Living with America’s first serial killer
The devil himself came to Irvington. He walked where my anemones grow, where my hydrangeas bloom chartreuse. The weight of evil stood where my fragrant perennials lure butterflies and hummingbirds, where the vegetable garden nurtures life. The devil was here when cool October breezes planted golden and amber leaves on a winding dirt road now called Julian Avenue. He was here. He is still here.
A grove of catalpas witnessed his arrival that autumn day in 1894. If I could convince the survivors to share their secrets, they would tell me about malevolence making its way toward a secluded cottage. Did the birds stop singing? Did a harsh wind announce the advent of evil? When America’s first serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, turned the key to the rental house nestled on the outskirts of a beautiful little town six miles east of Indianapolis, did the threshold buckle with the weight of what would happen here? The trees, it seems, aren’t talking. But the lingering spirits share evocative vignettes.
I’ll admit that the hundred-year-old Victorian cottage seduced me when I spotted it in a real estate circular. And while my partner lobbied for a small Prohibition-era bungalow on the northern edge of Irvington, I was mesmerized by the one-and-a-half story dollhouse. It was the one. Though I couldn’t explain the lure, someone else could. “The house,” a psychic later told me as she examined its gables, “wanted you here.”
In August of 2001, we purchased the cottage knowing little more than its birth date. We were ignorant to the infamy, and if the previous owners experienced any spirit activity during their stay, they certainly didn’t disclose it. We blissfully accepted the front door skeleton key and imagined the stories the house could tell about two world wars, blizzards, Vietnam, laughter, births and deaths. We assumed the house and property would, in good time, divulge pieces of its history in the way of orphaned furniture, buried trinkets in the garden or old whiskey bottles in the crawl space.
By October of that same year, I was calling my partner daily. “I’m not alone,” I’d say with an anxiety typically reserved for catastrophic events. Between breaths into a paper bag, I’d attempt to relay the inexplicable incidents du jour. At first, many of the strange happenings seemed to be isolated in the office. The laser printer would spit out what looked to be unreadable newspaper print. The ink jet printer would act as though someone had just flipped it on, but it was still turned off. Lights would blink on and off. Built-in cabinets near the ceiling would open. Some pieces of equipment would die after plugging them into the wall. As time went on, the inexplicable happenings transcended the office. Mischief, like that of a child, became common and my partner was routinely antagonized by poltergeist-type incidences. It wasn’t long before we were both breathing into brown paper bags and fearing the worst: actually seeing a spirit.
When the devil came to Irvington, he brought a little boy. Perhaps it was 10-year-old Howard Pitezel’s marbles I found more than a foot into the earth as I prepared to plant a shrub rose. He might have been playing with them or his tin man or spinning top when Holmes called him into the cottage the evening of Oct. 10, 1894. He drugged him, and when he ceased to breathe, he dismembered him and burned the remains in a stove. I often think about Howard’s last moments. Was it chilly enough for him to wear the coat Holmes gave to an Irvington grocer the next day? Was Howard laughing and playing just before his death? He laughs now as he haunts my partner, as he torments our cats and plays with anything that could pass for a toy, including our airplane clock on the coffee table.
If Howard had only known that Dr. H.H. Holmes lured unsuspecting Chicago World’s Fair attendees to his torture “castle” the prior year, he might have attempted to escape the clutches of the self-proclaimed devil. Howard only knew that he, his father, mother and sisters were embroiled in a life insurance scheme Holmes devised and controlled.
We were a couple of years into dealing with the other tenants of our cottage and devoid of a single clue as to the history. We had fled the house twice and hired two psychics on separate occasions. And while one of the psychics found that an evil, negative male spirit roams the east side of our property and spends time in a long-gone outbuilding that sat there, neither of the psychics’ antennas picked up anything regarding little Howard Pitezel, his murder at the hands of an internationally-known serial killer or the sensationalism that surrounded the discovery of his body in 1895.
Soon thereafter, and quite by accident, we learned that our property is a stop on the Irvington Ghosts & Infamous Places of Historic Irvington Tour conducted by the Haunted/Historic Investigations and Tours group (H.I.T). Did this group hold the key to our haunted house and property? When I touched base with their primary ghost guide, Al Hunter, we exchanged stories. The group wasn’t aware that the house is haunted, and we, of course, weren’t aware of the infamy surrounding the property.
After five years we’ve learned to embrace the benevolent spirits we are told live here: two females and Howard. If we talk about selling, they become upset. It seems we were lured here for a reason, and the spirits won’t let go until we’ve satisfied them. After a great deal of head scratching, we believe we’re here to honor Howard Pitezel, the innocent little boy who drew his last breath where we lay our heads, where we live.
Pepper Partin is a writer and an activist.
Ghosts & Infamous Places of Historic Irvington Tour
Tickets are $15 for one tour or $25 for both tours. Tickets are available at Lazy Daze Coffee Shop. Tours depart from Lazy Daze at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased the evening of the tour if not sold out. Tours are conducted rain or shine and are approximately two hours in duration. Walking may be strenuous. For more information, contact H.I.T. at 317-867-3707 or visit the web site at www.indianaghosttours.org.
In addition to the H.H. Holmes house, tours will highlight these places and many more:
Stephenson mansion: the 1923 home of Indiana’s Grand Dragon of the KKK, D.C. Stephenson. Arguably the most powerful man in Indiana who was brought down by the vicious rape, and ultimate death, of a young Irvington neighbor, Madge Oberholtzer. The house is reportedly haunted.
Marge Oberholtzer story/house: 1923 home of the victim of Indiana’s Grand Dragon of the KKK. The house is reportedly haunted by the ghost of Madge.
Succubus house: The house is reportedly haunted by the succubus ghost of mythology which manifests itself in the form of a beautiful young woman at times — as well as a haggard old lady — who appears in the middle of the night literally trying to suck the life out of its victim’s lungs. The succubus ghost is the only known ghost of its kind in Indiana.