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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Spoiler alert: A version of this article was published in 2012 in HistoricIndianapolis.com. Since then, descendants of Calvin Fletcher have come forward with a treasure trove of information about Fletcher Wagner and his mysterious disappearance, including a report from a private detective and an undated letter that is believed to be Fletcher's final letter to his parents.


Fletcher Wagner was a promising young man with a brilliant future. By the time he turned 22, he’d launched the first daily high school newspaper in the country, won numerous awards in speech and debate, written a play that predicted the San Francisco earthquake, graduated from Stanford in three years, and was nearly through his studies at Harvard law school.


There seemed to be no doubt in anyone’s mind – including Fletcher’s — that one day he would carry on the legacy of public service left by his great-grandfather Calvin Fletcher. That is, until the day that Fletcher Wagner disappeared.


In April 1904, Wagner traveled from Harvard to the Indiana Statehouse to sit for the Rhodes Scholarship examination, which was administered at the same time, in the same way, to thousands of hopefuls throughout the world. Although he hadn’t made any special effort to prepare for the grueling two-day test, Wagner easily passed to the next round, where his challenger was George Hamilton, an orphan from Richmond who had worked his way through Earlham College.


Under the rules of the competition, only one winner could be selected from Indiana every two years. The selection committee was comprised of the presidents of Indiana University, Notre Dame, DePauw, Earlham and Wabash. Wagner and Hamilton were kept in suspense all summer after an attempt to select a winner in June faltered when only two of the panel members showed up for a meeting at the Claypool Hotel.


The panel finally got together in early August and chose the “plucky” orphan over the privileged Wagner. This defeat did not sit well with Fletcher Wagner, who up to that time had a nearly unblemished record of success in everything he tried. And to add to his humiliation, the Indianapolis Journal and a number of other newspapers erroneously reported that Wagner had won the Rhodes Scholarship, which put the young man in the unfortunate position of having to explain repeatedly why he would not be headed to Oxford.

Letters to the committee from Wagner's supporters.

As part of his application for the scholarship, Wagner had submitted a voluminous scrapbook filled with clippings touting his various achievements and his lofty place in Indianapolis society. However, at least one of the members who was absent from the July meeting did not have the opportunity to review the scrapbook before the panel voted in August to award the scholarship to Hamilton. Wagner apparently believed this to be a procedural error that should compel the committee to reconsider its award of the scholarship to Hamilton.


Instead of heading to Oxford as he had hoped, Wagner returned to Harvard law school in the fall of 1904. Over the next few months, he and his supporters launched an unsuccessful campaign to overturn the selection of Hamilton by asserting that the committee's process was tainted by favoritism and other improprieties. The Indianapolis Star backed Wagner's claims in an editorial dated December 29, 1904. This prompted Earlham College president Robert Lincoln Kelly, who served on selection committee, to issue a searing statement:

Ever since the matter was closed Wagner has been harassing the committee because of alleged unfairness... He has not learned how to take defeat.

According to Kelly, one committee member had even gone so far as to state that "if he had any doubt in regard to the selection [of Hamilton] it has been entirely removed by Wagner's subsequent attitude."


Weeks before his anticipated graduation from Harvard law school, Wagner wrote a newsy letter to his mother telling her all about his success in establishing an intercollegiate newsletter for debaters and in recruiting board membership from various colleges for the newsletter. Fletcher was relieved that he was now able to hand over the responsibility for publication of the newsletter to the new board and told his mother he would have more time to write her now. He signed off with ”Please be good and happy.”


Little is known of Fletcher Wagner’s life after that day.



I first learned of Fletcher Wagner when I found an old valentine on eBay. The card is from a secret admirer, although I suspect that the admirer was his grandmother or some other female relative, given the fact that young Fletcher was only seven years old when the Valentine was mailed in 1889.


Both Fletcher Wagner and the anonymous sender of the valentine are long gone, but the house where the card was delivered still stands on Broadway in the Old Northside. I can see the Wagner house from my desk as I write this article, ghostly white in the early morning fog.



After I bought the valentine, I tried to track down information about Fletcher Wagner but kept coming up empty. I finally found him buried in a footnote to a relatively obscure book published in 1964 by the Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis in the “Gay Nineties”: High School Diaries of Claude G. Bowers.


According to the footnote, shortly after Wagner learned that he did not win the Rhodes Scholarship, “he left his room in Cambridge and did not return and was never heard from thereafter.” A relative who was interviewed for the book in 1963 recalled Wagner as “a quiet, reserved, studious fellow with a warm heart and a sincere nature.”


Wagner disappeared in 1905. City directories list his mother, Sarah, as residing in the house for another 25 years. By then, most of her original neighbors on the formerly affluent street had fled to the suburbs, leaving their once-grand homes to be demolished or chopped up into multiple apartments. Yet for some reason, Sarah Wagner stayed.


The Wagner house was vacant for the first six years that we lived in the Old Northside. Often at night when I looked at its darkened windows, I imagined Sarah sitting there, year after year, waiting for the knock that never came from the son who never returned.

