Home > Features > Midwest Gothic
They’re creepy ‘cause they’re true. Well, mostly true.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
In all the various subgenres of horror stories or ghost stories, is there one called “Midwest Gothic”?
If there isn’t, there probably should be. Despite its reputation as the homey heartland full of respectable, hard-working, God-fearing folk, the American Midwest, and our little section of it, has a lot of messy, sometimes ugly, sometimes violent, history.
And that, according to Angie Quinn, Executive Director of ARCH, makes for the sort of rich material that gives a scary, creepy story its power.
ARCH, which is Allen County’s organization for architecture preservation and community heritage, offers its regular Haunted Tours this time each year. They’re popular events, and although you’ll hear plenty of ghost stories, Quinn’s favorite tales focus more on those mysterious and macabre happenings that have a real historical basis. “When we tell these stories, we want people to know a little bit about local history,” she says. “But really, they’re just darn good stories.”
The word that pops up most often is “creepy”; these tales may be straight from the pages of history (that’s part of ARCH’s mission, after all), but the fact that they happened gives them a special resonance that’s sometimes unnerving.
Take the story of William Wells, an important historical figure from the late 18th and early 19th century who came to a bizarre end. “I like telling Wells’ story because he’s such a pivitol figure in American history, and I think we tend not to really appreciate just how important this area was between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812,” says Quinn. “This was the battlefield, this is where all the action was going on, and Wells represents the big, giant mess that it was.”
Indeed, William Wells was a fascinating character, and had earned his place in the history books even before his sensational end. In Fort Wayne, Spy Run Avenue and (you guessed it) Wells Street are named after him; so is Wells Street in Chicago, and Wells County.
Born right before the Revolutionary War in the area that’s now Kentucky, Wells was kidnapped by Native Americans when he was 12, and raised in a Miami village near the Fort Wayne area. He eventually married one of Chief Little Turtle’s daughters and became a part of the chief’s household. “Because he spoke English, he represented the tribe in some of the negotiations that took place,” Quinn says.
Wells fought with the Miami in the infamous Battle of the Wabash in 1791, sometimes known as St. Clair’s Massacre, where an alliance of Native American tribes dealt the U.S. army one of its worst defeats — out of the 1,000 U.S. troops in the battle, only about 40 made it out alive.
But just a couple years later, Wells decided he needed to help the Americans, and worked as a spy for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Quinn says historians have written reams of paper on the reasons why Wells may have started working closely with his former enemy. “The reasons and causes are beyond me,” explains Quinn. “Wells was just a very complicated man.”
Wells became “Chief of Spies,” and continued to farm the area where a lot of the Miami Villages were. His land was just north of the St Joe River, where the Bloomingdale area is now. “He was given land by the US government, from the St Joe river all the way over to Wells street, and from Headwaters up to Elizabeth street,” Quinn says. “So that whole area was William Wells’ land.”
But later, during the War of 1812, Wells found himself in another massacre, except this time he was on the wrong side. A force of Native Americans — Potowatami and Winnebago — in league with the British had laid siege to Fort Dearborn, near where Chicago is now, and Wells was asked to lead a group of Miami warriors to Fort Dearborn, get the soldiers and their families out, and lead them to Fort Wayne. To make a long story short… “Wells, dressed as a Miami, takes a whole bunch of Miami warriors with him to Fort Dearborn, gets the people out of the Fort, and starts taking them to Fort Wayne.”
While the refugees are making their way through the sand dunes along Lake Michigan, they’re ambushed by the British-affiliated tribes. It’s not pretty — men, women and children are killed, many beheaded. “It’s brutal, it’s ghastly,” Quinn says. “They kill almost everybody.”
One of the casualties was Wells. By some accounts he was shot; in others he was beheaded. But in tribute to his bravery, the enemy paid him the ultimate compliment. “They pulled out his heart and ate it on the spot,” Quinn says. “The story is gruesome and complex and creepy, and when you tell it, people’s eyes just get huge.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only tribute Wells has received. As we said, Spy Run Avenue in Fort Wayne is named in his honor, and in addition to Fort Wayne’s own Wells street, there’s also a Wells street in Chicago. But while the streets in Chicago and Fort Wayne share the name, it’s the Windy City’s Wells street that got the ghosts. “Apparently that location is one of the most haunted sites in all of downtown,” Quinn says. “People claim see ghostly images of people in period dress and military uniforms running and screaming.”
