“Urban legends and ghost stories have been passed down through generations. These stories, whether true or not, help shape a community and give it character,” says Robert Bowling, Fishers historian, the author of Wicked Fishers and a contributor to Celebrating Hamilton County, Indiana: 200 Years of Change.
Indeed, history isn’t just a collection of dates and facts. Even the largest membership association of professional historians in the world tells us that.
“History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded (in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions) at the time,” says the American Historical Association.
With these ideas in mind, we present three spooky tales — some more credible than others — from Hamilton County’s past. Is our recorded history weirder, more wicked and spookier than fiction? You decide.
Big business of body snatching in Fishers
On a September night in 1902, a grieving mother discovered through an anonymous tip that the body of her daughter, Stella Middleton, had been stolen an Anderson cemetery. The note said Stella could be found at the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons in downtown Indianapolis, a training school for white doctors.
Sure enough, her body was found among multiple bodies lying on dissection tables at the school. An investigation was opened, and it was discovered that the dean of the college was paying a man named Rufus Cantrell to procure and deliver the bodies to the school.
“Cantrell was no stranger to the police,” writes Bowling in Wicked Fishers. At the age of 16, Cantrell moved to Indianapolis with his mother and tried to become a teenage preacher, holding sermons in the streets. “His sermons could turn profane, and that is when Cantrell’s true colors would show.”
At the turn of the century, the young man earned himself a rap sheet that included bar fights and a shooting, but when confronted about the bodies, the police were surprised at Cantrell’s wild confession. The man admitted he was member of a gang of Black grave robbers referred to as “ghouls.”
“In the previous three months, hundreds of graves had been emptied from various cemeteries, including Crown Hill and Mount Jackson. As soon as a body was buried in Mount Jackson, it was dug up,” Bowling writes.
Days later, six people were arrested for grave robbing. The team of men had perfected their craft, only working in the dark of night, concealing their tools in a curtained wagon, carefully refilling disturbed graves and replacing flowers near headstones.
The dean of the college, Dr. Joseph Alexander, originally from Fishers, was implicated as the mastermind of the whole operation and arrested.
It was soon discovered that grave robbing was big business in Hamilton County, where Cantrell served as a middleman, picking up exhumed bodies to deliver to the school
“Body snatching had been going on for at least seven years. Local ghouls would steal the bodies and then leave them in designated areas for Cantrell, who would then transport them to the medical colleges,” Bowling writes. “According to Cantrell, of all the cities and counties he worked in, he knew of more bodies taken from Hamilton County than any other.”
Infamous Fishers resident Hampton West was charged and sentenced to 10 years in the Indiana State Prison for his role in the crimes. (He even robbed his own niece’s grave.) West’s trial forced the Indiana legislature to take action to prevent this from happening again and to establish a legal way for medical schools to obtain cadavers.
However, despite the evidence against Alexander, his trial ended in a hung jury, and he went free. With pleas of insanity falling on unsympathetic ears, Cantrell faced an all-white jury and was convicted.
Cicero’s persnickety ghosts at the Eck House
Writer and folklorist Wanda Lou Willis tells the story of Leonard and Irene Eck in her collection of Indiana folklore, Haunted Hoosier Trails. During the Depression, Leonard built his bride a spacious, elegant home in Cicero that was the envy of their neighbors.
As a child, Toni Boone had ridden past the house with her family. She was immediately smitten, telling her mother that one day she wanted to live in that house.
Many years later, the Ecks passed away and their sons allowed the house to sit empty for years as it fell into disrepair. By the time the home finally came on the market, Toni was all grown up and married. She and her husband bought the house, fulfilling her childhood dream.
Everything with the renovations was going well. They painted walls and refinished floors, bringing the old house back to life, that is, until they started in on the kitchen.
“There seemed to be something unseen hampering every move,” Willis writes. “The work of cleaning off old scaling and chipping paint was slow, tedious and irritating. Much of it defied paint remover. The couple finally had to use a sander on the walls. When new cabinets were ordered, none of the cabinets fit. When Toni’s husband put down plywood sub-flooring, tiles popped up. He resealed them. The next day they came loose again.”
When a friend with psychic powers dropped by for a visit, she noticed something strange, telling Toni and Larry that she could see a little man by the fireplace smoking a pipe, its bowl turned downward. Toni immediately recognized the description as the deceased Leonard Eck.
“The pipe had been as much a part of Leonard’s body as his nose or ears,” writes Willis. The spirit of Leonard Eck was comfortable with most of the new homeowners’ cosmetic improvements, but he worried the living inhabitants might make bolder alternations like taking out a wall. So he was slowing their progress. Irene, on the other hand, was happy the home had new owners. Leonard’s disturbances stopped after he was outed by the psychic.
Heady Hollow hauntings along Allisonville Road
A final haunting story comes again from Bowling’s Wicked Fishers, the story of Heady Hollow. “This haunted area is situated along Allisonville Road, where the road dips at 126th Street before it begins the uphill climb toward 131st Street,” he writes.
Today, we recognize this stretch of pavement by its stoplight and tall, neat retaining wall. But back in the early 1800s, it was a mere path that early settlers called Devil’s Land before it became known as Heady Hollow.
The route was an important one between Noblesville and Indianapolis, but its terrain proved dangerous to travelers and people wanting to do business at William Conner’s trading post, now the home of Conner Prairie. Elm and catalpa trees lined the road, forming a dark canopy. Dense fog was common, made more treacherous by windy conditions.
“The thick forest surrounding Heady Hollow provided ample cover for robbers looking to prey on innocent victims,” writes Bowling. “So many people died at the hands of these outlaws that a local attorney, Floyd Christian, comments that the ‘Hollow often flowed red with blood of God-fearing men who became victims of the bad men of the day.’”
And the spooky claims followed:
While driving his Model T through Heady Holly, a prominent attorney in Noblesville saw a ghost standing in the middle of the road.
Others claimed that Heady Hollow’s hauntings were the ghosts of schoolchildren who’d burned to death after their schoolhouse caught fire. (In fact, there was no fire.)
Still more people blamed the famous grave robbers. By exhuming bodies of local residents, these poor souls now wandered Heady Hollow.
Despite efforts to make Heady Hollow safer through the years, the legend of Heady Hollow lives on.
Happy haunted Hamilton County!
Join local historian Robert Bowling at the Noblesville Library to learn more about the infamous grave robbing that occurred in Hamilton County at the turn of the 20th century. Unearth the motives and means of these historic criminals, and learn about the major court cases that brought an end to it all. Presented in partnership with the Fishers Historical Society. Sign up here!
The Hamilton County Bicentennial is proudly supported by Duke Energy, Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, Hamilton County Tourism Inc., and Hamilton County Historical Society.