Having led ghost tours in Irvington for the past 15 years, I’ve learned a lot about this community’s history, her people and it’s folklore. That learning process continues every time I walk the streets and sidewalks of this historic eastside neighborhood. Some think of folklore and history as being in direct opposition to each other. The truth is, in Irvington, history and folklore are more closely associated than some may believe.
Irvington is more fortunate than most Indianapolis communities because it has one of the strongest, most active historical societies in the state. When Rhonda and I were gifted a collection of macabre relics related to America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, over a decade ago, we could think of no better repository for placement than the Irvington Historic Society and the Bona Thompson Memorial Center. Those relics are now on display inside the Bona Thompson center for all to see until mid-November.
Holmes committed Irvington’s first murder by killing 10-year-old Howard Pitezel. Holmes arrived in Irvington on Friday, October 5, 1894. The murder took place on the far eastern edge of the Irvington community. Holmes rented a quaint cottage style home located in the 5800 block of Julian Avenue at a spot where Julian and Maple (now Bolton) Avenues crossed. Holmes paid one month’s rent in advance and accepted the keys. Holmes claimed that he was renting the property for use by his sister, Mrs. A.E. Cook.
On Wednesday, October 10th, Holmes first poisoned, then strangled the young boy inside one of the bedrooms of the house. After the murder and by his own account, Holmes desecrated the boy’s body and scattered the remains all around the property. For decades after the crime, the fate of the Holmes murder cottage was unknown. Rumors circulated that it was torn apart piece by piece by the hands of unfortunate Butler College students forced to spend the night there as a part of fraternity/sorority initiation rituals. Some said it was burned to the ground, others that it was knocked down after falling into disrepair. No-one really knew for sure. That is until Irvington Historical Society Executive Director Steve Barnett starting digging last year and found strong evidence that the Holmes cottage may in fact still be standing.
I first learned about the possible existence of the Holmes house from a Facebook friend, Laurie MacGregor. During filming for the History Channel’s “American Ripper” series last fall, Laurie sent me a message asking if I wanted to come check out her house. I had heard rumors from former residents of the home that occupies the site now that the house had been moved to a new location several years ago. I never followed up on them and thought the idea seemed preposterous. After all, the house was not remarkable for any other reason than the awful deed that took place there, so why would anyone move it?
Paul Diebold, IHS MVP and THE MAN when it comes to house history in Indianapolis and Irvington, shared his learned opinion with me on that possibility. Paul cited the 1842 description of author Charles Dickens in his book “American Notes” describing his bewilderment as he witnessed the relocation of a nondescript house rather than simply knocking down the old one and building anew. Paul theorized that moving the Holmes cottage would speak more to practical frugality rather than historical preservation.
Don Flick, President of the Irvington Historic Society, explains that the original house, known after 1894 as the “Holmes Cottage,” was moved to a new location. “The house that is currently located at 114 S. Good Avenue — the house in which H.H. Holmes killed Howard Pitezel in October 1894 — was originally the only house on the half-block bounded by Julian Avenue on the north, Good Avenue on the east, the Pennsy Trail on the south, and the north-south alley to the west. The house sat in the center of the lot, and the front of the house faced Julian, which is substantiated by maps from that time.”
Don continues, “Several years after the murder of Howard, the property was purchased by a developer who subdivided the large single lot into eight smaller lots – three facing Julian and five facing Good. Because the existing house was located in the center of the subdivision, the house was lifted from its foundation, rotated so that the front of the house faced east, set on a new foundation on Lot 4 of the subdivision (the closest lot to the original location of the house), and given the address 114 S. Good Avenue.”
“When permits for the subdivision were obtained, seven new construction building permits for seven new houses were requested, as well as one remodeling permit for an existing house, thus substantiating that one of the eight houses that make up the subdivision was existing at the time of the purchase, and which could only have been the Holmes house This relocation of the house is further substantiated by photographic verification of similarities between the Holmes house in 1895 and the current house at 114 S. Good,“ says Don Flick.
When asked how the house was moved back then, Don explains, “Holes were cut into the original foundation walls just under the floor joists, beams were installed across the house, the beams were raised by jacks, the foundation walls were removed, some type of wheeled rig/trailer/truck bed was slid under the house, it was pulled, rotated, and moved above a new foundation at the new location, and the house lowered onto the new foundation. Despite all the work involved, this was not an uncommon thing to do at the time.”
However, when it comes to Irvington history, all roads lead to IHS Executive Director Steve Barnett as the final arbiter. Steve wrote an extensive history of the house tracing it back to it’s earliest possible genesis. Steve’s house history mentions Christopher Columbus, Ponce de Leon, and Hernando de Soto among others. Who else could do that? Steve traces the land back to a time when it was used as a military camp at the onset of the Civil War. Once the war ended, the area was purchased by two Centerville real estate developers, Jacob Julian and Sylvester Johnson. What follows is Steve’s extensive research on the Holmes cottage.
The property where the Holmes cottage was located, known as lot 64, was acquired by David C. Bryan and then sold to Dr. Thomas L. Thompson for $1,200 in June of 1891. Dr. Thompson built a modest one-and-a-half story Gable Front style house on the west half of this two-and-a-half acre lot. The house was then sold to George W. Lancaster in March 1894 for $3,500. In late September of that year, the house (known as the Lancaster House) became available for rent. On Friday, October 5, 1894 a man using the name A. D. Laws rented the house, claiming it for his sister, Mrs. A. E. Cook. The man was later identified as H. H. Holmes. The details of Holmes and his crimes are well known.
