Play review: Victorian Villains

October would not be complete without a play by Candlelight Theatre at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site.

Candlelight Theatre performed another James Trofatter production, Victorian Villains. The premise was similar, though the content completely different, to last year.

The audience members were potential trainees at a school. Our guide, a descendant of Dr. Watson, guided us through the school where we met various villains to learn their tactics and hear advice. (Planning is key! Don’t get greedy.)

In this production, we were led through different rooms of the house, sometimes standing as the villains talked, other times sitting. The rooms we entered were the typical ones (parlor, library, dining room, sitting room, Harrison’s bedroom, ballroom) plus another one (the bedroom that contains the photo of Old Whiskers).

The audience I was with for the most part seemed new to Candlelight Theatre and the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. But they seemed to thoroughly enjoy it and get into interactions with the actors.

The villains that we met were many and varied. Two were women from Indiana: Nancy Clem and Belle Gunness. Nancy Clem was a woman in 19th century Indianapolis charged with murder and prosecuted by Benjamin Harrison. (Candlelight Theatre has done and is scheduled to do again a play devoted to Nancy Clem.)

Others were villains throughout the US and the UK. Some I knew: H.H. Holmes, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Lizzie Andrew Borden, Jack the Ripper, and Hannibal Lecter. Holmes is perhaps the least well-known in the list. He is famous for murders during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. I was first introduced to him on an Irvington ghost tour due to the murders he committed in that Indiana town.)

Some were new to me: the Bloody Benders, Mary Ann Cotton, William Palmer, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, William Burke, Dr. Robert Knox, Sweeney Todd, and Mrs. Lovett. Those from the British Isles were overrepresented among serial killers in the play.

The Bloody Benders ran a general store and way station for travelers in Kansas, killing dozens of travelers that stopped.

Mary Ann Cotton, a serial killer in the UK, poisoned several husbands and then a stepson with arsenic. William Palmer was an English doctor who poisoned family members and associates with strychnine, and then collected on insurance policies.

Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was another British serial killer, who engaged in baby farming (taking in unwanted infants for money)…and up to 400 deaths of babies in her care.

William Burke (along with a William Hare) committed 16 murders to supply Dr. Robert Knox with corpses for his anatomy lectures in Edinburgh. (Apparently grave robbing or corpse resurrection wasn’t sufficient.)

Sweeney Todd was a barber in London who dispatched his customers/victims via a trapdoor, and then Mrs. Lovett used their bodies in her famously delicious meat pies.

Many of the actors were old hands and were a delight to see in action again: Heather Wing (Dr. Watson), Ken Eder (H.H. Holmes), Donna Wing (Nancy Clem), and Dennis Jones (William Palmer). Alas, James Trofatter was absent from his own play.

Victorian Villains was a well-done production and an enjoyable way to celebrate Halloween. And as advertised, the school taught lessons to its trainees.

Lessons learned: Stay away from people who seem to be a black hole for missing people. Be careful if anyone takes out an insurance policy on you, or learns that you have money. Always sit with your back against a wall and never on top of a trap door. (You never know when someone will try to bash in your skull with a hammer from behind a curtain.) And watch out for poison.

Irvington ghost tour

I—along with about 100 other people—spent a recent Saturday night on a ghost tour.

This was the annual Irvington ghost tour, led by Allan Hunter, a self-proclaimed ghost hunter. He regaled us with ghost stories about different buildings in the neighborhood while leading us around the neighborhood after dark, drawing us into the history of Irvington, Indiana, and Chicago. Unsurprisingly, Hunter is a retired history teacher—and a fabulous spinner of tales.

Given the incredibly large number of people on the walking tour, I was tempted to walk away. How would we be able to hear the guide?

I am glad I didn’t walk away. I learned a fabulous amount and now am apt to return to Irvington in the daylight to wander the streets, enjoy the architecture, and recall the stories.

The Masonic Lodge in Irvington, which contains heavy wooden doors that swing open and shut of their own accord, just happens to be lodge number 666.

Diagonally across the street was the site of a robbery by John Dillinger. The building is now haunted by a friendly spirit—probably not Dillinger’s ghost—that routinely warns the current owners of impending mishaps (fires, robberies, etc.).

Around the neighborhood we tromped, stopping in a grassy area by a low brick wall—the site of evil ground where the ashes of a nearby murder victim were buried. Across the street was the site of the house where the serial killer of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, H.H. Holmes, lived briefly and committed another murder—the murder that resulted in the buried ashes in the evil ground.

(Holmes’ Chicago murders are chronicled in The Devil in the White City, which is slated to be a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Until recently, Holmes’ Irvington chapter was unknown to the author.)

The house was razed to the ground and another house built on top of the cellar. Allan waxed on about Holmes’ exploits and the modern-day hauntings in the house.

There were plenty of other grisly (and not so grisly) stories about places in Irvington. In one of the neighborhoods that we traipsed through, a house with white pillars—something that would have looked in place on the set of Gone with the Wind—stood out. This turned out to be the house of D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Wizard of the KKK who basically ran Indiana during the 1920s.

A few blocks away stood the house of the woman he kidnapped, raped, and brutally attacked so severely that she later died of her wounds. Fortunately, before dying, she dictated a deathbed disposition to a lawyer, a disposition that led to the arrest and conviction of Stephenson and ultimately to the downfall of the Klan in Indiana. (A silent but HUGE thank you to Madge Oberholtzer.) A white woman is now seen in her bedroom window during times of heat lightning.

Like the ghost in the same building that Dillinger robbed, not all spirits inhabiting Irvington are to be avoided. The spirit, supposedly of Bona Thompson, imparts a serene calmness and comfort to all who enter the Bona Thompson Memorial. Built by her parents after her untimely death from typhoid fever, the building is the sole remnant of the original Butler campus in Irvington.

Our last stop was where the train carrying Lincoln’s body to Springfield passed through Indianapolis. Over the years, various people have witnessed the Lincoln ghost train. The train briefly appears, draped in black crepe with soldiers guarding the body of Lincoln.

Whether these stories about the hauntings are true or not, the Irvington Ghost Tour was an evening of fascinating tales woven with history. Hunter is a master speaker. Hearing him speak is reason enough to attend.