There are hoodoo spots, accursed places and weird zones where the fabric of reality has worn very thin. These places are concentrations of uncanny happenings, strange disappearances and weird encounters. Places like the Bennington Triangle, the Great Lakes vortex, the Bermuda Triangle, Point Pleasant, the Clapham Wood or Cannock Chase sections spring to mind. But in fact there are many more such mystery places. The city of Crawfordsville, Indiana is such a place. Buried deep into its local history it features some 150 years of disturbing anomalies.
Research into fortean anomalies also involves specific geographic surroundings, to explore what other anomalous phenomena may have manifested in a certain locale over longer stretches of time. I call this ‘the topography of the damned’. Charles Fort, John Keel, Loren Coleman and James Shelby Downard, amongst others, wrote about it. I devoted an article about it, published in Anomalist 14. There are many more places of mystery than we know. Places, surroundings or geographical locations, where a series of unusual occurrences has imprinted the spirituality of the landscape with an eerie hue.
In the night of 18 June 2012, a startled eyewitness sitting at the front porch saw thirteen red lights following each other with ten second intervals in the sky over Crawfordsville. This was but the latest of a series of UFO incidents to plague the city. Over a century ago, in 1891, Crawfordsville was the centre of a remarkable sighting that is still discussed today and that has given the city its fortean claim to fame. It entered one of Charles Fort’s books, Lo! in 1931. Fort wrote one of the principal eyewitnesses, a Rev. G.W. Switzer, but he never wrote back. Vincent Gaddis, who coined the term ‘Bermuda Triangle’, went back into the local newspaper files and researched it. He wrote up his preliminary findings in a short article in Doubt, later in his book Mysterious Fires And Lights, published in 1967.
What was seen was described as some pure white form perhaps 18 feet long and 8 feet wide, resembling a shroud with fins. A brilliant glowing eye was located at the front. It made wheezing, agonized sounds and made flapping motions like a sheet in the wind. It was seen during two consecutive nights. The story was widely publicized at that time, and what was missed by Fort and Gaddis, it was soon killed of by the explanation that a flock of birds, flying over the city and having become disorientated by the electric city lights, was the culprit.
Six years later at 6 May 1897, during the nationwide airship wave, another strange aerial phenomenon was reported in one of the Crawfordsville dailies, the Crawfordsville Star. Local farmer John Callahan described how he had spotted ‘a dark looking object pointed like a fish’ with a fan like arrangement at the rear something like a fish's tail. It was much bigger in the middle than anywhere else.’ When asked by a reporter if the object could have been a cloud, Callahan reportedly answered: “The object was not a cloud; it was an air ship and I am willing to make an affidavit to the strict truthfulness of what I tell you.”
But truth is, Crawfordsville has a much more mysterious past. Sightings of hairy bipeds, masked men, mad gassers and a very strange club or society clutter its history like moths to a flame.
For instance, and what is not known in fortean literature, is that when the sheetlike monster terrorized Crawfordsville from above, a mad gasser roamed the streets below just previously, striking fear into the hearts of the inhabitants. ‘A Chloroform Fiend Abroad’, shouted one newspaper headline in August, 1891. In the last week of that month, someone, using a gas-like substance described as chloroform, had struck twice, dousing the bedrooms of two prominent Crawfordsville citizens. Its last victims were Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Marsh. There was some puzzlement. While robbery was held as the motive, one newspaper remarked that the Marsh family did not have ‘an enemy in the world.’ The case soon disappeared from the newspapers and for all we know was never solved. But it is one of the many instances where mad gassers struck terror in the hearts of American communities, long before Mattoon’s Mad Gasser defined the genre.
Two years before the Crawfordsville mad gasser and flying monster incidents, in 1889, a Mrs. Christopher Hillard claimed to be under nightly assaults by an entity she held as the ghost of her departed husband who prowled the premises of Crawfordsville.
Yet the weirdness engulfing Crawfordsville’s past does not stop here. In February 1887, Crawfordsville’s Argus News reported that, ‘some man wearing a mask is said to have been loitering about the outbuildings of the schoolhouses… and frightening the children. Who the monster is is not known…’ This strange case was also soon dropped from the only Crawfordsville newspaper that carried the account. Who the masked man was and what his purpose, was never established and is now lost to history.
