Fire, Murder, and Spirits: The Last Days of the Claypool Hotel


Bates House had to go.

It was beautiful and famous, but it had faded. There were modern amenities that it couldn’t offer, not to mention the fact that it just wasn’t big enough to accommodate the growing number of people that were coming into the city.

The owner, Edward Claypool, knew that. When he had bought the building, the Bates House had a reputation for being the place to stay in the city. Built in 1853 when Indianapolis was still young, Bates House had earned its reputation over the years, not only rising to the top of the best hotels in the region but staying there.

The hotel stood on a prime piece of downtown Indianapolis real estate. It was close to all the best businesses, shops, and entertainment venues that the city had to offer. Even better was how close it was to Union Station, a massive train station that brought people to the downtown from all over the country.

Claypool was positive that if could build a new hotel, a bigger one capable of handling much more people, and have it offer every possible amenity that a guest could ever possibly want, it would be a success. Not only would it retain the reputation of the Bates House, the new hotel would even surpass it.

In 1900, Edward Claypool, Henry W. Lawrence, the manager of Bates House, and Frank M. Andrews, the architect of the future hotel, took a tour of some of the best hotels in the United States. They wanted to incorporate all the things that they thought were best about these establishments and combine them in their new, ultra-modern hotel in Indianapolis.

Once their tour was over, blueprints were drawn up and the project moved forward.

In 1901, the era of the Bates House came to an end. It was demolished, the lot cleared, and construction on a new hotel begun.

From the very beginning, it was meant to be the best and most impressive hotel that Indianapolis had ever seen. Two wells were drilled directly under the site to fuel some of the vast systems of the building. This was controlled by a water works on site that was made specifically for the hotel. It was then channeled into a fire-protection system, a steam laundry, swimming pool, and ice making plant.

The hotel also had its own telephone and electrical plants, as well as a barber shop.

The guest rooms were made from the finest woods and metals, and every room had its own bathroom, which was not commonplace at the time.

On the main floor, the lavish and ornate lobby was advertised as being the largest in the entire country. Retail stores were also installed on the ground floor, including a tailor, a cigar merchant, and a pharmacist.

After a series of construction-related delays, the Claypool Hotel, named after its owner, opened on May 18, 1903. It was an immediate success, and quickly achieved Edward Claypool’s goal of becoming one of the very best and brightest hotels in the city, if not the entire Midwest.

The first large-scale event held at the Claypool was a musical recital by Ernestine Schumann-Heink, one of the most famous and in-demand contralto singers of that time. She was known throughout Europe and the United States for her powerful, haunting voice, which gave new dimension to her portrayal of some characters in famous operas.

Hundreds of people attended the event, thrilled to hear Shumann-Heink perform. The recital was held on the eighth floor, which was the top floor of the hotel. At the time, only one elevator in the Claypool was working, forcing most of the attendees to have to take the stairs.

Despite this inconvenience, the concert was an unmitigated success. It received rave reviews, and nearly everyone was blown away by the venue itself. It complimented the performance wonderfully, and concertgoers and critics alike talked about that almost as much as they had the singer.

This event also helped to cement the Claypool’s reputation as being the best event venue in the city.

Over the next several years, it maintained that reputation while also becoming the top place to stay in Indianapolis for movie stars, politicians, and the wealthy.

The Claypool was the very best of the best hotels.

But every hotel has its secrets.

In 1943, the body of a young woman was found dead in a hotel room on the seventh floor. She was soon identified as an Army officer named Maoma Ridings. She was serving at a nearby Army base and had been staying at the Claypool that weekend while she enjoyed the city.

Ridings had clearly been murdered.

Maoma Ridings

The Indianapolis Police followed up on every lead that they found, but none of them led anywhere. The case went cold as police waited for any more clues that would solve the case.

Unfortunately, none ever came to light. The murder of Maoma Ridings remains unsolved to this day.

The Claypool Hotel’s reputation took a blow from the murder. The fact that someone had been so brutally slain on the premises made people feel slightly uneasy about staying there. There was also the fact that a few of the hotel’s staff members had been seriously looked at as possible suspects.

It made some people question if it was safe to stay at the Claypool.

As the sensationalism of the murder began to fade, so did the public’s unease with the Claypool Hotel. While its reputation was tarnished, it recovered.

