Higher education has always nodded towards the traditions of ancient universities especially during rituals like graduation when students and faculty wear traditional scholars’ gowns and regalia. Among those traditions that can be found are ghost stories passed from student to student, though often these tales include a kernel of truth. Included here are a few stories from Virginia.
Campus of the University of Virginia
The website for the University of Virginia Libraries notes that the university’s library system incorporates 13 buildings, possesses 5.1 million books and includes reports of two ghosts. The university’s grand Alderman Library was built during the Great Depression as part of FDR’s Public Works Administration. Opening in 1938, the building housed the university’s growing library which originally was house in the magnificent rotunda designed as a centerpiece for the university by Thomas Jefferson.
According to accounts from library staff, the two spirits within the library don’t actually haunt the building, but two particular collections of books. Like the inverted and bookish Jefferson, Dr. Bennett Wood Green and Muscoe Garnett were both obsessed with their own personal libraries. When Dr. Green, a Virginia physician, died in 1913, he left his large library to the university. His books were originally shelved in the Rotunda library and that is where his curious spirit was first encountered checking up on his precious books. When his books were moved to the new Alderman Library, he tagged along and his spirit has been seen roaming the old stacks. Footsteps echoing through those same stacks have also been attributed to him. Upon encountering Green’s bookish spirit, one library staff member began bringing her large dog to work with her.
Alumnus and later member of the university’s Board of Visitors, politician Muscoe Russell Hunter Garnett housed his extensive library in his home, Elmwood, in Essex County, Virginia. Upon Garnett’s death just before the end of the Civil War, the house was closed and left to decay. While the house decayed, the books seemingly did not. Rumors spread that the library was taken care of by the spirit of a friend of Garnett’s who would rise from his grave nightly to dust and care for the library. The books were donated by the family to the university in 1938 and were shelved in the new Alderman Library. The spirit seen among these books may be the caring spirit or perhaps that of Garnett, himself.
- Barefoot, Daniel W. Haunted Halls of Ivy: Ghosts of Southern Colleges and Universities. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2004.
- Foster, Gaelyn and Jiaer Zhuang. “Alderman Library turns 75.” The Cavalier Daily. 16 October 2013.
- Pflager, Henry. “Alderman to celebrate 75th” The Cavalier Daily. 3 October 2013.
- Strand, Megan. “Terrifying Tales.” The Cavalier Daily. 13 April 2001.
- Truong, Tiffany. “Spirits, ghosts reportedly haunt University grounds.” The Cavalier Daily. 30 October 2013.
Ferguson Center for the Arts
Campus of Christopher Newport University
Though Christopher Newport University is the youngest comprehensive public university in Virginia, it seems to have acquired a ghost. The building now housing the Ferguson Center for the Arts originally opened in 1957 as Warwick Junior High School. In 1961, the school reopened as Homer L. Ferguson High School and remained a high school until it closed in 1996. Christopher Newport University, which opened in 1960 not long after Warwick Junior High, acquired the building and hired noted architect I.M. Pei to renovate it into a performing arts center.
Along with the old high school, the university also acquired the ghost of a former student. According to the university’s student newspaper, The Captain’s Log, the spirit requires acknowledgement and the theatre students working in the building know to say hello to her when they enter the sound booths. Otherwise, the student may see things in their peripheral vision. The paper notes that a 15-year-old female student died in 1968.
- Christopher Newport University. “Our Campus.” Accessed 12 September 2014.
- Christopher Newport University. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 12 September 2014.
- “Ferguson High School Closing: Ferguson Memories.” Daily Press. 9 June 1996.
- Lurie, Victoria. “A Ghost Story.” The Captain’s Log. 30 October 2013.
Campus of Washington & Lee University
The Colonnade of Washington and Lee University may be one of the most dramatic collections of college buildings in America. Oddly, this section of campus was not “the product of a single architectural concept,” as is stated in the university’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form. In fact, the Colonnade evolved as “an evolutionary product of a building program, extending over nearly one hundred and fifty years.” So remarkable is this collection of buildings that it is now a National Historic Landmark.
The second oldest building in the Colonnade is Payne Hall built in 1831. The building was originally called The Lyceum and used to teach biology. It was renamed Payne Hall after a renovation in the 1930s and is currently used by the university’s English department. After an English class studied James Merrill’s epic poem, “The Book of Ephraim”—a poem composed using an Ouija board—some students and an English professor attempted to communicate with the spirits of Payne Hall via Ouija board. The group possibly communicated with a few spirits. When one spirit was asked which building on campus was the most haunted, it replied by spelling out “B-I-O.” Sometime later, the professor discovered that Payne Hall had historically been used for biology.
Among the stories from Payne Hall are accounts of doors opening and closing by themselves, disembodied footsteps and apparitions. A university press release describes three apparitions that have been seen around this building including, “a dark presence moving swiftly down the back stairs, a person dressed in black swirling down the Colonnade, and a cape-wearing figure that whisks into the building.”
- Balfour, Amy C. “Payne Hall Restoration: A Marriage of Old and New.” News @ Washington and Lee. 14 September 2011.
- Hanna, Jeff. “Payne Hall Ghost: Spooked by Renovations?” News @ Washington and Lee. 27 October 2011.
- Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for Washington and Lee Historic District. 6 October 1970.
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