Here’s a tale about Indian gold, the botched suicide of a pioneer medical man, things that scurry through the attic, and a horseman riding up out of the ground.
We owe this one to W.H. Blodgett, a veteran writer for the Indianapolis News, who published the piece on November 2, 1901. Blodgett typically covered politics and was the News‘ correspondent in California during the sensational trial of John and James McNamara, union men who dynamited the Los Angeles Times in October 1910. He also took an interest in Hoosier folklore, traveling around the state looking for its spectral, mysterious past.
In October 1901, the Indianapolis News correspondent showed up on the 160-acre farm of “Gus” and Mollie Burgess along what he calls the “National Road” between Yorktown and Daleville, Indiana. (This must be State Road 32, which runs along the White River west of Muncie.) Blodgett had been playing cards with another reporter in Indianapolis and talking about an old haunted house that once sat on “old Mississippi Street” (Senate Avenue) when they decided to drive up to Delaware County and try to see some paranormal activity firsthand.
Charles Augustus and Mollie Burgess, both in their twenties, lived in the old farmhouse with their six-year-old son, Payton Burgess. They told Blodgett they’d been living there for six years. Two earlier tenants hadn’t stuck around, including one “who moved into the house one day and got out the next.” The house sat back from the road a little and was “partly hidden by a small grove of locust trees. . . It was a lonesome-looking place on the outside, in spite of the bright lights that shone out from the windows. . . The whole place seemed to be cut off from the outer world by an invisible wall.” The location was near a spot called “the Kilgore neighborhood, a half a mile, perhaps, from the Pike’s Peak schoolhouse, where many a good citizen of Delaware County received his early training.”
A Native American graveyard was also located “close by.” “Even to this day, bones, arrows and crude implements of the chase are plowed up,” wrote Blodgett. Central Indiana farmers back then sometimes kept barrels full of bones that cropped up in their fields, tumbled out of decaying burial mounds, or even showed up in the hollows of ancient trees.
(“Tenants of the haunted house,” Indianapolis News, November 2, 1901.)
As Blodgett told it, two legends converged on the Burgess’ White River Valley farm. The first involved a “famous Indian chief known as Wa-Sa He-To — The Fox.” Wa-Sa He-To, according to this story, had traded with white pioneers and “in his wigwam he had $5,000 in gold.” After The Fox died in a wolf hunt, his gold disappeared.
By the 1890s, Spiritualists from nearby Camp Chesterfield — ground zero for paranormal investigation in the Hoosier State — were said to be conducting seances to locate the lost gold, thought to be cached near a great rock along the White River. Blodgett never mentioned how “The Fox” died — was he eaten by a wolf? — only that his spirit might have found a new home in the “boggy swamp” next to the river. At some point in fact or fable, The Fox turned into a headless horseman, riding out over area farms, out of barn doors, and even straight up from the soil.
The other ghost lurking around the Burgess farmhouse — “this house of gibbering ghosts” — was rumored to be the phantom of Dr. George Washington Slack, a former inhabitant. Slack had come to Delaware County from Pennsylvania in the 1830s as a 12-year-old settler with his parents. After studying at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Slack went on to practice medicine in Yorktown and apparently became well known in central Indiana. His eight children probably lived in the house with him — which might have been the original log cabin his parents built. Slack died in January 1886, aged sixty. Burgess misidentifies him as “Cyrus Slack,” then tells the story (perhaps imaginary) of his botched attempt to do himself in.
Here’s the tale.
An article from the Indiana Herald in Huntington suggests that Dr. Slack died of apoplexy. Yet it’s always possible that folklore got the facts correct, since in the case of the suicide of a respectable country doctor, the family might not have shared the full tale with the press and neighbors. The truth about the doctor’s demise remains a mystery. But it seems that like Wa-Sa He-To, he, too, was a candidate for the status of “Headless Horseman.”
Indianapolis News correspondent W.H. Blodgett slept easy that night — at least until he was awakened by an “unearthly noise” in the neighboring bed. His traveling companion and fellow ghost-hunter, “Dick,” had started choking, gurgling, and gasping. . . “a muffled call for help.”
“Guess I had the nightmare,” said Dick, finally awakened. Had the horse come after all? “Nightmare” is partly related to Old Norse words for a “night ride,” a “night horse,” or a “mare dream” — and the demon that rides them.
I thought a ghost without a head on a headless horse was chasing me and made me jump over a high cliff, and just as I struck, a fellow all in white was trying to crowd three fingers down my throat. Have you heard any ghosts?
(The Night Mare, based on a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1781.)
“Gus” Burgess later became the postmaster of Yorktown. His brother Clyde — a spitting image — ran a Shell Station there in the 1930s or ’40s.
Inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, William H. Blodgett, born in Illinois in 1857, died in 1924. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.
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