Star reporter, photographer spend night in haunted Indy house
When Irvington couple bought their home, they also bought its dark past
4:29 PM, Oct. 19, 2011 |
Partners Pepper Partin (center) and Wendi Garringer (along with the apparition of Star reporter Will Higgins) stand in front of their Irvington home earlier this month. Higgins and photographer Michelle Pemberton spent the night in the H.H. Holmes cottage, a part of the Irvington Ghost Tour. / Star photo illustration by Michelle Pemberton
Star reporter Will Higgins stands in a basement doorway where psychics have seen spirits in the H.H. Holmes cottage, a part of the Irvington Ghost Tour. / Michelle Pemberton / The Star
Pepper Partin first saw the house in one of those free real-estate circulars at grocery stores, and with that one, brief glimpse -- the photo was about the size of two postage stamps -- she knew she'd found a home.
"This is the one," she said to her partner, Wendi Garringer. The two had been living in an apartment and wanted their own place.
Wendi agreed. A deal was made, and in August 2001, the two women moved into their century-old Victorian cottage in the 5800 block of Julian Avenue in Irvington.
They could not have imagined what lay ahead: doors slamming, drawers opening, lights flickering, glass shattering, disembodied male voices saying things like "Ask her" -- or was it "Oscar"? -- and "Come walk with meeeeeeee."
Some of the stuff only Pepper heard, causing her to think she was losing her mind.
The couple saw a therapist. The therapist told them they didn't need a therapist -- they needed a psychic.
And all this happened before they'd even heard the name of Dr. H.H. Holmes, who, it turned out, had lived on the premises and had dismembered a 10-year-old boy there. He buried the child in the yard.
You either buy into hauntedness, or you don't. I didn't, and neither did photographer Michelle Pemberton.
But we'd spent the evening visiting with Pepper and Wendi, and neither seemed delusional, or even gullible. Wendi, 41, is an IT manager, and Pepper, 45, a freelance writer and editor. They own books, good ones, and they read them -- Wendi is in the middle of Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities," Pepper is starting David Sedaris' "Naked."
So when it came time for them to retire upstairs to bed, and for Michelle and I to remain in the living room and turn out the lights and get into our sleeping bags -- hers on the sofa, mine on the floor -- well . . .
Put it this way: When Wendi offered us a nightlight, we said yes.
And when Pepper corralled their three large, overprotective dogs and took them upstairs "so they won't be in your way," we felt especially vulnerable. You know that smug prig in the slasher movies who witnesses something inexplicable and realizes he's been wrong to doubt the supernatural, and then wham!?
We were that prig.
Dr. H.H. Holmes, long story short, was the alias used by the psychopath Herman Webster Mudgett, who may have tortured and killed as many as 200 people.
He did most of his work in Chicago but lived for a brief time in Irvington, in a rented cottage in the 5800 block of Julian Avenue. It was there that he did in young Howard Pitezel, the son of his partner-in-crime, Benjamin Pitezel, whom Holmes had killed while in Philadelphia.
By the time he was hanged in 1896, Holmes was so well-known, his execution rated a detailed, front-page story in The New York Times -- "The neck was not broken," the Times felt compelled to report, "and there were a few convulsive twitches of the limbs that continued for about 10 minutes."
But memory fades, and by the time Pepper and Wendi moved into their cottage, Holmes was forgotten.
Today there is some disagreement among Irvingtonians about whether the house is the actual Holmes place. Pepper and Wendi believe their house was built in 1910, post-Holmes. There is agreement, however, that Holmes killed Pitezel, cut him into pieces, burned the pieces in a stove and buried what was left on the same grounds, possibly in a similar house that was later demolished.
Realtors have a term for such properties: "psychologically affected," and a 1993 state law makes it illegal for a seller to lie about what happened. The stigma (and the discount) typically fade over time, but the Indianapolis house where a Presbyterian minister and his wife were slain in 1996 was sold for $180,000, some $50,000 less than if it were normal circumstances.
Pepper and Wendi knew nothing of Holmes when they bought their place, and neither did the sellers or anyone else, not even the neighborhood's oldest old-timers.
