A Legend: The Ghost of Historic Senior Hall
At first glance, Historic Senior Hall seems like just another old building. The oldest, in fact, on the Stephens College campus. But deep within the walls of Senior Hall's bell tower, two figures can be seen wandering on Halloween night. A figure of a woman and her long lost lover. A Stephens student and her soldier boyfriend. Or so the legend goes.
"The ghost story is utter nonsense," says retired faculty member Brett Prentiss. "If you look at it, it's a bunch of silly stories that a bunch of Girl Scouts could've made up better."
Prentiss, who used to put on a performance of the ghost story for alumnae at Reunion, says the story is basically a conglomeration of a few fictional stories that are undocumented.
As the story -- or stories -- goes, Sarah June Wheeler, a Stephens student, lived in Senior Hall during the Civil War (1861-1865). Combining accounts from the Oct. 27, 1977, and Nov. 10, 1986, editions of Stephens Life; the Oct. 30, 1992, and Oct. 30, 1997, editions of Weekend Magazine; and the Oct. 6, 1996, edition of the Columbia Missourian's "Real Estate This Week," the story begins one evening at dinnertime. All the students were at dinner except for Sarah June Wheeler, who had taken ill and was resting in her upstairs room. Suddenly, she heard a knock on the door, and as she opened the door, she saw a wounded solder.
At this time, Columbia was occupied by the Union Army, though many residents in the middle of the border state (where slavery was legal but the state didn't support either army) harbored Confederate sentiments. Accounts vary as to which side the man, Issac Johnson, fought for, but most accounts say he was a Rebel.
Taking pity on this poor soul, Sarah dragged him up two flights of stairs and hid him in her residence hall, some say in the east tower, but that tower was not built until 1890. As she cared for him and nursed him back to health, they fell in love.
In Prentiss' stage version, which mixes every version of the story, Sarah manages to hide Issac from the administration despite every student knowing about the soldier. But the cook notices some rationed amounts of food are missing and becomes suspicious.
The story continues as the lovers wait for a stormy night and escape, only to drown in the flooded Missouri River (or was it Hinkson Creek?). Of course, that may not have happened either. Some accounts say Issac was found by the administration and executed either in the street or in the bell tower. Young Sarah then threw herself (or hung herself) from the same bell tower, completing the tragedy that becomes the ghost story of Historic Senior Hall.
So who exactly haunts Senior Hall? In the Nov.10, 1986, issue of Stephens Life, then-senior Amy Cutchall told the paper that she had seen a vision in the old building.
"I saw young women preparing for a ball," she said. "Two were clearly visible. One had long black hair and wore an emerald green gown. The other girl had brown hair and was dressed in burgundy."
Others say both Sarah and Issac haunt the hall, returning to the place of their love. Still others say it is just Sarah, looking for her lost love. And while some believe the story, others dismiss it as pure nonsense.
"It's just pure legend," says history
instructor Dr. Alan Havig. "The legend was just there, it's
always been there and no one knows where it first started."
Other Accounts of the “Ghost of Senior Hall”
Ghosts to Haunt Senior Towers
Stephens Life, October 26, 1936, p. 1
“Senior Hall’s traditional ghost which, with its colleagues makes its annual appearance on the night of October 31, will walk between 11 and 12 o’clock Saturday night. The girls of Senior Hall have invited the other seniors on campus to be their special guests this night of nights.
At this time the ancient towers of Senior Hall will divulge the secrets of the past. For many years these towers have held the joys and sorrows, the tragedies and comedies of generations of Stephens Susies. Always on Halloween a glimpse of the romantic past is allowed the seniors.
Expeditions to the towers will begin at 11 o’clock. Many strange sounds will issue from the usually quiet sentinels of the Stephens campus. The ghost will continue to hold their revelry until 12, when a weird scream, heavy steps, and dragging will be heard.
Long ago there was a stairway where room 131A
is now located. This stairway led to the tower. During the Civil
War, so the story goes, a beautiful girl, a student at Stephens,
fell in love with a young artist. Later this same man murdered her
and dragged her by her long golden hair up the stairs and into the
tower. Her ghost has always screamed and walked down the now phantom
stairs at midnight, October 31.”
