- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Around this time of year, B. Joan Keefer, Huntington County historian, gets calls from people who want to know whether one county spot or another is haunted.

Keefer tries to oblige, but these days, there’s often a twist to the calls - they’re from members of paranormal groups or video producers who want to conduct experiments to see whether new-fangled equipment can pick up evidence of spirits.

She says the Huntington City-Township Public Library where she works has even opened on a weekend to accommodate a group. Then there was the New York production company for a ghost-hunting reality TV show that wanted her to do research, for free, for an upcoming segment.

“I didn’t find anything,” she says, but the producers wanted her to sign a $500,000 nondisclosure agreement nonetheless. “A gag order,” she calls it.

“They were going to sue me for $500,000 if I said anything,” she tells The Journal Gazette (https://bit.ly/1savp1U ), laughing. “I signed it. I knew there was nothing there.”

Such are the dilemmas facing historians and those who own or run historic sites or museums these days. Caretakers of the region’s past say they’re increasingly being asked to enter the realm of the supernatural.

While some are willing to jump in head-first, others tiptoe. Still others bar the door.

Bill Firstenberger, executive director of Ruthmere, a 1910 Beaux Arts mansion in Elkhart, is one of the latter. He says he gets about a half-dozen requests a year; recently, he learned some might come from an Internet ghost-hunting site’s mention of the place as haunted.

The thing is, he says, the site got the history wrong, saying the mansion got its name because its original owners, Albert and Elizabeth Beardsley, had a child named Ruth who died there.

The Beardsleys did have a child by that name, but she died decades before the house was built, Firstenberger says. He hasn’t had any experience with spirits in his four years on the job, and he’s not willing to let paranormal researchers or TV crews trample history.

“Have you heard of Auguste Rodin?” he asks, referring to the famed creator of The Thinker, The Kiss and other sculptures. “Well, we have six of them.

“I don’t want somebody with lights and cameras and everything else tramp around and possibly back into something worth a quarter of a million dollars. It’s not anywhere near worth the risk, to me, to encourage this at Ruthmere.”

Firstenberger also says he doesn’t want to create false hope.

“I don’t want to send people to us under false pretenses, and then they end up saying, ‘But I thought it was a haunted house,’ and they go away with bad feelings because we didn’t measure up to their expectations.”

Todd Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center in Fort Wayne, doesn’t even like to talk about the paranormal, despite the old jail cell in its basement that might make for prime haunting ground.

The museum doesn’t include what he calls supernatural themes and ghost stories in its historical presentations, he says. And it’s expected that any outside individual or group pay admission during business hours or abide by its rental charges and policies.

“Paranormal investigation groups have privately rented the museum, which allowed access to all public areas in the building,” he says. Then he adds with a touch of dismay, “I expect we will receive a deluge of such requests following the publication of this article.”

Indeed, the Indiana Historical Society notified museum professionals through its newsletter in August about an online seminar on how to deal with requests from paranormal groups.

The course instructor was Dave Harvey of Los Angeles, a former museum conservator who says he has had paranormal experiences since childhood and has worked on investigations.

The increase in requests, he says, comes mostly from people seeing new techniques, including thermal imaging and audio recording equipment, on TV and wanting to try them.

“These groups, a lot of the time, they’re amateurs. Their (only) training comes from television,” he says.

Harvey says history-based institutions have a love-hate relationship with the paranormal. Many don’t like that some groups may try to latch on to historians’ credibility to bolster their own dubious merits, he says.

On the other hand, he adds, some historical attractions have harnessed themselves to the popularity of paranormal phenomena, using stories about hauntings to get exposure and make money.

Harvey maintains that historical institutions can work with a paranormal group without compromising principles by couching haunting stories and investigations as part of the history of a site’s folklore.

Historians also need to recognize that paranormal devotees often have a deep love of history and can become allies, he says.

“My advice to institutions is that sites have event policies, and if you have one, make sure it applies to everyone,” he says. “Take control and set the ground rules.”

Michael Galbraith, executive director of ARCH, Fort Wayne’s nonprofit historic architecture preservation group, says he’s had only good experiences with paranormal groups. In recent years, they have conducted forays into ARCH’s restoration project at the former Canton Laundry and at its Alexander Rankin house headquarters.

ARCH has not used the groups for fundraising but does charge them for expenses, he says.

However, ARCH does raise money each October through scare-raising walks - and, a bus tour - through downtown and the West Central neighborhood. An event Saturday had people touring the gravesites of some of Fort Wayne’s famous who now reside in Lindenwood Cemetery.

But, Galbraith says, “We tell true stories. . We really try to document them (from newspapers or other sources).”

The investigations of ARCH sites had mixed results, Galbraith says. The laundry came up “pretty empty,” he says. “They said my office was really haunted, but I’ve never experienced it.”

But far be it from him to disparage fans of the paranormal. “I want people to be excited and think that our buildings are really cool,” he says, “and if that comes through a ghost story, that’s great.”

___

Information from: The Journal Gazette, https://www.journalgazette.net

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