The ghost stories of UMass

By Matthew M. Robare

Halloween wouldn’t be the same without tales of the dead walking the earth, but there’s no need to find a good ghost story in a movie or book: the University of Massachusetts is haunted enough.

Ghosts and related phenomena have been reported around campus for over 100 years and for several years, the UMass History Club has conducted tours of campus at night around Halloween, passing on the school’s legends.

“The tours have been going for some time,” said History Club President Dan McDonald. “I believe they were written in 2003 and then updated in 2008. They were written by a former History Club president [Kathleen Flynn], an alum [Patrick Browne] and a history club member named Laura. They were edited by Brendan Conway in 2008.”

McDonald added he had never seen a ghost and nor did he know anyone who had. “I will say that I am in the marching band,” he added, “and the Old Chapel is known to be, in addition to being one of the more historic buildings on campus, one that’s associated with that kind of activity. Places like the old chapel, South College, which experienced a pretty devastating fire at one point, they tend to be the hot spots of that sort of thing.”

Caitlin Hayes is the History Club’s Public Relations Officer. She said that students collected the stories before the History Club was started. “We were the ones who started giving out tours,” she said. “But they had a collection of all the stories that had been collected over the school’s history. The most recent one is from the 70s.”

The most detailed stories concern Stockbridge House, currently home of the Faculty and University Clubs and the oldest building in Amherst, Orchard Hill, Greenough Hall and Draper Hall.

Samuel Boltwood built Stockbridge House in 1728. His daughter married John Field, a Loyalist during the American Revolution. According to the story, “The local Committee of Safety rounded up nine local Tories . . . and imprisoned them in the house . . . one woman, upon visiting the basement, found herself face-to-face with nine angry ghosts – the spirits of the Tory prisoners.” The house is also reported as being haunted by Levi Stockbridge, the fifth president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which became UMass in 1947.

The story concerning Orchard Hill is unusual in that one of the participants is named, along with a year. The story says that John B. Howard was the Collegian’s editor in 1929 and died after falling out of a tree in the apple orchard that used to be on the hill. “Some say that on a dark night they can still see Howard as a form of white, walking on the path down the hill,” the History Club’s story records.

Draper Hall is reported to have once been a dorm and is allegedly haunted by a young woman, who appears behind people when they look in mirrors. Another story says that there was a kitchen in the building and two of the cooks starting arguing one day. They didn’t stop arguing until one had murdered the other. According to the story, their argument can still be heard on its anniversary.

“My guess would be that it’s sort of the same way any ghost story starts,” said Debbie Felton, professor of Classics, “which is that maybe somebody died in a certain place, or they were murdered or killed themselves, or they just died of natural causes, but the idea would be that it was unexpected, in a place you wouldn’t expect. Eventually a rumor starts going that ‘Oh, but I thought I saw him,’ and ‘Was it a ghost?’ and ‘Is the place haunted?’ because of the unnatural or unusual occurrence. That’s kind of the way, going back all the way to antiquity, that they all got started.”

She added that as the years go by, stories can become more exaggerated. “These stories also tend to represent people’s fears about, not just dying and what happens to you, but the method of dying.”

Felton said that, in general, many ghost stories are dealing with the fear of death and the concern for an afterlife. She said that many involve putting the spirits to rest and ending the haunting and that “urban legend-type” stories are more popular in the United States. “Basically any haunted house story has the same elements it did 2,000 years ago,” she said.

The History Club Haunted Tours will be conducted on Tuesday night, starting at 7:30 outside Herter Hall. They are free, but the Club is suggesting a donation of $3.

Matthew M. Robare can be reached at [email protected]