But while the general public forgot about the murder, long-time residents of Indianapolis still remembered what had happened to Maoma Ridings and kept sharing the story over the years. True Crime Magazines would also occasionally run stories about the murder.

Then, in 1954, it happened again.

Two hotel maids found an awful smell in one of the rooms on the sixth floor. After enlisting the help of another staff member, the body of a young woman was found in the bottom drawer of the room’s dresser.

The young woman was identified as Dorothy Poore, an 18-year-old woman from Clinton, Indiana, who was in Indianapolis looking for a job. She became known as the Girl in the Drawer.

Dorothy Poore

The murderer was eventually identified as 32-year-old Victor Lively, a former Texan with a reputation for luring young women to hotel rooms. He would pose as a recruiting officer and offer them a job interviews, telling them that he was using the hotel room as a temporary office.

Part of the interview usually involved them stripping down to their underwear and walking around the room for him.

Before Lively was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Dorothy Poore, newspapers all over the country ran story after story about the murder and Victor Lively’s subsequent trial.

Many times, the still-unsolved murder of Maoma Ridings was mentioned alongside Dorothy Poore because she had also been murdered at the hotel.

What the two murders had in common was the Claypool Hotel, and by default almost every article mentioned the hotel. After dozens of articles, the Claypool Hotel had now become synonymous with one of the most sensational and gruesome murders to ever take place in Indianapolis, along with one of the most infamous unsolved murders to happen in the city.

People began to wonder how safe the Claypool really was. Both crimes had occurred at the Claypool while it had been filled with guests. The murderers had walked amongst them unseen and, for the most part, unnoticed.

Could you be killed by someone at the Claypool? It had happened twice now, after all. Was the opulence and the luxury that it promised worth your life? People began to wonder.

By the time all was said and done, the Claypool Hotel’s reputation had been permanently damaged by the tragic events of 1943 and 1954.

Outside of its reputation, the hotel faced a more daunting problem: age.

The Claypool was over fifty years old. The once state of the art features that the hotel had boasted about at the turn of the century were now commonly found in even cheap hotels across the country. Even the expensive wood and marble opulence that had once impressed untold numbers of guests now just seemed old and dated.

The Claypool Hotel was now like a faded Hollywood star who, once beautiful, had begun to show their age.

It was time for an overhaul.

In the early 1960’s, the owners of the Claypool began to renovate the old hotel. But even these efforts seemed to be in vain.

During that same time, the once thriving Indianapolis downtown, once a vital hub for the city, had begun to decline.

Union Station, the railroad hub that had brought so many people into the city, just wasn’t used as much as it had been.

Highways and the relatively new Interstate system had allowed the automobile to put a stranglehold on passenger train traffic. Hotels thrive on travelers, and these new roads brought people away from the downtown and into other parts of the city. New hotels were built to accommodate them, and the Claypool started to see less people overall.

In early 1967, the Claypool’s owners spent $200,000 – over $1.8 million in 2023 – to update and renovate the Claypool.

Then, in the early morning hours of June 24, 1967, hotel guests were awakened by the sounds of people calling for help. Fear set in when others began to shout, “Fire!”

The first fire in the Claypool’s long history had broken out, sending rolling, black clouds of thick smoke down the hallways and through the ductwork.

Several guests, desperate to escape the fire raging in the building, climbed out on their window ledges and shouted to firemen to be rescued. Two patrolmen, Charles Roots and Kenneth Hurst, saw flames shooting from the hotel’s windows as they drove by.

Stopping the car, they called the police dispatcher and told them to tell the fire department about the blaze. Then the two policemen ran into the building. Along the way they ran into Lee Roy McGee, one of the bellmen at the hotel.

Together, the three men ran from room to room, pounding on doors and telling them to leave the building. They led several guests out through the smoke so that the confused and half-asleep people didn’t get lost in the chaos.

Other policemen arrived soon after, along with the fire department. Many of these first responders ran into the hotel and helped to evacuate guests. Firemen on the outside of the building used aerial ladders to rescue the guests that were sitting on the ledges outside their rooms.

Almost miraculously, all the nearly 600 guests staying at the hotel that night were rescued or escaped on their own. Several people, including police and firemen, were sent to the hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation or other injuries, but they quickly recovered and were released.

