October 23, 2014

EZRA’S ORACLE: October 24, 2014

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Ezra’s Oracle welcomes inquiries from all members of the Cornell community about anything and everything related to the University. We seek out answers to campus mysteries, research rumors and investigate issues of relevance to Cornellians.

Questions can be submitted via email to [email protected]. Or whisper them in the ear of the Ezra Cornell statue on the Arts Quad.

Q: Are there any Halloween traditions or legends associated with Cornell?

— Ezra’s Ghost ’14

A: Most Cornellians quickly realize that the scariest thing about Cornell is the prelims.

Popular Halloween traditions like costumes and trick or treating didn’t catch on until the early twentieth century, around 50 years after Cornell’s founding. The first classes at Cornell celebrated “Gate Eve” in late October, when unruly students would pillage the town by stealing signs, gates and fences.  Halloween celebrations often focused on vandalism and pranks, leading to occasional student suspensions. President Andrew Dickson White even felt it necessary to give an address to all students on the issue in October 1884: “In regard to any attempt to make yourselves immortal or famous by some college prank, remember you are here as men — as long as you consider yourselves as such you will be so considered.”

Some notable Halloween pranks in the early years included moving the zoology professor’s pet bear from the basement of McGraw Hall to the University chapel, which was located on the third floor of Morrill Hall at the time. The bear was then replaced with a cow in its cage. In 1882, students destroyed a wooden bridge over a small ravine on the south side of campus, making the trek to class challenging. In 1927, a foolish Halloween prankster greased the trolley tracks, sending a trolley car careening from Collegetown to downtown where it crashed into another trolley and injured three people.

The two most famous Halloween incidents in Cornell history have become permanent parts of campus culture. On Halloween night in 1936, the footprints between the Ezra Cornell and A. D. White statues on the Arts Quad were first painted. The Cornell Alumni Newsnoted the incident with amusement, adding that “how the two got back to their pedestals is not revealed.” The footprints, which purportedly immortalized a well-known campus legend, have been repainted regularly ever since. More recently, the infamous clocktower pumpkin appeared on the tower’s peak a few days before Halloween in October 1997, remaining there for months of speculation until the University intervened to remove it in March 1998.

Current Halloween traditions are a bit more benign than the pranks of early years. Don’t miss the orange jack-o-lantern glow coming from the McGraw Tower clock faces as you climb all 161 steps for the 50th annual Halloween concert next Friday. Stop by Sage Chapel on Thursday for the annual Halloween Organ Extravaganza, which will accompany a showing of the 1920 silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Or visit Risley Hall tomorrow for the annual MasqueRAVE.

Q: What’s the best Cornell ghost story?

— Collegetown Ghoul ’15

A: This column addressed a few popular campus ghosts last year, but we left out perhaps the most famous of the local apparitions: Edward H. Rulloff. He’s even more relevant now, given that his namesake bar and restaurant has now passed into the afterlife as well (may it rest in peace). The story of “rogue scholar” Rulloff has been told many times. A talented local linguist and philologist, Rulloff was accused of a variety of crimes, including the murder of his wife and child. After a number of brief prison sentences, he eventually was sentenced to death for murdering a Binghamton shopkeeper, leading to his execution in 1871 in the last public hanging in New York. In his last newspaper interview, Rulloff created the ghostly legend that has lasted to this day: “You cannot kill an unquiet spirit, and I know that my impending death will not mean the end of Rulloff. In the dead of night, walking along Cayuga Street, you will sense my presence. When you wake to a sudden chill, I will be in the room. And when you find yourself alone at the lake shore, gazing at gray Cayuga, know that I was cut short and your ancestors killed me.” Both Rulloff and his allegedly murdered wife are rumored to haunt the shores of Cayuga Lake and streets of Ithaca. Send your Cornell ghost stories to [email protected].

Curious about Cornelliana? Looking for Cornell lore behind a legend? Submit your questions to [email protected]. Ezra’s Oracle appears alternate Fridays this semester.