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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Strange History of the Culbertson Mansion and Carriage House

news-tribune - Joellen Bye admits she was not the best student growing up. But, after accepting a job at the Culbertson Mansion in 1977, she read everything she could get her hands on about New Albany’s most famous landmark and those who occupied it.

“It sparked my interest,” she said of spending her days in the mansion. “It turned on my switch. I’ve learned more here than I could ever learn in school.”

The history lessons can be found on every floor of the Culbertson Mansion, which was built in 1867 by William S. Culbertson for $120,000.

The house has seen many owners and changes since Culbertson and his family roamed the hallways. The house sold at auction in 1899 for $7,100. During the course of the past century, it belonged to the American Legion, was almost torn down in favor of a gas station and eventually became a state historic site in 1976.

Bye has been working at the mansion for 33 years and knows it as if it was one of her children. She became site manager of the facility in 1995.

The house will open April 1 for public tours. Recently Bye spoke about the mansion, its history and the ongoing restoration.

QUESTION: What do you love about the Culbertson Mansion?

JOELLEN BYE: It’s hard to explain. I’ve seen it change over the years and have been part of that. Before the restoration, everything was really plain. There is something about this place. It has its own personality. It’s more than a house. It gets to you.

Q: Do people take this place for granted?

BYE: I hear it from people who visit the house. I would say 90 percent of them say they have lived here all of their life and this is the first time they have toured the home. They don’t think about it.

Q: What do you love about your job?

BYE: There is so much ... but I would say the ongoing restoration project. Some things we kind of stumbled into. We had no idea the painted design was under all of that wallpaper. Just to be part of it and see it happen, that’s been exciting.

Q: What frustrates you about the job?

BYE: I guess lack of funds. If it wasn’t for the friends’ group, none of the interior restoration would be done. All the money they raise with the haunted house and other projects goes right back into the house. The friends’ group is so important.

Q: What is left to renovate in the mansion?

BYE: The first floor is completely finished. We are currently on the second floor and it is partially complete. We haven’t started the third floor yet. I think the worst part is behind us. The state recently paid for a new copper roof, repainted the exterior and put in new walkways. In 2000, they put in a new climate control system.

Q: What is it that people might not know about the mansion?

BYE: If they came as third-graders, the ceiling was painted white, and the restoration project had not got going. The house has changed through the years.

Q: OK, is the house haunted?

BYE: That has always been a hot topic. I have seen and heard things that I cannot explain. We are not ghost hunters or ghost crazy people. We have ghost hunters who approach us about setting up cameras at night and doing their thing, but we always have to tell them no for insurance and liability reasons.

Q: So, you have seen things you can’t explain?

BYE: Yes. There are the typical things ... maybe you hear a door shut or it may sound like someone is walking upstairs when there is no one up there. My office is in the basement and at night, if I am here alone, I can hear things. We know something is here, but we have never confirmed it.

Q: What about the future of the home?

BYE: I hope we can start being open year-round. Last year we were scheduled to, but had funding cut at the last minute. We hope all third-graders continue to come to tour the mansion [as part of studying Indiana history]. And we will continue to focus on the ongoing restoration.


Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site is located in New Albany, Indiana by the Ohio River. It was the home of William Culbertson, who was once the richest man in Indiana. Built in 1867 at a cost of $120,000, this French Second Empire-style mansion has 25-rooms within 20,000 square feet (1,900 m2), and was completed in November 1869. It was designed by James T. Banes, a local architect. Features within the three-story edifice include hand-painted ceilings and walls, frescoed ceilings, carved rosewood cantilevered staircase, marble fireplaces, wallpaper of fabric-quality, and crystal chandeliers. The tin roof was imported from Scotland. The displays within the mansion feature the Culbertson family and the restoration of the building. The rooms on the tour are the formal parlors, dining rooms, bedrooms, kitchen, and laundry room.

In its heyday, a railroad ran behind the house (Culbertson had sold land to the railroad), and a streetcar ran from his house towards downtown New Albany.

The Culbertson Mansion’s Carriage House originally served a dual purpose in the 1800’s: to house the Culbertson’s horse and buggy below and servants in the quarters above. One autumn night in 1888 lightning struck the Carriage House, causing a fire that torched most of the interior and killed all living things inside.

The new servants refused to live in the Carriage House, claiming the place was haunted by the souls of those who perished in the fire. The tragic building remained an empty shell until the early 1930’s when it was reconstructed and transformed into a rental property by the McDonalds. The Webb family moved into the house in the spring of 1933. Dr. Harold Webb, a well established doctor and dentist from out of state wanted to settle down in a smaller town and start his own in-house practice, using the Carriage House as his home and office.

Business was great and life had returned to the once unfortunate building. Little did they know something dark and sinister lurked below. The Webb children started to tell stories of a dark man entering their rooms at night through the walls.

Noises were heard underneath the house. Sounds of clanging chains, screams and horrible smells would come up through the floor. Dr. Webb and his wife dismissed the children’s stories at first, but they could not dispute the sounds and smells coming from the rooms downstairs.

Although Dr. Webb investigated the lower level repeatedly, he claimed to find no evidence of anything unusual, assuring the family everything was as it should be. But the children’s stories of a nightly visitor continued, as did the horrible sounds and odors. During this time the strange goings-on began to take their toll on the good doctor’s mental state. Webb became increasingly agitated and angry, losing most of his patients because of the unpleasant experiences they had in the office. Several of Dr. Webb’s patients went missing and an investigation of the Webb office was initiated by the local police.

On September 29th, 1934, one of Dr. Webb’s few remaining patients arrived for an appointment but found the doors locked and the place abandoned. After a few days of no activity a police warrant was issued to investigate. What the police found was horrendous; the Webb family had been slaughtered.

Each room of the house was littered with the remains of victims who suffered unspeakable deaths; a daughter was found repeatedly stabbed, his son was skinned, and his wife brutally beaten. Perhaps, the most shocking of all was what lied beneath the living quarters. A full search of the house revealed an even more macabre and mysterious scene.

The basement level of the house held secret passages and hidden rooms. Webb used these areas for his own evil practices, torturing patients and using them for his twisted experiments. The bones and remains of the patients were everywhere, some so disfigured the police began to question if they were even human.

After the investigation the house was boarded up and remained vacant for nearly three decades.

During the days of the American Legion ownership from 1946 to 1964, the Carriage house was restored then reopened for parties and musical events. The staff and attendees reported several unusual occurrences: electrical problems, missing items, strange sounds after hours and mysterious figures moving from room to room.

Even current staff and volunteers of the Mansion have reported strange happenings in the Carriage House over the years. A few have even refused to work in the building.

In 1987 the Friends of the Culbertson Mansion started using the Carriage House for an annual haunted attraction. Every year thousands of visitors pass through those ill-fated doors. Some never make it to the end.


The Strange History of the Culbertson Mansion and Carriage House