"To those who stumbled from their paths, beset by
illness, hardship and grievous loss
this Grand Lady of Solace offered
stability, nourishment and well-earned rest
within her solid red brick walls.
It ends not here, our lost and wandering friends,
wayward souls, alone in the night;
for while moving on, the spirit endures..."
That Which Doesn't Kill Them...
That Which Doesn't Kill Them...
A Ghastly Historical & Supernatural Account
of the Porter County Home
by Jim Haniford
The Porter County Home is a building which many believe houses a multitude of trapped entities; it appears that quite a few are considerably tormented. There are certain presences which seem lost, uncomfortable, unhappy, or in some cases malevolent, in nature. The history of this property, and especially this grand old building, is rich and storied. It is also encrypted by the murky swirls left by the passage of time and by the perpetuation of wicked, clandestine fable...
The most relevant narrative history of the site begins far, far back when parts of Porter County were still being slowly bled from the Native Americans and the swampy wilderness, dripping steadily into the hands of the settlers. By in the mid-1800's there was a collective recognition of the burgeoning social plight of the poor, the indigent, the feeble, and the mentally unstable in early America.
Porter County's social makeup was no exception. One June the seventh, 1855, the County Commissioners paid a sum of $4,000 to a William C. Pennock for his land in Center Township, County Porter. Pennock would become the initial Superintendent of the Porter County Poor Farm. On this land on September first, 1856, Pennock's dwelling for the poor was replaced by a house constructed by George C. Buel. The poor and indigent, or homeless, farmed and lived upon the land; were, in fact, self-sufficient. In return, they were given the shelter and the meals that they, themselves had provided. The local government, meanwhile, continued to buy more land to add to the property.
The unearthing of certain information has, until recently, proven a nearly insurmountable quest. It had seemed that whatever happened in the early part of the property's history was obscured by one cloudy circumstance or another, but lately the hard work and late nights of study and research have seemed to yield some information, at long last. The edifice today known as the Porter County Home was designed by architect Charles F. Lembke and built in 1905, with the structure being fully completed the following year.
Some of the more interesting focal spots that much of the haunting seems to center around were added in later years or have survived from the early part of the century to this very day. Back behind the kitchen are quarters and examination rooms for visiting doctors, caring nurses, and the many patients who made the trip down the intimidating, despondent hallway for checkups, diagnoses, medical care in general. On the side of the kitchen there still exists a walk-in cooler. Most of the time food was kept cold and edible in the stainless steel box. Once in a while, in the 'Home's early days, when an inmate died over the weekend, the corpse would be kept in the cooler until the coroner or mortician could make it there on Monday. The 'cardiac room' is another interesting stop, always resulting in a spooky experience or two. The barns and chicken coop out behind the 'Home where the work was done in exchange for a hot meal and a roof to sleep under seem to hold secrets in their isolated keep. The cavernous attic is another area of interest, with its roosting bats and old-fashioned steel bed for a small child assembled in a dark corner. Then there's the chapel, added to the south wing during the directorship of the Husbands, Donald and Norma, sometime in the 1950's or '60's. The chapel is reputed to be another focal point of the haunting. Opera singers, ironically, practice there now.
And then there's the basement... dirt, vermin, metal-grated doors, closet-sized inlets set into the walls, the boiler room, the terror-inducing shower room where many investigators become sick to their stomachs... it was in this horrifying room that team member Michelle Bugarin received her E.V.P. (Electronic Voice Phenomena) message to "shut the (expletive) up"... but we'll go back into the basement a little later on...
Then known as the "Porter County Asylum", the expansive brick building housed both the poor and the insane, and just about every social category in between. The home as an asylum took in a variety of 'patients', all sheltered beneath the collective umbrella labeled "unfit for exposure to society". Those down on their luck, the unemployed, alcoholics, homosexuals, adulterers and supposed "loose women" usually found their way into these places only to be put right next to serial rapists, callous sociopaths, mumbling delusionals, and violent psychopaths. Locking away certain people who didn't fit into the era's prevailing categories of decency was a convenient way to eliminate the problem of social 'undesirables'. I don't wish to give the impression that most of the people who lived at this building were warped, dangerous, or given over to criminal impulses. But some of these types found their way to the "ol' infirmary down the road."
