Other-worldly scratch, scratch, scratching…
A chill in the air…
A glimpsed apparition…
The stench of decomposition…
*Cue the creepy music*
Touted in numerous books on the paranormal and celebrated in campfire stories for generations, local legend has it that Indy’s infamous Hannah House, located on the Southside at 3801 Madison Avenue, is rife with spectral activity. Little did the builder know that one day his beautiful home, now touted as the most haunted house in the state, would be the centerpiece of childhood nightmares, and teenage
The 24-room Hannah House was built in 1858 by Alexander Hannah, a respected civic leader who dabbled in a variety of business interests including farming and prospecting. Hannah served the Indianapolis Southside community as sheriff, postmaster, Circuit Court clerk and as a member of the Indiana General Assembly — providing a great cover for the job he purportedly was most passionate about: conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Alexander M. Hannah was born in Wayne County (southern Indiana) in 1821 and trained as a harness maker. He left that business in 1850 to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush. As a prospector, Hannah earned enough money to become part owner of a ranch in California. After five years, he sold off his various business interests and moved back to Indiana, finally settling in Indianapolis. Hannah’s father Samuel was president of the Indiana Central Railroad and Alexander found work with that company when he returned.
The Hannah family owned extensive property in Marion County. Alexander Hannah, himself, acquired 240 acres south of Indianapolis and began construction of his beautiful red brick dream home upon it. The Italianate design of the house with Greek Revival influences was a popular style in the 1850’s. The Indianapolis-Southport Toll Road (the first toll road in Marion County) crossed Hannah’s property; an early road from Indianapolis to Madison. From 1860 to 1895, Hannah collected tolls from travelers along his section of gravel-surfaced road. The major east-west street south of his house still bears the name “Hannah Avenue.”
In addition to his other vocations, Hannah was well known as a progressive farmer, and was knowledgeable of the latest scientific techniques in agriculture. He raised wheat, corn, oats, and hay, as well as livestock, including cattle, sheep, and hogs.
In 1872, Hannah married Elizabeth (nee Jackson) and the couple constructed a service building southeast of the kitchen wing. The new addition housed the smoke house, wash house, milk cooling room, summer kitchen and servant’s quarters. Though the couple hoped for children, local lore has it that Elizabeth miscarried their only child. There are no records of a child’s death associated with the house but at the Hannah family cemetery plot, there is a small unmarked gravestone between those of Alexander and Elizabeth, indicative of an infant burial.This tragic tale of heartache seems to have spawned the first of many folkloric tales of hauntings on the property: the ghostly presence of a stillborn child in one of the upper bedrooms.
By all accounts, Alexander and Elizabeth enjoyed a happy married life. Through the ensuing years, the couple continued to entertain, and participate in prominent civic events.
Again, according to local legend, Alexander was a fervent abolitionist during the years before the Civil War and, with hundreds of wooded acres around the home and scant populace, Hannah could certainly have operated a sanctuary for fleeing slaves heading toward Canada for years, without detection. Popular stories portray a rainy evening when a group of slaves, concealed in the Hannah cellar waiting for exactly the right time to make their getaway, accidentally tripped over an oil lamp and set the room ablaze. Instantly enveloped in smoke and flames, and unable to flee, many of the occupants allegedly died in minutes from smoke inhalation and burns.
As the story goes, the deceased slaves were hastily and temporarily buried by Hannah’s servants in the dirt of the cellar floor, in an attempt to cover up the incident so the stop on the Underground Railroad would not be discovered. Hiding slaves was not an activity that would have been kept in official records or talked about openly at the time so there is no way to verify the story, absolutely. However, the story has been passed down from one family generation to the next. Also, though not categorically proven, current-day neighbors report the discovery of partially-collapsed tunnels whose trajectory would indicate an association with the Hannah property… which, if ever verified, would perhaps lend some credence to the Underground Railroad stories.
Alexander and Elizabeth were laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery — having died without an heir in 1895 and 1888, respectively. The Hannah House sat dormant for four years until 1899, when Roman Oehler, a German immigrant, purchased the house and 21 acres of surrounding property. Oehler was a Civil War veteran who owned a prosperous jewelry business in the area. During the Oehler occupancy, the porch on the front of the house was replaced with a wider one of concrete, and several outbuildings (which still stand) were constructed. Oehler’s daughter, Romena Oehler Elder, and her husband and family were the third owners of the house, occupying it until 1962.
Ghost stores about the property trace back to the mid-1960s after the house had lain empty for more than 30 years. A family by the name of O’Brien owned and operated an antique business from the home for about ten years and it was during this time that specific claims of hauntings proliferated into local legend: cold spots and foul smells, flying spoons, doors and wall hangings with a mind of their own, disembodied voices, etc.
Hannah House was listed in 1978 as a recognized historical landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior but it was in 1980 that the home was first used as a venue for a haunted house-themed fundraiser. Since that time, the property has played host to news crews and psychics and paranormal professionals, many of whom have reported unusual occurrences.
Today the home is available to the public at monthly open houses and to rent for weddings and private events. Most notably, the location has played the part of “haunted house” around Halloween for decades. The attraction is completely run by volunteers, “whose sole purpose is the preservation and restoration of this historic landmark.”
*Author’s note: Is legend a valid part of history? It is frighteningly easy to find Indy ghost stories — and equally as difficult to corroborate factual evidence surrounding those stories. If you seek a scare-cation this Halloween season, consult the following books for good locales:
– “Indianapolis Haunts” by Alan E. Hunter
– “Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Indianapolis” by Lorri Sankowsky and Keri Young
– “Haunted Indianapolis” by Tom Baker and Jonathan Tichenal
So tell us… What are YOUR paranormal experiences at Hannah House… or other Indy spectral hotspot?