I started searching for Fletcher Wagner in earnest when I found another one of his valentines on eBay. A vast number of old newspapers and historical records had been digitized and added to the internet since the last time I went looking for Fletcher Wagner. I was hopeful that I could find an answer for his disappearance, one that was not so sad or disturbing.


Unfortunately, all I found were a few breadcrumbs of digital information that seemed to lead to even more questions. According to the 1964 book, Wagner went missing from Harvard shortly after he lost his bid for the Rhodes Scholarship in the fall of 1904. So I was surprised to see that in 1906, The Indianapolis Star reported that Fletcher Wagner was an attorney in New York City and in 1910, the census listed him as practicing law in Indianapolis and residing at his parents’ home on Broadway.


This gave me a glimmer of hope that perhaps the elderly relative who spoke about Fletcher Wagner nearly 50 years after his disappearance was confused or mistaken. Perhaps Fletcher had only vanished in a metaphorical sense, forced to move back home with his parents after failing to succeed as a lawyer in New York City.


If he really was in Indianapolis in 1910, however, he certainly wasn’t working very hard to promote his law practice. There’s no listing for Fletcher Wagner in the city directories during that time frame nor in the membership rolls of the Indianapolis Bar Association. Further, if he really was living with his parents, he was noticeably absent from all major family events. When his grandmother died in November 1910, he was not among the eight male family members who served as pallbearers. When his younger brother Herbert got married in January 1911, he was not among the six groomsmen. And when his father Theodore died in April 1911, the obituary stated that Dr. Wagner was survived by his widow Sarah, residing at the family home on Broadway; his son Herbert, residing on St. Joseph Street; and his son Fletcher, no address listed.


Shortly after her husband’s death, Sarah Fletcher locked up the house on Broadway, leaving everything exactly as it existed during happier times. She took an extended holiday in St. Augustine, where a friend wrote “I hope you will come back very much better. I’m glad you are far away from the scenes of your happy days and your sad sad days.” Upon her return to Indianapolis, however, Sarah did not venture far from the home where she had raised her family. She moved into her parents’ house at 715 East 13th Street (now the site of an interstate overpass). The vacant house on Broadway became the target of vandals and looters.


Sarah was living at Link Apartments at the time of her death in 1939. She was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery with her husband and her younger son, Herbert, who had died in 1935. Her obituary notes that she was also preceded in death by her son Fletcher. She never sold the Broadway house.


Epilogue


After a previous version of this article was published in 2012, a few tidbits of information regarding Fletcher Wagner's disappearance made their way to my inbox. One reader alerted my attention to a 1948 column in The Indianapolis Star (8/23/48) that said Fletcher had disappeared while studying ancient history in China. A college professor in Germany wrote that he had seen an article in an old German newspaper reporting that Fletcher had been found in Europe.


But the real breakthrough came after Robert Renaker and Jerald Faulstich purchased the dilapidated Wagner home in 2018. In addition to embarking on an extensive restoration of the once-magnificent house, the two men also began taking a deep dive into history of the house and its former residents, including Sarah Fletcher Wagner, the granddaughter of Indianapolis founding father Calvin Fletcher, and her husband, Dr. Theodore A. Wagner. They were especially fascinated by the sad and strange disappearance of Fletcher Wagner, which they had read about in my 2012 article.


Faulstich began the laborious task of working his way through the Fletcher/Wagner family tree in an effort to find any descendants who might have old photos of the house or information about the Wagner family. He struck gold when he found Georgia Brist in Lafayette, Indiana.


Brist is the great-granddaughter of Sarah and Theodore Wagner, who were Fletcher Wagner's parents. One of seven children, she has become by default the keeper of the Fletcher/Wagner family archives, which until 1986 were stored in 50-gallon barrels in the basement of her parents' farm in rural Wayne County. After her mother died that year, Brist began sorting through the massive amount of letters, documents, books and diaries, some of which date back to the early 1800s.


Brist donated several boxes of the material to the Indiana Historical Society in 1986. The collection (Fletcher, Emily Beeler (Mrs. Calvin Jr.) Family papers, 1825-1918) has been processed but has not yet catalogued. It includes Sarah Fletcher Wagner's diaries and various letters from both the Fletcher and Wagner families. She donated seven additional boxes of Fletcher/Wagner family material to the IHS in 2017, and was slowing wading through the remaining boxes when she received an email from Faulstich in 2018.


Intrigued by his interest in the Wagner family home and its former residents, she began corresponding with Faulstich. Over the next year, they shared various bits of information that she had found in the family archives and that he had learned in his research. Then in 2019, Brist agreed to travel to Indianapolis to meet Faulstich and Renaker at their home and to bring a box of letters that finally shed some light on why the promising scion of one of the city's most prominent families had simply vanished just weeks before he was set to graduate from Harvard Law School.


