinger.

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J. Edgar Hoover

So an insightful comment by Irvingtonian Steve Nicewanger provoked research that would once again perfectly illustrate the uniqueness of the Eastside Indianapolis community known as Irvington. Reminding us that three separate personalities with fleeting ties to the Irvington community; a serial killer, a bank robber and a U.S. President would contribute to the founding of the most powerful law enforcement agency the world has ever known. Today’s F.B.I.

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

Whispers from the Grave.

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Original publish date: October 18, 2018

This will be my 16th season of leading October ghost tours in Irvington. Along the way I have made many friends, some of whom return year after year to take a stroll through haunted Irvington. I have been fortunate to meet many talented and famous people who have come on the tours. I have connected with family members of the personalities I talk about on the tours and I have been privileged to hear first-hand accounts and stories that mirror the fun and spooky atmosphere of autumnal Irvington. That is what makes October in Irvington so special to me.
whispersThis coming Saturday, October 20th at 2 PM, several of those famous friends will be here in Irvington at the Irving theater to share their talent with our community in a program I have called, “Whispers from the Grave. Testimony of Irvington’s Most Famous Crimes.” Over the past decade and a half I have gathered testimony, witness accounts, personal statements and personality sketches of the characters, both good and bad, from the stories I share on the tours. This Saturday, local celebrities, journalists and members of the media will lend their talents to the voices of these characters. Much of this spoken word performance will offer accounts that have not been heard for over a century. This testimony, told in its entirety using the words of the subjects themselves, is always poignant, sometimes shocking and often scandalous.
The doors of the Irving theater will open at 1 PM this Saturday and will close promptly at 2 PM for the start of the presentation. No one will be admitted after 2 PM out of respect for the performers and the solemn content. Parental discretion is advised and content may not be suitable for all audiences. This is the real thing in the performance promises to prove the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The performance is free to the public, but a $ 5.00 minimum donation is requested. The proceeds will benefit the Free Press of Irvington.

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Photo by Lauri Mohr Imaginemohr photography.

Those of you who have taken my tours understand that an Irvington ghost tour is really a history lesson disguised as a ghost story. Over the years proceeds from the tours over the years have helped fund many local philanthropic endeavors including the Irvington food bank at Gaia works, the IHS / Bona Thompson Museum, Halloween festival, the Irvington Council, the children’s Guardian home, the Girl Scouts, and several scholarships for local high school students. This Saturday’s presentation will be an opportunity for guests to better understand the foundation of the ghost tours by hearing accounts from the people who lived it.
daveJoining us Saturday will be long time Q 95 star and stand up comic Dave “the King” Wilson reading the words of DC Stephenson. David Curtis Stephenson was the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan who reigned supreme here in central Indiana during The Roaring 20s. Stephenson controlled Indiana politics from the governor’s office to the mayor’s office with Klan money and influence from his University Avenue home here in Irvington. Gathering testimony and statements from Stephenson’s made all the more harder by the fact that after his 1925 trial for murder concluded, the official court papers mysteriously disappeared.
Nicole2 – time Emmy award-winning former WTHR on air personality & meteorologist Nicole Misencik who will be voicing Madge Oberholtzer. Tragically, Madge was the undeserving victim of DC Stephenson’s crime in the spring of 1925. Madge was an Irvingtonian and former student at Butler College whose death at the hands of Stephenson brought down the Ku Klux Klan, which was the most powerful organization in the country at the time. Madge’s testimony was so graphically detailed that when it was read aloud in open court in Noblesville Indiana, women fainted and grown men got up and left the room. Nicole will recount Madge’s 9 – page deathbed declaration and its entirety for the first time in public and nearly a century.
brandonFormer WTHR reporter Brandon Kline will be voicing Pinkerton detective Frank Geyer, the man who brought America’s first serial killer to justice. Brandon will wear the hero cape by voicing this legendary Pinkerton agent who is dogged determination alone solved Irvington’s first murder, that of 10-year-old Howard Pitezel. Brandon’s hero duty will be doubled when he also voices Irvingtonian lawyer Asa J Smith who recorded Madge’s deathbed declaration in what promises to be a most memorable exchange with his wife Nicole.
JulieBoomer TV personality, longtime WZPL radio host and former WISH – TV alumni Julie Patterson will be voicing the last wife of HH Holmes, Georgiana Yoke. Ms. Yoke, a native of Franklin Indiana, is easily the most unknown character in the presentation. Georgiana’s family has deep connections to Indianapolis’east side at both Garfield Park and Holliday Park. Georgiana narrowly escaped death at the hands of her husband and, after his death by hanging, could not escape the cloud of suspicion that hung over her in Indianapolis after her husband’s crimes were revealed. Julie’s interpretation of Georgiana will also include her court testimony, some of which was delivered by her husband HH Holmes while acting as his own counsel.
edEd Wenck, long time local radio host, journalist, author and on-air television personality, will be voicing America’s first serial killer HH Holmes. Allegedly responsible for over 200 murders, Holmes admitted to killing 27. The arch fiend came to Irvington in October 1894 on the heels of the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. His crimes are numerous, gruesome and unspeakable. Ed will voice America’s first serial killer using Holmes’ own words which are guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

