Ask the Truth: Are there any reported haunted houses or places in the area?
We looked into a few Elkhart County locations that are rumored to be haunted. Many are skeptical of the buildings’ paranormal reputations, but read on for some great ghost stories.
Posted on May 31, 2014 at 8:42 a.m.
Last week, our readers voted for us to answer the question, “Are there any reported haunted houses or places in the area?”
As it turns out, ghost stories abound in Elkhart County, and we looked into a few local buildings rumored to be haunted. Some of the stories live on as unexplained, potentially paranormal incidences; we were able to debunk others.
If you’d like to submit your own question for us to answer, write it in the blue box at the bottom of the page labeled “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?” or email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Papers and books have flown off shelves at people in the library. Objects, like a flashlight, have risen from tables on their own. Unexplained shadows, sewing machines running on their own, shafts of light walking through aisles and a dark-haired woman floating through the air are among the tales that have been told by the theatre’s workers and guests.
On a recent evening, Artistic Technical Director John Shoup, who has been a volunteer and staffer at the theatre for 30 years, walked through the building, pointing out “hot spots” and sharing an endless string of stories from his time with the organization.
According to Shoup, his experiences have made him a bit of a believer.
"When they grab you, it gets a little bit weird,“ Shoup said. ”When they run their fingers down your back...you’ve been grabbed, and you’re on stage and there’s no way anybody could be grabbing your arm, but your arm’s being grabbed and pulled. You know, you wonder what it is. Was I tired and it was just my imagination playing a trick on me?“
Despite the large number of unexplained activities Shoup and other volunteers have seen, Executive Director Dave Dufour thinks most people’s experiences can be attributed to less-than-paranormal explanations.
"It’s an old building, so you can chalk these things up to spirits or to the fact that it’s an old building, and old buildings creak and settle and things,” Dufour said. “The building was built in 1897, so it’s pretty old...So I guess it depends on your point of view.”
Although he’s been with the theatre since the 1970s, Dufour has never experienced any spooky activity firsthand. He doesn’t believe there are ghosts, but thinks his coworkers’ experiences are based on some degree of truth.
"People do see things, but you know, your brain plays tricks,“ Dufour said. ”We see monsters in the closet. It’s something called pareidolia...if you can’t make sense of (something), your brain will attempt to make sense of it.“
The Bristol Opera House, which was originally two separate buildings, has a rich history as a community center. At various points, it’s housed a post office, a barber’s shop, a masonic lodge, the high school’s auditorium and more.
One chapter of that history includes the theatre’s most famous ghost, Percy, who is believed to be the spirit of Percival Hilbert.
Hilbert, a handyman, was given permission to live in the building’s basement with his wife and two daughters after they were evicted from their home during the Depression, Shoup said. However, the building’s owner said the family wasn’t allowed to let anyone know they were living there.
"So this was a post office, and it was active,” Shoup said. “The little girls couldn’t stand being cooped up in the basement. So they would come up and play in the gym and play on the piano. So the people in the post office thought there might be ghosts...that’s where the ghost stories, we think, got started.”
Though Hilbert didn’t die in the building, to Shoup and Dufour’s knowledge, rumor is his ghost has lived on there. Percy is known as a mischievous spirit – he supposedly moves tools to locations they weren’t set down in and picks on people, Shoup and Dufour said.
A shaft of light that’s been seen walking down the theatre’s right-hand aisle is believed to be his ghost, Shoup said.
Shoup said that on one ghost hunt (the theatre allows occasionally with advanced permission) a picture was taken that includes an unexplained picture that is believed to be Percy.
"They took a picture in the auditorium, and there’s an extra person,“ Shoup said. ”They don’t know who it is. You could say it’s a dust speck – it might be – but it has enough of a structure that it almost looks like a person’s face.“
Among other stories, Shoup said a costumer one night saw a strange scene. The costumer was searching for a particular actor and happened upon a shadow waiving its arms, as if conducting music. When the costumer entered the room where the shadow was coming from, there was no one there.
”It freaked her out, and it took her a while to come back,” Shoup said.
Shoup and Dufour said one of the wildest stories they’ve heard was about a ghost following someone home.
It’s become a tradition at the theatre for people to say “goodnight, ghosts” as they leave the building. One night, a couple was alone in the building rehearsing a dance. When they left, however, they didn’t say goodnight.
"The girl was following the guy down (the road), and she called him on her cellphone and said, 'Who are you taking home tonight? I didn’t think anybody else was left.’ And he said, 'I’m not taking anybody home tonight, but ever since I left the opera house, I’ve felt like there was somebody sitting next to me.’“
A few moments later, the man looked to his right and saw an old man sitting in the seat beside him. At that moment, he evaporated.
However, not all of the stories coming out of the theatre are quite as frightening. One ghost seems to enjoy being helpful.
"We have a couple of people who work in the costume room,” Shoup said. “It’s chock full of old clothes. If you go up there and you can’t find something, if you ask the ghost to find it, usually when you come back you will either find it right away or you’ll find it on the end of the rack.”
Despite the large number of stories he’s heard and the things he’s experienced, Shoup maintains a sense of humor regarding the haunting.
"I keep saying when I die, I don’t want to come back here,“ he said. "I spend enough time here already.“
Rumors have been circulating for years that the Ruthmere Mansion and Havilah Beardsley House, both located on Beardsley Avenue near Main Street in Elkhart, are haunted. But – and you can decide whether or not this is fortunate or unfortunate – the rumors are not true.
