SPIRITS AMONG US

In April 1978, flames began licking the rare books in the basement of Chaplin Library. A fire—the second on campus that year—was alight. As smoke rose through the joints of the 1907 structure, leaking from the windows above, the alarm was raised. By the faint last light of day, the Norwich Student Fire Brigade sprang into action.

By the time Jim O’Brien ’79 arrived on the scene, smoke clouded the hallways, making it impossible to enter without oxygen tanks. Brigade Fire Chief Ken Morton ’78 (now fire chief of Williston, Vt.) remembers working frantically to set up the portable ponds as tanker trucks rolled onto the UP.

Finally a hose line was established, and several NU cadets entered the building. As they moved cautiously down into the basement, they saw a blur—a shadowy figure dressed in 19th-century breeches and a Hussar coat—valiantly attempting to bat out the flames with his overcoat. Then, in the blink of an eye, he disappeared.

Was it Captain Alden Partridge back from the grave to save his beloved university? Or was it one of the many nameless ghosts rumored to haunt his venerable institution? Is it fact or is it fiction? Or possibly a little of both?

TALESPINNERS

A university with a history that goes back nearly 200 years harbors an abundance of shadowy corners to investigate, legendary figures to unearth, and clandestine organizations to explore. Students of all generations find themselves wondering about the cadets who lived on the hill of yore. And many claim to have been visited by a spirit or two from the past.

“Something happens after the Dog River Run. You’ve been baptized and all of sudden you really dig Norwich history and want to know its secrets,” says Randall Miller ’93, author of the recently self-published book, Norwich Matters.         

Norwich University librarians are quick to point out that one of the most popular searches in the archives is the topic of ghosts. And there is no shortage of material to pore over. Personal accounts of paranormal activity on the Hill abound—unexplained rapping on walls and doors, footsteps in empty hallways, and, out of nowhere, sudden cold drafts. Disembodied spirits have been “seen” marching in step with cadets, peering out from windows, even levitating Christmas trees.

Or so they say …

Miller defines Norwich rumor as “information shared as a matter of historical record, often supported by crystal-clear memories of events that never happened.”

The incidents told here may just be Norwich rumor, or they may be more than that. But whether they truly took place or exist only in people’s minds, they remain an integral part of Norwich lore—as real today as mortar between the bricks of buildings that no longer cast their shadows on the Hill.

 

EARLY SADNESS

Throughout the University’s long and storied past, many Norwich souls have been taken prematurely. On October 26, 1821, the Norwich Corps of Cadets lined up for the funeral of Cadet Thomas Hurlbut, the first student to die at the “Academy.” Reverend Rufus William Bailey, the school’s first chaplain, delivered Hurlbut’s eulogy at the parish church in Norwich, Vt. Under the white steeple, its Paul Revere bell gleaming, a somber procession formed.

Carefully organized and scripted by Partridge himself, the procession wound through town, ending at the young man’s grave. As cadets, professors, militia, and townspeople solemnly walked down the street, the band played a “dead march.” The dirge continued as the body was lowered deep into the earth and honored with the firing of three volleys.

History books mention three cadets dying in the early years: the second, Ralph A. Wikoff at only 19 years old, caused the Corps to wear black crepe on their arms and draw up resolutions upon his death.

Do young Hurlbut and Wikoff continue to march, drill, and rise at dawn to the call of reveille? Is it possible that they and other cadets who passed through Norwich’s gates in life still frequent the familiar stomping grounds of their youth?

Whether perishing in defense of country in one of its many wars, succumbing to illness (the 1918 influenza epidemic took five), dying from sports-related injuries (football claimed two in 1913), accidents (beloved Cadet Henry Way cut his finger in 1887 and developed tetanus), or from self-inflicted injury, is it too far-fetched to suppose that these once vibrant youths remain among us? Do they still feel that this is where they belong?

ALUMNI HALL

In 2003 and 2006, John Zaffis from the Paranormal Research Society of New England visited Norwich to speak about his ghost-hunting career and to search for spirits. On both occasions he toured the campus to sense the energy in various buildings. What he found was “activity”—lots of it. He felt it on the top floor of Dewey, where he sensed “two spirits that had been killed.” He felt it in Ransom, Hawkins, and Goodyear. And he felt it in the basement of Alumni Hall.