Many inmates who arrived here for care stayed the length of a few days to a week, others for whatever reason were put in the Valparaiso Jail, still many others found another "ride out". As Jim Stinson reported in the March 7th, 2004 edition of the Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, "an often documented reason for discharge was simple and permanent: death."
The worst, the incorrigibles, or severely disturbed enough to be dangerous to themselves or their fellow man, were kept down below the poor house. Down below, that is, in two dismal, unceremonious wings of cells barely tall enough to sit up straight in. The carpeting consisted of mouse-littered dirt and rough-hewn mattresses. Many inmates became wards of the bestiality bred by the basement, often for what would now be thought of as outlandish reasons. Some examples of causes of admission were later found in black, rotting ledgers: 'bad eyes', fits (epileptic or otherwise), or simply the all-purpose explanation... "crazy". The 'treatments' anguished mental patients patents were subjected to in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century were sometimes sadistic, very often counterproductive.
There have been many more instances of E.V.P., especially from the basement, than the obscenity uttered on the aforementioned audio tape. Results are varied, depending on the possible differing personalities who allegedly utter these words or on the differing circumstances under which they are obtained. In one of the most recent investigations, on March 27th & 28th of 2004, a whispered command, "Come closer," was captured, along with a muttered description, "Pagan rites." Most likely there is much more that "They" are scrambling to say, and much of it may touch on their perpetual emotions of discomfort, confusion, and pain. As we have alluded to, many inmates or, if you wish, tenents or "inpatients", were subject to some now-questionable methods of treatment.
In those days, mental health care was fundamentally lacking in technique, if not compassion. The popular belief was that disturbed humans were much like wild beasts; and, much like wild beasts, would only react favorably to harsh discipline. Theories of the time allowed for reward and punishment. Punishment, viewed in much the same way as the flogging of an errant horse, sometimes included seclusion, restraint (a high-backed chair with leather straps worked quite nicely), occasional floggings and beatings, or repeated bathings or dunkings. The latter was referred to with the technical euphemism "hydrotherapy".
Legend has it, says informative Valparaiso Jail Museum Manager Teresa Schmidt, that shock treatment found an outlet here at the 'Home. This brutal and inhumane practice was first used on a human patient in 1938. Electroshock therapy racks the brain with a scorching jolt to affect a more passive pattern of behavior. It is the opinion of Dr. John Friedberg, a neurologist, that "it's more effective than a car wreck, or getting hit with a blunt instrument." Slightly later, around 1945 (by then, incidentally, the Porter County Poor Farm's Superintendent was a W.H. Dittman), a neurologist named Dr. Walter Freeman began flirting with the morbid clinical romance of transorbital lobotomy; no rumors have been heard at this printing that any lobotomies were performed on the patients of the Porter County Asylum, by then called the "Porter County Infirmary".
In our previous investigations here, we've unraveled the often convoluted twine of history, as well as laboriously searched through the mire of knowledge which usually exists in obscure places. Partly through the research we've conducted, and partly through interviews we've been lucky enough to obtain (people like Teresa from the Historical Society and Old Valparaiso Jail Museum and Phil Griffith of the Porter County Emergency Management Agency have been great allies). Griffith, whom I referenced in my last account of the haunted history of this building, has an office in the old County Home. Knowledgeable as he is, he could probably conduct tours of the facility walking backwards and with his eyes closed. "I used to come out here as a kid all the time," he recently told the Post-Tribune. When the Indiana Ghost Trackers initially gained access to investigate this grand historical bastion, he expressed a marked disbelief in the supernatural. Now, between firsthand accounts of experiences and his own feelings, he thinks that something strange does indeed pace the lonely halls. Local lore and legend, sometimes every bit as legitimate as a scholarly historical account, and the impressions of 'sensitives' and psychics have all augmented our scientific search for the truth in one way or another.