Despite the Wagners' apparent efforts to keep Fletcher's disappearance out of the public eye, the correspondence reveals that Sarah and Theodore Wagner were desperately working behind the scenes to discover their eldest son's whereabouts. Fletcher had sent them a postcard from Glasgow in 1905 but then nothing else for the next four years.


The Wagners hired a private detective who scoured Europe and the United Kingdom in search of Fletcher to no avail. Finally in 1909, the Wagners appealed to the U.S. State Department, which issued a bulletin instructing the American consuls abroad to make inquiries in their respective jurisdictions regarding the well-being and whereabouts of Fletcher Bernard Wagner.

From the Georgia Brist collection

On February 26, 1909, the Belfast Evening Telegraph published a description of Fletcher Wagner and asked readers to contact the American consul if they had seen anyone who met that description. An innkeeper from a nearby village read the article and came forward the following day with credible information about a man who had stayed at the inn two nights earlier and closely matched Wagner's appearance in every respect except for a luxuriant mustache. According to the innkeeper, the man was well-educated, shared the same interests as Fletcher Wagner, and even carried a paper parcel of clothes with the name "Wagner" written on the outside.


The mystery man had stopped at the inn on February 24, departing the next morning to travel by foot to Belfast where he planned to catch a steamer to Liverpool. From there, he would board the Lusitania to sail to the United States. The man told the innkeeper and his wife that he had traveled throughout South America and Australia, and was very anxious to return home, where he had not been home or a very long time.


It was noon on Saturday, February 27, when the American consul in Belfast received this information. The Lusitania was set to sail for the United States at 5 p.m. that evening. The consul wired his counterpart in Liverpool, who enlisted the help of city police to search the Lusitania and scour local hotels and hospitals.


Once again, Fletcher Wagner had vanished without a trace.


Then at some point, Fletcher Wagner sent a letter to his parents. Its edges are ragged, as if someone had ripped open the envelope in a frantic effort to get to the contents. The letter is undated and has the ring of a final farewell.

Fletcher wrote that he had landed in Toronto and was doing newspaper work. He explained that he was very tired when he left home and that one failure after another had caused him to lose faith in his abilities. He desperately needed a rest, which he had found in hard work.


He told his parents that while he was improving, he could not return home until his mind was "quite settled" and his self-confidence restored.


"I am much better already," he assured them. "A little more, and it is done. If you allow me my own time in my own way, the wound will heal and I will still be useful to you all."


"But you will do me a great injury if you disturb me too soon," Fletcher warned, "besides causing me much embarrassment... You will bring back the old torments before I am strong enough to know my way."


Fletcher pleaded with his parents to stop placing advertisements in newspapers "as though I was a defaulter, or a forgetful husband, or an escaped lunatic, for which I am none of that." Instead, they could contact him directly by placing a message in either the Toronto Globe or the Scientific American.


"I have no fear of losing you to death or by my own death," he wrote, "because this world is only a small part of the whole scheme, and what we do not finish here, we complete elsewhere."


It's unclear whether Fletcher ever saw his parents again in this world. But he has returned home, in a manner of speaking, thanks to the friendship that has developed between Brist and the current owners of the house on Broadway where Fletcher grew up.


Since they moved in five years ago, Faulstich and Renaker have been faithfully restoring the Italianate home to its 1890s appearance. One day, Georgia Brist showed up at their house with two old photos of the parlor. Taking the place of pride in both photos were large portraits of Fletcher and his younger brother, Herbert.


Amazingly, both of the portraits had survived the years and were among the Wagner family artifacts passed down to Brist. Today, they are hanging in the parlor of the house that Fletcher Wagner once called home.


From left, Sarah and Theodore Wagner with her parents, Calvin Fletcher, Jr. and Emily Beeler Fletcher; the Wagner family at home; and the parlor as it appears today.



Fletcher Wagner's Legacy


Fletcher Wagner amassed a remarkable slew of accomplishments during his short lifetime. While a student at Stanford, he was a prize-winning member of the debate team, edited several student publications, and won a national prize in 1903 for writing the best essay on "College Fraternities.”


But Fletcher Wagner’s most enduring legacy was the Shortridge Daily Echo, which he founded in 1898 after two earlier unsuccessful attempts to publish a student newspaper. During its initial 72-year run, the Daily Echo served as a training ground for many future writers, including Dan Wakefield and Kurt Vonnegut. Aspiring female journalists also learned their craft at the Daily Echo, as later recounted by a 1938 Shortridge graduate:


“For somebody who wanted a career in journalism, the opportunity at Shortridge was almost unbelievable. Echo editors were given such huge responsibility. We wrote, assigned the stories, planned the layout, everything, and we certainly felt impelled to do a good a job,” Madelyn Pugh Davis recalled in a 1981 history of Shortridge.


Although Davis had planned to be a newspaper journalist, she ended up in radio and television instead, eventually landing in Hollywood where she is best known as the co-writer of I Love Lucy. She never forgot her Shortridge roots or her Echo experiences, however, even writing an episode where Lucy pretends to be a Shortridge graduate in order to get a job as a reporter.