Early in 1895, R. R. Miles bought the house for $3,000 and it continued to be rented after Holmes left. Boot and shoe salesman Edward Branham and his family lived in the house for a short time and complained of foul odors emanating from the cellar. Lime was spread around the foundation, but the odor persisted. Edward Branham died on October 15, 1906 as a result of injuries received when he was struck by an automobile while attempting to cross Illinois and Michigan Streets.
In the fall of 1900 Rev. Charles Fisk Beach bought the house and lot for $3,500 and resided in it for about a year before selling the property at a loss of $700. Following the brief residency of Rev. Beach, Samuel R. Stuart became a tenant in the house. 5799 Julian Avenue became the family home of John Monroe Connell. A couple of years after coming to Irvington tragedy befell the Connell family in July 1904 when their son Jack drowned after falling from a canoe into White River while canoeing with friends at Broad Ripple. Three years later, the Connell’s marriage failed. In March 1910, Connell sold his Irvington house and the large lot on which it stood to William C. Brydon.
William Clarence Brydon platted the west half of original Irvington Lot 64 as Brydon’s Subdivision. He divided it into eight lots, three facing Julian Av and five along the west side of Good Av. The original house was moved to Lot 4 in this new subdivision and given an address of 114 Good Avenue. From the mid-‘teens to the end of the decade, the home was a rental. Little is known of the tenants Lewis W. Miller, John M. Miller, and Claude Smith. Another tenant during this time was railroad crossing flagman Cornelius Adkinson.
Following the First World War, Frederick “Fred” George Betts bought this Irvington house for his family home. Betts answered a real estate sales ad for the Irvington house advertised as, “not modern; full basement; good lot; barn; $2,400.” Betts left this Irvington home after a residency of only a year. Silas Lancaster made 114 Good Av his family home in 1920.
A house swap occurred in October 1928 when Louis L. Mountjoy traded his home at 204 Good Av for the house at 114 Good Av. John Herman Schlotman bought the house in the early 1930s. He came to Indianapolis at the beginning of the Great Depression as a grain tester for a seed company and made his home in Irvington where his son Thomas, a police officer, was already residing. In the mid-‘30s another house swap took place between Schlotman and his son, trading spaces from 114 Good Av to 109 Good Ave.
The next to call 114 Good Av home was Harry Herbert Fulford. Irvington pastor Kasey Newbold lived in the house with his wife Lisa and their large family for several years after the Fulford’s. Reverend Newbold established the Mosaic Church in Irvington Masonic Lodge 666 in September of 2007. The house is now owned by Laurie MacGregor who resides there with her daughter Samantha (aka “Sammy”) and their dog Jake.
I visited the house last week for the first time. Laurie welcomed my wife Rhonda and I and shared what she knew about the house speaking with an endearing Canadian accent. “The upstairs was an attic to the original house but has been made into living quarters,” Laurie says. “There’s still a hole in the floor where the stove used to be up there.” Wait, a stove? Now you have my attention.
Laurie’s been a bit under the weather lately so her daughter Samantha led us on a tour of her upstairs living quarters. Sammy carefully moved a large dollhouse to reveal an ancient iron plate covering a hole in the floor. Samantha points to the rectangular plate and the round indention in the center. “See that circle? That’s where the flue pipe was,” she says. I asked Samantha how she feels about the house and it’s possible connection to the doomed 10-year-old Howard. “It makes me sad. Sometimes I feel the sadness up here.” she states.
Samantha then escorts Rhonda and I down to the basement of the house. She states plainly that she doesn’t like it down there. The space is like many other pre-World War I cellars made for function, not fashion. The family’s washer and dryer and a few assorted holiday decorations are all that occupy this space. I seriously doubt that even Jake, the family dog, likes to spend time down here. The load bearing cement block pillars tell tales about this house. If perused carefully, the pillars reveal dates of “4-16-17” & “4-19-17” pressed into their sides.
These dates correspond perfectly with the meticulous house history compiled by Steve Barnett and help pinpoint the time of the home’s relocation. If nothing else, these concrete blocks offer a time capsule for house historians to build dreams upon. The concrete block first surface commercially at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, so these blocks are certainly first generation examples. The dates of April 17-19, 1917 are equally romantic. When these blocks were born, Babe Ruth was beating the New York Yankees as a Boston Red Sox pitcher, Vladimir Lenin was joining the Russian Revolution and issuing his April Theses and the U.S. was declaring war on Germany.
Now here’s the part where I come in. The first thing I noticed in that basement were the curved walls. I recognize their symbolism and suspect that many of you may be surprised to hear the answer. Many of the European immigrants that came through Ellis Island settled in the Midwest to join fellow contractors and masons. These Old World craftsmen made these walls curved for a very specific purpose. These Europeans were somewhat superstitious, as well as religious, and superstition is what compelled them to build these curved walls. Like the “witches bends” found in many European house chimneys, designed to keep witches from flying down into the fireplace, the curved walls are said to confuse the devil and inhibit his ability to slither up the walls from his nether regions below. So, maybe those brick and concrete masons had heard the stories about what was said to have happened in the basement back in October of 1894? Perhaps they decided to add these curved deterrents for the future family’s own good. After all, like the old German proverb states, “The Devil is in the details.”
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest books are Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View, Irvington Haunts. The tour guide & The Mystery of the H.H. Holmes collection. Contact Al directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.