Original publish date: October 5, 2010 Reissue / Updated: August 6, 2020
Here’s a one tank trip that might just help make your autumn season a little bit better. It combines many things that I like and perhaps a couple of things you might fancy as well; History, Antiques and ghosts! Recently my wife Rhonda and I took a trip down to New Albany, Indiana (just a stones throw from Louisville) to visit a place I’d long heard about but had yet to visit, Aunt Arties Antique Mall at 128 W. Main Street in New Albany.
Judy Gwinn is the owner of the old Ohio River Opera House and has turned the stately old building into one of the nicest antique malls in Southern Indiana. For antiquers, it is like stepping a decade back in time to a multi-dealer co-op with 3 floors of collectibles that would please most any collector. In short, it’s a mall full of quality merchandise the likes of which we all used to find in the days before Ebay.
“There are a lot of strange things that go on in this old building,” Judy says, “It has a vibe all its own.” Gwinn has operated the antique mall for nearly 10 years now and has witnessed many unexplained occurrences over the past decade. Lucky for Judy and her dealers, the ghosts of Aunt Arties aren’t poltergeists so breakage has not been a problem, “Although they sometimes move things around the building.”
The building, originally known as Woodward Hall, was built in 1853 and purposely situated a block from the river on the corner of State and Main, “J.K. Woodward built it so that his wife and kids did not have to deal with the drunks and neer-do-wells that often prowled the docks down by the river in the years before the Civil War. He wanted a safe place for his family to enjoy themselves.” said Judy. In its lifetime just about every famous person who passed through New Albany appeared on the 3rd floor Opera House including the famed Siamese twins Eng and Chang, P.T.Barnum’s diminutive protege Tom Thumb and his friend, Commodore Foote, Opera star Adelina Patti, Philosopher/Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and self taught former slave turned master musician Blind Tom who was billed as the “Negro piano prodigy.” Not every performer to grace the stage of old Woodward Hall was famous though. The venue attracted countless numbers of minstrel shows, political debates, religious revivals, social lectures and dramatic productions.
The lower 2 levels housed a dry goods / department store well into the 20th century in what was once the largest city in the state before the Civil War. Although Judy is responsible for its current look, it has been used as an antique store since the late 1980s. Along with the city’s reputation as a river community, New Albany also has a rich history as a factory town and will celebrate its 200th anniversary in 2013.
The Opera House hosted the first performance of the inflammatory anti-slavery play “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and its location straddling the North-South boundary caused quite a stir in the days leading up to the Civil War. During the “War of the Rebellion”, the building was used as “Hospital No. 9” and soldiers from both sides of the conflict could often be found lying side-by-side within its walls. In April of 1862, the steamer “H.J. Adams” delivered 200 wounded soldiers to the converted Opera House fresh from the killing fields of Shiloh. In these years before sterilization set the standard of hospital care, a wounded soldier sent to Hospital No. 9, as with any hospital North or South of the Mason-Dixon line, might as well have been handed a death sentence. Many a soldier in Hospital No. 9 would write letters telling friends and family that he was on the mend from a minor battle wound one day, only to die unexpectedly the next day from disease.
Judy and the girls that work in the mall feel that some of these performers and soldiers have never left the building. “I never believed in ghosts until I bought this building. Neither did my husband, but after all of the strange things we’ve experienced in this building, We have changed my minds,” Judy Gwinn said. However, she is no longer afraid of being thought of as a crackpot because she is not the only person to witness these unexplained happenings.
Judy recalls how in 2001, her youngest son David was down in the building’s cellar “fishing” for old bottles in a cistern that he had removed the concrete covering from. “He was laying on his stomach down there alone when he suddenly felt someone tap him on the shoulder” she says, “he looked around expecting to see the source of the poking, but saw that he was still down there alone. Since that time, David does not like to be in the basement by himself.”
Judy recalls one time when she and her sister were walking down the stairway from the second to the first floor when she suddenly lost her balance and began to fall. “Something pulled me back and saved me from falling and serious injury. I shook for several minutes after that one.” says Judy.
Spirits of a Civil War soldier and a woman in an old fashioned Antebellum Era dress have been seen lounging around the cafe area by a few folks. “Every once in awhile, we’ll get a psychic coming through here telling us that they see the spirits of several Civil War soldiers around the entire building and sense sadness in the basement area.” says Gwinn.
On one occasion, Judy was down in the cellar with a group of 4 people when the youngest person down there, an 11-year-old girl wandered a few feet away from the group. “We all watched as a bright white orb of light appeared and went right through that little girl.” she says, “I have seen shadows go through walls and felt the tapping on my own shoulder. Whatever it is, I’m not scared of it anymore.”
Judy Gwinn might not be afraid of the ghosts that linger within the walls of Aunt Arties Antique Mall, but others might have a different opinion. Judy confesses that some people have walked in the doors and turned around and walked right back out. She’s seen more than a few people start walking up the stairs only to suddenly stop and walk carefully back down the stairway. When asked about the basement, Judy says, “Oh my, I don’t think we could ever use this area for anything more than storage. Its just too creepy and I’m not even sure that the employees want to come down here.”
Update: This article originally ran 10 years ago. Aunt Arties closed its doors on New Years Eve of 2014 and the remaining contents were auctioned off in February of 2015. After Rhonda and I visited the store in the Fall of 2010, we took another trip down with several intuitives, including Tim Poynter and Jill Werner. My decision to rerun this story came after the following facebook post from Tim: “Aunt Arties was once a stop on the underground railroad with a reputation of being haunted by a Lady in blue/gray. When we arrived the spirit of a young soldier started following one of the group around. He was very smitten with Jill and had big puppy dog eyes. I noticed the lady spirit on the stairway overseeing our groups investigation. We spent some time on each floor looking for spirits. Near the end of our visit I noticed several spirits of slaves that had been buried on the property still residing in the basement even after all those years. They has perished from injuries received from their perilous journey to freedom. They were still very afraid of our attention to their being there. I remember being overwhelmed with their fear and mistrust. The connection with spirit often comes with much more than we expect. After understanding that we were not a threat they became more forth-giving of their trip to freedom. Even though they had died, they died as free men. I helped them understand that the only thing holding them there was their own energy and off they went. We that were born to freedom seldom understand it’s true value. Those that restrict the freedom of others don’t understand the mark they leave on their own soul.” Well said, Tim, well said.