Part of the reason Alan Hunter's able to spin a great ghostly tale is purely practical. Every effective teacher needs a hook.
Hunter spent years as a high school history teacher — and baseball coach — in Westfield. He needed something to get the teenagers in his classrooms interested in dead guys and gals, and stories of undead guys and gals seemed to be just the ticket.
Hunter's interest in the paranormal grew — for a while, he hunted ghosts, but now, he sticks to storytelling. Hunter leads the Irvington Ghost Tours, an October tradition that Hunter's helmed for 12 years.
I'm tailing Alan and roughly 150 other interested folks on a cool and cloudy Saturday night. Over the course of just under three hours, we'll hike the cracked sidewalks of Indy's Creepiest Neighborhood as Hunter, carrying a staff and lantern like a Hoosier Gandalf, acts as our tour guide through the underworld.
We'll start at the Irvington Masonic Lodge — that's Lodge No. 666, naturally — and see eight different spots that seem to be hotbeds of activity.
Hunter gives us the proper warnings. "Remember, you're in Irvington on a Saturday night, so you might see folks who are communing with spirits of a different variety," he cracks.
The crowd's being wrangled with the help of several other volunteers, among them Tim Poynter, a ghost hunter in his own right with a group called "Spirit Paranormal Investigation Research and Intervention Team (SPIRIT)." Poynter, an affable, talkative guy, is convinced that Irvington is the most haunted place in the state. "Hell, people around here get 'ghost envy,'" he chuckles. Yep, those whose homes don't see any paranormal activity tend to get jealous of those who do.
Be careful what you wish for.
H. H. HOLMES
Hunter is standing on the corner of Bolton and Julian Streets, near a parking lot directly across from a modest two-story cottage with a white picket fence. He's already told us this is "evil ground," and damned if I don't feel a bit more chilled than I had a mere five minutes ago. That's got to be the power of suggestion, right? Hunter's just informed us that this little plot of land runs ten degrees colder than the rest of town.
Hunter tells of two recent residents of the cottage across the way, how two women named Wendy and Pepper would take in animals and how the critters refused to follow anyone down into the cellar. Dogs and cats alike would pause at the top of the steps, whining, howling, mewling and complaining. For a while, the pair had taken in a cat, and the cat would turn up in locked closets and closed kitchen drawers.
The potential explanation for the weirdness? This was land once occupied by what may have been America's first serial killer.
In October of 1894, a pharmacist who went by the name of H.H. Holmes rented a cottage at 5811 Julian Avenue. The cellar of the cottage is the only original part that survives. The new structure harkens back to the original; just the Victorian gingerbread porch is markedly different.
Holmes had been born Herman Webster Mudgett to a family in New England. He studied medicine at the University of Michigan, and apparently began plotting how to use his newfound expertise to violate the first sentence of his Hippocratic oath. Dr. Henry Howard Holmes built a hotel, a grand building in Chicago on a corner in the Englewood neighborhood that had been constructed specifically for the "World's Columbian Exposition," the World's Fair of 1893. That building — later dubbed the "Murder Castle" — was an abattoir designed for the slaughter and disposal of human beings.
The ground floor was home to retail shops and Holmes' drugstore, but the upper floors were a maze of rooms without windows, hallways that snaked into blind dead-ends or hidden passages, a web of footpaths that Holmes had memorized. Any potential victim who managed to jimmy her way out of one of Holmes' multiple sound-proof chambers would soon find herself lost and confused, her disorientation surely compounded by fear.
Holmes offered his guests and acquaintances a little something beyond mere accommodations whenever possible: H.H. would gladly take out an insurance policy on anyone who struck up a relationship with the good Doctor; in fact, those in his employ were required to have such an arrangement that named Holmes as the beneficiary.
More than money, though, Holmes seemed to have a particular fondness for sadism, dismemberment and vivisection. While some of his victims were tortured to death on his hand-built stretching rack, a much larger percentage were either gassed in one of the hotel's many asphyxiation chambers or simply suffocated in Holmes' large bank-like vault. Holmes had apparently thought every detail through with great care: the gas lines were controlled from a central location using a system of valves squirreled away in a closet, and some rooms were lined with asbestos should the gas ignite. The corpses were transported to the cellar of the hotel with an intricate system of chutes, and once there, cleaned, cut up or burned in one of Holmes' furnaces. Vats of acid and a variety of tools assisted the Doctor in his efforts, and no one was at all suspicious of a physician in the possession of human remains. Holmes' profession afforded him the chance to sell the skeletons of the dead to academic institutions offering instruction in the medical arts. The going rate? $75 per single set of bones.
After the World's Fair wrapped, Holmes began traveling — the Doctor was taking his act on the road. On October 10, 1894, H. H. Holmes rented the cottage in Irvington. His only companion was 10-year-old Howard Pitezel.
According to Hunter, Holmes had concocted a scheme with young Howard's father: take out insurance on the kids, when a child roughly the same age perished, obtain the body and present the corpse for the policy payout. Holmes was fulfilling his end of the bargain by ensuring that the Pitezel kids weren't around to be seen.
But Holmes, of course, simply offed young Howard with a variety of drugs, then cut up the body and burned the remains. (Holmes had already murdered Howard's siblings in Toronto).
It was a Philadelphia detective named Frank Geyer who connected the dots — Howard's dad Ben Pitezel had been murdered by Holmes in the city of Brotherly Love. Geyer turned up in Irvington in August of 1895, searching for the youngster. Holmes had long since moved on, but he'd been careless: he'd left enough remains in the ashes of the makeshift crematorium he'd installed in the cottage to link Holmes to the murder of Howard. A bit of jawbone, internal organs and the like began to turn up. Holmes later admitted that he'd spread the body's ashes all throughout the acreage surrounding the house.
Holmes would eventually confess to killing more than two dozen people, but the true number likely stretches into the hundreds. Holmes would eventually hang for his crimes, a slow execution that took somewhere between 15 and 20 minutes.
The original home fell into disrepair and became the focal point for a challenge issued by fraternity and sorority members to those rushing their houses. (Irvington, you'll remember, was home to Butler University from 1875 until moving to its new location in the 1920s.) Many a terrified freshman reported strange apparitions, and the activity continued when the home was rebuilt atop the original cellar.
Wendy and Pepper would have run-ins with what they believe are the spirits of Holmes and young Howard. One morning after Wendy had gone to work, the pair fought over the disastrous condition of Wendy's bedroom — an angry Pepper had called Wendy to complain. When Pepper returned to the home, the room had been cleaned. Touched, Pepper called Wendy to thank her for coming home on her lunch hour to tidy up.
Wendy informed Pepper that she hadn't been home at all.
Pepper, fearing for her own sanity, checked the room again. It was still pristine, but now the covers had been turned down as if to invite Pepper into bed.
Pepper ran screaming from the house.