‘Something sordid’: The real origins of the Elmira College ghost stories

Halloween

ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Elmira College has a long and impressive history, starting in 1855 as a women’s college and the first to offer women degrees in the natural sciences comparable to those of men.

Tompkins Hall/Courtesy: Chemung County Historical Society
Cowles Hall/Courtesy: Chemung County Historical Society

Naturally, with that amount of history, Elmira College has been the birthplace of some legends and ghost stories passed down for generations. But one professor points to a much larger reason for the legends.

There are two buildings of note involved with the ghostly rumors:: Tompkins and Cowles Halls.

Tompkins Hall is an all-female dorm building built in the mid-1920s. Sydney Stringham, Assistant Director of Alumni Relations and a graduate student of 2019, lived in Tompkins Hall for three years.

“Quite frequently, I’d be the only one on the floor because I was here throughout the summer,” Stringham said. “I’d hear something that sounded like footsteps… and then sometimes, my closet door would open on its own.”

Stringham said she never set out to “debunk” that there were ghosts in the building, but what she heard or saw was never anything “malignant”. She said that, realistically, it could’ve just been the pipes.

Sydney Stringham stands outside Tompkins Hall

“I’d hear something that sounded like footsteps… and then sometimes, my closet door would open on its own.”

sydney stringham

She added there’s a lot of folklore about a “scary Mary” haunting the halls of Tompkins, but neither Stringham nor anyone she’s talked to has ever encountered this supposed “Mary”.

There are also rumors that an empty room on the fourth floor is haunted by the ghost of a nun who is still waiting to surprise her sister with a visit. “Apparently she isn’t aware her sister died on campus long ago,” says the website Haunted Places. Not unlike the “scary Mary” rumors, Stringham has no experience with the nun, either.

Courtesy: Elmira College

Originally, the only building on campus was Cowles Hall. A bold and imposing feat of romanesque architecture, Cowles housed everything. Students lived there, they attended classes there, they ate there, and they went to church there.

The rumors sound similar to those of Tompkins: lights floating down hallways or flickering in windows, whispers echoing through the corridors, or figures moving in the shadows. It’s even said that the building is split in two, with one good half and one evil.

But for Cowles Hall, there seems to be more of an actual historical basis for the rumors.

Northeast face of Cowles Hall

Edith Stewart was a student in the early 20th century when Cowles was still the only building. She committed suicide by poisoning herself. According to some stories, she went to Ithaca without permission and so decided to poison herself rather than face her mother’s anger.

Cowles Hall was also closed for renovations for 20 years and only opened back up in 2012. Matt Seybold, Associate Professor of American Literature and Mark Twain Studies, whose office is in Cowles Hall, said that the building being closed off for so long that students’ imaginations naturally took that and ran.

The oldest and tallest building on campus was closed for generations of students. Seybold said he’s talked with several alumni who told him it was a rite of passage to sneak into Cowles during the renovations.

However, Seybold, pointed to a much bigger reason for the rumors behind all the ghost stories: the attitude toward women’s education.

“Beware of killing time, lest the ghosts of murdered moments rise up and bear witness against you.”

Dr. Augustus Cowles, First president of elmira college

“One of the things that distinguished Elmira College from its origins was that we were one of the first institutions to teach science to women,” Seybold said. “We had a chemistry lab, we had a biology lab, we were doing the kind of science education that was happening at male colleges, at Ivy League colleges.”

Dr. Augustus Cowles, First President of Elmira College/Courtesy: Elmira College

He said in the college’s early days, there was a general concern by many that this kind of hard-science education for women was “inappropriate” and many felt women should have been learning languages, music manners, and how to take care of a family.

“I think all of the ghost stories that you can find from the first century of the college almost always have to do with the implication that there’s something sordid something creepy, something illicit about women’s education in general… And any tragedy, or rumor, or gossip that could reinforce those stereotypes often kind of evolved into something more than it was.”

Seybold finished with a quote he discovered from the first president of Elmira College, Dr. Augustus Cowles, : “Beware of killing time, lest the ghosts of murdered moments rise up and bear witness against you.” This was likely spoken in an educational—not ghostly—context.

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