Had he lived later or lived longer, Fletcher Wagner might have ended up with a career in television. His classmates at Stanford recognized his talent for entertainment, and in 1903 awarded him the honor of writing the junior class play. The plot of the musical comedy revolved around a student dubbed “The Sleeping Corpse,” who fell asleep for 1,000 years and woke up to a changed world. The play was well-received at the time, but later became a curiosity for its eerie prediction of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Muncie Star Press, May 6, 1906

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

In 1905, LaVerne Templeton visited the Statehouse and sent a cryptic postcard to a friend:

Hello, Thurlow. I'm having a fine time. This is [where] they stuffed animals.

During my 32 years as a legislative staffer, judicial clerk and later as a lobbyist, I saw a lot of weird things at the Statehouse that involved animals, including a legislator toting around a bear cub and a rat with his own Twitter account. But until I started researching the basement, I was unaware of anyone stuffing animals within the hallowed halls of state government.


Legislators often refer to the Statehouse as "The People's House." So I guess that makes the lowest floor of the Statehouse "The People's Basement." And ever since the People's House opened its doors in 1888, the People have been busy stuffing their basement with pretty much anything that wouldn't fit upstairs, including dusty Civil War records, unexploded cannon balls, bloodstained clothes, and members of the Statehouse press corps.


Over the years, many strange and even potentially lethal items have been found by state employees who were exploring the darkened recesses of the cavernous limestone basement. In 1959, for example, an explosive ordnance team removed 15 weapons, including Civil War cannonballs filled with gunpowder, two machine guns, and an 1873 model Colt formerly used by state prison guards. Then in 1962, a clerk found a razor-slashed shirt and bloody nightgown from an 1895 murder trial stuffed in the back of a filing cabinet.


But one of the more interesting treasures to be unearthed in the basement was a 12-foot-long plaster of Paris model of the "new" Statehouse that was made in 1878 so the Statehouse Commissioners could visualize how the building would appear when completed.

The architectural model has long since disappeared from the basement of the Statehouse. The State Museum, which occupied the basement for many years, has no record of the mini-Statehouse in its collection.

In 1904, The Indianapolis Journal reported that a 5-ton miniature version of the Statehouse was gathering dust in a basement room. Chunks of the building had been cut out by souvenir hunters, and its walls were covered with signatures and graffiti. Adjacent rooms were crammed with models of the statues that encircle the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, exhibits from the Saint Louis World's fair, obsolete machine guns, and old fire department buckets.


By 1905, the mess had gotten so out of hand that The Indianapolis News referred to the basement as "the State's junk pile." According to the News, the State of Indiana was keeping house like any other slovenly housekeeper and simply sweeping its unsightly refuse into out-of-the-way places where it would not offend the eye.


The Indianapolis News, February 18, 1905

The dark and dangerous netherworld of the Statehouse

Over time, the growing accumulation of discarded items began to pose a risk to the health and safety of workers who toiled in the netherworld of the Statehouse. The early 1930s were especially dangerous. In 1932, rats gnawing on matches in a trash heap were blamed for starting a fire in the north wing of the basement. Then the following year, an epidemic of mysterious illnesses swept the basement offices of the state conservation department. It was later discovered that fumes from 50,000 feet of decaying educational films had sickened the workers.


Luckily, the rat-sparked fire from the previous year had not reached the room where the movies were stored. Old film was highly flammable, and in 1929, more than 100 people had lost their lives in Cleveland when a storage room filled with x-ray films caught fire and exploded, spreading deadly gas throughout a hospital.


Even in more recent years, as the old storage rooms were cleared out and converted to offices, life in the Statehouse basement occasionally proved hazardous. In the early 1980s, more than 20 state employees who worked in an underground room aptly called "The Pits" became ill -- some seriously -- during work on the HVAC system. At least one of the sickened workers was diagnosed with a potentially lethal case of Legionnaires Disease. In 1999, a deadly brown recluse spider was found in the basement offices of the State Budget Agency. Then in 2018, I was sitting with some other lobbyists in the hallway outside of a basement committee room when a rat scurried out from beneath a couch. And like every other Statehouse denizen, the rat soon opened its own Twitter account.


Basement Perks: Bathtubs, bedrooms & secret stairways

In 1891, Rep. Hiram Gill revealed an especially dirty secret when he wrote to a friend that one of the perks of being in the General Assembly was the two large bathtubs in the basement of the Statehouse. Because Facebook had not yet been invented, the "friend" promptly shared Gill's letter with the local newspaper, which in turn shared the letter with newspapers statewide.

A local newspaper published an ode to the basement bathtubs. The Indianapolis Journal, Feb. 1, 1891.

According to the Indianapolis Journal, the large number of legislators who soaked in the subterranean tubs began to interfere with the business of the House and Senate. Doorkeepers were forced to scurry downstairs to pull lawmakers out of the bathtub for floor votes.


