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  • Writer's pictureLibby Cierzniak

What lies beneath: Secrets of the Statehouse basement

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,

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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