The Journal Gazette
 
 
Tuesday, May 10, 2022 1:00 am

Ghosts stay downtown

Couple open former funeral home to tours

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

When a planned Airbnb didn't work out at the historic downtown mansion Angie Sturm's parents bought, she knew she had to get creative.

Her father had bought the former Klaehn, Fahl & Melton Funeral Home about a year ago with the intentions of turning it into a vacation rental and a place to host wedding and corporate events. However, renovations hit a snag because of regulations on altering the historic building, so the plans were scrapped.

It was then that Sturm's father considered selling it. Sturm, a big history fan, asked for a little more time to see what she could do with the place.

And what she has done, and is doing, has been 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 have always wondered why more places aren't opened up for tours. One of my favorite things to do while in Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, is to tour the historic homes.

I might be a bit biased, but I believe many of our homes rival those Southern belles.

That's why I was excited when Sturm invited me to take a tour of the mansion.

The building, located at 420 W. Wayne St., is a Richardsonian Romanesque-style home with elaborate gargoyles and arches on the stone exterior and beautiful original wood work, parquet floors, original wall and ceiling designs and tile fireplaces on the inside 

Walking in the front door, visitors truly feel like they are transported back to 1893 when the home 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 lawyer. 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 am told that she enjoyed painting on the terrace that juts off from what was her bedroom.

After Robert's death in 1901, the home was sold to William K. Noble, who ran a lumber company. His family lived there for 22 years before the building was bought by the funeral home. The west-side addition to the home was added in 1935 because of high demand for funeral services.

This is all information that Nick Carboni, Angie's significant other and tour guide, knowledgeably provides on the tour. Then there is another side of the home, which Carboni is also happy to talk about: the ghosts.

In addition to historic tours, Sturm and Carboni offer paranormal tours and investigations of the home. And it has taken off.

Paranormal tourism has become a big business as entrepreneurs have figured out how to cash in on scaring people all year round and not just around Halloween.

It was something Sturm wasn't too sure of when Carboni was first invited to do a paranormal investigation of the mansion. “I was a huge skeptic,” she says.

That's how Sturm met Carboni, who is the founder of Olde World Paranormal Society in Fort Wayne and has been doing paranormal investigations since 2017.

Carboni describes the mansion as the Ritz Carlton of paranormal activity, and visitors are willing to buy a reservation to witness it.

Since they began offering tours and investigations, the couple have been receiving visitors from all over, including a recent visit by the lead singer of Korn, Jonathan Davis. Paranormal TV shows, such as “Ghost Hunters” and “Paranormal Quest,” have reached out and come to investigate. Even Tony Moran, the actor who played the original Mike Meyer in the 1978 “Halloween” movie reached out and is coming 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 who are believed to still walk the hallways.

Carboni leads me to the third floor of the home, which has a ballroom and was mostly used by the Bells as an entertainment area. The funeral home had turned the ballroom into an area for displaying caskets for customers. The couple have used antique furniture to stage some of the rooms, so visitors can get an idea of what things might have looked like during that time. In one small area, a lone chair sits in a corner. Carboni points to it and reveals that it is one of Robert Bell's favorite places to sit.

According to Carboni, not only is Robert Bell still at the home, but so is 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 place is.

When the funeral home vacated the building in 2018, owners left a lot of items, including a room filled with embalming tables, gurneys, embalming jars and items used to do the job. Sturm and Carboni have gladly used them as part of the tour. 

In addition, there are wooden box caskets, an embalmer's leather bag that was used to go to people's homes and outer boxes that house the caskets. And oh, yeah, toe tags.

On a side note, at the end of the tour, participants are invited to sign their own toe tag, which is hung on a wall. However, Carboni says, “We advise you never put your own death date.”

Most of the other leftover funeral home items are in the basement. One of them, a big green outer box that apparently was used to carry 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 did research on the veteran and have set up a display where people can read about him.

Another informational display the couple have set up on the tour is about Homer Van Meter. Sturm says since her family bought the mansion, they have had former funeral home workers and descendants come in to tell stories.

One of those stories is about the death of Van Meter, who was from Fort Wayne and was a well-known associate of famed bank robber and criminal John Dillinger.

Van Meter was shot and killed by police officers 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 out of a gangster movie with people dressed in suits and hats and trench coats. Fearing that someone may try to steal the body, funeral workers 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 then buried for real at Lindenwood. 

But whether you're there for the history or for the ghosts, the biggest thing Sturm wants to do is preserve the mansion and its legacy. “That's why we're here, to just preserve it,” she says.

Eventually the family hopes to use the building for wedding and corporate events. However, a few more logistical things have to be worked out before that happens.

In the meantime, you can register for tours on the website, thebellmansion.com. Tours run from $600 for an overnight stay, all the way to $20 for a mini-midweek tour every Wednesday.

Terri Richardson writes about area residents and happenings that affect their lives in this column that publishes every other week. Email her at trich@jg.net or call 461-8304.


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