The women got wise one night when their quiet was disturbed by a barrage of flashbulbs. They looked out the window, and there on the sidewalk were about 100 people. They were on a "ghost tour."
Their leader was Alan E. Hunter, a former history teacher and baseball coach who now sells antiques and investigates the paranormal. "There's a lot of interest" in Pepper and Wendi's house, Hunter said. "It's all since the book."
The book is "Devil in the White City," Erik Larson's 2003 best seller about Holmes' crimes. A movie is in the works with Leonardo DiCaprio cast as Holmes.
It's unclear how the ghastly and dark makes the leap to entertainment, but the transformation can come in a hurry: "Deranged," a film based on the life of murderer/dismemberer Ed Gein, was made in 1974, just six years after Gein's trial (and Gein also is believed to have been the model for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," which hit theaters in 1960, three years after Gein's arrest).
It's usually a while longer before horror becomes an actual good time, the sort of fun associated with a ghost tour. (The first Vietnam War comedy, "Tropic Thunder," came out only three years ago, following decades of films such as "The Deer Hunter," "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Apocalypse Now.")
Patricia Wittberg, an IUPUI sociology professor, recalls as a Girl Scout in the 1950s riding in a bus with her fellow Scouts and singing "The Titanic," a jaunty song about the tragedy that had occurred four decades earlier (and was the basis for a 1997 movie starring DiCaprio). "It was perky, it was fun," said Wittberg.
The Scout leaders were appalled. For them, the disaster was fresh. "They were all about my mother's age," Wittberg said. "My mother was born in 1920 and wouldn't personally remember the pain (the Titanic sank in 1912), but she would remember the adults remembering the pain."
That may explain that while Pepper and Wendi's house is part of a ghost tour, the Herbert Baumeister place is not. The remains of 11 people were found buried on the Indianapolis businessman's estate, and Baumeister later killed himself. The events occurred in 1996. (A just-released documentary, "The Haunting of Fox Hollow Farm," premieres Oct. 21 at the Downtown IMAX.)
Even a century after the fact, H.H. Holmes' ghost (or who knows, it might have been Howard Pitezel's ghost) freaked out Pepper and Wendi. At first. But then they dug in. "I thought, 'Hey, this is our home,' " Wendi said. "No one is going to run me out of my house."
Least of all Dr. H.H. Holmes. Pepper was identified on one of those paranormal TV shows as "Holmes enthusiast," and she bristles still. She has had it up to here with Holmes: "What an ass!" she said. "Who I like to focus on is Howard."
After 10 years in the house, she and Wendi are ready to move out. Not for fear of ghosts but for fear of environmental degradation. They saw the Al Gore movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and they want to help.
They want a place in the country where they can have farm animals. They already have chickens, 15 of them, but they want a cow. They have a rain barrel, but they want to grow their own vegetables. They want to live off the grid. They want to save the world. "It's not that we're going to have children," Pepper explained, "but we believe in reincarnation."
When Holmes' connection to their home was unearthed, Pepper and Wendi worried their property value would drop. But now they believe Holmes "could help" or at least "not hurt" the sale price. They speculate that with their house's renown, they might get by without a real-estate agent.
"We don't want to exploit the tragedy," Pepper said, "but we'd be stupid not to exploit it in some small way."
Michelle and I could see the moon through a gauzy haze. It was full.
Pepper and Wendi went up to bed about 10:30 p.m.
Our hosts wished us luck that our stay would amount to something, that we'd encounter something ghost-ish. They gave us some advice: Paranormal investigators who'd been to their house before sometimes tried conjuring Holmes by insulting him, by suggesting he was a wuss for choosing mostly women as victims. They said Michelle and I might get a better story if we copped such an attitude.
Michelle and I were too self-conscious to talk smack to an empty room, but after Michelle nodded off, I whispered some venom Holmes' way. Nothing came of it.
As the night wore on, the Holmes house was less and less scary. At 3:47 a.m., I unplugged the nightlight. I began to focus on my back, which ached because I was lying on the floor. I tried rolling over on my side. But then my hips ached. I lay on my stomach, but my chin ached, then my jaw. It was a kind of curse.
Michelle was no help. She was oblivious. She was stretched out on a large sofa.