Haunting tales

Things that go bump in Fort Wayne's night

A view of the St. Marys River from the West Main Street bridge in 1889, photo courtesy of the Allen County Public Library Digital Collection

A view of the St. Marys River from the West Main Street bridge in 1889, photo courtesy of the Allen County Public Library Digital Collection

Maybe you’ve read some of the stories Wanda Lou Willis writes about in her books, “Haunted Hoosier Trails” and “More Haunted Hoosier Trails.” Somewhere in the bowels of the Embassy Theatre exists something that seems to look after the welfare of the building. Could it be, she suggests, the spirit of longtime building manager Bud Berger, who spent many years both day and night lovingly caring for the old movie house?

Or what can be made of the story of a musical note sounded with no one near the piano or of a salt shaker that moves of its own accord from the center of a dining table and falls to the floor for no apparent reason? Those are stories Willis heard from Clark Valentine when she visited Fort Wayne’s Pfeiffer House.

How about this tale that was making news back in the 19th century? It’s about a woman in white seen late at night walking along Main Street toward the St. Marys River. The woman was seen crossing the bridge in a long, flowing gown, but she was never seen stepping off the bridge on either side.

Several people in town said they saw the woman, but somehow she disappeared, and they feared she must have thrown herself from the bridge into the river below. Everybody in town began hearing about the Woman in White.

Folks talked about her returning to the bridge. On one occasion, a policeman got close enough to toss a blanket over the woman, but the mantle fell limply to the ground. The Woman in White remained a mystery, becoming something of a myth among Fort Wayne’s townspeople.

Finally, a man told a friend that he and his cousin, hiding behind the window curtains in a house in the West Central neighborhood, had perpetrated the hoax with the use of a magic lantern, an earlier version of a slide projector. He said they projected an image onto the bridge from a house across the way and dousing the lamp made the lady appear to vanish as if into thin air. If that’s the explanation of the Woman in White story, then the mystery’s been solved.

But how could a magic lantern, its light source a mere flickering flame of a candle, create such an image? How far away could a Victorian-era lantern really send a beam of light? Wouldn’t eyewitnesses see a telltale light ray and trace it back to the lantern in a window in a house across the way? How a magic lantern in those days could cast the image of a woman at such a distance with any sort of clarity may be the biggest mystery of all.

Halloween has been a tradition for past generations in communities throughout the county. Historically it is All Hallows’ Eve, the night before All Saints Day. Children dress up in their scary costumes and visit neighbors demanding a treat. Would there really be a trick perpetrated by these little folks if refused a treat? One thing’s for sure, it seems to bring out the children’s grown-up chaperones, who have the opportunity to commiserate cheerfully with their neighbors on this one mysterious evening each year … and that can be a treat for any community.

First appeared in the October 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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