Despite widespread mockery by the press and condemnation by their constituents of this luxury not available in most Hoosier homes, the basement spa continued to be a perk afforded to legislators well into the 1890s, with newspapers reporting that the Statehouse custodian even provided legislators with free towels.


By 1920, one of the bathtubs had been claimed by a Supreme Court judge who also had a bedroom in the basement. The previous year, the Statehouse custodian had unsuccessfully attempted to overturn the judge's decision to set up a basement boudoir by replacing the hot and cold water pipes leading to the bathtub with two cold water pipes. But judicial temperaments did not rise to a boiling point until 1920, when the State Building and Grounds Committee asked the judge and three of his colleagues who also had Statehouse bedrooms to make other sleeping arrangements so the rooms could be used for much-needed office space.


Deprived of their bedrooms, the Supreme Court justices could still take solace in their secret spiral staircase, which originated in the northwest corner of the basement and ended in the Supreme Court robing room. The purpose of the staircase appears to be lost to time, but various theories have emerged over the years. Some believe the staircase may have been used to transport prisoners to the Supreme Court from holding cells in basement; others speculate that the stairs were built to allow judges to beat a hasty retreat from the courtroom if necessary.

Remnants of the old stairway still exist today. The bottom of the stairwell is tucked away in a far corner of the basement, its entrance bricked over and its iron steps long removed.


The top of the staircase was discovered in 1995, when Myra Selby became the first woman appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court, which, up to that point, had never needed to have a women's bathroom. During the course of remodeling the chambers to include two restrooms, the 3rd floor entrance to the stairs was uncovered behind the future site of a toilet. It's now hidden behind a metal plate in one of the court's restrooms.




Whiskey in the basement? I'm shocked. Shocked!

In 1895, Rep. Andrew Jackson of Carroll County created a sensation when he rose to the floor of the House and announced that a barrel of whiskey had been discovered in the Statehouse basement. According to Jackson, the whiskey had likely been provided by the liquor lobby to influence legislation, and was enjoyed on a regular basis by members of the House and Senate.


This news should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had ever stepped foot in the Statehouse. In fact, just two years earlier, The Indianapolis News had reported that during a late-night session, some House members spent so much time at the "basement speakeasy" that "they were not in condition to look after the affairs of the State of Indiana with any degree of intelligence." Nonetheless, the House chambers roiled with outrage at the mere mention of whiskey in the Statehouse, and a special committee was appointed to investigate.


The panel promptly searched the basement for the offending barrel, but to no avail. Instead, they uncovered a quart bottle of liquor stashed in the engineer's office which, according to the engineer, occasionally helped refresh thirsty lawmakers.


The committee then found Jackson guilty of making an unjustifiable claim that there was a barrel of whiskey in the basement when, in fact, there was only a quart. Jackson was given the opportunity to make a public retraction, and if failing to do so, would be formally censured by the House.


The Republican-controlled House subsequently passed an amendment ousting the entire Democrat-appointed custodial staff, including the errant engineer. However, when the bill passed over to the Senate, it was amended to permit the engineer to keep his job. The Senate then adjourned sine die, which forced the House to either approve the bill with the objectionable amendment, or kill the bill, thereby allowing the engineer and all of the Democrat custodians to keep their jobs.


Chaos erupted in the House when the bill was called. A Republican member denounced the Senate for “committing the worst piece of political treachery that has ever been known in a legislature of Indiana." Then, a Democrat lawmaker punched one of his colleagues and assaulted an elderly doorkeeper who was politely urging him to return to his seat. In the end, the so-called "official bartender of the Statehouse" was allowed to keep his job and the House expunged from its record all mention of censuring Rep. Jackson for making them aware of the shocking presence of whiskey in the basement.


Guns & soldiers share cramped basement quarters

In the early 1900s, the cavernous basement of the People's House occasionally functioned as the People's Spare Bedroom, providing a warm place for out-of-town visitors to sleep or converted into uses far different from its original purpose.


In 1901, the basement served as quarters for hundreds of soldiers who had arrived in Indianapolis for the funeral of President Benjamin Harrison. Guns were stacked in the hallways and canteens and haversacks were strewn around in profusion as soldiers slept on the stone floors. Sentries were posted throughout the basement to safeguard the firearms.


Twelve years later, the basement was again converted to an ad hoc barracks when Gov. Samuel Ralston ordered the Indiana National Guard to mobilize in Indianapolis. A protracted strike by streetcar workers and a series of violent riots had effectively shut down the state capital, and Ralston needed the soldiers close at hand in the event that martial law was declared.


In addition to serving as a barracks, the basement also doubled as an armory for the Indiana National Guard and the state's militias. Shortly after the Statehouse was completed in 1888, the quartermaster general outfitted rooms with shelves to store tents, blankets, uniforms, ammunitions, and the state's weaponry, which mostly consisted of older Springfield rifles. However, the security of this arrangement came into serious question in 1914, when a considerable amount of new military equipment was delivered to the basement in the wake of a Mexican war scare. A guard was hired to watch over the cache, and although none of military gear was reported as stolen, someone managed to steal the guard's new $3.98 boots right off of his feet while he was taking a nap.


