Historic Hauntings of the Lakes Area
Writer / Jeff Kenney
It’s the time of year in the lakes area when many readers turn their attention to the supernatural and spooky – and why not? If shows like “Stranger Things” and “Eerie, Indiana” are set in the Hoosier state, we have at least our fair share of valid claims to such matters.
Last October, this author focused on a handful of supposedly haunted places centered in the near Marshall County area, so this year we’ll take a look at the wider lakes region for some haunted history.
Up the Northwest Way
Surely the best-known and most widely circulated horror story in the northwest lakes area is that of Belle Gunness, the LaPorte farmwife whose serial-killing exploits could fill an entire article of their own. After her first husband and children died under suspicious circumstances, Gunness moved to a farm near LaPorte in 1901. After killing a second husband and his two daughters, she solicited farmhands from far and wide, many of whom she systematically murdered, often dismembering them and feeding them to her hogs or burying them at the farm.
This was discovered after a house fire on the property, which left three children dead and the body of a headless woman in the ruins. The woman was officially identified as Gunness, though the body didn’t match her size and weight, and the lore surrounding the story presumes Gunness escaped and fled the area. Following the fire, a number of bodies were unearthed, bringing the total of her victims to at least 14, though many more disappearances associated with her remained unexplained.
Not surprisingly, the property where the farm once stood has long been rumored to be haunted, with some locals reporting hearing screams from the area and seeing orbs at night.
Nearly as widespread as the Gunness tale is one that takes place just down the road – that of Diana of the Dunes. The real-life subject of the legend was a wealthy socialite named Alice Mabel Gray, a nonconformist who moved to the dunes area of the Lake Michigan lakeshore near Chesterton. Sailors passing the area claimed to see a beautiful and mysterious woman living as a hermit in the dunes, and they dubbed her Diana, referencing the ancient Roman goddess.
Gray, in fact, married an abusive man named Paul Wilson and died shortly after the death of their second child, ostensibly poisoned by her husband.
For decades following, locals and sailors swore to the ghostly appearance of a nearly naked women running along the beach before disappearing. For many years, the local Diana of the Dunes festival and pageant commemorated the legend.
Other noteworthy (allegedly) haunted sites in the northwest lakes area include the Old Lake County Jail (best known as the jail from which famed gangster John Dillinger escaped) and the Kaske home in Munster, where strange voices and spectral children are supposedly seen and heard, as well as Cedar Lake areas such as Devil’s Road (strange sights hearkening back to a murder there in the 1960s) and the former Salesians Prep School, allegedly haunted by former resident children or their adult caretakers.
Reder Road in Griffith was long rumored to be a 1920s and ‘30s Mafia burial site, as well as the scene of a car accident whose female victim seeks to make her way to Ross Cemetery in Calumet Township.
One of the worst train wrecks in U.S. history was the 1918 collision of two trains in the Hammond area, which killed 86 people and injured another 127. Since then, residents of the area have claimed to hear knocks on their doors around the hour of the 4 a.m. train wreck, among other associated tales.
One of the largest known mass ghost hunts took place between Chesterton and Valparaiso in 1964, when a ghostly figure in white was reportedly seen on a road in the area. That autumn, some 6,000 to 8,000 people each night were driving the road seeking the specter, leading to the state police being called in to direct traffic. One trooper reported that the presence of so many drunken, armed people was scarier than any possible phantom.
More recently, and perhaps more chilling than the above tales, is the story of the “demon house” in Gary, Indiana, where supernatural terror commenced in 2011. The purportedly demon-possessed house has since been demolished, but garnered widespread media coverage and is said to be the subject of a planned Netflix film.
From Bremen to Warsaw and the Great Beyond
The Ewald Cemetery, known locally as Little Egypt, in the Bremen area, is chock-full of supernatural claims, often involving discerning evidence of ghosts by placing coins on a particular tombstone or finding oneself pursued by inexplicable headlights (common themes in many allegedly haunted areas around the state and country).
Tales of an evil creature residing in Manitou Lake (whose Potawatomi name means “Devil Lake” or “Spirit Lake”) in Rochester date to Native American days before the arrival of the first European-descended settlers. Many area pioneers claimed to see a sea-serpent-like creature in the waters of the Fulton County lake, though it’s been some years since a reported sighting.
While in Fulton County, be sure to stop by Dead Man’s College, a one-room schoolhouse built near a family gravesite, rumored to be home to ghosts even during its operational days as a public school in the early 20th century.
The Barbee Hotel in the Warsaw area has long been rumored to house the ghosts of gangsters (including Al Capone) who frequented it, as well as a child who died at the site prior to construction of the hotel.
Visitors and staff at the Old Kosciusko County Jail in Warsaw have reported hearing footsteps, seeing strange apparitions and feeling unexplained touches in the old building, in use from 1870 to 1982.
A Few Further Road Trips
Up the road in the South Bend/Michiana area, the ghost of famous footballer George Gipp (the subject of the storied Knute Rockne “Win one for the Gipper” speech) is said to haunt Washington Hall on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The ghosts of the former owner or maid employed at the former mansion housing the Hacienda restaurant in Mishawaka have been spotted through the years in the eatery, whose staff and guests have also reported lights, faucets and other pieces of equipment operating on their own.
Other allegedly haunted sites in the area include the Joseph D. Oliver mansion and an area of Primrose Road, both in South Bend, as well as the Elkhart Civic Theatre and Bristol Opera House.
If you’re in the mood for a lengthier road trip, the former site of Central State Hospital (earlier known as the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane) near downtown Indianapolis is worth a visit, not only for the inevitable legends of its property being haunted, but also because the fascinating Indiana Medical History Museum operates today out of its former pathology building. Besides a history lesson embedded in the architecture itself, a guided tour of the museum makes for an engrossing on-the-spot encounter with past Indiana medical practices and treatment of mental illness.
There are more allegedly haunted places in the lakes region, of course, than are mentioned here (a Google search will undoubtedly pull the interested researcher into an array of rabbit trails on the topic), but the above may give readers enough to raise a few neck hairs, at least, in time for Halloween.