Built in 1905, Alumni Hall is the oldest building still extant on campus. (Dewey was erected in 1902 but was rebuilt in 1925 following a fire.) The granddaddy of Norwich buildings, Alumni has spawned its fair share of haunting tales—but none so infamous as the “bricked-off room.”     

There is hardly an alumnus alive today that hasn’t heard the tale of a young cadet who supposedly hung himself from his wardrobe in a windowless room on the south end of the basement. As the story goes, his brother came to Norwich the following year, was given the same room, and he too hung himself.

The hangings were viewed as tragic but unrelated coincidences until (relates Jeff McGowan ’96, who heard the tale from an older alum) one fateful day, when a cadet walked into the same basement room and saw his buddy standing on a chair getting ready to hang himself. Quickly a group gathered round to stop him. As they talked him down off the chair, they asked, “Why?” He replied, “The people in the mirror told me to do it.” The cadet then explained that the woebegone victims had each appeared in the mirror, coaxing him to join them.

Apparently, the administration at the time was so disturbed by this incident that they sealed off the room permanently, and from that day forward it has never been used.

Today if you knock on the east wall in the basement of Alumni, you can hear the echo of an open space where a door once was. Behind it, two rooms have been joined together to house the dorm’s heating, electrical, and plumbing facilities.

But despite the sealing off of the cursed room, custodian Todd LaValley says creepy things still go on there. Former residents recount tales of disembodied voices, mysterious knocking on doors, and loud banging in bathroom stalls. And if you talk to the students who live there today, they will tell you the ghosts are still around.

Perhaps from the beginning a pall was cast over the building.

At Alumni Hall’s dedication in 1906, the keynote speaker was Colonel Henry Oakes Kent, an 1854 graduate, Civil War veteran, longtime NU trustee, poet, and former member of Norwich’s earliest secret society, the University Regulators. Begun in 1852, the cloaked and hooded group was created to maintain student discipline and “regulate” the University. They achieved this by enforcing strict standards of behavior among the cadets, using whatever means they deemed appropriate. 

The Regulators went “underground” in 1856 when Theta Chi fraternity was founded by two former Regulators: Arthur Chase ’56 and Frederick Freeman ’57.  Some say that when Alumni Hall was being constructed, Colonel Kent, in a symbolic gesture, placed relics from the Regulators in the foundation of the building to preserve for future generations.

WELL-READ GHOSTS

Another building purported to harbor spirits is Chaplin Hall, now home to the School of Art & Architecture. Financed by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the brick and stone edifice opened in 1907 as Carnegie Library.

In the early days, students were greeted by a life-sized oil painting of women serving tea, above a blazing fireplace. Gentlemanly cadets sat in leather armchairs in the main reading room, studying, smoking, and speaking in hushed whispers. The basement, on the other hand, was a dark, dusty tomb. It is here that alumni and staff witnessed books flying off shelves, heard the eerie echoes of footsteps, and saw lights flicking on after the building was closed.

Or so they say …

One often-told ghost story is of a librarian who repeatedly found a book lying open on the circulation table as if someone were in the middle of reading it. Each night she would put the book away, and each morning it would reappear—open to a page further along in the text. Another version of the story claims how the book, locked inside a glass case, had pages that would mysteriously “turn” on their own.

Ann Turner worked in the library for 25 years, most of them as head librarian until she was granted emeritus status in 1990. Although Turner has never refuted the rumors of hauntings (because she believes in good fun), she herself never experienced the sensations that her fellow librarian Margaret Partlow, who passed away in 1996, did. Partlow routinely reported hearing voices and moaning, and felt the coldness in the air.

“She firmly believed,” says Turner.

So do many others who have seen a shadowy figure staring out onto the UP from a window above the building’s arched entryway.

Who is that specter dressed in 19th-century garb? Some wonder if it could be the illustrious Alonzo Jackman, Class of 1836, longtime member of the faculty, and the man for whom Jackman Hall is named.