About those stuffed animals...

Shortly after the Statehouse was completed in 1888, the responsibility for Indiana's fledgling state museum was assigned to the State Geologist, who had roomy quarters on the top floor of the building. As later events would show, however, the state geologist may not have been the best person for the state to entrust with the care of Indiana's treasures.


In 1893, state geologist Sylvester S. Gorby had an apparent fit of insanity during which he performed a "skirt dance" in the Statehouse rotunda, threatened spectators with death, and then doused his office with gasoline and attempted to set it on fire. Gorby was subsequently re-elected in to a second term in 1896. The museum flourished for a few years under the stewardship of Gorby and his successors, but then was booted to south side of the basement in 1919 when the 4th floor space was needed for the Public Service Commission.


The Indiana State Museum was moved again in 1926, this time to make way for the Automobile Licensing Division. The new quarters were cramped, but curator Verne Patty was able to finagle some old display cases from the Conservation Department. The cases were then installed in the dingy basement corridors where they displayed - among other things - stuffed birds, mastadon bones, beheading knives, and Civil War relics. A separate glass case protected the stuffed remains of Hoosier Jumbo, a 1,245 pound hog that was believed to be one of the largest hogs in the world.

Indiana State Museum curator Verne Patty dusts off a stuffed moose displayed in a basement corridor. The Indianapolis Times, Sept. 11, 1936.

By 1936, the Indiana State Museum had become a maze of random displays that wound snakelike through the basement. Curator Verne Patty and a cleaning lady were the museum's sole employees. Meanwhile, Hoosiers continued to clean out their own basements and ship various unwanted items to the Statehouse. Many of those unsolicited donations included dusty examples of the taxidermist's art which stared, glassy-eyed, at everyone who shuffled through the dim basement corridors.


Both the museum and its shabby contents fell further and further into disarray as scarce basement space was gobbled up by Indiana's growing state government. In July 1952, The Indianapolis Times even cautioned visitors to stay away from the museum, calling it "an eyesore and a disgrace."


One particularly grimy display case, which the Times dubbed "the dirtiest glass case in the entire city," was positioned in front of a Coke machine and featured a stuffed bobcat, a porcupine, a red fox, a freak pig, and an old radio with a hand-lettered sign that read, "This is the way we used to make our spider-web receiving coils." Another display case boasted a collection of antique dishes flanked by a rattlesnake, an iguana, and a crocodile.


By the time the beleaguered state museum finally took over the recently vacated Indianapolis City Hall in the mid-1960s, its musty Statehouse space had been reduced to a mere 400 square feet in basement Room 157.


Tunnel Vision: Debunking the Stable Fable

As the Indiana Statehouse approached its centennial in 1988, state officials embarked on a massive multi-year project that removed decades of ill-conceived "modernization" and restored most of the public areas to their original glory. One of these changes included demolishing the unsightly "press shacks" that lined the majestic atrium and relocating the Statehouse press corps to equally unsightly shacks in the basement, in an area that reportedly had once held the Statehouse stables.


According to Statehouse lore, the long-gone basement stables had once served as an underground parking garage for horses during the days when employees came to work by horseback or buggy. The presence of a bricked-up tunnel on the north side of the basement lent credence to this legend, which was further bolstered a few years ago when the tunnel's entrance was uncovered beneath the north steps of the Statehouse.

The Indianapolis News, May 25, 1955

But after doing some research on the Statehouse basement, I was beginning to wonder if the tales of the stables were nothing but a load of manure.


I could find no mention of stables in the numerous reports and specifications issued by the Board of Statehouse Commissioners during construction of the new capitol. Further, when a reporter for The Indianapolis News toured the Statehouse in 1889 and gushed about the basement's many features -- the new boiler system, the ventilation fans, the hydraulic elevators, and the electric chronometer that kept all of the clocks running on time -- there was no mention of a stable.


In fact, the earliest news story I could find about the stables was not published until 1955, when The Indianapolis News reported that the last of horse stalls had finally been converted to offices.


As it turns out, I was not the only person to try to dig up the real dirt on the basement stables. Although former state archivist Gerry Handfield had seen what appeared to be horse hitches in the basement walls, an extensive search of original building records failed to yield proof of the stables' existence. And with good reason.


When the Statehouse first opened in 1888, the only way that cannons and other large ordnance could be delivered to the basement armory was by taking them apart and carting the pieces down the stairs. Frustrated by the situation, the quartermaster general persuaded the building commissioners in 1890 to cut a hole in north wall, and then grade an incline on the north side of the building to allow a team of horses to haul a cannon into the basement. The total cost of this improvement was $750.

An early 1900s photo of the north facade of the Statehouse shows the entrance to the tunnel where cannons were brought into the Statehouse. Source: Indiana Historical Society, Herman List collection, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/herman/id/48

If you visit...

