haunting good times

Get a little scared at these Indiana spots
By Glenda Winders // photography submitted

Sondra Burris, now a manager at Whispers Estate in Mitchell, was scared out of her wits the first time she and some friends spent the night in the estate’s attic.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Burris says. “I wouldn’t go back for a year.”

During her attic encounter, something — some force or entity — held her down in her bed and wouldn’t let her get up.

It was one of many encounters guests have had in the estate, which was built in 1894. Whispers has been the subject of several documentaries about the paranormal; the Travel Channel has called it the fourth most haunted place in the United States. The big attraction? The home’s second owners, a doctor and his wife, who don’t seem to want to leave, which is a bit concerning, as they’ve been dead for decades. The Whispers Estate was (and perhaps still is) occupied by the couple’s adopted children. One 10-year-old child set a fire in the parlor; she subsequently died from the burns she suffered. Today’s guests report being able to hear and sometimes see her.

Here, an infant died, leaving behind the cloying scent of baby powder and the sounds of whimpers and cries. A man died in the bathroom, a boy fell to his death down the stairs and the list goes on. In the cemetery behind the house four people rest eternally. Or do they? Doors slam, doorknobs jiggle and women report feeling someone groping them when no one is around.

“I try to approach everything scientifically,” says current owner Rich Ballard, a psychologist. “There’s usually a rational answer for everything, but I’m living every day with things that can’t be explained in this house.”

Although the Whispers Estate is certainly a crown jewel in the collection of Indiana’s haunted places, it is one of many Indiana spots where visitors are welcome to experience unexplained happenings that occur on a regular basis. And rest assured: We’re not talking staged haunts staffed by ketchup-soaked actors jumping from behind doors to the sounds of recorded screams and groans. These are spots where you can potentially witness genuine paranormal activity. Odds are you’ll run into someone — or something — that will change you in the way Burris was changed.
If you think your heart can stand it, let’s go.

Story ghost
The Story Inn in Brown County sits at the heart of a village founded in 1851 and named for Dr. George Story, who had received a land patent from President Millard Fillmore. In its heyday Story was a thriving small town, but it didn’t survive the Great Depression. Story’s home is now an inn, and the old general store is an accompanying upscale restaurant.

But even though most of the town has disappeared, one resident has not. A spectral woman makes appearances; while many people believe she is Story’s wife, Jane, who is buried nearby, owner Rich Hofstetter thinks it more likely that she is his mistress, Allie.

“We had a picture of a woman we thought was Story’s mistress hanging on the wall, and someone commented to a server that he must not have had very good taste because she wasn’t very hot,” he says. “The picture fell right off the wall and crashed onto the floor.”

Hofstetter says the guest books they put in the rooms are filled with stories about a lady in a blue gown who appears, especially if they turn on the light with the blue shade that is in each room. Guests say she has blue eyes and frequently leaves behind blue items and the scent of cherry tobacco. Some of them have asked her name; she has replied “Allie.” Spend the night here if you dare.

Hello, mummy
Or take a group of up to 10 people for an overnight stay at the Official Randolph County Asylum/Infirmary in Winchester. When you arrive at 6 p.m. a guide will give you a two-hour tour of the historic building and point out the spots where you’re most likely to have ghostly encounters. Then you’re on your own until 10 the next morning.

The building in which you’ll be staying is the third on this site. The first building burned, and the second, made from improperly fired bricks, literally melted away. The asylum operated as a safe place for poor, mentally or physically disabled people who couldn’t work. It later served as a nursing home before it closed in 2006.

Through the years some 1,487 people lived here; naturally there were a fair number of deaths. One woman committed suicide in the basement. A man who was threatening to turn in some of his neighbors for nefarious doings mysteriously “fell” from a second-story window. Others died from illnesses or natural causes. The 51 residents who didn’t have family to claim their bodies were buried in unmarked graves on the property. That number includes one mummy, crafted in the 1920s by some enterprising men who claimed a man’s body, wrapped it as a mummy and took it around to neighboring cities. These entrepreneurs charged 10 cents per person to see this “Egyptian” wonder until the improperly preserved body began to make people physically ill. The dead man was finally laid to rest at the asylum.

General manager Kate Thornburg says guests have seen full-body apparitions as well as a tall, slender “shadow man.” They have recorded EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) and captured photographs of stick figures on their SLS (structured light sensor) cameras. They hear voices and footsteps on the stairs and in the halls and especially in the attic, where a judge held court during World War II. In the room where a boy named Noah died from measles, balls roll and toys move around. Two spirits named Ida and Lulu chat with investigators by way of spirit boxes that use radio frequencies to make their voices heard.

“I’m a skeptic,” Thornburg says. “But I’ve heard the voices. I try to chalk them up to the wind.”

