Unexplained Indiana

Let October go by without indulging in our local paranormal legends? Now that’s a scary thought.
Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher


GIVEN THAT Evansville’s Willard Public Library is, at 136 years of age, the oldest public library building in the state of Indiana, no wonder it has a ghost story attached to it. But what’s unexpected is the 21st century way in which the staff approaches the otherworldly incursion. They’ve fitted out the Victorian Gothic building with half a dozen webcams and invite would-be ghostbusters to watch the live (or, rather, dead) feed 24/7 online.

The specter in question is nicknamed the Gray Lady, and over the decades, both visitors and library employees have reported seeing her translucent form lurking among the stacks. “It’s usually pretty uneventful here during the day, but it’s a different story at night,” says one staffer, who professes to have seen the elevator doors open and close on their own and books fall off shelves on multiple occasions after hours.

The last reported sighting of the Gray Lady was in 2010, when the assistant children’s librarian spotted her gliding down a basement hallway. That area, by the way, is one of the six locations kept under constant watch by the building’s CCTV system.

If you’ve got the fortitude to brave an in-person encounter and a penchant for scones, you can purchase a $35 ticket to the Gray Lady Afternoon Tea, taking place October 7 from 2 to 4 p.m. Or, if you happen to find yourself in Evansville, you can simply stop by the library during business hours to try your luck. Be alert not only for a fleeting glimpse of the Gray Lady but also for fluctuating cold spots and the occasional out-of-nowhere scent of heady perfume.

While the idea of spying the silvery wisp of a long-dead bookworm slinking around may seem a bit unsettling, there’s no denying she’s done wonders for the library’s popularity in an age when the traditional function of libraries has all but shifted to the internet. “I would say she’s a net plus,” says George Carter, executive director of the Willard Public Library. “It generates a lot of conversation and traffic.”

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher


NANCY BARNETT died in 1831 at age 38, but that didn’t stop her from causing car accidents throughout the 20th century on the lonely stretch of country road where she’s interred. The automotive carnage wasn’t accomplished by her disembodied spirit but by something more corporeal: She resides in what is both Indiana’s most unusual grave and one of its most potentially hazardous. It lies smack in the middle of East 400 S, a two-lane blacktop ribbon that splits in the middle just long enough to bracket Barnett’s final resting place near Franklin.

When workmen attempted to move her grave, Barnett’s nephew (or grandson—accounts vary) with gun in hand persuaded them to leave her be. It’s said he sat on the grave for days, threatening all who came near. They finally paved around her.

It gets creepier. When the remains were exhumed a few years ago during a road widening project, archaeologists found not just Barnett but also the bones of at least six other people: a man, four children, and another woman. At this news, some locals viewed the aggression of Barnett’s posthumous protector with a different eye. Was he trying to keep an evil secret hidden? Whoever the six other folks were or how they met their end, the whole gang was reinterred in a concrete sepulcher that, while still located in the middle of East 400 S, is now surrounded by yellow caution paint.

Haunting rumors have swirled for decades. Reports range from glowing orbs and disembodied voices to cars losing electrical power at the site and a full-on phantom jumping into the road. But Julie Meyer, who lives on property nearby that was once part of Barnett’s homestead, reports that she’s never encountered any unquiet souls. “Some say that her nephew’s ghost still guards the grave, but I’ve never seen him either,” adds Meyer.

Barnett is exactly where she wants to be. On her deathbed, she asked to be buried in that particular spot—at the time, just a small, grassy hill near Sugar Creek. Perhaps her satisfaction with her surroundings explains why she continues to rest in peace, in spite of the traffic.

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher


EXACTLY half a century ago, the small town of Muncie found itself at the epicenter of a rash of UFO sightings. On October 9, 1973, according to The Muncie Star, approximately 100 people called the police to report mysterious, colored lights darting through the sky. And it just got crazier from there. Over the course of the month, the ever-closer encounters swelled in number and intensity. One witness claimed that a UFO landed behind her house. Another breathlessly told the cops, “There are people out there that are not people.”