For example, Teresa recently related prior to this writing that "Bronco John", who used to put on Wild West shows around the turn of the century with the likes of "Buffalo" Bill Cody and reputedly knew the infamous "Crow Killer" Liver-Eating Johnson, chose the Valparaiso area as his final home. Most folks don't know that "Bronco John" actually died in the Porter County Home (he is buried, as are many former residents from the 'Home, in Graceland Cemetery just down the road).
Teresa also mentioned to us that when children were born out of wedlock, society, in all of its Victorian wisdom, often took the children away and put the mothers into the Porter County Asylum with the other 'undesirables' of the time. "Loose women", as they were thought of, couldn't possibly be anywhere near their right mind. A very Christian attitude coming from the bitter tea-party hens of the time, smelling of rose-petal perfume and stuffed uncomfortably into characteristic girdles beneath their prim floral-print dresses.
The aforementioned Post-Tribune article by Jim Stinson draws out of the mist another ghost's possible identity, a spirit named "Howard". It seems this lost soul enjoys turning off the lights in the old Home, as was his task when he lived there. This type of development at such an eerie building seems to frighten some of the schoolchildren who now come to Peace Village, a collaborative youth program which has its offices there.
Phantom footsteps have been heard with more clarity by those who work there, as of late. Outwardly audible voices like forlorn dirges down long-empty halls call to those in the building. Something is growing here at the Old Porter County Home; it's gaining strength from the fear of those around it- and it's high time to find out just who, or what, that something is...
Who was the pudgy, bald visage Val Leach saw peeking out from one of the cells in the mens' wing downstairs? Was he a patient, cowering, hiding from his "treatment"? Was he shy; maybe frightened of those of us among the living? Is he a malignant soul, curious at our presence, like a hellhound sniffing at sulfur and fresh meat? What is he feeling as we blindly walk past him through those dank, dusty corridors?
Val also caught an impression of a woman in an old-fashioned nurse's dress, in the far, right-hand room of the physicians' quarters. This is the same room where Phil's granddaughter and her friend ran away from the dark form of a woman gliding past the grimy windows this past summer. In a recent E.V.P. session in the room, we sensed quite a strong presence. Val picked up the name "Eleanor"- a female nurse with a long white dress, who paces past the window panes on both walls in the room.
And the blue, glowering face in one of the upstairs landing windows that Mary Poole captured on camera last November fifteenth? What does he want? Who were those terrible eyes examining? Nobody in the room was turned toward the window except for Mary, who had the camera to her face and looks nothing like the man evident in the picture. As an interesting bridge, Phil has told us that students of an emergency lifesaving course who arrived for class one night saw an interesting apparition. In the same pair of windows aforementioned, they reported a figure looking down on them, illuminated from behind by the hall light. When they questioned Phil about this, he was forced to tell them that nobody was up there that night.
As we set up for the most recent overnight investigation, shortly before midnight, I couldn't help but wonder if we would come across the spirit that seems to haunt the left side second-floor bathroom at the end of the hall- where many feel a presence or energy. During an investigation on the night of All Saints' Day two years ago, we met "Malcolm". Dean, a member from the Lafayette Chapter who exhibits extreme sensitivity to the supernatural, sensed a confused male African-American spirit in this bathroom. He suggested that the entity answers to "Malcolm". A quite odd experience occurred directly after this revelation, but the tale is much too involved to include here. The fact is that, in that bathroom, just as in so many other parts of the property, people are sent away with their hearts pulsating heavily like a giant cracked cathedral bell. It's the uncomfortable sensation of a presence that just isn't a living human and simply can't be explained away by the strict and binding conventions of accepted rational dismissal.
What is it that these entities want? A chance to be known? To be recognized for who they are? For what they did in life? For how they died? Do they want simply to touch, to contact, someone vibrant with life once again?