“I know that at some point, somebody somewhere put it on a website,” Bill Firstenberger, executive director of the Ruthmere Museum, said. “But I don’t have any experiences (of hauntings).”
A Google search of “haunted Ruthmere Elkhart” shows only two websites that reference the rumored “hauntings.” Both websites say that alarms and sirens go off inside the mansion, mostly on Halloween night, and that gun shots have been heard inside the house.
But those who work at the Ruthmere Museum say nothing of the sort has ever happened.
“I would walk through this house at night with the lights off, and it’s not creepy,” Joy Olsen, collections manager at Ruthmere Museum, said. “It’s a well-loved home.”
Firstenberger said he gets calls and questions about it regularly. Recently, a group of students came to the museum for a field trip and the first question the children asked was whether or not the museum was haunted.
“I think it’s just a natural curiosity with some big, old houses,” he said. “They get the idea either through watching movies or certain TV shows, and they just have that curiosity and maybe even an expectation.”
But it’s simply not true.
The Winchester Mansion
If you believe the rumors, the spirit of Nellie Knickerbocker still roams the halls of the Winchester Mansion at the corner of Harrison and Second streets in Elkhart.
Business and Professional Services, Inc., now operates out of the Knickerbockers’ former home, and owner and supervisor Steve Hooley said there may be a simple explanation for the strange goings-on in the mansion. The attic lights would switch on at night. Things would fall off the shelves in the building. Belongings would go missing.
“I can’t put my finger on any of them,” Hooley said. “It’s built in 1905. There are a lot of quirks and unusual noises based on how old the house is, but there’s no smoking gun.”
Someone may have left the lights turned on, Hooley said. The rumbling trains down the street from the Winchester Mansion may have knocked things off the shelves. People forget their belongings all the time.
“Juhl Advertising used to operate out of the building. There was a chute from the upstairs to the basement, and I’m not sure what it’s used for,” Hooley said. “Things disappear down the chute and wind up in the basement.”
The chute has not been around for decades since Juhl Advertising left, but Hooley said the former employees of Juhl Advertising may have been just playing a practical joke.
It wasn’t always called the Winchester Mansion, according to The Time Was Museum curator Paul Thomas. It was simply called the Knickerbocker home, after the couple that used to live in the house: William and Nellie Knickerbocker.
Nellie Knickerbocker outlived William Knickerbocker, and she bought the casket where he would be laid to rest. Nellie liked the casket so much that she bought one for herself and displayed it in the lobby of the Knickerbocker home, Thomas said.
“She would show it to people, as in, this is what I will be buried in,” he said. “Then the stories went around that she used to climb in the casket to show people what it would look like, and this is not true.”
Thomas described Nellie Knickerbocker as a short, heavy-set lady. It was one thing for Nellie to climb into a casket, but it would have been difficult for a woman her size to climb out of it.
“And I questioned this for many years. A friend of mine owned a funeral home, and [I] asked him if we could go up to the casket room, which we did,” Thomas said. “I’m small...I climbed in a casket with a ladder, and I couldn’t get out. So there’s no way that a woman who was 5”2, who weighed 180, 190 pounds could get out.”
Thomas has heard of all kinds of hauntings around Elkhart County during his time as a museum curator, but he doesn’t believe any of it.
The Indiana Ghost Trackers have asked to check the Winchester Mansion for paranormal activity before, but Hooley had to turn them away. He has to run a business, and there is confidential information contained in the building.
“It’s just practicality,” Hooley said.
But does he believe in ghosts?
“I don’t not believe in ghosts,” Hooley said. “You see unusual and odd things, not just at the Winchester Mansion, that don’t have an easy explanation and that makes you wonder.”
After chatting with a few people at the Lerner Theatre – in broad daylight, of course, so ghosts wouldn’t be tempted to interject – it seems there are a couple of Lerner ghost stories passed around by the people who work there.
Lerner employee Todd Farrand, who does tech for theatre events, said he’s heard a story about a former tech director who had a heart attack and died in the theatre. It could be an explanation for the theatre’s lights flickering on and off and the noises employees hear sometimes in the attic.
"It’s definitely scary when you’re here alone,“ he said. But he doesn’t seem to set much faith in the ghost stories. ”It could just be the building.“
Andrew Kreider, who also works at the Lerner, joked that they could blame the director’s ghost for any technical problems at the theatre.
Another story that has gained some traction is one about a strange figure captured on camera on the Lerner’s second floor.
The Lerner webpage has a special feature that allows visitors to explore the theatre digitally through a 360-degree photography technique. Visitors can click through to view different sections of the Lerner and move the image in a panoramic view to see the entire theatre as if they were there.
But those who want to look at the view from the second floor box seats may see something unexpected – a blurry white figure in the opposite box seats.
It’s nothing alarming, general manager David Smith says, unless you know that for the photography technique to work, no one could be in the theatre. The photographer was adamant about this, Smith said.
However, there was no human being in the box seat at that time, Smith said.
Smith said he talked about the figure with the photographer, who was shocked, But after finding the original image and zooming in, Smith said he and the photographer realized it wasn’t a ghost at all.
The figure was just a high-backed chair, recently installed in the box seats, which still had a plastic cover on it.
"The way that the light’s shining on it, it gives you this image,” Smith said.
He said that debunked ghost story is the cause for some of the legends he’s heard. Like Ferrand, Smith doesn’t seem to believe in the ghost stories about the Lerner.
"You get the occasional knocks and stuff, but it’s a big old building, he said. “We don’t attribute that to anything.”