Firemen determined that the fire had started in a utility room on the fourth floor, where over two dozen sleeping cots were stored. They theorized that the fire might have built slowly over several hours without anyone knowing. As the flames grew, the blaze moved into the hallway, then up into the ductwork and the false ceilings. It went down as far as the second floor and all the way up to the eighth.

On several occasions, firemen would use their axes to chop into ventilation ducts only to find it full of fire.

While there were no deaths, the fire, smoke, and water damage to the hotel had ruined many of the room renovations and cost an estimated total of $250,000, more than the renovations had cost. The rooms would all have to be redone before they were usable again.

A few days later, the Claypool Hotel made the announcement that they were closing their doors indefinitely.

For the next two years, the hotel sat mostly empty. Some held hope that it would re-open as the Indianapolis icon it had once been, but that optimism was looking less likely with each passing day. The outlook became even more bleak when the owners began to sell the room furniture and furnishings.

Then, in 1969, came the announcement that everyone had been waiting for: the Claypool Hotel was going to be torn down. The job was given to Ed Zebrowski.

A former real-estate agent turned demolitionist, Zebrowski had come to Indianapolis in 1962. Then the partial owner of the Arrow Wrecking Company, he had been hired to tear down the former Marion County Courthouse.

Zebrowski quickly learned that there was one demolition company operating in the city at the time, and he sensed an opportunity. Moving from Detroit, he settled in Indianapolis and started his own company.

It didn’t take him long to become successful. As the jobs rolled in, Zebrowski noticed that every time a building was torn down, it attracted a large crowd of people. Naturally inclined to be a showman, Zebrowski decided to seize the opportunity to make a spectacle out of the demolition.

In 1968, he paid to have bleachers set up for the crowd watching a demolition to sit on, with an organist to entertain them and the workers as they watched the building being brought down.

When the announcement was made, he was going to tear down the Claypool Hotel, residents of Indianapolis knew they were in for a show.

On June 14, 1969, they got just that.

The Claypool Hotel on the night of its demolition, June 14, 1969.


Zebrowski called it “The Last Dance at the Claypool.” Tickets were sold to nearly 1,000 people for upwards of $100.

The dance took place inside the lobby of the Claypool, once hailed as the biggest in the country. Attendees danced as they were served champagne. Beer stands were also available, along with popcorn, bean soup, and chicken wings.

A band played on the second floor, while go-go dancers, a type of high-energy dancing popular in the 1960’s, filled the former coffee shop.

Guests young and old danced that last evening at the once grand hotel. Many of them could probably remember the Claypool as it had been in its glory days, polished wood panels gleaming in the glow of the brass chandeliers and wall sconces as they glided across the Italian marble floors.

But when they saw the exposed wires and plumbing from where all the fixtures and décor had been removed, the illusion was broken.

There were many people who wanted to take home a piece of the Claypool to add to their own home décor, or just display prominently for the good memories they had associated with it. Zebrowski knew that, so he had as much of the ornamentation and fixtures as possible removed.

That night, they were auctioned off, with all the proceeds being donated to an organization that helped young people.

Close to midnight, Zebrowski and his employees ushered everyone out of the building. The last dance was over, and it was time to leave. A deep, expectant silence fell over the lobby as the guests trickled out, almost as if the building itself was waiting for something.

Outside, the guests were escorted to a safe distance from the former hotel as Zebrowski climbed on top of an old fire truck and began counting down through a bullhorn.

At the exact stroke of midnight, fireworks began erupting from the roof of the Claypool, just as hundreds of balloons were released. As they floated into the night sky, a wrecking ball took its first swing into the old hotel.

Inside, plaster cracked, and floors shook. The palatial building that had once been the premiere event center in the city was shattering under the blows of the wrecking ball.

The era of the Claypool Hotel was over.

Or was it?

Years later, a new hotel, the Embassy Suites was built on the site.

A grand hotel in its own right, the Embassy Suites is one of several hotels that dominate the revitalized Indianapolis downtown.

Over the years, hotel guests and staff have claimed to have experienced strange things there.

One guest at the Embassy Suites had a stay she would never forget. Although her name is never mentioned, we’ll call her Anne.

