The Things We Leave Behind
There are two kinds of people who buy old houses, according to The New York Times: old house people, who know what to expect, and regular house people, who don’t. But I would argue that there is a third kind of purchaser: the temporarily crazed but otherwise rational person who walks into an old house and suddenly decides to buy it because of a feeling, a sense — or in my case, the ghost of a dog that had been dead for more than a century.
In 2002, my husband and I were on our way to make an offer on a solid brick foursquare in Meridian-Kessler when we decided to check out a previously overlooked listing in the Old Northside. I walked into the house, saw an old photograph of a dog, and told my profoundly skeptical husband that the photo was a “sign” we should buy this house instead.
We made an offer 20 minutes later and have lived there ever since.
My descent into temporary madness actually started a few months earlier, on a snowy Saturday afternoon when we stopped by Animal Care & Control and fell in love with a scrappy little rat terrier. Her kennel name was Mitzi but we called her Scout.
The faded photo that caught my eye showed two little girls standing in front of our soon-to-be home with a scampering rat terrier that looked exactly like our Scout. In my view, the photograph was irrefutable evidence that we belonged in this house.
Of course, the photo is not the only reason we bought the house. I may be irrational but I’m not insane. This was the perfect house. It had all the standard features you expect to find in a 100-year-old home — hardwood floors, beautiful woodwork, and a front porch swing — but then it also had some bonus features that you generally see only in the higher-end models, such as dual sunrooms, original light fixtures, and a mysterious hallway in the basement that led to a nailed-shut door.
But still, the decisive factor was the photograph.
My conviction that we were meant to live here deepened a few weeks later, when I was working alone one evening in the now-empty house. I took a break from painting the parlor to peruse the stack of papers left behind by the previous owners. Right on top was another old photograph, one that I had not seen before.
It showed a group of children lined up across the street from our house for a parade. When I looked closer, I could clearly see that the young boy in the second cart was holding a little rat terrier that looked exactly like our Scout. Only this photo was at least 15 years older than the other picture, so it could not have been the same dog.
And yet it looked exactly the same.
After we moved in, we started joking about the “ghost dog.” But at some point I began to wonder if there actually was a phantom rat terrier running down the hallways. On more than one occasion, I would hear the sounds of a dog skittering down the front staircase to greet me when I came home from work. But when I opened the door, I would find Scout fast asleep in her bed.
There was also something strange about the back stairway. Scout adamantly refused to walk up the back stairs at night with me and my husband. Instead, she would take a circuitous route through the kitchen, around the dining room, across the parlor, and then up the front stairway before retiring with us for the evening. It was if she was trying to avoid something — or someone — on the back staircase that only she could see.
And then there were the times that we would wake up in the middle of the night to find Scout sitting up in bed, staring intently into the darkness.
We had been in the house for a about a year when we found out that the rat terriers in the photographs actually belonged to the Metzger family who lived across the street. But the probable absence of a ghost dog did little to quash my growing conviction that our impulsive purchase was the right move. Because by then, I had found even more compelling evidence that we were destined to live in this house.
In addition to the photographs, the previous owners had left behind an old abstract of title that started with a land grant in 1821 and ended with a mysterious death in 1943.
The first owner of the property was Robert Culbertson, who received a land grant from President James Monroe for 80 acres in the area now known as the Old Northside. Culbertson helped build the ill-fated Governor’s House on the Circle but left town unexpectedly in the mid-1820s after an embarrassing incident involving his wig.
The land cycled through a series of owners until Christmas Day 1846, when Ovid Butler bought the heavily wooded property to build his country estate, Forest Home. Some 20 years later, Butler platted part of the property and sold several lots to the adult children of his old friend, Samuel Merrill. Merrill’s son kept one lot and built a magnificent Italianate home. Both Forest Home and the Merrill house still stand today.
Until I saw the abstract of title, I had no idea that our land was once owned by Ovid Butler and Catharine Merrill. In 1824, Merrill rode in a wagon with her father when he moved the state capitol from Corydon to Indianapolis. She would later go on to serve as one of the first female college professors in the country at North Western Christian University, which would subsequently be renamed after its founder, Ovid Butler.
As a Butler University graduate and Statehouse history buff, I was awestruck by the unexpected connection.
The abstract showed that our lot remained vacant until 1894, when a drug salesman named George Smith and his much younger wife Hattie built a modest Victorian house. George Smith died in 1918. Hattie converted the house into a double and sold it to Jesse MacDaniel, who lived across the street. A few months later, MacDaniel went to prison for running an illegal baseball lottery.
MacDaniel’s daughter Ruth Maher eventually inherited our house and used it as rental property. In November 1943, The Indianapolis Star reported a man named Clarence Throckmorton caused an auto accident but attempted to evade arrest by claiming that he was Ruth Maher’s husband. He told police that he was rushing to Ruth’s bedside at Coleman Hospital, where she lay gravely ill.
Ruth died a few days later and Throckmorton attempted to claim her estate, which was worth more than half a million in today’s dollars. As noted in the abstract, however, Throckmorton’s claim was rejected because he was married to another woman at the time.
After Ruth’s death, the house was purchased by two sisters and their husbands. One couple lived downstairs, the other lived upstairs. In their later years, the sisters refused to speak directly to one another, choosing instead to convey all messages via neighbors and other third parties. I found their brother’s 1912 grammar school graduation diploma in the basement.
A young couple bought the house in the early 1980s and restored it to a single family home. They were active in the Old Northside Neighborhood Association and left behind a box stuffed with old newsletters, real estate listings, and other ephemera that paint a vivid picture of life in downtown Indy in the early days of urban renewal.
Some people head straight to the dumpster when they find a box of old stuff left behind by a previous owner. Others will refuse to buy a “used” house in the first place. I am glad I am not one of those people.
But for the abstract of title and old Northside ephemera left behind by previous owners, I would not have become so passionate about Indianapolis history. But for the old photo of a rat terrier left behind by previous owners, I would likely be living north of 38th Street, a place where I seldom venture today. And but for a visit to Animal Care & Control in 2002, I might have a cat instead of a scrappy little rat terrier who still fills me with joy every time I see her.
We’ve been in our house for 13 years now, and my husband is starting to talk about the inevitable downsizing. Our little Scout is 15, and failing. It will be sad and strange to live in this house without her. But I am not ready to leave this place yet.
Maybe after a few more summers on the front porch, I will finally be ready to hand over the keys of this house to someone who I hope will love it as much as I have. When that day finally comes, I will leave behind the treasures that were left to us, along with two photographs taken 100 years apart of a little rat terrier standing in front of the place we call home.
This article was originally posted in HistoricIndianapolis.com on November 28, 2015. We lost our little Scout two weeks later. Since then, our four-legged family has grown to include two rescue dogs, Annie and Marcy, and two formerly stray cats, Boris and Natasha. None of them are afraid to use the back stairs.