Backtrack: Dark Shadows
Playing dress-up hasn’t always been a Halloween thing, but it seems the propensity to do so is—and always has been—higher in Irvington. Any Indianapolis resident worth her salt knows that the eastside enclave is the place for celebrating Halloween. Its festival has now been running for 70 consecutive years, but the reveling began many years earlier.
Five miles east of the city’s epicenter, seven days after Halloween 1870, two businessmen purchased and platted 300 acres. Indy’s new neighborhood was named for Washington Irving, the famous author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a story that quickly became synonymous with October’s most famous holiday and, in turn, the namesake local region.
Irvington’s first official Halloween celebration debuted in 1927, but wasn’t repeated consistently. In October 1946, the Irvington Business Men’s Association began the Irvington Halloween Festival. That tradition continues to this day, with the festivities now operated by the Historic Irvington Community Council, and the partying has grown to include a full week of events, including a masquerade ball, Zombie Bike Ride, and Slightly Haunted Puppet Show.
Years before Irvington was famous for the annual festival celebrating ghosts and goblins, a group of neighborhood girls dressed up for fun, entertainment, and impromptu theatrics. Though it’s unknown if their dramatics inclined towards serious or spooky, years later, one among this group of young ladies became the central character in one of the most gruesome tales in the neighborhood’s and city’s history.
Madge Oberholtzer, seated center in this 1910 photo, petting a dog, would be tortured and raped in 1925 by D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana. After a brazen abduction and harrowing series of events, Oberholtzer, 28, ended up dead, and Stephenson was found guilty of murder in the second degree. Well beyond a ghastly seasonal tale, this story continues to haunt anyone familiar with it. Incredibly, there was a silver lining—Stephenson’s heinous act drew ire upon the day-to-day monsters with a penchant for hiding behind ghostly costumes; the KKK’s gradual demise began with the death of this innocent Irvington woman. Her story has become as legendary as any macabre popularized fiction.
While a true horror played out in Irvington almost 100 years ago, in 2016, the area has returned to just-creepy-enough spooks and scares.
Tiffany Benedict Browne runs historicindianapolis.com. Her Halloweens are spent celebrating her mother’s birthday.