Maybe the trapped souls don't like the idea that the permanence of the home they knew in life itself hangs in limbo. When last there were residents there, Porter-Starke Services ran the facility and moved in 1999. Now it holds Porter County Emergency Management and Peace Village. The decaying building is nearing its centennial birthday, steeped in the histories of yesteryear. The Porter County Commissioners have established a committee to decide the aged edifice's fate; could the uncertainty of its existence in the near future be stirring resentment from residents who still just won't (or can't) leave? Parks Superintendent Ed Melendez would love to turn the 77-acre property into a park if the building is torn down- but what kind of energy will reside in the park? Entities certainly aren't restricted to reach out to us only from within wood and brick.
Orbs captured on both 35 millimeter and digital pictures, as well as on video. Disembodied voices. Investigators being moved to tears and emotional turmoil. People being touched. Some even being followed home...
So, who are these compelling souls who seem to desperately cry for attention, for recognition, for respect? What are their names? And what are their myriad sagas of saddened, stupefied suffering?
There are stories in these walls, in the basement's clammy and tormented corridors... stories which are frozen in a prison of silence... They would love for someone to come inside, to turn out the lights, cock an ear, sit quietly, alone, and listen...
Since this article was written and subsequently printed in the newsletter of the Indiana Ghost Trackers and Ghost! Magazine,respectively, the tragic saga of the Porter County Home has continued. Debate bounced back and forth between those who wanted the building preserved and those who said the upkeep was impossible. In September of 2004, Peace Village moved into offices at the Valparaiso High School. By November, the Porter County Board of Commissioners were looking for bids to demolish the structure. Even though there had been hopeful talk about creating a park at the site, many wondered if there was an agenda for development already in place. By January 2005, County Commissioner John Evans was quoted in the Post-Tribune as saying, "We need to demolish it (the County Home) and decide what will be built there."
Concern for the welfare of the County Home, which ministered to the concern for the welfare of so many underprivileged Hoosiers, began to swell. The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana listed the centenarian building as "Endangered" in March of the same year. Letters were written to newspaper editors. Local historians and paranormal investigators voiced their concerns. Unfortunately, it was another example of "too little too late." Demolition, itself a costly and involved solution, was scheduled for spring of the following year. Meanwhile, the old building sat, lonely except for Porter County Emergency Management and, with permission, the occasional group of ghost trackers. In the fall of that year, the emergency management agency began to move its offices out of the building, headed for a new building across Route 2.
On the 1st of October, we accompanied other members of the local paranormal community into the old County Home. Michelle and I had no idea that it would be our last investigation there. Many of us witnessed more phenomena on this night than almost all our other experiences at the old 'Home rolled together. People were pelted by small objects thrown by unseen hands. Outside, one investigator reported being hit by a shingle falling from the roof of the barn, despite the night's relatively calm weather. Investigator Dave Tice heard the nostalgic tones of big band or swing music, as if it were bleeding through the fabric of time. This had recently become an occasional manifestation at the old infirmary. Needless to say, no satisfactory natural explanation has ever been found.
Possibly the most poignant and dramatic event during that evening happened when our group was recording an E.V.P. session in the 2nd Floor "Cardiac" hallway. Vera Schweiger, who displays quite an ability as a sensitive, felt the presence of a woman who was extremely troubled. Vera reported that this woman was crying; she seemed desperate to get away from someone. Not too long after this, I heard what I thought was female laughter, warbling up the stairs and toward us in the hallway. It sounded like it originated from the cafeteria downstairs and slightly North of us. As I listened, I realized that it sounded more like unrestrained sobbing.
I was just mentioning this when other members of our team came forward and confirmed that they, too, had begun hearing the sound of a woman weeping. Soon after, the sobbing faded away into nothing. Interrupting the session, I ran downstairs to the cafeteria. I found nobody there, and nobody leaving the immediate area. The only investigators close to the cafeteria assured me that they had not made the noise. A group that was down in the basement (where the mens' and womens' cells were) attested that they had heard a woman weeping while downstairs. Unfortunately, when we checked our recordings, the sobbing seemed to have been just faint enough that our devices didn't pick it up.