Lonely Ghost Stalks Senior’s Corridors Once Again
Stephens Life, October 27, 1944, p. 1
“Attention all Susies! Get out your rabbit feet and dust off your four-leaf clovers! Halloween, with all its spooks and scares, is almost upon us, and anything can happen now.
Ghosts, witches, and goblins will stalk the campus, ominous and formidable symbols will be found in every hall, and weird pumpkin faces are already peering from windows.
There may be footsteps upon the stairs, the rattling of a broken window pane, the moaning sign of a yearning lover, the tolling of the midnight clock, and then – silence! For the Ghost of Senior Hall will walk again on Oct. 31, and already seniors are listening continuously for the eerie footsteps of the stairs.
It all started during the Civil War when a wounded Union soldier fell against the front door of the Baptist Female Academy. One of the young Confederate ladies found him and dragged him to what is now the east tower of Senior Hall. While she was nursing him and smuggling food to him there they fell in love, and when he was well enough eloped on a dark and stormy night. They were drowned while crossing a flooded stream, probably Hinkson creek.
It is now a tradition of Stephens that every Halloween this girl waits for her lover in the east tower until midnight. Thinking she hears him, she comes down the stairs, enters the parlors, and then, heartbroken at not finding him, returns by the back stairs.
Not to be outdone by their senior friends, the
south campus juniors also have their annual ghost of Lucy Wales,
who stalks the halls of Wales hall after midnight on Halloween.
Tradition has it that this apparition floats from room to room,
searching for something in the right hand corner of each bureau
drawer, and then at last returns, with a clanking of chains and
a last glimpse of its pale white body and glowing green face, to
its hiding place in room 318, the scene of its death. Although this
ghost has been in existence for only 11 years, it is rumored that
it is fully as frightening as the Ghost of Senior Hall.”
Ghost Walks in Senior Amid Terrified Screams
Stephens Life, November 2, 1945, p. 3
“Halloween came and, sure enough, the ghost groaned and moaned in senior tower and wandered through the parlors in the dark again. Its every step was accompanied by uncontrolled screams from the inmates of Senior hall in whose minds the strange tale was still vivid.
During the Civil War, a girl attending school
here in confederate-held territory successfully hid a handsome wounded
union soldier in the tower where no one ever went. By the time she
has nursed him back to health, they were deeply in love. Eloping
by night, they reached the Missouri river and started across in
a little boat, but it capsized far from shore and both were drowned.
Now, every Halloween night, her ghost comes back and laments the
tragedy. We’re keeping up that old spirit!”
Student Drowns in Elopement Attempt With Soldier
Stephens Life, October 31, 1947, p.4 (Stephens Life repeated this story on October 29, 1948, p. 4)
“He was wounded and hungry and tired from fighting. Every day he hid in the bushes along the side of the road so the enemy wouldn’t see him; by night he crawled, slowly and painfully toward the light he saw in the distance.
‘Twas during the War between the States, and he was a soldier. The light he saw in the distance was Senior Hall, here on our campus.
Finally, one night, he reached the door. With the last bit of strength in his body, he called for help. One of the students in the hall heard his plea and ran down the steps. A soldier! What could she do with him? If he was found he would be killed!
Laboriously she dragged the wounded man into the hall and up the steps to the tower. There she made him comfortable with blankets from her own room. Day by day she dressed his wounds, cared for him, and fed him with food she slipped out of the dining room.
Yes, they fell in love. Then, when he was able to walk again, they planned to be married, to elope.
Late one night, not long after, they quietly slipped out of Senior Hall, and out into the night. Their journey went well, until they reached the river. It was raining and cold and the bridge was out. The only way to cross the swelling river was on a log, laid across the water. Slowly they made their way, inch by inch, trying to keep their footing on the slippery bark.
Off in the distance, a clock chimed. Its faint announcement that a new day, October 31, had started, was hardly distinguishable above the crying of the wind as it ran through the trees.
Suddenly, there was a scream, long and shrill. The swirling torrents gathered their prey, these two lovers, and rushed on and on and on, carrying the bodies as a memento of its strength.
