The Origins of the Horror Film, 'The Changeling'

The 1980, film The Changeling starring George C. Scott & Trish Van Devere is based on the paranormal events Russell Hunter experienced while living in an old home near Cheesman Park in the late 1960s.

Hunter (1929-1996), worked as a musical arranger for CBS-TV in New York City, but moved to Colorado in the mid-1960s to help his parents manage the Three Birches Lodge in Boulder.

​In the late 1960s, Hunter began looking for an apartment in Denver where he could live and work on his music. He rented a home at 1739 East 13th Avenue (which has since been torn down) for only $200. He said this was “because no one else wanted to live there.”

Hunter claimed that beginning on February 9, 1969, he started experiencing strange phenomenon in the house. First there was the “unbelievable banging and crashing” that started like clockwork at 6 a.m. then would immediately stop when he placed his feet on the floor. Unseen hands would turn on faucets, and doors opened and closed on their own. Painting would fall to the floor as the walls vibrated.

He told of meeting an unnamed man at a  social gathering, who told him the house had a third floor that could be reached through narrow, concealed stairs hidden behind the wall of a second-floor closet.

With the help of an architect friend he found it as described. In the secreted, garret room he found a small trunk filled with “a nine-year-old’s schoolbooks and journal from a century ago.” The diary's author was a disabled boy kept hidden on the third floor. He described his favorite toy was a red ball, also inside the trunk.

A few nights after discovering the trunk, a red rubber ball dropped from the top of a spiral staircase in the home. Allegedly this was witnessed by more than 30 people.

Hunter conducted a seance. The spirit of the child was channeled. He was heir to a fortune through his maternal grandfather, however he was a sickly child. When he died, his parents concealed his death and buried him in a field in what was then a remote part of southeast Denver. 

They adopted a child from an orphanage to take the place of the dead boy, and instructed him to accept his new identity. This healthy boy grew to adulthood and became successful and as a "changeling" claimed the inheritance meant for another.

According to Hunter, the troubled spirit of the boy gave him directions to where his body had been concealed under a house on South Dahlia Street. He gained permission to dig. Bones and a gold medal inscribed with the child's name were buried deep in the ground.

Coincidentally, the family who owned the house also owned the farmland where the human remains and the gold medallion were found. The discovery did not ease the spirit, and the activity around Hunter escalated. He said, “glass doors blew up in my face and severed an artery in my wrist. The inner walls over the head of my bed violently imploded.”

He moved to a house on Kearney Street, but the disturbances followed him there. Realizing that perhaps the entity was more malevolent then what he originally thought, he followed his friends' advice and sought the help of a priest from Denver's Epiphany Episcopal Church to exorcise the structure.

The priest who wished to remain anonymous commented about Hunter, "He did seem to have a problem. We performed the rites of exorcism in his second house, on Kearney Street." Whether the rites were a success or not is unknown, however he did not call the priest again.

Soon after the Treat Rogers Mansion was demolished. Hunter said he came to see its destruction, and said, “As the walls of the wing which had contained my bedroom collapsed, they suddenly flew outward and crushed to death the man operating the bulldozer.”

THE HISTORY OF THE DENVER HOUSE THAT INSPIRED A HORROR FILM

​At the turn of the century, a childless couple lived in a home at 1739 E. 13th Avenue, Cheesman Park in central Denver.

The couple, Henry Treat Rogers, a prominent lawyer (1837-1922), and his wife Kate Rogers (1865-1931) filed a permit with the City of Denver in July 1892 to build a “brick dwelling” in the Wymans Addition of Denver. Architect Henry Ten Eyck Wendell designed the home.

However this land had its own peculiar history. 

It all started in 1858, when Mr. Biencroff came to mine with his three sons, and a son-in-law named John Stoefel. They built a cabin at Vasquez Fork. The enterprising German family not only panned for gold but owned livestock. One day Mr. Biencroff and two of his sons went off to look for lost cattle. When they returned the third brother was gone. The only other person who stayed behind was John Stoefel, and his queer behavior instantly made them suspicious.

Soon neighbors came to help look for the missing man. He was found behind a log out in the woods, shot through the head. John Stoefel, was arrrested and brought to Auraria (West Denver). On April 8, he appeared before a temporary magistrate and admitted he murdered Thomas Biencroff. But his reasons were far from ordinary. He described where he followed his brother-in-law from Germany to the United States for the purpose of murdering him. What he was avenging was never known.