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Sgt. Jo Moore

Special guest Jo Moore, retired IMPD Sergeant, will be voicing the unsung hero of the Holmes saga in Irvington, Detective David S Richards. Sgt. Moore will help outline the details of the alleged “Curse of HH Holmes” that lingered for over a quarter century after the serial killer was hanged. Sgt. Moore has been instrumental in meticulously researching the lives and duty roster of Indianapolis policemen whose honorable recognition is long overdue. Jo has also led the charge to create a museum archive honoring fallen members of Indianapolis police departments past and present. Her own son, Officer David Moore, prominent among them.

 

 

 

 

These Circle City personalities, all of which are friends of Irvington, have strong backgrounds with the press and public service. Their individual love of Indianapolis history will shine through during their performances. It promises to be an afternoon to remember. So join us this Saturday, October 20th at 2 PM inside the Irving theater for this unique performance. Remember, parental discretion is advised and the content may not be suitable for all audiences and most importantly, no one will be admitted after 2:00 PM.

 

Creepy history, Criminals, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Medicine

Grave Robbing in Indiana. John Scott Harrison-The Unquiet Corpse. Part II.

 

Grave robbers part II

Original publish date: August 5, 2011

Last week, I told you a little about the macabre grave robbing profession and subsequent black market medical cadaver trade that once flourished in our capital city. What most Hoosiers don’t know is that Indianapolis has a Presidential connection to the dark art of body snatching. Former Ohio Congressman John Scott Harrison (October 4, 1804 – May 25, 1878) is the only man in American History whose father and son both became President of the United States. A former United States Senator in his own right, John Scott Harrison’s father was our nation’s ninth President William Henry Harrison and his son Benjamin Harrison became the 23rd President of the United States. Harrison was also the grandson of Benjamin Harrison V signer of the Declaration of Independence. Sadly, hardly anyone alive today has ever heard of John Scott Harrison or is aware of the story of his unquiet corpse.

 

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Death of President William Henry Harrison.

On May 25th, 1878 John Scott Harrison died suddenly at his Point Farm estate located near North Bend, Ohio, about 16 miles west of Cincinnati. He was 73 years old. Funeral services were held at the Presbyterian Church in Cleves, Ohio on May 29th. His body was interred in the William Henry Harrison Tomb State Memorial in North Bend with his parents and other family members. The Harrison family plot was located on a hill in the Congress Green Cemetery that featured a commanding, panoramic view of the Ohio River Valley below.

The bereaved family filed past the open coffin to cast a last glance upon the man who had so frequently and so successfully influenced their lives. Among them was his highly successful lawyer / US Senate candidate son from Indianapolis Benjamin Harrison, who was already at the helm of the State’s Republican party and just 19 years away from becoming President.

But far from resting in peace, his corpse became the central figure in one of the most widely heralded and distressing examples of grave-robbery in the history of the United States. During Senator Harrison’s memorial service, as the funeral party walked to John Scott’s grave they could not help but notice that the nearby grave of 23-year-old Augustus Devin, a nephew of Benjamin Harrison who had died suddenly and been buried there just a week before, had been disturbed. Though placed in his grave only the Saturday before, it appeared that young Devin’s grave had been robbed by body snatchers. At first, family members thought that wild hogs had been at work uprooting the earth. However upon closer examination, it was revealed that indeed there had been a theft of the corpse.

z McConnellJGraverobThe first order of business was to hide the fact from Devin’s widowed mother until the body could be recovered, and the second was to take precautions for safeguarding John Scott Harrison’s remains. Benjamin Harrison and his younger brother John carefully supervised the lowering of his father’s body into an eight-foot-long grave. At the bottom, they placed the state-of-the-art metallic casket into a secure brick vault with thick walls and a solid stone bottom. Three flat stones, eight or more inches thick were procured for a cover. With great difficulty the stones were lowered over the casket, the largest at the upper end and the two smaller slabs crosswise at the foot. All three of these slabs were carefully cemented together. The brothers waited patiently beside the open hole for several hours as the cement dried. Finally, with their father’s remains still under guard, a massive amount of dirt was shoveled into the hole and the brothers departed secure in the notion that their father would rest in peace for all eternity.

