A spooky moon over the Cornell campus at night

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A happy haunting of Big Red ghost stories—plus our Halloween-themed quiz and a Touchdown pumpkin carving tutorial!

By Joe Wilensky

Couples who get married in Sage Chapel may have an uninvited (if welcome) guest: the ghost of Ezra Cornell, who, as the legend goes, rises to bless the marriage as the bride gets ready for the ceremony.

Sightings of a spectral founder are among the many bits of spooky lore that have been passed down from one Cornellian to another over the past century and a half.

These and other spine-tingling tales are the subject of the “Haunted History” walking tours of campus that Corey Earle ’07, the University’s unofficial historian, gives each October.

A carved pumpkin in front of a skeleton
Want to carve your own “Terrifying Touchdown” pumpkin? Watch our video below! (Jason Koski/Cornell University)

The tours are just one way that Cornell embraces Halloween—the time of year when McGraw Tower glows orange, thanks to the pumpkin stencils over its clockfaces.

And of course, Halloween was the setting for East Hill’s most celebrated prank: the mysterious placement of an actual pumpkin atop the tower’s spire.

Each year, Alumni Affairs adds to the festivity by curating a webpage of Halloween goodies, dubbed “Big Red frights and delights.”

It includes Cornell-themed pumpkin-carving stencils and a spooky performance on the Sage Chapel organ (by Michael Plagerman, MFA ’19); there’s even a game where the objective is to get a pumpkin to the top of the tower.

McGraw Tower lit up for Halloween.
’Tis the season for the tower’s clocks to don grinning orange faces. (Ryan Young/Cornell University)

The University Library also gets in on the fun. In presentations titled “Spooktacular Cornell: Scary Selections from RMC,” it showcases some of the eerier items from its Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections—such as a first-edition volume of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a Victorian-era mourning keepsake made from human hair, and a 17th-century journal that includes love spells.

As Earle admits, a relatively young university like Cornell may not boast as many ghost stories as some of its peer institutions, which have had centuries to cultivate such legends.

“But,” he says, “any place inhabited by sleep-deprived college students with overactive imaginations is bound to have some spooky tales become part of local lore.”

The following is a round-up of East Hill’s most notable “hauntings.” Make sure to scroll down to our trivia quiz at the bottom—and share your favorite spooky Cornell lore in the comments!

Spirit of Sage

The legend of Ezra’s appearance at Cornellian nuptials stems from the chapel’s logistics: its only space suitable for a bride to prepare is its crypt, home to the sarcophagi and remains of many of the University’s early dignitaries.

As the story goes, if the founder manifests, it means he has deemed the couple a suitable match. An additional twist: if a bride is particularly hesitant, Ezra will give her a helpful nudge down the aisle.

Straight Scares

Tuxedo-clad spirits have reportedly appeared within the Gothic walls of the Straight; one explanation holds that they vanished en route to a long-ago formal soiree. (Or perhaps, like so many of the living, they got lost amid the byzantine floors and eccentric room numbers.)

Willard Straight Hall glows at night.
What spectral spirits haunt the Straight? (Lindsay France/Cornell University)

The building’s namesake, Willard Straight 1901, died of influenza toward the end of World War I, aged just 38. His heartbroken widow, Dorothy—who gifted the funds for the student union in his memory—allegedly made several attempts to contact him in the afterlife, hiring mediums and even holding seances in the building.

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Perhaps her efforts had a lasting effect: some reports of ghostly apparitions cite just one tuxedoed figure, that of Straight himself. And in the WSH room where Dorothy used to stay on visits to campus, observers have noted mysteriously opened doors, cold temperatures, and flickering lights.

Top Hats and Tales

Another group of male spirits (this time sporting 19th-century garb, complete with top hats) were allegedly seen twice near the Ag Quad in the 1980s: once when Stone Hall was being demolished, and again a couple of years later when the old Roberts Hall met the same fate.

Did they cross over from the great beyond to protest the demolitions? The hats they wore reportedly resembled one that belonged to Isaac Roberts, the first ag college dean—which has been passed down to each of his successors as a symbol of office.

Naughty Namesakes?

The Risley Hall dining room
Inside Risley, the ghost of “Auntie Pru” has been known to roam the halls. (Cornell University)

Prudence Risley, affectionately known as “Auntie Pru,” has long been reported to flit around castle-like Risley Hall, flickering the lights and causing cold drafts.

Alice Statler (widow of Ellsworth Statler) has apparently been sighted multiple times in the couple’s namesake hall over the decades.

Her demeanor is less friendly than Auntie Pru’s: pale and dressed in dark clothing, she passes through walls, suddenly emerges from clockfaces, and occasionally harasses custodians.

One former employee claimed that the large portrait of Alice that hangs in a secured room was found crooked, morning after morning—despite being straightened the previous day.

Spelled Books

A ghost or some other malevolent spirit has occasionally been spotted in Olin Library. According to legend, it’s that of a student who perished in the building, dramatically and tragically.

Depending on the version of the tale, the hapless undergrad was either crushed by a bookshelf or mangled in mechanized storage. (Editor’s note: neither thing ever happened.)

For Whom the Bells Toll

Jennie McGraw Fiske, who donated the University’s original set of chimes, has long been said to haunt her namesake clocktower late at night.

The bells in McGraw Tower
The tower’s bells are Jennie’s lasting legacy. (Rare and Manuscript Collections/Cornell University)

McGraw Fiske died fairly young: she perished from tuberculosis in 1881 at age 41, shortly after marrying D. Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first librarian.

(Opinions vary as to whether it was a true love match, or if Fiske wed the sickly heiress with an eye toward inheriting her fortune; both are buried in the Sage Chapel crypt.)

A decade after her passing, the bells were installed in the newly completed library tower, where they have rung ever since.

Perhaps Jennie’s spirit is roused by a particular tune? The Chimes’ beloved “Cornell Changes” is also known as the “Jennie McGraw Rag.”

Eerie Ups and Downs

Might even a relatively new structure like Bradfield Hall boast a ghost? A former professor reportedly haunts the tall, mainly windowless building on Tower Road.

The most commonly cited evidence: unexplained elevator stops, when the doors mysteriously open but no one enters or exits ... or do they?

Take our Halloween Quiz!

Photo illustration of Llenroc in fall with storm clouds and lightning

Test your knowledge of eerie Cornell trivia! How many of these 10 questions can you answer?

Back to main story.

Top: Photo by Ryan Young/Cornell University.

Published October 20, 2022


What’s your favorite spooky Big Red tale?

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Hoare, Class of 1982

    The chimes concert with an emphasis on the minor key and classics, such as Night on Bald Mountain. Had fun at the tower party, but things got a bit crowded when the Sousaphones came up!

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