Spirits of Old Morrison and the Gratz Park Historic District

Gratz Park Historic District
Bounded by Second Street, the Byway,
Third Street and Bark Alley
Lexington, Kentucky

Old Morrison
Transylvania University Campus

Transylvania University was almost 40 years old when the European with the odd name of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz strode into the large, Federal Main building. Rafinesque had journeyed “across the woods,” as the Latin name of the university implied, to take on a professorship of botany as well as teach Italian and French, languages from his broad repertoire.

Constantine Rafinesque from
an 1820 publication. Courtesy
of Wikipedia.

His Christian name belied his birthplace, Constantinople, where he was born to a French trader father and a Turkish-born German mother. His education was as mixed as his heritage and upbringing. A polymath autodidact, he taught himself Latin and early on began to collect natural specimens, ranging from plants to shells. Rafinesque spent time in the fledgling United States and in various locales in Europe returning to the States in 1815. Travelling throughout the states, he gathered, described and named an astounding array of species and studied the Native Americans who were just beginning to be pushed west of the Mississippi River.

His new employer was also on an upward trajectory. Transylvania University had grown in its forty years of existence into one of the premier universities in the U.S. As one of the nation’s top ranked schools, it produced and employed some of the greatest names of the day including lawyer and later statesman, Henry Clay who served as a professor; Stephen Austin, the “Father of Texas;” Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and the fiery abolitionist, Cassius Clay. The medical school included in its faculty, smallpox vaccination pioneer Samuel Brown and Benjamin W. Dudley, the most imminent surgeon in the Mississippi Valley.

These two upward trajectories maintained a parallel course briefly and then collided in the spring of 1826 when university president Horace Holley dismissed Rafinesque. Officially, the reason was that Rafinesque had acted unprofessionally and had missed numerous classes, but the unofficial reason, according to campus gossip, was the affair that Rafinesque was carrying on with Holley’s wife. When informed of his dismissal, an incensed Rafinesque uttered a curse, “Damn thee and thy school as I place a curse upon you!”

Rafinesque quietly returned to Philadelphia where he lived the remaining years of his life. He died of stomach cancer some 14 years later. According to legend, friends of Rafinesque had to break into his home to steal his corpse as his landlord was planning to sell it to a local medical school in lieu of back rent. He was buried in Philadelphia, but, in 1924, a campus organization rallied to have his remains returned to rest on campus; an “Honor to Whom Honor is Overdue,” as the words are inscribed on his crypt in Old Morrison. The group, though, was somewhat unsuccessful. Recent tests on the remains have discovered that they are fact the remains of Mary Ann Passamore, one of the handful of others interred in Rafinesque’s plot in the cemetery. 

Old Morrison. Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While Rafinesque still rests in Philadelphia, his curse still may linger in Lexington. President Horace Holley resigned the following year and died unexpectedly of yellow fever. Two years later, the main building was destroyed by fire. Following the destruction of the campus, the campus was moved across the street. The University’s upward momentum as one of the premier universities slowed as well, perhaps a result of the curse?

Old Morrison, designed by architect Gideon Shryock, was completed in 1834 and considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in America. The edifice was restored to its original appearance in 1962 which removed unsympathetic additions added in the late nineteenth century. On January 27, 1969, a fire swept the newly restored building leaving only exterior walls standing, according to the National Register of Historic Places nomination form. Daniel Barefoot in his Haunted Halls of Ivy, points out that a little more survived: the crypt of Rafinesque was completely untouched by fire. Even more, he reports that firefighters saw the figure of a man standing in the doorway of the crypt while the fire raged around.

Old Morrison was restored and still stands a symbol of the school, though odd things still happen. A security guard in the buildings claims to have been tripped by something in the dark hall. Every few years, tragic things occur on campus and of course, the curse is invoked. But, Old Morrison faces a historic district where some even stranger events may occur.

Hunt-Morgan House
201 North Mill Street

Hunt-Morgan House, 2008, by Russell and Sydney Poore. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just a block down North Mill Street from Old Morrison sits one of the more historic structures in the region, the Hunt-Morgan House. Originally known as Hopemont, the house was built in 1814 by John Wesley Hunt. One of the first millionaires west of the Alleghenies, John Hunt Morgan was the head of an illustrious family that included his grandson, General John Hunt Morgan, a notable Confederate general and Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist.