Tomorrow night that scream will be heard again. Every year the ghost of the girl returns to the tower in Senior Hall. Up and down she walks, waiting, waiting for the return of her lover. Then as she starts down the tower stairway, which none of us can see, the thought of that fateful night returns to her and... she screams. A scream that may be heard all over Stephens campus, if the night is still enough and you are listening.
Wailing Ghost to Visit Senior Tower
Dinah Walter, Stephens Life, October 31, 1963
“Generations ago, Halloween was a time for putting carriages on roofs, scaring people silly and playing other pranks. But old jokes are not remembered half as well as a beautiful tragedy.
The story goes that during the Civil War, a Stephens girl with Yankee sympathies came upon a wounded Confederate soldier outside Senior Hall. Putting her fears aside she decided to hide him in Senior Tower to save him from the Union. He slowly climbed the steps with her.
As the tower had no heating, she gave him a blanket off her bed. She brought food to him and helped as much as she dared.
The two fell in love. Because of the girl’s aid and love, the soldier grew strong and soon was able to leave.
For safety reasons, they decided the best time
for him to flee was the middle of the night. However, the girl would
not let him go alone, and decided to elope with him.
On the night of Oct. 31, the two sneaked out and fled. They were all right until they reached the Missouri River, which was flooding and very swift. Nevertheless, they decided to chance it. They swam as far as they could but the waves finally pulled them under.
Her love unrequited, her life ended tragically, the girl sends her ghost back to Senior Hall every Halloween to tell of her unhappiness.
Do you hear her?”
Student Looks for Lost Lover in Senior Hall
Stephens Life, October 29, 1970, p. 1
“As the clock strikes midnight on Halloween many ghosts and goblins will begin to walk the night, but one in particular will descend the stairs of old Senior Hall.
The legend of the ghost of old Senior days dates back to the Civil War era, when, it is said, a young student ran down the stairs toward the dining room – she was late for dinner. Hearing strange noises, she looked around and found a badly wounded Confederate soldier.
He persuaded her to help him. Together they managed to ascend the three flights of stairs to the tower next to the Old Auditorium. There he hid from the Union soldiers, while she stole food from the dining room and gradually nursed him back to health.
During the course of his recuperation they fell in love and when he was well enough they decided to run away. They made their escape one cold and stormy Halloween night in a stolen horse and buggy.
They reached the Missouri River and found a rowboat.
As they started across the swiftly moving river the small boat capsized
and the lovers drowned. Every Halloween the young girl returns to
the tower to walk down and back up the stairs in search of her lost
Letter from Ann Sorency, Alumnae Secretary, to Bettie Baker Bond, (Class of 1863), September, 1936.
“Do you have any information concerning the establishment of any of the traditions of Stephens College?... We are particularly interested in the effect upon the College of the Civil War. Among the ‘tales’ that are told here to new students is one about the soldier who was concealed from the enemy on the college grounds. Is there anything at all to substantiate this?”
Letter from Bettie Baker Bond, Victor Montanta, to Ann Sorency, October 21, 1936.
“As for a soldier being concealed about the rounds of Stephens College during the Civil War, I can testify to it being absolutely false. I kept in close touch with the college while in Columbia and also since, and nothing of a scandalous nature has ever touched its fair record.”
Ms. Bond was age 92 in 1936. At age 11 she was a student at the Baptist Female Academy in 1856, the institution’s first year.
Lee Ann Bowles, Columbia Missourian, September 14, 1986
“Any ghosts at Stephens College better beware. The ghostbusters are coming.
Stephens College will play host to three parapsychologists sometime this month. The parapsychologists, whose names were not available, will talk to ghosts that are said to live in Senior Hall, the oldest building on campus.
According to the legend, during the Civil War a young Stephens student lived in the tower of Senior Hall. One evening she found a wounded Confederate soldier wandering around the tower. The girl nursed the soldier back to health, and the two fell in love.
One night the couple decided to elope. While crossing the Missouri River the girl fell into the water, and the soldier tired to save here. Both drowned.
It is said that every year the ghosts return to Senior Hall, the place where they found happiness.