Anne had come to Indianapolis for a convention. When she got back to the hotel after a long day, she got ready for bed and turned out all the lights in the room.

As Anne lay in bed, the light in the bathroom suddenly turned on. She thought it was strange but told herself that it must have been some kind of electrical glitch. Anne got up, turned off the light, then got back into bed.

A short time later, the light turned on again.

Curious, Anne got up again and went into the bathroom to turn the switch off. To her surprise, it was already off. A closer look at the switch confirmed what she thought: the switch was definitely turned off.

A short chill ran up her spine. This didn’t make sense.

Hesitantly, Anne moved the switch a few times. The light obediently turned off for a second time. She moved it a few more times.

On, off. On, off.

The lights appeared to be working fine.

Anne went back to her bed and got in. As she lay there, staring into the darkness of the room, the bathroom light turned on again.

Her eyes widened as she felt her stomach twist with fear and frustration. Before she realized what she was doing, Anne yelled, “Knock it off!”

The light obeyed, and, somehow, Anne was able to fall asleep.

The next morning, Anne got up and went to her convention. When she returned to her hotel room later that day, she saw that her suitcase was laying on her bed. Walking over to it, Anne saw that someone had packed all her belongings.

She asked the hotel staff, but none of them had touched her suitcase.

Later, Anne entered went to use one of the public bathrooms in the building. There was no one else in the room when she entered the stall.

A few moments later, she heard the sink faucet turn on.

When Anne came out of the stall, there was a woman standing near the sink. She was wearing what seemed to be old-fashioned clothing, but there was nothing else unusual about her.

The woman smiled and asked her, “Are you enjoying your stay?”

Anne smiled back and said that she was. The woman leaned in close, and, looking Anne directly in the eye, asked, “Are you sure?”

That was too much. Anne had had enough. She quickly left the hotel.

Other guests have also experienced lights turning off and on by themselves. One guest said that they saw their tube of toothpaste hurled across the room by unseen hands. Others have seen a female army officer in an old-fashioned uniform in one of the bathrooms.

Some staff members have said that they feel uneasy while on the seventh floor of the building, like they’re being watched by someone that they can’t see.

Does something of the Claypool Hotel remain in the Embassy Suites? Could the army officer that has reportedly been seen be the spirit of Maoma Ridings, still wandering the site where her life so brutally ended? Do other former guests walk the halls of the Embassy Suites as well, looking for something of their beloved Claypool that they might recognize?

Whatever the case, the Claypool Hotel was a symbol of all that was bright and beautiful in Indianapolis. It represented the best that the city had to offer. Its memory, if not something more, lingers there still.




Claypool Hotel (1903-1967).

Claypool Hotel Photographs, CA. 1890-1966.

Price, Nelson. Glamour and Gore: The Claypool and Lincoln Hotels. Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Vol. 32, Issue 1), Wntr 2020

The Dark History of the Claypool Hotel., 8/21/2015

Martinez, Kimiko. Circle City’s spooks. The Indianapolis Star, 10/21/2007

Kamm, Jeff. At Your Leisure: The Downfall of a Landmark., 1/30/2015

Martinez, Kimiko. Indy’s darkest local lore: Embassy Suite. IndyStar, 10/5/2017

Browne, Tiffany Benedict. How the Claypool Hotel Began. Historic, 5/15/2019

Mitchell, Dawn. ‘Zebrowski was here’ and so was his wrecking ball. Indy Star, 6/28/2019

Amero, Richard W. The Magic of Madame Schumann-Heink. Southern California Quarterly, Summer 1991.

150 Are Rescued From Burning Claypool; 12 Sent to Hospitals. The Indianapolis News, 6/23/1967

Claypool Opening Indefinite. The Indianapolis News, 6/30/1967

Wrecker’s Ball Last Event for Historic Claypool Hotel. The Star Press, 4/24/1969

‘I’m Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,’ Claypool. The Indianapolis Star, 6/15/1969

Anderson, Marty. Wrecker’s Ball Ends Claypool’s Gala Life. The Star Press, 6/16/1969

Wrecker With Flair to Send Claypool to Death In Style. The Palladium-Item, 4/24/1969

Keating, Thomas R. Zebrowski Destroys – But With A Flair. The Indianapolis Star, 6/1/1969




Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: