Misunderstood people are sometimes feared to the point of folklore legacy. We cling to myth to avoid confronting the other, creating monsters that aren’t really there. So much of my own childhood lore was attached to that neighbor that seemed “off.” For example, “Old Man Bill,” that lived down the street of my childhood home, was rumored to have chased dogs and children out of his yard with a butcher knife. I could, like Kevin McCallister, approach this eccentric man and dig deep into his own personal loss. But, I was always told to stay away from strangers and the alleged tales of his violence helped in doing so.
But then there were the games. “I dare you to run to Old Man Bill’s yard and stick your toe in the grass.” “No…I dare you to knock on his door.” No one wanted those games to end and we looked forward to taunting younger children with the same tale and dares.
When do these tales go to far? When do these dares become harassment? How do our fears rewrite history? Where does fact end and fiction begin?
The House of Blue Lights
Growing up in the Indianapolis area, the story of The House of Blue Lights was an important part of my paranormal history.
The story begins with the tragic death of a millionaire’s wife. While the versions of the story differ from one storyteller to the next, I was told he kept her in a glass coffin in his mansion, surrounding her with blue (her favorite color) Christmas lights. Some legends say the lights were around the pool and other areas of his property. Some say you can see a woman walking the property at night, catching glimpses of her in one of the blue lights (the USC Digital Folklore Archives interviewed someone about this very story).
This man behind the blue lights was Skiles Edward Test.
Skiles Edward Test was born on October 19, 1889 and died on March 18, 1964. His father, Charles Test, made his fortune as president of Indianapolis Chain Works. Historic Indianapolis describes his childhood:
Skiles grew up, along with brother Donald and sister Dorothy, in the mansion their father Charles built at 795 Middle Drive in Woodruff Place on the near east side. The mansion still sits on a giant lot, its heavily wooded garden obscuring the carriage house set back from the street. Nearby Arsenal Technical High School wouldn’t open until 1912, so young Skiles attended Manual Training High School, located at 525 South Meridian before it was relocated to Madison Avenue in 1953. Skiles was a permanent fixture on the Honor Roll and finished in 3 1/2 years, graduating in 1908. If he had intended on going to college, he never got an opportunity. Charles Test passed away in a Wisconsin sanitarium of Bright’s Disease in 1910, leaving the eldest child, Skiles, to head the family.
In 1913, Skiles and his new wife, Josephine Benges, moved onto a large wooded and secluded property. His property was remarkable and had a full farm, large pool, small rail system, and it’s own working power plant. He definitely found interesting ways to spend his inheritance, but made sure to share it with his family and community.
According to Find a Grave:
The Skiles estate included two complete power plants and a cat and dog cemetery with headstones. Mr. Test loved animals and refused to turn away strays. At one time he reportedly had 150 cats and 15 St. Bernard dogs on his estate. After his death, albums of photographs of dogs, cats, squirrels and other animals lying in state in small caskets were found among his possessions. In spite of his reputation for eccentricity, Mr. Test was a friendly and generous man who supported many charities. He donated a large tract of land to the Lawrence Township School District that is now the site of Skiles Test Elementary School and a nearby nature preserve. A large portrait of Mr. Test is displayed in the lobby of the school.
He also, along with his siblings, constructed a building on the Monument Circle of downtown Indianapolis in his father’s honor (complete with Indianapolis’s first parking garage).
The tale of The House of Blue Lights popped up sometime between the two world wars. Author and former farmhand of Skiles, Garry Ledbetter, says closer to WWII. One explanation for these blue lights, according to Historic Indianapolis, was that “Skiles loved the color blue. He put up blue lights each Christmas and hung blue bug-zapping lights around his enormous swimming pool.” And, his wife wasn’t even dead. But the story took hold and curious trespassers wanted a peek at the coffin. Historic Indianapolis describes these nightly visitors:
Throughout the Fifties and into the Sixties, the trespassers and vandals became increasingly bold. Skiles found a group of teens swimming in his pool and took their clothes and keys, only to be sued by one boy’s father. Trespassers released dogs from their pens and started fires in outbuildings. Skiles found a teen in his kitchen drinking a Coke he’d taken from the fridge. For a while, he took to sleeping in the multi-story pool house, its cinder-block construction being more fire-proof than the house. Plagued with stress-related ulcers, Skiles began to leave each night and stayed at his girlfriend’s house, so as to not be tormented by the nonstop onslaught of lookie-loos.
It seemed that the stories of trespassing became lore. I once heard that a trespasser put one of Skiles’s cats in a cage with an aggressive dog.
The House of Blue Lights is a reminder that we must enjoy the tales we hear, but with a critical mind. We can become the “monster” if we get too caught up in the mystery, missing the opportunity to learn the other’s truth and wisdom.
The property and surrounding structures have been torn down since, but some still report flickering blue lights. I like to think that its just Skiles messing with us.
For more information, you might check out houseofbluelights.com.
Also, Skiles is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, a place I visited in a past post.