Cornell’s most notorious spooks
By ZACK LABE
It is likely that, at least once, you have found yourself locked away and alone on a Saturday night while immersed in a scary movie. After the movie ends, you find yourself exiting into the hall. You run to the bathroom. The showerhead that has been broken since the beginning of the fall semester continues to drip. A creepy kind of drip… Drip… Drip… You quickly brush your teeth and turn toward the door. Scream. Oh, wait. It’s just the lovely and semi-disturbing howls of drunken Saturday night escapades at the TCAT bus stop. Okay, back to your room. Thud. Ugh, just another night of furniture rearrangement with your friendly neighbors on the next floor up.
We’ve all been there. Petrified that some ghoulish figure is lurking, waiting for the exact moment your roommate decides to leave. And yet, despite this feeling, we love it. We love to be scared.
The paranoia of being alone in the dark is enough to raise most hairs. Combine that with a campus that features gothic architecture, deep gorges, and a history of urban legends, and you’ve found the ideal setting for a scary story. Even a simple late night walk home from Olin makes us shudder—be it in response to the faint sound of laughter across the dark Triphammer Foot Bridge, or the rustling of hemlock trees on Libe Slope. From stories of poltergeists in Statler to the still-unsolved mystery of the old Ecology House fire, Cornell is immersed in secrets and hauntings that lurk around every building.
Bradfield Hall, Tompkins County’s tallest building, is an odd structure with windows on only the top floor. It was a late night back in November 2012, and my group mates and I had just finished up a project. While taking the elevator down, it stopped on the 7th floor. And then it stopped on the 5th floor. No one entered the elevator. When we mentioned this strange experience to our professor the next day, he told us the story of how, supposedly, a former professor haunts parts of the buildings—usually through “unexplained elevator stops.” Cue Twilight Zone theme song.
So there it is. My own little Cornell ghost encounter. In spite of that, the following encounters tell of a much more haunted past and present.
The roots of apparitions and ghouls can be traced to well before the founding of the university. Ezra Cornell descended from an affluent family that settled in Rhode Island in the late 17th century. In 1673, shocking news swept the Quaker community that the well-known Rebecca Cornell had been burned to death in an “unhappy accident.” Early police reports focused on the theory that her clothing had ignited from coming too close to the bedroom fireplace. But suspicions grew. Rebecca’s brother, John Briggs, testified in court that he saw the ghost-like figure of Rebecca appear to him in his sleep and say, “See how I was burnt with fire.” When a local crime team was sent in to investigate the body, they discovered that Rebecca Cornell had a small stab wound. Her son, Thomas Cornell, was charged with murder and later hanged. After his hanging, there were no more reported encounters with Rebecca’s ghost. It’s interesting to note that after Thomas’ execution, his wife gave birth to a daughter named Innocent, who later married Richard Borden. Borden is a direct ancestor of Lizzie Borden—the infamous woman who murdered her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892.
“Lizzie Borden had an axe
She gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41.”
willard straight hall
After the death of Willard Straight, his widow, Dorothy, donated a large sum of money to construct the student union building. For years, she longed to be reunited with her husband again. It is reported she performed multiple séances in Willard Straight to contact his spirit through mediums, but they were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, students and staff occasionally witness sightings of unexplained presences in the building. Most of these ghost-like figures described are men wearing tuxedos with hairstyles not of this era, who appear to be headed to a formal party.
One of the most haunted buildings on campus is Statler Hall. Third shift custodial staff have often accounted seeing a pale, darkly-dressed woman, thought to be Alice Statler, emerge from the walls and clock faces. During one late night shift in 1998, the manager of the custodial staff recalled that a ghost-like figure grabbed and tugged on him in Statler Auditorium. “It wasn’t trying to hurt me,” he remarked. “It was just being playful … Believe me, Alice is here.” In fact, after one encounter with Alice, an employee walked right out of the hotel and never returned.
the ecology house
The headline reads, “Nine Die in Cornell Fire.” During the early morning hours of April 5, 1967, an unsolved, but suspected arson fire raged through the Cornell Heights Residential Club. The former motel and present day Ecology House once housed upper-class women and students in a six-year Ph.D. program. With no smoke detectors or other fire prevention technologies, new furniture and upholstery released toxic gases and chemicals as the fire quickly spread throughout the structure. Eight students, one professor, and one dog tragically passed away; there were 62 survivors. Current students of the Ecology House often report unexplained flickering of lights or voices in some parts of the building. While many of these incidents are reported in the basement, residents have also heard a dog barking in addition to apparition-like hazes in some of the dorm rooms.
The Ecology House is not the only campus dorm with unexplained activity; Risley Hall is often alleged to be a hotbed for mystery and folklore. In 1911, Mrs. Russell Sage donated $300,000 to building Risley Hall and asked that the building be named after her husband’s mother. It is reported that Prudence Risley, or “Auntie Pru,” lurks through the building flickering lights and is responsible for unexplained footsteps late at night in the hallways. Mysterious cold drafts are also felt throughout the building during these late night hours.
There are plenty of other rumored poltergeist-type incidences on campus, from falling bookshelves in the Olin stacks, to fraternity haunts at Sigma Chi, Lambda Chi Alpha, and Delta Kappa Epsilon. Cornell’s dark corridors of seemingly ancient gothic architectural structures are enough to incite fear and paranoia. While perhaps many of these unexplained haunts are, in fact, explainable, it is most certain that Cornell’s ivy walls are implanted with some sort of spirit—be it supernatural, or just the effects of a late-night Red Bull study session.