Cotton Mather saw evidence of ghosts, witchcraft and "dia-bolical handling" in the morally rarefied air of 17th-century Boston. He reports, "An army of devils is horribly broke in upon the place which is the center, and after a sort, the first-born of our English settlements: and the houses of the good people there are filled with the doleful shrieks of their children and servants, tormented by invisible hands, with tortures altogether preternatural." Strangely familiar? Who has not heard "doleful shrieks" through the walls of their room as reading period wanes? Who has not felt opposed by the force of invisible hands as they try to open the impossibly heavy, hermeneutically-sealed front doors of the Barker Center (built upon the confines of the very old and unquestionably ghost-infested Union)?
In an institution with a past as long and as storied as Harvard's, one would expect at least a few ghost stories. Surprisingly, however, there is little on record. It would make sense that, at the very least, there might be sightings of John Winthrop or one of the Mather boys in the buildings that bear their names. But no, even those most dour of Puritans stay dead. An exhaustive search of the archives brings up next to nothing. It seems that Harvard has managed to steer clear of the supernatural.
But, scratch Harvard's skeptical, scholarly exterior and things start to look a little more interesting. Rumors circulate: one account explains that early one morning, forty years ago, a cleaning lady vacuuming alone in Wadsworth House saw a grim character in a Tricorn hat and cloak silently come down the stairs and go out the door; another report describes the sounds of a phantom dinner party that filled the corridor by the southwest corner of University Hall, a displaced echo of the dining hall that occupied the building in the 19th century; and some remember hearing Bill Gannon, former sexton of Christ Church, claim that a British soldier who was thrown from a wagon while passing in front of the church occassionally rises from his grave in the basement and prowls between the pews of the church.
No one confirms such supernatural hi-jinks. None of the staff at the Wadsworth House have heard anything about a man in a Tricorn hat. Similarly, no one in University Hall, not the staff, not the janitors, not even Dean Archie C. Epps III, have heard sounds of ghostly merriment. At Christ Church, administrator Dick Whittington will give a thorough tour of the 12 graves in the basement of the church, but has never heard of a rambling British soldier. Bill Gannon, he adds, left years ago.
Does Harvard's rationalist ethos make everyone spiritually insensitive, or is there nothing here? Is there no one who can transcend Harvard's Luddite-like insistence on living in the pre-"X-Files" age? How can an entire community refuse to acknowledge what the rest of the country knows: that ghosts, like almond-eyed aliens with impossibly long fingers and secret government agencies that deal solely with them, do exist?
Fortunately, there are a few who carry on the lonely torch of Harvard's occult history. Among them is Warren M. Little '55. He recalls that in his day there was a story of a former undergraduate who, in a strange attempt to boost his self-esteem, stood in the Yard and yelled his name, which was Rhineheart. Little remembers that "in my day, students would claim to hear him yelling. Of course, as soon as they heard the yelling they would start yelling, too, so it was sort of a joke." Little's classmate, Dean Burriss Young '55, is a veritable font of Harvard ghost lore and a deliberately non-skeptical one at that. Young remembers hearing the ghosts of University Hall. He says, "no one has heard it since 'the bust.'" (The "bust" refers to the recapture of the building after the student takeover during Vietnam protests in 1969. To get in, the police had to break down the doors.) Young says that "since then, either the ghosts have been so distraught at the police breaking up the party or the breaking of the doors ruined something in the acoustics of the place, but no one's heard anything."
Just because the activity of ghosts is inaudible to mortals does not mean it doesn't continue. There are other senses we can use to spot the members of Harvard's paranormal community. Part of the problem may be that Harvard students are just too dependent on their five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing. Most totally ignore their sixth sense, otherwise known as their "sixth sense." Those that don't fall into this trap see no shortage of Harvard haunts. Several years ago, Young recounts, a spiritualist was invited to speak in Massachusetts Hall. "Students had expressed an interest in that sort of thing, and this lady had worked with the FBI in locating missing persons." Before performing some appropriately mind-bending feats of ESP, the spiritualist warned students not to take pictures because, due to the presence of a "presence" in the room, the pictures would not come out. Despite the warning, the students--"several Crimson reporters"--continued taking pictures and "when they went to develop them they didn't come out."
Young also describes a ghost that frequents Holden Chapel every year "around the first snowstorm." Young recalls that "her name is Pickham--a woman who was riding with her fiance in a sleigh through the Square when their horse slipped on the ice and their sleigh flipped over. Her fiance broke his neck and died in her arms. He was buried in the basement of Christ Church, but when she returned to visit the grave, the body had been dug up and stolen. In those days, if often happened that internists would dig up bodies to dissect. The young lady became conviced that her husband's body was in Holden Chapel, which housed the dissecting labs at that time. Every year, at the first snowstorm, she would escape from her family's house in New Bedford and try to break into Holden Chapel and would have to be physically restrained from entering. She's still spotted from time to time, and if you ever see her, and you observe carefully, you'll notice that she doesn't leave any footprints in the snow."
But the ghost that seems nearest to Young's heart is a strange gentleman who hung about in B entryway of Massachusetts Hall. E. Fred Yalouris '71 was one of Young's advisees at the time and also remembers the man. "He was in his late fifties or early sixties--this was back in '67-'68--and he was dressed in wing-tipped shoes and a tweed jacket, very Ivy. The man came into B entryway one day and knocked on our door. He proceeded to sit and talk, always "very gracious and well-spoken." Young remembers that "he insisted that he had lived in B entry and that he had been roommates with Senator Saltonstall in the Class of 1914, but Senator Saltonstall had not lived in B entry." While neither Young not Yalouris remember the name of the gentleman, they do remember that his name, upon further research, never appeared in any Harvard records.
What was particularly strange about the visitor was what Yalouris remembers as his ability to inexplicably "appear and disappear." Yalouris says, "He was an obviously eccentric old gent, and his visits were characterized by a completely unannounced sort of entry into the suite and an equally strange disappearance. One time he disappeared between the fourth and the first floor of the dorm. It was quite mysterious. "Eventually, however, Yalouris' ever-watchful adviser became concerned," Burris became quite vigilant and after about a week the man was never seen or heard again."
Young remembers having to tell the man to leave: "He looked at me very sadly and told me 'you've ruined everything,' and then he walked down the stairs. I listened for the door to open and close but I never heard it." Perhaps he never left. Likewise, perhaps none of the ghosts of Harvard have departed. As their stories fade into oblivion, the memories and pictures seem more foggy in the minds of both those who try not to forget them as well as those who refuse to see them. As Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, insisted, there are a thousand "preternatural things" every day before our eyes.FM