In 1889, a reporter for The Indianapolis News encouraged Hoosiers to tour the Statehouse basement and then offered the following description:

The basement is vast and gloomy….One may wander down long corridors, dim as twilight, or lose himself in a labyrinth of passages dark as night. His footsteps echo with sepulchral sounds, which are repeated over and over among the deep recesses. The whole place is heavy with mystery.

Now, more than 130 years later, the basement corridors are well-lit, the deep recesses have been turned into legislative committee rooms, and the only sepulchral sounds are those made by lobbyists when their pet bills are killed.


Although no data is available, the basement may well be the most visited part of the Statehouse, with its packed committee rooms and well-stocked snack bar. In fact, even if you don't intend to go to the basement when you visit the Statehouse, it's likely that you'll end up there anyway. That's because when visitors who are unfamiliar with the Statehouse press the elevator button labeled "1" in an effort to exit the building, they are instead taken to the basement. Which I guess makes the basement a little like the Hotel California, a place where "you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave."

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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

At first blush - or perhaps more appropriately at first flush - Amos Sellers and Bill Hudnut appear to have little in common. The former was a farmer from Pennsylvania who settled on the southwest side of the city; the latter a Presbyterian minister who served four terms as mayor of Indianapolis. But at different times in our city's history, the last names of both men have been roughly synonymous with a controversial plot of land where Indy has dumped, burned, buried and sanitized its smelliest waste for the past 150 years.


Sellers Farm, as it appeared on a 1941 Baist map, and the same location as shown on a 2022 Google map, with the streets renamed after former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut.

Amos Sellers' last name first gained notoriety in 1873 when the city purchased his 225-acre farm to solve an increasingly odorous problem that was plaguing Indianapolis. By the early 1870s, Indy had gained prominence in the meatpacking industry due to its central location and network of railroads. Although this economic development boon brought the smell of money to the city, it also brought the smell of dead and decaying animals.


According to a report to the City Council by a special committee that was charged with studying the smelly situation, more than half a million hogs and 100,000 sheep and cattle were slaughtered in the city each year, generating more than 12 million pounds of animal offal and other byproducts. This immense amount of dead animal matter was either rotting on the ground or dumped into the White River, polluting the water supply and filling the air with its "poisonous vapors."


Applying a 21st century solution to a uniquely 19th century problem, the committee recommended that the city purchase a suitable location far away from the populated areas where an industry cluster of manufacturing facilities would lease space to convert the dead animal matter into useful products such as fertilizer, soap, hair brushes and glue. Although all of these industries would produce their own stench, the industry cluster would be located far enough away from the rapidly growing city to insure that its residents' noses would not be offended. Amos Sellers' farm, which was nearly four miles from the city center on high ground between Eagle Creek and White River, was the perfect spot.


While this novel plan may have been a breath of fresh of air for the city's stink-bombed residents, the Sellers farm purchase was not without its critics. On February 18, 1873, The Indianapolis News referred to the site as "Smeller's farm" and noted that over time, the expatriated "stinkeries" would need to keep moving further away from the city as the population continued to grow.


By May 1875, several manufacturing concerns had set up shop on Sellers farm, including a bone mill, a fertilizer factory, a hog bristle plant, and a business ominously called "the Dead Animal Factory." The Indianapolis News reported that the city's plan to lease the space for profit was now in the "full tide of successful stink."


Encouraged by the farm's early success, city leaders sought additional ways to turn trash into treasure. An ordinance was adopted in 1875 that required weekly collection of household garbage. Contractors would then haul all of the city's garbage to Sellers farm, where it would be made into fertilizer. Deceased livestock and dead household pets were also added to the pungent mix of fertilizer ingredients, although the fertilizer companies and dead animal haulers spent much of 1875 fighting like cats and dogs over their respective property rights in the potentially valuable carcasses of cats and dogs. But the icing on this extremely stinky cake was the city's decision to use Sellers' farm as a dumping ground for night soil, a 19th century euphemism for human waste collected from latrines and sewer vaults.


The Indianapolis News, January 23, 1884

Not surprisingly, the citizenry was soon complaining about the stench arising from Sellers farm. Local health department inspectors visited the fertilizer plant in May 1876, and were assured that recent improvements would eliminate the "unpleasantness" once and for all. But just three months later, The Indianapolis News reported that the stenches rolling up the river from Sellers farm were "thick enough to cut with a cheese knife." Then, according to a News article from January 8, 1877, an otherwise quiet Saturday night was disrupted by "an enormous, overpowering, nauseating, sickening, disgusting, foul, bilious, putrid, infernal smell" that swept over the city from Sellers' farm.


The city council appointed a special committee to identify the source of the stench and recommend solutions. Facetiously dubbed "the Smellers Committee" by the local media, the panel proposed an ordinance that would require any person transporting dead animals, offal, waste or garbage to Sellers farm to cover their wagons and wash them out every day. Further, waste from outside Marion County would be prohibited and weekly inspections from sanitary officers would be required.


The final version of the ordinance adopted in 1878 imposed a $50 fine on any person who threw dead animals, animal offal, animal blood, decayed vegetable matter or garbage on the banks of or into any waterway in the city.