The legend of the Hunt-Morgan House dates to the Civil War. The Morgans had a slave named Bouviette James, known to the family as Ma’am Bette.  Ma’am Bette served as the nursemaid to the Morgan’s children and by all accounts was a valued member of the family. Upon her death, she was laid out in the parlor and four of the Morgan’s sons, whom she had raised, served as pallbearers. She was even buried in the family plot, but, she would not rest there. After she passed, one of the children became grievously ill. The child’s nurse fell asleep at the child’s bedside and awoke to see a woman, wearing Ma’am Bette’s signature red shoes and turban sitting at the child’s side. The child died soon after, but the thought of Ma’am Bette guiding the child in the afterlife was comforting to the Morgans.

Maria Dudley House. Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Maria Dudley House
215 North Mill Street

Sitting among Federal and Greek Revival houses, the starkly Victorian Maria Dudley House stands out. This 1880 structure remains a private residence, but one that, according to Jamie Millard, author of the article that inspired this entry, possesses a dark energy. Millard describes a recent incident where a young man was apparently thrown over a stair railing which broke his arm. Indeed, others have felt a disturbing presence in the rear portion of the house and a family dog refused to go into that portion. Unfortunately, I have found no further information on this house.

John Stark House
228 Market Street 

On the opposite side of Gratz Park, the John Stark House, also a private residence, was built in 1813 and was occupied by Gideon Shryock during the building of Old Morrison. Later, this house was the home of Dr. Robert Peter, Union Surgeon General during the Civil War. Perhaps the apparition of a Union soldier that has been seen here is one of Dr. Peter’s former patients.

Bodley-Bullock House
200 Market Street

Built around 1814-5, the Bodley-Bullock house has seen a range of owners in its history. The house was built by General Thomas Bodley, a veteran of the War of 1812. After losing the house in the financial crisis of 1819, the house passed through a series of hands. During the Civil War, the house was used as a headquarters for both Confederate and Union troops. It is noted that grand balls were held under both sides. The house’s illustrious history ended with Mrs. Minnie Bullock who purchased the house in 1912. Mrs. Bullock lived in this house longer than anyone and helped in the restoration of the Hunt-Morgan House. Upon her death, the house was restored and opened as a house museum as well.

Reports of spiritual activity have been reported by museum staff and visitors. A photographer taking a bridal portrait in the house apparently captured the image of a woman and a small child standing on the staircase behind the bride. Staff members believe the woman is Mrs. Bullock who is disapproving of some of the activity in her old home. In her will, Mrs. Bullock stipulated that there would be no drinking in the house, but the will was changed when it was decided the house would be used for events as well as a museum.

Gratz Park Inn
120 West Second Street

Hospitals almost invariably have haunting and the Gratz Park Inn, built as the Lexington Clinic, is no exception. With construction beginning in 1916 and opening its doors to the public in 1920, this structure is one of the few 20th century structures in the historic district and among the founders of the clinic was Dr. Waller Bullock, husband of Minnie, who resided in the Bodley-Bullock House just down the street. This building served as a clinic until 1958 when the clinic moved. The building was then used as the offices of an engineering firm which closed its doors in 1976. The building remained vacant until it was bought and renovated for use as an inn in 1987. It now ranks as one of the top inns in the region.

Among the inn’s non-paying guests are three spirits: a young girl, a man and a classic “lady in white.” The little girl is described differently in the two sources I have consulted. The Jamie Millard article names her “Little Annie” and states she plays quietly with her doll on the third floor. Alan Brown in his Haunted Kentucky, calls her Lizzie and says her voice is most commonly heard laughing and playing, though she did crawl in bed with a guest and fall asleep on evening. The Millard article goes on to describe the other two spirits: John is a humorous spirit and the “lady in white” is apparently looking for something or someone.


  • Brown, Alan. Haunted Kentucky: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Bluegrass State. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2009.
  • Brown, Alan. Stories from the Haunted South. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
  • Constantine Samuel Rafinesque. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • Constantine Samuel Rafinesque Biography. YourDictionary.com. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • Fayette County Committee. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for the Gratz Park Historic District. Listed 14 March 1973.
  • Millard, Jamie. “Hauntings in Gratz Park.” Chevy Chaser Magazine. 28 September 2010.
  • National Park Service. “Bodley-Bullock House.” Lexington Kentucky: Athens of the West. National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • National Park Service. “Gratz Park Historic District.” Lexington Kentucky: Athens of the West. National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • National Park Service. “Hunt-Morgan House.” Lexington Kentucky: Athens of the West. National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • National Park Service. “Old Morrison, Transylvania College.” Lexington Kentucky: Athens of the West. National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary. Accessed 3 October 2010.
  • Rettig, Polly M. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Old Morrison Building. Listed 15 October 1966.

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