A third ghost also occupies the tower, according to several Stephens students. Rumors say about 70 years ago a girl hanged herself in the tower, and her spirit lingers in Senior Hall.
The hall has been closed for many years and is supposed to be renovated this fall with the help of a $2 million donation from Stephens alumni.
Stephens psychology student Amy Cutchall encouraged the parapsychologists to visit Senior Hall.
‘As a resident assistant last year, I asked a parapsychologist to speak to [the students on] my floor. My interest in the subject grew,’ Cutchall said. ‘As a favor for speaking at my floor function, I mentioned the Senior Hall unusualness, and I said I would try to OK it so (the speaker) could visit.’
After trying for nearly a year, Cutchall finally got approval from College President Patsy Sampson.
‘Basically the parapsychologists will be
attempting to tell the ghosts that renovation will be getting under
way,’ Cutchall said, ‘but they will also try to make
contact with the ghosts.’
Cutchall said that only she and the three parapsychologists will be allowed in the building.
‘It just won’t work if there are a bunch of other people running around,’ she said. ‘They won’t be able to concentrate.’
Only the ghosts will know if the mission is successful.”
Steven Bennish, Columbia Daily Tribune, August 20, 1986
“When the architects this October begin restoring the oldest building on the Stephens College campus, they will have to work from photographs and memories. The original construction plans for historic Senior Hall have been lost, but the recollections are strong enough to fill in the gaps.
Chief architect Michael Jackson of Cannon, Inc., of St. Louis, will rely on those memories when he conjures up a lost era of warm fireplaces and Victorian fixtures.
Harriette Fristoe, class of ’25, recalled her thrill at being at college and living in Senior Hall her first year. She remembers hardwood floors and Oriental carpets in the four parlors, where sororities entertained guests at tea parties.
At the nightly formal dinners in the hall, the students sat eight to a table headed by a faculty ‘hostess.’ The hostess had to give permission before so much as a shaker of salt could be passed. The president of the college was frequently present in the dining room for lunch and dinner.
Such genteel settings and functions were in keeping with the tone of the college. ‘Modern generations are amazed at the regulations,’ Fristoe said. ‘We had to sign out to leave campus. If you did not get in at 6 p.m., you got a call down.’ Students with more than five violations could not go out on the weekend. Lights went out at 10 p.m.
Until 1918, the hall housed the post office, bakery, library, and, at one time, community baths. A bell in the eastern tower rung on commencement day. The bell has been silent since 1982, when the hall was closed until $1.3 million could be raised for the first phase of the $2 million renovation project.
For now, the building’s sole resident is the mournful ghost of a Confederate soldier, who allegedly haunts the east tower.
Legend has it that when the Union army occupied politically divided Columbia in 1862, a wounded rebel soldier was hidden in the tower by his Stephens sweetheart. When they tried to escape during a storm, both drowned crossing a swollen creek.
John Crighton, a retired Stephens instructor, said the legend couldn’t possibly be true because no account exists of it in the newspapers of the time. Besides, he said, the tower was not constructed until the 1870s.
Still, Crighton, said, ‘In the autumn, when a storm comes over Stephens, you can hear the old boards of Senior Hall creek and imagine the rustling of silk dresses and the tapping of horses’ hooves.’ And he noted that constant retelling has made the legend as real a part of Stephens history as any mere fact.
Traditions at the hall are timeless. On the landing between the first and second floor was a window where girls would scratch their initials, using their first diamond ring.
The history of the hall reflects the expansion of the college. The nucleus of the building is the home merchant Oliver Parker built in 1841. It is adjacent to the round tower. The home was occupied in 1857 by Stephen’s precursor the Columbia Baptist Female College.
The school incorporated as Stephens College in 1870 with an endowment from James Stephens Sr. That year, plans were made to add two wings to the structure: the square three-story tower in the east and a three-story addition with a mansard roof. The last major addition, an ‘L’ shaped section extending south, was built in 1890.
As it stands, the building is a conglomerate of architectural styles. When the sawing stops and the dust clears, the first floors of Senior Hall will contain conference rooms and alumni meeting areas. The second floor will contain the dance and music facilities.”