Explanations ranged from weather balloons to errant National Guard helicopters, but residents didn’t buy them. The hysteria gradually faded, but the odd saga was far from over. It seems that one of the many people across the country captivated by the spectacle was flying saucer buff Steven Spielberg. He decided to set the first portion of his next film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in Muncie. Quicker than you can say “inspired by true events,” the town was showcased in a fictionalized, much more car-chase-intensive version of the 1973 goings-on.

Thus, Muncie’s run-in with supposed aliens was woven into the fabric of American pop culture. Too bad the town’s scenes weren’t actually filmed there. While it was considered, Mobile, Alabama, served as its stand-in instead. Locals, however, can take satisfaction in the fact that no matter where the movie was shot, Muncie’s name is forever preserved in celluloid.

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher


THE HOOSIER state hosts enough weird cryptids to fill a freaky zoo, ranging from a gigantic snapping turtle that supposedly lurks in the depths of Fulk Lake in the hamlet of Churubusco to an eldritch flying serpent that terrorized Crawfordsville back in the 1890s. But the tiny creatures that supposedly haunt Mounds State Park are arguably the most compelling. The stories surrounding them are chilling and numerous, and they predate the arrival of Europeans in North America.

The creatures, called Pukwudgies, are 2- to 3-foot-tall “little people” who lurk in the woods, sometimes helping humans but sometimes causing mayhem. And apparently, Mounds State Park, with its large earthworks built and used by the Adena and Hopewell peoples around 2,000 years ago, is absolutely full of them.

Pukwudgie folklore originates with the Wampanoag of New England, but the Indiana park’s association with them came about thanks to amateur archaeologist and area resident Paul Startzman, author of The Puk-Wud-Jies of Indiana. The slim volume, which was sold for years in the Mounds State Park gift shop, contains tales of eyewitness encounters furnished by park guests, plus the now-deceased Startzman’s own story of encountering a Pukwudgie in his youth. While hiking, he supposedly came face to face with what he described as a “little man” about half his size with blonde, helmet-like hair.

Thus, a legend was born. Kelley Morgan, Mounds State Park’s interpretive naturalist, is hosting an evening Pukwudgie Glow Hike this month. According to her, while they didn’t call them Pukwudgies, the Miami people who later inhabited the Mounds area told their own tales of diminutive forest folk. “I won’t say it’s universal, but there are very many tribal entities that have stories about little people,” Morgan says. Though she’s never seen one, she’s talked to visitors who earnestly claimed they had. The phenomenon has attracted the curious, including podcasters, to the park.

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher


IF ANY piece of Indianapolis real estate should by rights be filled with fitful spirits, it’s the former home of Central State Hospital. Opened in 1848 and originally called the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, the 160-acre complex housed thousands upon thousands of patients over the decades, often under appalling conditions, until a 1994 abuse scandal prompted its closing.

Since then, there’s been an ongoing effort to repurpose the campus by tearing down many of the old buildings, putting up apartments and townhouses in their place, and bringing in new businesses. But it takes more than a rebranding, apparently, to clear the miasma of human suffering that still (according to some) clings to this place. Even a cursory glance at ghost hunting websites reveals the widespread conviction that the area is still “alive” with bad energy. One can easily find reports of glowing orbs floating around the property, apparitions inside and sometimes outside the surviving original buildings, and lots of disembodied screams and moans.

Recent discoveries have only served to bolster the site’s reputation for unearthly inhabitants.

For instance, a few years ago, hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered. It took an archaeological team from Ball State University using ground- penetrating radar to locate them all. Meanwhile, redevelopment continues—but perhaps not without repercussions from beyond the grave. Word has it that a few years ago, a spiritualist had to be called out several times to “cleanse” one of the new residences.