I know many readers would be quick to point out the possible suggestive nature of Vera's comments, reported just before we witnessed the sound, but that explanation just doesn't wash with me. Michelle, myself, and the team we were with are usually experienced enough to discern between influenced or misinterpreted impressions and objective observations. Were the remaining entities reacting to the impending doom of the hundred-year-old building? Was the trapped energy gathering strength?
Then a heinous, cowardly act damned any remote chances to save the "Grand Dark Lady". On the night of Friday, November 11th, 2005, the barn where so many residents had worked to help sustain the poor and enfeebled burst into flame. Originally said to have spread to the main building, it was later found that separate fires had started within the home itself due to the use of accelerants. Traces of kerosene were found. The Valparaiso Fire Department ruled the conflagration an arson three days later. Hopefully the Indiana brown bats which roosted in the magnificent, cavernous attic escaped the horrible flames to a safer haven. An era was at an end. How do you bid farewell to a legend?
At the end of February and beginning of March, 2006, silt fences were erected around the site and the windows not broken during the fire were smashed out. Demolition of the Porter County Home had officially begun. Through the Spring and on through the end of May, the building was destroyed piece-by-piece. The steam radiators will be sold to be made into glass-topped tables. Many of the bricks were recycled to be used on homes and restaurants in Louisiana. Much of the ancient timber will be reused elsewhere. By June only the landmark grain silo, with the fading paint of its "Porter County Home" sign, was left, along with the building's chapel, still rented by the singers. Then these landmarks, too, were devoured by progress. The silo fell dead to the earth like a slain giant. All that remains from the old County Home is the chapel, a small reminder of solace once available for the unfortunate. The site is quiet again during the day, but for the passing traffic and the solitary cry of the hawk. By night the crickets lament the loss with high-pitched dirges. The surrounding wetlands lie in nervous anticipation. Hopefully we can have faith that they will at least be cared for and respected.
Are there any ghosts left at this site? Probably. On that night in early October, the building was more active than many of us have ever seen it, indicating, at least in my mind, that those in need of closure may well have been left in the building while the blaze swept through the hallways and engulfed much of the reassuring interior of their longtime home. In fact, during demolition, any conscious entities still lingering there probably watched as the old familiar walls fell around them. It is thought in local paranormal circles that many of the spirits crossed over to their final rest, but at least a few still remain. And there they will stay, whether the site becomes a preserve, park, or yet another commercial development, until the conditions for the soul to move on to the next plane are met.
In the meantime, the arsonists have yet to be caught. I seriously doubt that they ever will be. A reward has been offered for information leading to the prosecution of those responsible, but it will most likely go uncollected. A crime has been committed not just against the county, but against history.
Gone are the traces of a home and refuge for thousands of unfortunate souls. Destroyed are the architectural embellishments of a bygone era. The old patient logbooks, with their vivid details recorded in a time far removed, were to be donated to Historical Society of Porter County. They have not yet surfaced at the Society's Old Jail Museum in Valparaiso, although thankfully, seem not to have been destroyed in the fire. The antique high-back wheelchair, padded in a deep green and long neglected in the back shed, was reduced to a corroded frame in the fire. It was since thrown away, along with hundreds of stories of its own. The section of wall which former Governor Frank O'Bannon signed in 2001 has probably been lost forever. The rooms which echoed with "Bronco" John's amazing stories of the Wild West have been erased from existence. All that remain now are whispers, looking for a sympathetic ear to listen to the stories they carry...
As I sit here typing this late one summer evening, I look down at pictures of the proud old building. Even in decline she maintained her dignity. It's hard to believe that the Porter County Home isn't standing any longer. We've all been priveleged to discover the building's mysteries, its triumphs and the tragedies, and we're grateful to those who have made exploring this building possible. It's been a strange and wonderful journey down this dimly-lit path, and we'll never forget the legacy of the building and the people who lived and worked there.
I guess this is our way at PSI of saying "goodbye" to an old friend. How do you bid farewell to a legend? By promising not to forget the many lessons you've learned.
© James J. Haniford
24th July 2006
Photos taken by
Vera Schweiger and Michelle Bugarin