Benjamin Harrison took a train back to Indianapolis late that day so that he might have a few days to finish his address which would open the Republican State Convention on Wednesday, June 5th. The Harrison family saw Benjamin and his wife off at the depot and then all returned to North Bend except for the younger brother John. He remained in Cincinnati in order that he might begin a search in the morning for Augustus Devin’s body.

In the morning, John Harrison, his cousin George Eaton, and a couple of Cincinnati policemen began their search at the Ohio Medical College on 6th Street between Vine and Race on the city’s south side. It was common knowledge that “Resurrectionists” (the name the public gave to grave robbers) were in collusion with the medical school and routinely supplied research cadavers. A close search of the college was begun led by an obnoxious protesting janitor named A.Q. Marshall who toured the group around the building assuring them that they would find no bodies there. Thrusting their lantern into every dark corner of the building, true to the cranky janitor’s predictions, they found no trace of any body. As they were preparing to exit, one of the policemen noticed a rope stretched tight into a darkened well hole. Immediately he began to haul it up and it soon became evident that there was a heavy weight attached to the end of the rope. The tug-of-war continued until at last there emerged from the darkness a lifeless body with a cloth covering the head and shoulders of what was obviously the body of a very old man.

z grave_robbingJohn Harrison shrugged off the discovery knowing that his cousin Augustus Devin, the subject of their search, was a very young man. Still, the body was lain flat on the floor and the cloth was cast aside with the aid of a nearby stick. As the dead man’s face was revealed, John Harrison gasped in horror that the dead body was none other than that of his father, John Scott Harrison.

The terrible sight sickened him physically and tortured him emotionally. He had came looking for a widow’s son, and found instead the corpse of his own father, whom he had personally entombed less than twenty-four hours before. The scene was surreal, his illustrious father’s body hung by a rope around his neck swaying back-and-forth in a black hole in the Medical College of Ohio right in downtown Cincinnati. In his daze the youngest of the Harrison’s thought only of the family and how, above all else, this must be kept secret.

Secrecy proved impossible, then as now, when an event like this took place, word was bound to get out. A Cincinnati Commercial newspaper reporter heard the story from the members of the fire department located next to the medical college. The reporter tracked down Harrison, Eaton, and the two policemen, but they weren’t talking. The undertakers had been sworn to silence and would not even admit that a corpse had been discovered. However, before long the news leaked out from three relatives from North Bend who had visited the Harrison tomb and found that the grave had been disturbed. Apparently, the ghouls had broken the glass seal and unceremoniously dragged the body from the box out feet first.

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Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison had just arrived in Indianapolis when he was urgently called back to Cincinnati. Before “Lil’ Ben” arrived, his brother Carter swore out a warrant for the arrest of A.Q. Marshall the surly janitor at the Ohio Medical College. The janitor was arrested on the charge of receiving, concealing, and secreting John Scott Harrison’s body which had been unlawfully and maliciously removed from its grave. The medical school posted the $5,000.00 bond for the janitor’s release, andering the citizens of Cincinnati even more. Things went from bad to worse when the Medical College took the position that the adverse attention was hurting the school’s chances of obtaining additional cadavers for dissection. All of which made fantastic headlines for the local press.

Reports of the horrific crime brought out curious crowds who milled about the alley behind the medical school hoping to peer into the macabre cadaver chute. Local reporters interviewed as many people as possible quickly fueling the hysteria among Queen City citizens who wondered, “If this can happen to such an illustrious hero as John Scott Harriosn, what is to become of our loved ones?

