One hundred years after the final battle of the Civil War, the ghost of a Christian College student who committed suicide over her beau's death walked in St. Clair Hall.
Attending Christian College in the early 1960s, Penny Pitman '65 heard the eerie stories of a Southern belle who committed suicide after her beau was caught trying to sneak into the women’s dormitory at night and summarily executed by Union pickets.
The war in Missouri was not a pleasant one. There were few pitched battles with glorious banners snapping in the breeze and even fewer long lines of men marching to drums as was common back East. The war here was an ugly guerilla war of massacre and counter-massacre of civilians and soldiers alike. No one in the state was ever truly safe. The Centralia Massacre, one of the ugliest incidents of the Civil War, in which Southern guerillas Bloody Bill Anderson, Jesse and Frank James deliberately gunned down wounded and unarmed Union soldiers, then ambushed and massacred Union troops coming to the rescue, occurred only 25 miles north of Columbia.
So the execution of a young man sneaking around a woman's residence hall at night was quite plausible. And the mysterious mists seeping down stairs, the windows left open but found shut on return, the wrinkled clothes found crisp and ironed in the decades after the Civil War pointed to a benevolent departed sister.
The Gray Lady walked on a fine spring night in early 1965. The timing was exquisite, precisely when a cavalcade of serenading juniors crossed beneath the windows of St. Clair Hall. The flabbergasted serenaders saw a ghostly, candle-gripping apparition walk from one end of St. Clair Hall to the other through solid walls. It could not be a student since the upper floor of St. Clair was off-limits. And living students don't walk through walls.
The students reported the ghost to Elizabeth Kirkman, late dean of students. Pitman says Kirkman was immediately suspicious. "Exactly what did this so-called ghost look like?" Kirkman demanded. The serenaders reported the figure was tall and wrapped in a sheet; one hawk-eyed student reported she saw a bit of red sleeve above the hand that held the candle.
"Red sleeve?" Kirkman roared. "Get Penny Pitman now!" Pitman was, alas, known for her fondness for red apparel.
The result was predictable. After meeting with Kirkman, Pitman and Held were campused, or grounded, for a few weeks.
An interview with Pittman this year revealed how she and Held walked through solid walls: The young women were identically clad in sheets. One waited on the opposite side of the connecting wall, candle concealed, until her accomplice glided over and knocked to let her know that her own walk should begin.
Today, Pitman is one of the Midwest's leading historical preservationists. The superb restoration of St. Charles, the first capitol of Missouri, is largely due to her determined efforts. And the college recognized her outstanding service this year with its 2009 Community Service Award.
Pitman says the haunting may have had a lasting effect on her: Maybe, she says, the candlelit walk amidst the gables, cornices and angled staircases of St. Clair ignited her lifelong passion for old buildings.
And she regrets the incident not one whit.
A major complicating factor in the Gray Lady legend is that St. Clair Hall was not built until 1900, more than 30 years after the Gray Lady’s supposed death. There are, however, other as-yet unexplained Columbia College hauntings:
- The phantom phone.
A phone rings in the Campus Safety office on random nights at 2:10 a.m. Caller ID says the call is coming from the emergency phone in the elevator of the Robnett-Spence Building. But no one is ever in the elevator. The building houses the James Walton Science labs; one story goes that a distraught science student in the turbulent early 1970s flunked out and committed suicide and has been trying to take the elevator back to class ever since.
- The casket in the attic.
Let's not forget the wicker casket in the east end of the St. Clair Hall attic. This is reputed to be the ceremonial viewing casket of president Luella St. Clair-Moss's poor little daughter, Annilee, not quite 12, who died of inflammatory rheumatism in January 1900. St. Clair Hall was then the main hall of the college, where students slept, ate, studied, lived — and died. The casket, for whatever reason, was never removed.
But this was all more than a century ago. It's all superstition, of course; dead little girls and depressed suicidal students don’t haunt the college. Right?
Wait. What's that creaking sound?