Ghosts haunt historic Vassar buildings

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Beware wandering the halls of Main Building late at night. You might run into the ghosts of deceased students and professors, or even the ghost of Matthew Vassar himself, who supposedly still haunts Main. Photo By: Marie Solis

Rumor has it that on this campus, not everything is quite as it seems. You may not have heard yet, but Vassar appears to have a serious ghost problem.

Ranging from the emboldened squirrels around campus to unnatural presences, now that it’s the season for them, it’s time to open your eyes to what’s really going on in the halls of our beloved institution.

Shevi Epstein ’15 is a senior history major whose father is a professor of religion at Vassar. She has lived in Davison House since 1994. During her early years at Vassar, Epstein’s interest in history was kindled as she grew up being told myths about hauntings and other supernatural occurrences at Vassar, many of which involved both ghosts friendly to students and ghosts who wanted to harass the living.

According to Epstein, students should particularly beware of the top floor of Davison. She said that it used to be the maid’s quarters, and years later, a ghastly maid may still remain.

“There were stories of people coming home to find things in their rooms moved and tidied up,” Epstein recalled. “I remember when I was little, my mother would always refuse to go up there and wouldn’t let me go there either, just to be safe,” she explained.

Epstein added that she wasn’t quite sure the reason for the ghost’s sticking around, adding, “I can’t recall the circumstances of her death.”

Some ghosts may just want to make sure students don’t disappear in their own clutter. Other ghosts aren’t as tangible, and their presence isn’t as visible. “Then, there are the hauntings in Main. Rumor has it that there is a room closed off in the North tower,” Epstein said. “Apparently, a student and her maid committed suicide together there.”

The story of the student and her maid has been recorded in the Vassar Myths and Legends archives. According to Epstein, when the parents learned about the deaths, they asked for the room to be closed off and left in the exact state that it was when their daughter died for perpetuity.

If you need another reason not to go exploring campus at night, Epstein had a few more stories to share about this haunted Vassar.  “There were stories of students catching glimpses of ghostly women in Victorian dress roaming the upper floors of Main,” Epstein said.

It wasn’t just the students whose souls stayed on campus. Epstein shared a story regarding our esteemed founder himself. “I was also told that Matthew Vassar haunts the upper floors of Main. He died in the middle of giving a speech to the board and continues to walk the halls of his beloved institution,” Epstein said.

Matthew Vassar has been spotted in Main in his 19th century attire, as well as wandering around campus during the dawn and dusk hours. But Vassar hasn’t merely haunted his school. In a Miscellany News article from the October of 1988 issue, a family who had moved into an old farm house on New Hackensack Road that Matthew Vassar had once owned had to quickly move out due to their own ghost problem (Miscellany News, “Is Poughkeepsie A Ghost Town? The Real Story… Halloween Feature On Neighborhood Spirits,” 10.28.1998).

Within four months, the article states, three families had moved in and out of the house. “A statement from Dr. Henry Noble MacCracken, President of Vassar College from 1915-1946, indicated that the home was not the Vassar homestead, but a house that the founder of the College had owned, which had been destroyed long ago.” Regardless, Vassar took it upon himself to keep the house’s occupants awake and weary during any hour of the night past midnight.

The Miscellany article stated, “A Poughkeepsie Enterprise article, dated 1914, described the Stonebridge family’s experiences in the house. Besides an assortment of creepy noises at all hours of the night, the family complained that midnight ushered in a macabre chorus of moans and groans from the cellar.” Vassar has not only haunted spots on and off campus, during his time he also had his own ghostly encounters.

In “The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar,” Vassar told the story of his own supernatural experience.

“On the opposite side near Washington Street was an old dilapidated Tan-Yard Currying Shop &c.-Returning with my Cow to Pasture after being Milked and passing the latter, the full Moon just rising, the light shone on an object in the Curing-Yard resembling an object like a Man with his head cut off and Blood trickling down over his Shoulders” (Matthew Vassar, “The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar”, 5.5.1916).

Epstein had one last story to share. “I was also told that Pratt House was haunted, sometimes footsteps and creaking or the brush of a hand can be felt.”

A reporter in Hudson Valley did an online piece back in 2010 about Vassar’s ghosts. In a segment called “Hudson Valley Hauntings,” they picked up on the Pratt House ghost, as well. “The finicky spirit is alleged to only pester people who are visiting, leaving students and faculty alone,” the article said (Andrew Glikin-Gusinsky “Hudson Valley Hauntings: the Ghosts of Vassar College,” Sept. 2011).

The article went on to say, “Individuals who have spent the night in Pratt House have claimed to have had all sorts of ghostly encounters, including hearing voices, being touched, and even being shaken awake.”

The “Hudson Valley Hauntings” article brings up a few other buildings around campus as well, including the Maria Mitchell Observatory, where people have seen more ghostly Victorian girls appearing suddenly before disappearing into thin air.

The archives even have a legend that the slightly deranged squirrels living on campus are the returned souls of English majors who couldn’t find jobs after graduation. The archives claim, “College psychics are hard at work to determine the veracity of this story.”

Colton Johnson, Dean Emeritus of the College and Professor Emeritus of English, as well as the Vassar Historian, hasn’t escaped the presence of the Vassar ghosts, either. “My own experience with Vassar’s wraiths and necromancers over the last nearly 50 years is scant. A now rather famous performance artist in the Class of ’81 supposedly governed a coven somewhere in the South Tower of Main,” Johnson said.

He added, “And when Jewett was being renovated in 2002, the president of the VSA, College Historian Elizabeth Daniels ’41 and I were called into the basement where some wallboard had been removed to determine if graffiti there were satanic markings. Our inexpert conclusion was that they weren’t.”

With Halloween coming up this weekend, it would be best to keep an eye peeled for the unusual. That ghost in the Villard Room might not be a costume.

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