A Locked Room Mystery and James Whitcomb Riley
A busy day, so here is a plain and simple Hoosier ghost story.
HOW RILEY’S GHOST LOCKED OUT THE UNDERTAKER
Senator New Tells How the Hoosier Poet’s Hatred for the Men in Somber Black Caused Consternation in a House of Mourning in a Strange Manner.
By William Atherton Dupuy.
“James Whitcomb Riley believed in ghosts,” said Senator New. “Had he lived in these times he would have been called a psychic. He believed in ghosts because he had experience with them. He lived those experiences over in relating them to me. At the end, as he lay dead in his lodgings, there was enacted the final ghost episode in which the spirit of Riley evidently participated. I know the facts, because I collected the first-hand evidence. The sophisticated may offer theories in explanation of these facts. Their theories are but guesses. My story of Riley and his ghosts is a setting down of just what happened.”
It was a strange thing to be talking about during those first busy days of congress, right there in the big white office building where United States senators hatch the legislation that governs the nation and evolve plans for the direction of the course of world events. But Senator Harry Stewart New of Indiana had been making such a reputation as a raconteur of mellow, playful ghost stories revolving around his lifelong friend, James Whitcomb Riley, that I asked him for a look at some of those yarns rather than a discussion of governmental economy or tariff reform.
It was restful to watch this intimate friend of President-elect Harding drop into the role of raconteur, so well did it become him. He is a born story-teller, a convivial spirit who likes his hour in the clock room or with his friends of an evening. To be sure, rumor had been thrusting him first into one cabinet post after another these last two weeks. But, having spent 40 years in active journalism, he was unperturbed in the circumstances. A smooth-faced, middle-sized, blue-eyed, all-American-looking man is Senator New, universally called “Harry” by his friends and handy with first names in return.
These blue ribbon stories of senatorial circles grew out of a friendship with the Hoosier poet that began ‘way back in 1878. Harry New was a reporter on the old Indianapolis Journal when Riley, after finishing many wanderings as a combination barn-stormer and sign painter went to work for the same paper. Both remained newspaper men in Indianapolis for more than 30 years thereafter, and both knew the men and life of their time as only newspaper men may.
Out of these years of friendship grew the fact that Harry New sat long by the bedside of Riley after he had his second stroke and was partially paralyzed. It was not until that time that the poet made himself entirely clear as to ghosts.
They were talking of the hereafter, discussing the eternal question of the existence beyond the grave.
“Riley took the position that he knew positively that there was a hereafter,” said the senator in his introduction. “He said he had definite proof of its existence. Of course, this led me to demand the proof, and he told me of two occurrences in his life which reached beyond the grave….
Senator New explained that Jim Riley was one of those genial, lovable, irresponsible individuals who are a law unto themselves. Like most such men, he was very sensitive, and there were certain things that set him off and against which he railed stormily.
“Riley’s special abhorrence,” said the senator, “was undertakers. He watched the oncoming of age with never-ending dread. He feared death and abhorred and agonized at a contemplation of its inevitable approach.
“To him the undertaker was a symbol of that death which he dreaded. He shuddered when a hearse passed him in the street. He cursed undertakers as carrion crows, vultures that feed upon the flesh of the dead, harpies that go about in the melancholy garb of men. I have known many a bright afternoon to be spoiled for Riley by the chanc3e meeting of some undertaker on the street.
“Then, finally, there came the time when the poet breathed his last in his modest lodgings in Lockerbie street. He had never married, and there were no members of an immediate family to watch by his bedside when he had departed.
“The Hoosier poet passed away during the day. An undertaker was summoned, came to the house, climbed the narrow stairs to the bedroom on the second floor where the body lay. There he performed the initial services in the preparation of the body for the grave.
“Then he went out in his quiet, noiseless way, closed the door softly behind him, told the people of the house that he would return later in the evening and complete his work.
“Quiet settled down over the little house and remained unbroken until the hour of the return of the man of shrouds and coffins. Like a mournful specter, he appeared at the appointed hour climbed the stair, lighted dimly by the flicker of a gaslight. He turned the knob of the door to the Riley bedchamber.
“But the door failed to open. The undertaker tried again, twisted and pushed one way and another without result. He came to the conclusion that the door had been locked.
“He went downstairs and sought out the people who owned the house. He asked them for the key to the Riley room. He told them that the door was locked.
“This assertion was denied. Nobody had been in the house but members of the family. None of them had locked the door. They would go up and show him.
“So the undertaker and the family went up the narrow stairs in the flicker of gaslight. They tried the door to the Riley bedroom, but it still refused to yield. They attempted to put the passkey into the lock that it might be opened, but the key would not go in.
“There was no other door into the room. The only other entrance was through a window that looked out upon a side yard. The undertaker got a ladder, brought it to the window, entered the Riley room in that way, stolidly, unemotionally. He fumbled about in the dark in the room of the dead, struck a match, lighted the gas.
“There upon the bed lay Riley, cold and composed as he had been left. But in the lock of the Riley door there was a key. It had been put in from the inside, the door had been locked and the key had been left in place.” Senator New declares positively that he personally investigated the whole occurrence, took testimony from all parties concerned, cross-questioned the undertaker, the members of the household. These are the facts as they were revealed.
The senator applies the Riley theory to the circumstances. He takes into account the Field incident, the Stevenson incident. He bears in mind the Riley animosity for undertakers. He recalls the prankishness of the Riley nature.
He concludes that the spirit of the poet sat on a blossoming apple bough in the side yard in the dusk of the day of his death and was convulsed with merriment at the discomfiture of the undertaker. And when he reaches this conclusion, the wise heads of his fellow senators are wont to wag in agreement.
Riley died 22 July 1916.
Oregonian [Portland, OR] 16 January 1921: p. 7
Can you really trust the gentleman from Indiana? Or a gentleman of the press–New was also Riley’s managing editor on the Indianapolis paper–and “born storyteller?” Not that I have a huge shelf of Riley biographies lining my office, but only one of three consulted repeats this tale and the others don’t mention it. Riley seems to have believed in the supernatural and he was fond of telling of synchronicities and coincidences such as a time he received on his birthday a set of books he’d been promised, but had assumed were forgotten. The ghost of Riley might have commented about the locked door,
“He Is Not Dead
I cannot say, and I will not say
That he is dead. He is just away.”
Any independent confirmation of this story from sources other than New? It’s still a darned good yarn. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com