With Halloween less than a week away, a figurative (and literal) chill is in air. Cornell’s particular geography and architecture provide the perfect setting for a myriad of spooky stories, and such stories abound. Phantom footsteps late at night in Goldwin Smith Hall, eerie apparitions on the gorge trails and ghostly figures at the top of the clocktower are all evidence of Cornell’s active community of poltergeists. Although Ithaca has yet to open a local chapter of Ghostbusters, ’tis the season for visits from specters of Cornellians past.
The greatest ghost stories are those based on actual history, lending credibility to their claims. For example, the Ecology House on North Campus was once known as the Cornell Heights Residential Club. A former motel built in the 1950s, Cornell had acquired the building in 1964. It housed upperclass women and students in the six-year Ph.D. program at Cornell. In the early morning of April 5, 1967, a tragic fire of unknown origin killed six undergraduate women, three graduate students and one professor. The deaths resulted in a campus-wide effort to improve fire-safety, but some residents of Ecology House insist that the dead have not yet rested. Over the years, residents have reported everything from voices and footsteps, strange lights, people appearing in dorm rooms and even the barking of a dog that allegedly perished in the fire.
A similar story comes from 55 Ridgewood Road, the current home of Pi Kappa Phi. The house was built in the early 1900s by Frank L. Morse of Ithaca’s famed Morse Chain Company, and had been used in the silent film The Ruby Kiss of Death. The stately mansion became home to Phi Kappa Sigma from the 1930s up to 1991. In a 2003 letter to Dear Uncle Ezra, an alumna from the 1980s recalled hearing the story of a fire in the servant’s quarters of the house that killed a maid and cook in the building’s early years. The letter states that the brothers of Phi Kappa Sigma had often seen a strange woman in the bedroom of the servant’s quarters, and that odd noises were commonplace. Perhaps members of the current Pi Kappa Phi have similar stories of the building.
Other stories have less basis in truth. For example, many have claimed that a malicious spirit haunts the shelves of Olin Library. Some claim that she was killed by a falling bookshelf, while others point to a death by crushing in the mechanical moving shelves found in the lower level of the library. However, no deaths have ever been reported under these circumstances, and the moving bookshelves have plenty of safety features. Another tale is that of a distraught plant researcher who poisoned herself with insecticide in an unnamed Ag Quad building, dooming herself to haunt its halls forever.
Ghostly sightings have occurred throughout campus. Jennie McGraw reputedly visits the clocktower on occasion. Willard Straight Hall staff members have spotted ghosts in tuxedos in the hallways. Residents of Risley Hall have credited noises, cold drafts and flickering lights to visits by Prudence Risley, or “Auntie Pru” as she is sometimes called. Alice Statler, namesake of the Hotel School auditorium, has terrorized a number of late-night custodians in the building, and apparently walks through walls at leisure. According to a 2004 article in Cornell Alumni Magazine, one Statler employee reported being physically grabbed by the spirit, while another became so frightened that he quit his job and never returned.
On the Ag Quad, a somber group of gentlemen in top hats has appeared at particularly momentous occasions. First spotted during the controversial 1986 demolition of Stone Hall, they appeared once again during the destruction of the original Roberts Hall a few years later. The original dean of the college, Isaac P. Roberts, was known for wearing his stovepipe hat, which is now traditionally passed on from dean to dean. Perhaps the College of Agriculture’s original faculty felt that the destruction of buildings named in their honor warranted a visit from the afterlife.
Some of Cornell’s most notable figures have believed in paranormal phenomena. Hiram Corson, a popular professor of English Literature at Cornell from 1870 to 1903, frequently claimed to have discussions with the spirits of eminent authors. In his correspondence, Corson recalls reading his personal reminiscences of poet Robert Browning to an assembled group of what he called “spiritual visitors,” including Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Browning himself. Corson wrote, “At the close of the reading there were loud raps by Browning which I took to signify his approval of the paper.” I imagine taking a class with Corson was quite the experience, as students rarely have the opportunity to have dead poets critique readings of their work.
As the skies darken and the temperature drops, certain locations on campus take on a ghostly appearance and imaginations run wild. Was that sound a rustle of leaves, a squirrel or the ghost of a former Cornellian who just can’t bear to leave campus? If you’re looking for a thrilling fall activity, visit some of Ithaca’s incredible local cemeteries to experience chills under a moonlit sky. Do you have any evidence of paranormal activities on campus? Spotted Ezra Cornell meandering across the Quad? Has Andrew Dickson White been hanging out in Sage Chapel? I’d love to hear your story.
Corey Earle is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Walking Backwards appears alternate Wednesdays.