Haunts and Jaunts: The Nicholson-Rand House #2

By Rick Hinton

When David Nicholson began building his Gothic-Revival home in the small settlement of Valley Mills on the southwest fringe of Indianapolis, he was also involved in the construction of the Marion County Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis. Many of the design features and construction materials from the courthouse happened to materialize in this home. Back in the day the journey from downtown to Valley Mills was an all day trek along a series of twisty dirt roads. Rumor was a constant caravan of horse drawn wagons delivered building materials to the house site. Colored tile in the home was the same as in the courthouse, as was interior woodwork. Was it leftover material? Regardless, Nicholson’s home, and the courthouse. were both completed at practically the same time in 1876.

   The home—with ties to the downtown courthouse and eventually DePauw University—weathered  decades of history until it finally rested empty and abandoned. Saved for preservation, it was moved in 1997 to its present location at a corner lot on Southport and Mann Roads. The town of Valley Mills, once complete, with a post office, has faded from memory. Yet, the home that Nicholson built gained a new lease on life after the move—new ownership, with an eye towards bringing it back to its former glory. A photo taken during the move started tongues wagging about a “haunted” house. The rest, as they say, is history!

   Mike Fender’s photo of a young blond girl wearing a blue dress in an upstairs window during the move of the house garnered a lot of media attention. Fender felt that it was a natural anomaly, caused by a trick of the light on the window glass. He reasoned the blue dress could be explained away because the room itself was blue. However…it appears the figure is standing between the curtain and the window glass. And…when the photo is blown up, regardless of the resolution, the figure does not distort. This photo became the birth of stories that would come soon after; and the evolution of an urban myth.

   Forthcoming stories seem pulled out of the air. Who was the blond girl in the blue dress? Nicholson and his first wife’s daughter? The ghost of a former tenant who had fallen out of that very window? A young girl accidentally killed by hunters in nearby woods? The ghost of a child buried in a nearby family cemetery? Then, came the tale of a former renter hanging himself in an upstairs bedroom; a kindly woman’s spirit hanging around; blood dripping from the walls, muffled screams, and the odor of decaying flesh. My favorite is the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad where slaves perished in an accidental basement fire. (I believe they have this mixed up with the Hannah House)

   None of these stories have been verified. However, through the years, and a turnover of occupants, events not reported, or else swept under the rug, could have most certainly contributed to this urban legend: unwanted pregnancies, a ‘simple’ minded child being hidden away, illness or a death within the house. There are always the possibilities. 

   One internet site proclaims that the Nicholson-Rand home is one of the most haunted sites in the country. Present owners have never reported any paranormal activity of any kind. I would imagine by now they are weary of sight-seers parking in their drive to get a closer look at the home with the stories. I suppose owning it comes with the territory. 

   On June 22, 2003, the home was listed with the National Register of Historic Places.