Ghosts Stay Downtown | Alive
When a planned Airbnb didn’t work out at the historic downtown mansion that Angie Sturm’s parents bought, she knew she had to get creative.
Her father had purchased the former Klaehn, Fahl & Melton Funeral Home about a year ago with the intention of turning it into a vacation rental and a venue to host weddings and corporate events. However, the renovations hit a snag due to historic building alteration regulations, so the plans were scrapped.
It was then that Sturm’s father considered selling him. Sturm, a big history fan, asked for a little more time to see what she could do with the place.
And what she did, and what she is doing, is a success.
For the past few months, Sturm has been offering tours of the building, known as The Bell Mansion.
With Fort Wayne’s historic homes and interesting neighborhoods, I always wondered why there weren’t more places open for tours. One of my favorite things to do in Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC is to visit historic homes.
I may be a little biased, but I believe many of our homes rival these Southern beauties.
That’s why I was excited when Sturm invited me to visit the mansion.
The building, located at 420 W. Wayne St., is a Richardsonian Romanesque style home with elaborate stone exterior gargoyles and arches and beautiful original woodwork, parquet floors, original wall and ceiling designs. tiled ceilings and fireplaces inside.
Stepping through the front door, visitors truly feel like they are transported back to 1893 when the house was built.
The Sturms are only the fourth owners of the building, which was built for Robert and Clara Bell. Robert served as a state senator and was a prominent attorney. Clara helped form the first classes at the Fort Wayne Art School and was a co-founder of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. In fact, I was told that she liked to paint on the terrace which overlooks what was her bedroom.
After Robert’s death in 1901, the house was sold to William K. Noble, who ran a lumber business. His family lived there for 22 years before the building was bought out by the funeral home. The addition on the west side of the house was added in 1935 due to the high demand for funeral services.
This is all the information Nick Carboni, Angie’s significant other and tour guide, knowingly provides on the tour. Then there’s another side of the house, which Carboni is also happy to talk about: ghosts.
In addition to historical tours, Sturm and Carboni offer paranormal tours and home investigations. And it took off.
Paranormal tourism has become big business as entrepreneurs have figured out how to profit from scaring people all year round and not just around Halloween.
It was something Sturm wasn’t too sure of when Carboni was first asked to do a paranormal investigation of the mansion. “I was a big skeptic,” she says.
That’s how Sturm met Carboni, who is the founder of the Olde World Paranormal Society in Fort Wayne and has been conducting paranormal investigations since 2017.
Carboni describes the mansion as the Ritz Carlton of paranormal activity, and visitors are willing to purchase a reservation to witness it.
Since they started offering tours and surveys, the couple have had visitors from all over, including a recent visit from Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis. Paranormal TV shows, such as “Ghost Hunters” and “Paranormal Quest”, reached out and came to investigate. Even Tony Moran, the actor who played the original role of Mike Meyer in the 1978 film “Halloween,” has reached out and comes to the mansion on May 21 and 22 during the mansion’s “Bell Bizarre” event.
Although I wasn’t there for the ghosts, it was interesting to hear the stories of those believed to still walk the halls.
Carboni leads me to the third floor of the house, which has a ballroom and was primarily used by the Bells as an entertainment space. The funeral home had transformed the ballroom into a casket display area for patrons. The couple used antique furniture to stage some rooms, so visitors can get a sense of what things might have looked like in those days. In a small area, a lone chair sits in the corner. Carboni points to it and reveals that it’s one of Robert Bell’s favorite places to sit.
According to Carboni, not only is Robert Bell still at home, but also his wife, Clara, who died in 1906.
There is also a servant’s bedroom on the third floor, which Carboni says is the second most active room in the house. Now that I write this, I’m glad I didn’t ask what the first active location is.
When the funeral home left the building in 2018, the owners left many items, including a room filled with embalming tables, stretchers, embalming jars, and items used to do the work. Sturm and Carboni gladly used them as part of the tour.
In addition, there are wooden coffins, an embalmer’s leather bag that was used to travel to people’s homes, and outside boxes that housed the coffins. And oh, yeah, toe tags.
By the way, at the end of the tour, participants are invited to sign their own toe tag, which hangs on the wall. However, Carboni says, “We advise you never to put your own date of death.”
Most of the other remaining items from the funeral home are in the basement. One of them, a large green outer box that was apparently used to bring home a deceased Vietnam veteran, is also there. The veteran’s name, Pvt. William Knaus, is written on the side of the box. Sturm and Carboni have researched the veteran and put together an exhibit where people can read about him.
Another informative display the couple put up on the tour is about Homer Van Meter. Sturm says since his family bought the mansion, they’ve brought in former funeral directors and descendants to tell stories.
One such story concerns the death of Van Meter, who was from Fort Wayne and was a well-known associate of notorious bank robber and criminal John Dillinger.
Van Meter was shot by police in Minnesota in 1934. According to Carboni, the story is that Van Meter’s body was brought to the funeral home, which turned into a scene from a gangster movie with people dressed in suits and hats and trench coats. Fearing that someone was trying to steal the body, the funeral embalmed Van Meter and then hid the body on the third floor.
Workers held the funeral at Lindenwood Cemetery, but only pretended to bury the body. The body was actually removed from the third floor 24 hours later and buried for real in Lindenwood.
But whether you’re here for the history or the ghosts, the biggest thing Sturm wants to do is preserve the mansion and its legacy. “That’s why we’re here, just to preserve it,” she says.
Eventually, the family hopes to use the building for weddings and corporate events. However, there are a few more logistical things to sort out before that happens.
In the meantime, you can sign up for tours at thebellmansion.com website. Tours range from $600 for an overnight stay to $20 for a midweek mini-tour every Wednesday.
Terri Richardson writes about the people of the area and the events that affect their lives in this bi-weekly column. Email him at [email protected] or call 461-8304.