Another macabre story from local history happens much closer to home. Once upon a time, up through the 1880s, Fort Wayne executed convicted criminals by hanging. The sentences were carried out around what’s now Headwaters Park. The jail was near to the area at the time — close to where the jail is now, in fact. Back in the 1800s, entertainment options weren’t what they are now, and executions were big draws. “Hangings were very popular,” Quinn tells me. “They used to sell tickets.”
One sunny morning in April, 1855, attendees found themselves treated to a double feature — Benjamin Madden and George Keefer had been convicted of the murder of an old man named John Dunbar, and it was decided that both would hang at the same time. The gallows were constructed accordingly.
“They walk the two men through the crowd, up to the platform, put the nooses on, and pull the platform out from under them,” Quinn says. “One of the guys (Keefer) hangs immediately. But the other guy (Madden) does not. The rope snaps, and he falls to the ground.”
While his partner in crime was still swinging and not quite dead yet, the suddenly freed and injured Madden stumbled through the crowd for several minutes, saying “don’t murder me, boys…”
The crowd stood dumbstruck and horrified as Madden stumbled around, a deep gash in his neck. Sheriff Joel Forbush eventually apprehended Madden and brought him back up to the scaffold. But they had a problem: the gallows had been built for two, and Keefer — the one whose rope didn’t break — wasn’t quite dead yet. They put the rope around Madden’s neck, but his feet reached the ground, and they realized that in order to hang Madden, they would have to put the platform back up.
Why didn’t they just wait for Keefer to die, and then execute Madden? Who knows. Maybe they decided that the crowd wanted a double hanging, so that’s what they were going to get. Maybe they just wanted to get it over with. Whatever the case, Sheriff Forbush was apparently the pragmatic, “let’s-get-the-job-done” type, and figured he’d finish the darn thing himself. So, he climbed to the top of the crossbeam…
“This part just freaks me out,” Quinn admits. “They couldn’t put the platform back up, so the Sheriff climbs up on top of the gallows and with his own hand holds the rope until the second guy dies.”
“Just the thought that you are holding the rope that this guy is hanging from, and you’re doing it in front of all these people… I can’t imagine what that was like, and I can’t imagine being in the crowd watching that. That’s the part of the story that is really creepy for me.” Quinn adds that even when the tale is told in the relatively benign environs of today’s Headwaters Park, it still casts an unsettling spell, especially at night, when people conjure the scene in their mind’s eye, and try to imagine a society where public executions were a spectator sport.
And there are also a few proper ghost stories, including one that’s fairly well known but yet never seems to get old — the “Lady In White,” a doomed soul seen wandering the West Central neighborhood, especially around the area of the Main Street bridge.
That was where the Lady in White first appeared back in the 1880s, according to a newspaper story at the time. Residents saw a woman wearing long, flowing white garments walking west on Main street, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings. She walked to the middle of the bridge, then disappeared. Onlookers thought she had jumped, and rushed to the side of the bridge to look for her. The police were called in, but no one could find her. She was spotted again about a week or so later, when onlookers reported the exact same thing: a woman in flowing white garments, walking in a distracted manner down Main street, and suddenly vanishing in the middle of the bridge.
At another sighting, the Lady In White was a little less demure — she charged down Main street in a carriage complete with horses. “According to a newspaper article at the time, it seems like she was out of control,” says Quinn. “The horses were just flying.” Once again, she supposedly reached the center of the bridge before vanishing, her horses and carriage with her.
But by this time, the Lady In White was a wanted woman, and the police were on the lookout for her. Late one night, a pair of officers spotted a woman in white, flowing garments wandering the West Central neighborhood. When an officer approached her, the woman took off running, leading the officers on a chase through the West Central neighborhood. “They threw a blanket over her — probably something to do with Victorian codes where you don’t want to grab a woman, that sort of thing — in an alley off College Street,” Quinn says. “And, as the newspaper report says ‘…the blanket fell to the ground, empty’…” That was their story, at least, and they stuck to it.
Sightings of the Lady In White have popped up time and again over the years. No one really knows who she is or what’s she’s running from or to. “The cool thing about the Lady In White story is that we go out to the locations and we look at that bridge, and people get a little creeped out,” Quinn says. “I hear stories all the time from people in the area around West Central, wondering if their house is haunted by the Lady In White. It’s one of those legends that every community seems to have, but it seems to get richer over time.”
ARCH will offer Fright Site Hike and the Haunted Site Bus Tour as part of DID’s Fright Night on Saturday, October 23rd.
ARCH is also hosting its Halloween Bash Costume Party featuring the band Urban Legends at the Masonic Temple on Saturday, October 29.
Tickets for these events are on sale now. Visit archfw.org, or contact (260) 426-5117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.