Above all else, what became of Augustis Devin’s body? That question would go unanswered for another three weeks. On June 14th a janitor from the nearby Miami Medical School confessed that a notorious resurrectionist named Charles Morton (alias Dr. Gabriel, alias Dr. Morton, alias Dr. Christian, and alias Dr. Gordon) had bribed him to use the medical building basement as headquarters for preparing and shipping bodies to nearby cities. It was an excellent hiding place, for except for two hours each day, no member of the faculty was ever near the school. This veil of secrecy allowed Dr. Morton to work unmolested for nearly a month and in that time Augustus Devin and John Scott Harrison were two of his victims. The janitor’s confession basically indicted the entire medical profession across the United States.

The janitor revealed that most of the misappropriated bodies were shipped from Cincinnati to the Medical College at Ann Arbor, Michigan in barrels reading: “Quimby and Co.” The police left for Ann Arbor immediately and found a vat of brine containing several bodies already prepared for use in the fall and winter school sessions. Soon, the police identified one of the cadaver’s as that of Augustus Devin and a telegram was sent immediately to the family in North Bend. Young Devin’s remains were sent home and the body was reburied. The Harrison’s, including Benjamin, were counted among the one hundred and fifty prominent citizens assembled to pay final tribute to young Devin four weeks to the day after it was buried the first time.

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Herman Webster Mudgett aka H.H. Holmes (far left)

In December, 1879 the body of John Scott Harrison was reburied without fanfare in the Harrison family tomb where he rests peacefully to this very day. Benjamin Harrison never publicly spoke of the incident. However, an interesting footnote to the story with yet another tie-in to Irvington? Remember those bodies packed in pickle barrels from “Quimby & Co.” sent to the University of Michigan Medical School mentioned earlier? One of those Michigan students who undoubtedly participated in the dissection of those wayward cadavers was non-other than Herman Webster Mudgett, a graduate of the school in 1873. You might know Mudgett better by his alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

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.

 

Abe Lincoln, Irvington Ghost Tours, Politics

Abraham Lincoln & the angels of Community North Hospital.

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Original publish date: March 21, 2016

This past October while leading a ghost tour through historic Irvington, I met a pair of lovely young women who posed an interesting question to me. The query came after I concluded my version of the Lincoln funeral train story, a tale fraught with emotional imagery and historical fancy that has been the last story on the tour for over a decade. As the group dispersed into the Irvington night, the young women sheepishly approached to ask their question. They introduced themselves as nurses at Community North hospital, not just any nurses, these were critical care nurses working in the hospice unit there.
As part of their duties they were often in charge of patients in the final stages of life and both had sadly witnessed firsthand the dying of the light many times. They wanted to share personal experiences with me, witnessed by both independently and together, that they hoped I might have an answer for. They explained that on more than a few occasions, patients would suddenly see the figure of Abraham Lincoln moments before dying. One instance in particular involved a recent near comatose patient arising with arms outstretched proclaiming that Abraham Lincoln was there in the room to deliver him up to heaven.

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Luckily, I was able to tell them that this was not the first time I had heard this story. As a lover of history, ghost stories, writer and folklore, I have become somewhat of an ersatz authority and repository of Abraham Lincoln ghost stories and sightings. Interestingly enough, most accounts I hear of Abraham Lincoln as a secular saint are rooted within the baby boomer generation although the roots of this belief can be found in his assassination on Easter weekend of 1865.
The assassination had occurred on Good Friday, and on the following Sunday, known colloquially as “Black Easter,” hundreds of church speakers found a sermon buried in the tragedy. Some men of the cloth viewed the act as more than mere coincidence that assassination day was also crucifixion day. One preacher declared, “Jesus Christ died for the world; Abraham Lincoln died for his country.” The meteoric posthumous growth of his reputation was influenced by the timing and circumstances of his death, which won for him a kind of saintly aura.
Although Lincoln enjoyed public popularity during his life, it was his death which erased all opposition and cemented his mythic identity. Lincoln’s shooting on Good Friday and death on Holy Saturday were his first steps on the stairway to heaven. Just moments after he breathed his last breath, Lincoln began his ascension to sainthood. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton kick-started the heavenward trip by stating, “Now he belongs to the angels.”
Churches across the country were now faced with the difficult task of celebrating Easter and mourning the death of Lincoln at the same time. The resulting nationwide church services devoted to Lincoln on Easter Sunday began his posthumous religious transformation from man of the people to Godlike status. Many Americans, North and South, came to believe that his death was the price we paid for the bloodshed of the Civil War. In fact, it became the capstone for America’s greatest internal sin: slavery.
The sermons preached on Easter Day, 1865 painted a theologically enigmatic portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Barely twenty-four hours after his death, Lincoln’s memory was already being defined as superhuman. Lincoln, as a symbolic figure, was revered not only by those who had supported him during his life, but now by all Americans, and soon by the whole world.
z 71.2009.081.0258_lbWithin forty-eight hours of his passing, the association of Lincoln’s character with American tradition began. The clergy, alongside their biblical images of Moses and martyrdom, also invoked the images of Lincoln and the founding fathers. In addition to grouping the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence as sacred texts, these sermons also established a link between Lincoln and the nation’s first President George Washington.
The timing and tragic nature of Lincoln’s death underscored the accomplishments of his life. Lincoln quickly became a central figure-perhaps the central figure-in the unfolding epic of America as a nation post 1865. Who else but Lincoln, the rough-hewn man forged on the prairies of Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, could have seen us through the sectional conflict pitting brother-against-brother? The plain speaker-unpolished, unschooled, and untutored- somehow managed to master a situation that was in his own words “piled high with difficulty.” He did so with a rhetorical mastery that no other American political figure has come close to matching since.
Generations of schoolchildren were taught to memorize two things: the Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg address. Lincoln’s image graces both our paper money and our coinage. Lincoln is referred to as Father Abraham, Honest Abe and the Great Emancipator. Therefore it should come as no surprise to even the most casual observer that Lincoln’s evolution into a religious figure was / is inevitable. Couple that with the realization that more and more late 20th / early 21st century Americans are drifting further away from organized religion and the church, and these visions of Lincoln in the last moments of life become more easily explained.

