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.