Going back further in time, we find the account of an encounter with a bigfoot-like creature having occurred in 1869. The Review, a newspaper from Crawfordsville, told how one Mr. Hardee, who, while out coon hunting,
"was confronted by an appearance which he assured the editor, baffles description. By the light of his shell-bark torch, it appeared like a gigantic ape, sitting in the path in front of him. What it was, he had no idea, and the party being yet some distance in the rear, he hesitated about approaching it. His dog, meanwhile, crouched at his feet, and refused to stir. Thinking it better to advance than retreat, Mr. H. waved his torch until it blazed brilliantly, and made a few steps toward the monster, when it uttered a yell so terrific and appalling, that it well nigh froze the blood in his veins. At the same time it seemed to beat upon its breast with long, uncouth arms. Mr. Hardee, although by no means lacking in courage, beat a hasty retreat. The remainder of the party, hearing the yell, had fled precipitately. The monster, animal, or whatever it was, did not, however, offer to pursue them. A party has ben formed, to hunt down the monster some time during the present week… Most of our readers are aware of the fact that the country where Mr. H. encountered the untamed monster, is very wild and broken. It is on the route leading to the far-famed ‘Shade of Death’, than which a wilder or more desolate region is rarely to be found.”
It is almost inevitable that with such a rich history in anomalies, Crawfordsville would be host to a very strange society to be formed there. The New York Times and a number of other newspapers reported how in 1887, The Society for the Advancement of the Belief in Ghosts was founded. Remember, this is the same year that a masked man stalked school children there. 'This unique organization', the New York Times wrote, 'has no parallel in the country', continuing:
"It is radically different from the Spiritualistic bands which can be found in any city, although it is true that several of its members are confirmed spiritualists. It was formed upon All Halloween in 1887. The qualification essential for membership is a personal experience on the part of the candidate with a spook. Mere belief is not sufficient. The Ghost Lodge, or clubroom, is a weird spot. It is a room about 20 by 40 feet, in the fourth story of one of the principal business blocks. Its windows on the north overlook Oak Hill Cemetery, while those on the west look directly down into the jailyard, where four murderers have been hanged in as many years. In the room itself occurred a murder, many years ago, upon the very night that it was dedicated as a dance hall, and the ghost of the promising young man then slain is said frequently to revisit the scene of his untimely taking off. From a scaffold on the same building a painter fell some years later and was dashed to death on the stones below, while still later an old lady dropped dead from heart disease while searching for an erring son, who was playing poker in the hall, which was then a gambling hell.
“These terrible associations had much to do with the selection of the room, and it was fitted up with ghastly decorations. It is hung entirely in white. White cheesecloth drapes the walls and ceiling. White canvas covers the floor, and even the window glass is painted white. On the other hand, every article of furniture is as black as midnight, except such paraphernalia as the skeletons. In each corner of the room stands one of these and each has a duty to perform, for in every skull there is a small lamp with a red glass chimney, and these lamps furnish the only light for the hall. The table at which the Persident and secretary sit is an old dissecting table, bought long ago from the Indiana Medical College. The President calls the meeting to order by ringing a large dinner bell depending from the ceiling above him. This bell was obtained from the ruins of a farmhouse, in the conflagration of which an infant perished, and in order to ring it the President pulls the identical rope with which John Henning was hanged not 300 yards away, in 1887, for the murder of his sweetheart. The seats in the room were all made from the timbers of the scaffold on which Henning and three others were hanged. The library of about 300 books in the hall, all of which treat of ghosts and ghost life, and a museum of ghastly and curious things.”
The foundation of Crawfordsville's strange society is a fitting conclusion of its strange past. Did this club also investigate and collect files on the unexplained incidents that plagued its town? Perhaps somewhere, in what is currently a thriving community of some 16,000 inhabitants, an old building block still stands, forgotten by time and the demolisher’s hammer. Inside a dusty room some forgotten cabinet cases stand. Who knows what else we might find inside?