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If Abraham Lincoln does not assume the identity of God to these folks, he must certainly signify the most positive prospects of heaven. I have studied Lincoln’s complicated religious beliefs over the years through conversations with Lincoln scholar and author C. Wayne Temple, whose 1995 book “Abraham Lincoln: From Skeptic to Prophet” is considered the definitive study on the subject. It appears that Abraham Lincoln was a deist, making the view of him as a prophet, angel or Godlike figure all the more ironic. A deist is defined as “a person who accepts the belief in god,but does not believe in the religion.” To a deist, the concept of God is rhetorical with a belief in his power of creation and omnipotence, but unrelated to organized religion.
The religious views of Abraham Lincoln remain a matter of interest among scholars and the public. Lincoln grew up in a highly religious Baptist family. He never joined any church, and sometimes (as a young man) ridiculed revivalists. He often referred to God and had a deep knowledge of the Bible, regularly quoting from it. Lincoln attended Protestant church services with his wife and children, and after two of them died he became more intensely concerned with religion. In short, Lincoln was the “thinking man’s” Christian whose religious ambiguity makes him a perfect candidate for a last second spiritual visitation.
When the sermons of April 16, 1865 asked the American people to “pledge not only to the affectionate memory of our MARTYR but to the imitation of his character and the perpetuation of his principles” a spiritual place was created for Lincoln in the American mind which has existed ever since. The Lincoln of legend has grown into a temporal god available to assume a shape to please almost anyone at anytime.
A 2015 Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in organized religion is on the decline, continuing a gradual, decades-long trend. Gallup noted in their commentary on the poll that “Once reliably at the top of Gallup’s confidence in institutions list, [organized religion] now ranks fourth behind the military, small business and the police, and just ahead of the medical system.”
The poll shows that only 42% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion or the Church, well below the high of 68% in the 1970s. This coincides with a 2014 Pew Study showing Americans are becoming increasingly unlikely to identify with any particular religion and that America is building fewer churches. The amount of construction spending on religious structures has dropped by 62% since January 2002. Therefore, it stands to reason that more and more people are apt to view Abraham Lincoln as a savior at the closing moments of their life.

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Dr. Charles A. Leale in 1865.

As for me, I think it important for all people to believe in something bigger than themselves, whatever or whomever that may be. So to the nurses of Community North Hospital’s Hospice care unit I want to say thank you for sparking this conversation. Thank you for caring enough to recall with kindness and concern the plight of your beloved patients. It is good for us all to know that you care as deeply as you do right up until the last moments of precious life. One of my personal heroes of the Lincoln assassination saga is a 23-year-old U.S. Army Surgeon named Dr. Charles Leale. For most of that tragic night, Leale held the dying president’s hand. He later said “I held his hand firmly to let him know, in his blindness, that he had a friend.” Ladies, it cheers me to think that the patients of Community North know that they too have angels in the darkness.

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.