|NEW ALBANY, Ind. – Judy Gwinn is always quick with a ghost story. Maybe she doesn’t live with them, but she works on a daily basis with ghosts at Aunt Arties Antique Mall.
“There’s a lot of strange things that happen in this building,” Gwinn, who has owned Aunt Arties during the past decade, said. “There’s just a different feeling in here.”
The building that houses Aunt Arties has long been a focal point of New Albany. Initially built as an opera hall in 1851, Woodward Hall – as it came to be known — was built near the Ohio River near the old downtown’s major intersection of West Main and First streets. During its early days, the building attracted hundreds to the minstrel shows, lectures and dramatic productions.
Across Woodward Hall’s stage walked a diverse selection of the day’s society, including opera diva Adelina Patti, “negro piano prodigy” Blind Tom, P.T. Barnum’s creation General Tom Thumb and poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The building’s proximity to the Ohio River and the boundaries of the North and South during the years surrounding the Civil War also gave greater significance to the old opera house. Newspapers of the time report that the first performance of the inflammatory anti-slave novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Indiana was given in Woodward Hall.
The building was also the centerpiece of political rallies and public meetings. On the eve of the Civil War, a tense meeting at Woodward Hall resulted in a resolution “urging moderation on the part of both North and South to avoid armed conflict.”
However, despite the resolution, the long dark days of the Civil War began to cast a pall over Woodward Hall, near the banks of the Ohio. It was converted to Hospital No. 9. Here, the wounded and the dying soldiers of the Union forces were brought in, by river, from battles throughout the South.
On April 16, 1862, the steamer H.J. Adams brought 200 of the wounded from the Battle of Shiloh. It was this battle – with the staggering toll of 23,746 men killed, wounded or missing – that brought the early realization to both sides that the war would not end quickly.
To be sent to Hospital No. 9 – as well as nearly any hospital within the Northern and Southern lines – was often regarded as equivalent to a death sentence.
Antiseptics were unknown, the relation of dirt to infection was generally not understood, anesthesia was only just coming into general use, and drugs were inadequate at best.
In short, many men died at Hospital No. 9.
Gwinn – and many others – believe the spirits of those men, and others who worked and lived at the hospital, still inhabit the building.
Despite the evidence, Gwinn doesn’t want to come across as a “crackpot.”
“Before I bought this building I really never believed in ghosts, or spirits,” she says. “Neither did my husband. But, there’s been so many things happen in this building … that now I believe. Yeah, I do believe in ghosts. Once you have things happen like we have, you’ll change your mind fast.”
Gwinn, her family and customers, have seen plenty.
“My youngest son was in the basement,” Gwinn recalls, “and he found several old bottles that had been put into an old cistern. He was pulling those bottles out with a wire hanger, and felt something tapping him on the back. He turned around, and no one was there. He won’t go back down into that basement.”
She said her sister was walking down a set of stairs from the second to the first floor, when she slipped and began to fall. “Something pulled her back, saved her from falling. She said it was the weirdest thing, she was just shaking afterward.”
The previous owners of the mall, and even some customers, have seen “shadowy figures” dressed in Civil War uniforms. Gwinn and others have experienced empty rocking chairs vigorously rocking, odd movements of objects and noises. One dealer who dealt in Civil War memorabilia was particularly “moved” by his experiences in the building.
“He came up to me shortly after he set up his booth in the mall,” and said, “’look at the hair on my arms.’ They were standing straight up. He said: ’There’s something happening in here … I don’t know what it is, but there’s something in this building.’ He was convinced, right away.”
Investigations conducted by the Southern Indiana Ghost Hunters Team (SIGHT) confirm Gwinn’s suspicions.
“There’s definitely something in that building,” says Becky French, the founder of the 10-person ghost hunter team. “We think there are several spirits in the building … there’s definitely something going on.”
The SIGHT investigators have been at Aunt Arties haunted mall on three occasions. On the first visit, according to a written investigative report, the team picked up spiritual energy (or high electro magnetic fields, according to their instruments) within the center of the building. They were able to correspond, through the use of dowsing rods (two L-shaped sticks), with a female spirit. In the basement, photos of orbs (not visible with the human eye) were captured and there was the “sense” of a “presence of a soldier.”
“You can feel these things when you walk into a building,” French says. “In the basement I picked up a lot of sadness. There was a lot of negativity down there, a depressed feeling. As I understand it, that was where they did a lot of the surgery, that might have been a reason … whatever it was, there is a lot of sadness.”
French said the presence of such spirits generally occur when there has been a particularly “horrible death,” of if the dead have a certain attachment to a place or thing. “It’s when deaths are so tragic — or such a thing as a suicide — when the person has become so distraught that they become lost … they don’t know to go on.”
SIGHTS’ third visit on June 7 to Aunt Arties provided to be anti-climatic. During that visit, investigators were not able to pick up any energy on the meters of their equipment. They did not pick up anything unusual in any of the rooms, including the third floor or the basement where much of the activity generally has appeared.
“Sometimes that happens,” she says. “We believe these spirits will make themselves known only when they want to. They may be also able to slip into a different dimension where we can’t detect them. It’s often a lot like fishing … sometimes they’re biting and sometimes you don’t catch anything.”
Whatever the case, Gwinn — and many of her customers and vendors — have seen enough to believe the Woodward Hall “pond” is jumping with enough “spooks” to make shopping a spine-tingling experience.
Contact: (812) 945-9494
Eric C. Rodenberg