In those days there was no cell to hold him in, nor place to try him. The people gathered for an informal deliberation and since there was no doubt of his guilt they decided to hang him. All that was needed was rope, a wagon and a yoke of oxen. He was executed at a large cottonwood tree. Noisy Tom, an eccentric and well-known character played the part of executioner. Soon the tree was cut down.

John Stoefel became the first burial at Prospect Hill Cemetery staked out by General William Larimer at the corner of Cheesman and Congress. The informal names of the graveyard was Bone Yard and Boot Hill.

An undertaker named Mr. Walley took over the cemetery and by 1866 had buried 626 persons there.

In 1872, the cemetery became the property of the United States due to a treaty with the Arapaho. The city of Denver then bought it for $1.25 per acre.

It was renamed the Denver City Cemetery.

By 1890, it had fallen into disuse and it was decided to convert it to a park. Families were instructed to move the graves of their loved ones. They were offered a free plot as an incentive, but after three years only 700 were moved.

E.P. McGovern, a local undertaker was hired to take care of those unclaimed. For every box he delivered to Riverside Cemetery he received a $1.90. He was found trying to cheat the city, and his workers were robbing the graves for any personal effects found inside the coffins. He was fired even though the work was unfinished. No one else was hired to complete the work. 

The cemetery was converted to Cheesman Park, which opened in 1907, and soon whispered rumors circulated the grounds were haunted. 

Some estimate that as many as 4,000 bodies were left behind, but the true number has not been ascertained, however every time irrigation work is started, bones are found. Besides the forgotten dead, located just south of the cemetery, a “pest house,” or pestilence hospital for contagious patients, received thousands left there to die.  Some think the fear of contagion, especially smallpox, was another reason why so many bodies were left behind.

In 2010, while completing irrigation work at Cheesman Park, city employees unearthed four skeletons. The coroner found they were over a century old. If there was ever a tombstone to commemorate them, it is long gone. Perhaps they were criminals or paupers and they were anonymous from the beginning. They were re-interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Though the couple did not have children, they did have a niece and nephew who spent time living in their home. 

The niece, Frances Clarke Ristine (1881-1934), came from Illinois to live with the Rogers when she was 10 years old and stayed until her marriage to George Ristine.

After living in Chicago for several years, Frances and her husband returned to Denver after the death of her uncle, Henry Treat Rogers, in 1922, and lived in the 13th Avenue house with Kate (who formally adopted Frances as her daughter around 1927).

​Frances became the longtime secretary for Denver Orphans Home and the president of the Globeville Day Nursery while living in Denver. She inherited 1739 E. 13th Avenue and a small fortune after the death of Kate Rogers in 1931. Frances Clarke Ristine died in 1934.

​Her husband George Washington Restine inherited the money. He died in 1966.

The nephew, Henry Treat Rogers II (1892-1918), graduated from Yale in 1914 and came to work in his uncle’s law firm, Rogers, Ellis & Johnson, around 1916. This younger Henry Treat Rogers also lived in his uncle’s house on 13th Avenue, however, he enlisted in World War I in 1917 and never returned to the house. He died in 1918 at the age of 25.

A memorial fund at Yale was established in his name by his uncle, Henry T. Rogers.

Beyond the Rogers family, many other mysteries of the house at 1739 East 13th Avenue remain.

In the 1970s, Russell Hunter claimed the Phipps family, very prominent in Denver made attempts to silence him. Even to the point of putting out "a hit on him." Allegedly because the storyline of the movie, was too close to their own family history. Strangely no copies of Russell Hunter's book are available anywhere.

What if Russell Hunter (true surname Ellis) never lived in the mansion at all? According to  the Denver Library, that may be the case. The research they have shows his parents did own the Three Birches Lodge in Boulder, and that he may have been in Denver in the late 1960s. Unfortunately there are no records explicitly putting him at the house.

In 2015, a blogger (Larry), posted the following about the Treat Rogers Mansion: "My family (parents with 7 kids) moved into this house in '59, when I was 8 yrs.-old. It was a huge house with two separate stair cases leading to the second floor, one with a halfway landing and the other was an enclosed spiral coming off the kitchen (for servants). I never experienced any paranormal activities (perhaps the ghost enjoyed the company of all the children)."

In a strange coincidence Peter Medak, the director of The Changeling became fascinated with the story because of recent deaths in his family. His older brother died, and in 1971, his wife Katherine LaKermance Medak, 28, committed suicide by jumping from a fourth-floor apartment in Harley Street, Marylebone (London). She fell into a basement area, and was pronounced dead upon her arrival at Middlesex Hospital. Her husband was away visiting his mother.


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