General Jackman briefly worked as a librarian when the University was still located on the Norwich, Vt., campus. Inventor of the ocean telegraph and a United States Army general who trained dozens of Civil War officers, Jackman taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and civil engineering at the University until his death in 1879. On that day as he stood at his window, dressed in uniform, “he suddenly fell dead, dropped like a soldier at his post,” according to William Arba Ellis’s History of Norwich University.

Jackman was not one to be absent from the University—ever. Some conjecture he still isn’t—even now.

So great was the respect of Norwich librarians for whomever was haunting Chaplin that, in 1993, when the book collection was moved from the old library to the new, they left behind a cart labeled “GHOST” on the last night, so that, in the morning, if the spirit wanted to make the journey to the new library, it would know it was welcome.

FRIENDLY GHOSTS

Apparently at least one spirit did indeed cross over from the old structure to the new, as a number of ghostly occurrences have taken place in the new library. In 2003, Athletics Administrative Assistant Cathy Diego and Archives Librarian Krista Ainsworth were frantically trying to locate a photograph. The old black-and-white portrait—taken by longtime University photographer Homer Smith—was needed for the Athletics Hall of Fame program, and Diego was convinced it had to be in one of the dozens of archival boxes stored in the basement of the library. After searching in vain for over an hour, Ainsworth spotted Homer Smith’s chair sitting in a dark corner of the room. In desperation she walked over, grabbed the chair, and, invoking the dead man’s spirit, said, “Okay, Homer, we need your help. Where is that photo?” A strange feeling came over the women, and in the next box they opened, lying directly on top, was the very photograph they sought.

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

Dorms and libraries are not the only structures that have historically sparked the imagination.

Arguments over the existence of underground tunnels connecting buildings on the UP have been going on for decades. Alumni and students alike swear they exist. Facilities/Operations personnel swear they don’t.

Many of these subterranean rumors harken back to Norwich’s erstwhile secret societies and the tale of a cadet who died as the result of an obligatory beating or an initiation rite gone awry. Even though former society members have been sworn to secrecy, versions of the supposed student’s untimely demise have provided grist for the rumor mill for generations of Norwich students.

His tragic tale takes place at the Norwich of a bygone era. During this period, the “breaking in” of rooks was a common and accepted practice. Yearbooks from the 1920s show upperclassmen sporting masks and wielding paddles, looming menacingly over rooks cowering in their bunks.

According to one version, the ill-fated cadet was taken into the tunnels near Chaplin Hall for initiation into Skull and Swords—one of two secret societies then at Norwich—and died from injuries sustained there. Another possible clue to the existence of the tunnels is the mysterious mention in the 1926 War Whoop of an incident in which the Royal Order of Night Riders—the other secret society—sneak back onto campus via “a means known only to them.”

As for whether tunnels have ever existed, most old-timers concede that between the time old Jackman first opened in 1868 (duly commemorated with full Masonic ceremonies, a parade, and an assembly of 3,000 people) and the first Dodge Hall was built (1892), followed by Dewey Hall ten years later, there were indeed underground passageways connecting at least two of the buildings. However, it is generally accepted that when Jackman and Dodge were demolished to make way for the new Jackman Hall in 1964, the tunnels were filled in.

But this doesn’t explain why what looks like the entrance to a small passageway in the basement of Gerard is cemented over. Nor does it dispel the persistent rumor that one entrance to the tunnels still remains open “somewhere” beneath one of the dorms on the UP, or why to this day students say with absolute certainty that they have been inside them. If tunnels do exist in one form or another, those who know the truth, aren’t talking.

BIDDEN AND UNBIDDEN

Given every generation’s fascination with the occult, it is not surprising that many Norwich students have actually encouraged visits from spirits. Ouija BoardsTM, invented in 1890, are no less popular today than they were a hundred years ago, when students would descend the stairs to the basement of Chaplin Hall to conjure up a good scare. It is documented that the late Bill Wilson ’18, World War I artillery officer and cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was a notable user.

So it was hardly unusual that around Christmastime 1978, David Carter ’80 and four of his buddies decided to hold a séance. Their intent was to make contact with a former cadet who had died several years earlier. They entered the student’s old room in Wilson Hall, joined hands, and attempted to get in touch with his spirit.