Official Randolph County Asylum/Infirmary owner Dann Allen’s first love is architectural preservation, so his nonprofit, STOP (Save the Old Properties), buys old buildings and restores them. He hadn’t thought of billing them as haunted, but the paranormal investigators came to him. In addition to the asylum, he owns two other places that ghosts seem to like to call home. One is the Stone Mansion, a beautiful but scary-looking manor that sits on the highest spot in Winchester. Gen. Asahel Stone built it just after the Civil War and eventually died here, and it has been the site of many wakes.

Staff members here have seen full-on apparitions both inside and outside, and Allen and others have taken pictures that revealed men in Civil War uniforms who weren’t actually there. He was once visited by a man in a blue suit that turned purple as he approached. Just a few steps away the man vanished into thin air.

I saw the sheriff
Allen’s other property is the Old Blackford County Jail in Hartford City, which was built in the late 1800s. Part of the structure was intended to be a home for the sheriff, and that’s where Allen lives now. One night he was in bed with his light still on when a large man walked into his room without making a sound, an impossible feat considering the old building’s creaky floors. Allen recalls that his visitor had remarkable sparkling blue-gray eyes and that he smiled such a tranquil, peaceful smile that he didn’t want him to leave. Eventually he did, and when Allen followed him out into the hallway, no one was there.

Later, he described the man to a local historian who showed him a picture of Ed Townsend, a sheriff who had died of a heart attack in his office at the jail. Allen mentioned the encounter to Townsend’s niece, who wanted to see her late uncle for herself. When she came to the jail and asked aloud if he were there, she felt a gentle unseen pat on her hand.

Another time Allen saw a woman’s shoe near the sofa in his living room — strange since no woman lived there. As he watched, a lace stocking wove itself clockwise out of the shoe. Then both shoe and stocking skipped away and disappeared under a door where the clearance was about one-eighth of an inch. One night he heard a crash in the basement and heavy footfalls on the steps, but again no one was there.

He said ghost-hunters have had pebbles thrown at them and felt taps on their shoulders, and he routinely hears footsteps on the catwalk outside the cells. For reasons he can’t explain blond-haired women are most often the targets of activity, as if someone is trying to get their attention.

“You don’t know what to expect in this place, but it gets your heart pounding,” he said. “Everything I’ve seen hasn’t been transparent. It has been real.”

Just like at the asylum, overnight stays at the Stone Mansion and the jail start at 6 p.m. and end at 10 the following morning. At the mansion you have to bring your own bedding, but there are places to sleep at the jail, including in the cells if that’s what you want to do. Other amenities are a refrigerator for storing food, hot and cold running water, and heat in the winter. Air-conditioning for summer investigations is on Allen’s wish list.

Earnings from investigations go directly into restoring the old buildings Allen owns and buying others to save them — and their spooky inhabitants — from being destroyed.

You’ll check in, but will you check out?
Ghost-hunting money also goes for a good cause at the Roads Hotel in Atlanta. Its owner is the Lost Limbs Foundation, whose founder, Mike Couch, lost a leg as a child and, through his organization, wants to help the families of other young amputees.

The Roads family opened the historic hotel 127 years ago. Their young son died of tuberculosis here, and ghost-hunters report lots of activity in the room where he was confined. Other hot spots are the attic, where a man named Lester Poor hung himself, and the room where he had been staying. Investigators have reported slamming doors, flashing lights, sounds, voices and the apparition of a tall man. John Dillinger reportedly stayed here, but so far no one has positively identified him as one of the visiting specters.

You can come here for an evening investigation that lasts until 2 a.m. or spend the whole night and leave at 10 the next morning. In addition to investigations, Couch occasionally hosts events that star celebrities such as actors Grant Wilson of “Ghost Hunters” and Chad Limberg of “Ghost Stalkers” and “Supernatural” who have an interest in the paranormal world. Last year he went with Wilson to a Mississippi mansion that had been converted to a hospital during the Civil War to commune with soldiers who had had amputations there.

A hand to hold
Think you’d like to try a ghost investigation but don’t want to go alone? That’s where Access the Paranormal comes in. Based in Seymour, the group travels to private properties to check out weird goings-on and also does public investigations of places known to be haunted. They bring along a full complement of ghost-hunting gear, from K-2 meters that spirits can light up with their energy to scanners that can interpret what they want to say.

Lead investigator David Heatherly has been doing this work for more than 30 years, and during that time he has seen chairs slide across the floor, doors opening and closing on their own, lights flashing, levitating figures and shadow figures. He has heard disembodied voices and babies crying where there were none. During his sessions people have been touched, pushed, scratched and bitten. He has also witnessed a pair of demonic dolls seem to come to life.

“You really don’t know what to expect,” he says. “We see this stuff, we talk to it, we know it’s intelligent. People tend to exaggerate, so I’m a real skeptic — until something happens to me.”