The Indianapolis News, September 13, 1882.

Meanwhile, the city continued to look for additional uses for the Sellers property. In 1882, the council seriously considered a proposal to convert about 50 acres of the farm into a new cemetery to replace Greenlawn. Proponents touted the cost-effectiveness of this plan, since Indianapolis already owned the land and would not need to incur any additional indebtness. Further, the Sellers farm site would be more convenient than Crown Hill for southside residents.


Opponents of the plan objected to the use of Sellers farm as a burial ground for human beings, noting the "stenches that freight the atmosphere" and the fact that the farm was a "dead-animal catch-all," with large swaths of the property used to dry the hair of dead hogs to make hairbrushes and upholstery.


The cemetery proposal was eventually buried by the opposition, but another unsuccessful plan emerged in 1882 when the Council Committee on Public Charities recommended that a portion of the city's profits from the various dead animal and garbage industries at Sellers farm be set aside to benefit the Home for Friendless Women.



Then, in 1899, the Board of Health actually considered establishing a "pest house" at Sellers farm. Among other reasons, Sellers farm was viewed as a suitable location to house people suffering from contagious diseases because the sanitary conditions were deemed "favorable."


Throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th century, the stench emanating from Sellers farm continued to plague the southwest side of Indianapolis. In 1892, 45 residents of the suburb then known as Belmont filed individual lawsuits against the city seeking $2,500 each for damages caused by the "sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors ... which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings." Two years later, area residents complained that contractors were not burying the human waste dumped at Sellers farm but instead were diluting it and pouring it into the White River. But in light of all of the potentially odiferous activities taking place at Sellers farm and the nearby meat-packing houses, it became difficult for city officials to identify the specific source of the various odors.


In 1895, Indianapolis mayor Caleb Denny joined local health department officials on a factfinding trek to Sellers farm. Although the sight of household garbage and human waste festering in open trenches was undoubtedly unpleasant for the distinguished visitors, they found that the odors only extended a couple of hundred feet from the trenches and were therefore deemed neither unsanitary nor offensive. More problematic, however, were the 60 or 70 animal corpses found decaying on the ground and creating a stench which the mayor later described as "horrible." But according to The Indianapolis News (June 2, 1897), the real culprit may have been the two acres of hog hair that was laid out to dry and cure in the sun. The smell arising from the acres of wet hog hair was especially bad during damp or rainy weather.


The Indianapolis Journal, March 20, 1895

The News article also noted that the riverbed adjacent to Sellers farm was covered with a brown and greasy scum, but that it was believed to be no more harmful to the health of Indy residents than the waste that poured from the sewers into the river from within the city limits.


In the mid-1890s, the city entered into a contract with the Indianapolis Desiccating Company to build a new crematorium at Sellers Farm for the conversion of all of Indy's night soil, garbage and dead animals into fertilizer. City officials optimistically believed that the new crematorium would solve the smelly problem once and for all.


But the sweet smell of success quickly vanished into thin air. Despite improvements at Sellers farm, residents of Indy's southwest side continued to raise a stink over the stench. By 1921, conditions at the farm had become so bad that a local priest called Indianapolis the second stinkiest city in the United States, lagging only behind Washington D.C. in terms of undesirable odors. By that point, however, plans were well underway to utilize new technologies to snuff out the smell.


The Indianapolis Times, October 21, 1924

In 1924, the city rushed to complete the new garbage reduction and sewage disposal plants at Sellers farm, declaring them to be the "finest in the U.S.". However, both of the plants were plagued by problems, including fires, explosions, and equipment failures. In fact, the actual opening of the garbage plant was delayed for another decade, when costly changes were needed to make it operational.


Then on December 14, 1927, the Indianapolis Times reported that millions of gallons of partially treated sewage were flowing directly from the plant into the White River. The article reassured readers this was "not so terrifying as it sounds" because the sewage was "assimilated by the river water and rendered harmless."


150 years after Indianapolis purchased the farm from Amos Sellers as solution for the city's stinkiest waste disposal problems, the land is still used for that purpose. But in 1936, a new use was found for the city-owned land when a state-of-the art dog pound opened on the northeast side of the property, near the present site of Indiana Animal Care & Control. In fact, that's how I discovered Hudnut Boulevard, on a snowy day 20 years ago when my husband and I went to IACC to adopt our beloved rat terrier, Scout.


Bill Hudnut was mayor of Indianapolis in 1986 when the winding road through the old Sellers farm property was christened "Hudnut Boulevard." This means that not only was he aware of this somewhat dubious honor, he may even have approved it as part of his mayoral duties. But when Amos Sellers turned over the keys to his farm in 1873, it's doubtful whether he realized that his name would be closely associated with the city's foulest waste a half century later.


Amos Sellers died in 1889 and is buried in Mt. Jackson Cemetery. The so-called "stinkiest spot" in Indianapolis was generally referred to as "Sellers farm" until the early 1940s.


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