After a period of silence, things suddenly started happening. A radio, which was unplugged and held no batteries, began playing; a Christmas stocking hanging on the wall turned upside down; and outside the window, one cadet saw the reflection of a ghostly face staring back at him. Terrified, the students fled the room.

Other spirits have made their existence known in the absence of such beckoning. Reports of being woken from a dead sleep to a feeling of being “held down” in bed in a sort of “night paralysis,” such that they can’t breathe or move, are commonplace.

But not all Norwich spirits manifest a menacing presence. It appears some stick around because this is where they feel most “at home.” (Paranormal experts agree that the unifying characteristic of ghosts is that they are unaware they have died. Stuck between this world and the next, they remain behind to haunt the living.)

A former NU security guard was closing up White Chapel one night when he heard the strains of piano music. By the dim glow of the exit sign he could see the figure of a man seated at the grand piano. The patrolman let his presence be known, but the piano player ignored him. A second time he identified himself. This time, the figure turned his head and asked, “Can I still play?” It was then that the security guard saw he had no face.

THE GUARDIAN OF SABINE FIELD?

Students and staff aren’t the only ones who have experienced paranormal activity on the Hill. In December 2009, NU parent Kristi Sjoholm-Sierchio had left Plumley Armory and was walking past the Sabine Field gates to her car when she sensed someone following her. Turning quickly around, she saw the head and left shoulder of a uniformed female cadet, walking behind her.

Students past and present similarly report being “followed” by a spirit marching in time with their steps near the North entrance to campus. But occasionally the ghost carries out his (or her) watch on horseback, and no wonder, considering the school’s revered cavalry tradition. Tory Decker Hook ’00 remembers crossing the UP one foggy night and hearing the sound of a galloping horse. And several alums from the ’60s recall hearing the whinney of a horse in Alumni Hall.

Could this riderless horse be the steed of Moses Taylor, Jr.—a member of the Class of 1920 loved for his “empathy, sense of humor, bigheartedness, honesty, fearlessness, and loyalty to his men?” Wounded while leading his platoon against the Germans in the trenches of WWI in France, First Lieutenant Taylor later died and was buried at Vigneulles, the local cemetery.

Soon after, his father donated funds to build an indoor riding hall—a welcome asset for a school where horsemanship was a requisite component of military training. But after the army transitioned from cavalry to armor in the 1940s, Moses Taylor Arena was converted into Norwich’s first enclosed hockey rink—only to be demolished and replaced with Kreitzberg Arena in 1998.

The 1951 yearbook is dedicated to the memory of Moses Jr., who “died with his face to the enemy and gave his life to his country.”

Perhaps this young hero, laid to rest on a distant shore, still rides home to Norwich, the beating of his horse’s hooves echoing through the valley. Perhaps he’s come back to remind us of the unstoppable passage of time and our own inevitable mortality. Or perhaps he’s admonishing us to wrap our loved ones close, hold tight to the fleeting moments of our numbered days, and remember to always, always be faithful to the past.

– by Lori Duff 
 

Concord, New Hampshire,
Sunday, June 3d, 185

To the Cadets of N.U.

Friends,

I sympathize with you in the recent melancholy death
o’ poor George*, and ever bear in lively remembrance,
“The old grey walls, the well known halls, and the cherished
friends of N.U.”

Truly Yours,

Henry O. Kent

 
 

Hearken ye not for the well known tread;

Call ye not after the name of the dead;

Sadden ye not in the wonted room

That he changed for the damps of the chilly land.

No more shall ye greet neath the barrack’s walls;

No more shall awake him the reveille’s call.

The drooping flag and the booming gun,

Telleth for aye that his course is run,

Telleth for aye of a death stroke fast—

Of a shattered sail, of a broken mast—

Of a manly heart and a friendly hand,

That has left forever our earthly band—

Of a form that looks from a realm afar,

Beyond the world’s contentions jar,

On the band that stands as brothers true

Within thy cherished wall, N.U.

*Cadet William George, who died in a hunting accident in 1855.
Cadet Henry Oaks Kent, Class of 1854. He became a colonel and served as a University trustee.

Comments are closed.