This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.
Hello, and welcome to another episode of Crimes & Witch-Demeanors, I’m your host Joshua Spellman. On this podcast we tell tall tales as they’re traditionally told and then dive into historical and archival records in order to separate fact from fiction.
Today’s episode is a suggestion from a listener, Lucas, who alerted me to his haunted alma mater: Kenyon College. When he told me his college was haunted I was like “yeah okay it’s a haunted college” but I was shocked to find out just how haunted and how rich the real history of this college is. It is a haunted college. Sorry for doubting you. There’s a reason Kenyon College always makes its way to the top of listicles touting America’s Most Haunted Colleges.
Located in Gambier Ohio, Kenyon College was founded in 1824, which has given it ample time…197 years to be exact…to collect its fair share of ghosts. A fraternity initiation gone wrong, a destructive dormitory fire, an elevator shaft incident, a car crash, and a diving accident are just some of the misfortunes that plague this university’s past. In fact, one of these tragedies nearly destroyed its reputation, causing enrollment to plummet, and just as the college recovered, another catastrophic event threatened its continuation once more.
We’ll investigate all of these tales today, but first, let me tell you the – alleged – story of Kenyon College’s most infamous tragedy…that of poor Stewie Pierson.
October’s prickly night air licked the back of Stuart Pierson’s neck, goosepimples emerging from his skin like the cloaked figures surfacing from the shadows in woods around him. If it were anyone else, they might be scared, but he knew who they were and they were the reason why he was there: he was a pledging the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and this was the beginning of his initiation.
The hooded figures glided silently into the clearing, forming a circle around Stuart and the other pledges.
They said nothing. Simply stood in the dark, heads bowed, moving at a glacial pace towards the pledges. One of the other boys made a shrill sound like a mouse.
Stuart’s looked at each cloaked figure in turn, knowing that beneath one of the dark robes was his father. He strained his eyes to see through the murky haze of the night but he couldn’t make out a single face through the inky shadows cast by the figure’s large hoods; just the occasional puff of smoke as their warm breath met the cool autumn air.
Suddenly the figures stopped in unison, mere feet from the pledges, who were now shaking. Even Stuart could feel his body hum. He told himself it was because he was cold, and not the spindly fingers of dread wrapping around his soul.
Without warning the figures leapt toward the pledges, grabbing them, separating them from each other, and they chanted “DELTA KAPPA EPSILON!” as they threw burlap sacks over the heads of the frightened boys.
The world began spinning around Stuart as he was swept up into the air and carried off into the woods. What was going to happen? He knew he was safe. He knew it. This was all part of the process. But the grip of dread around him grew tighter and tighter. He felt as he might choke.
The cloaked figures carried Stuart for what felt like hours, though it may have only been mere minutes. Stuart was disoriented and sleep deprived – having waited up all night the day before waiting for his father’s train to come in. He was simultaneously alert and on the edge of sleep, which only heightened his sense of confusion.
Eventually, Stuart heard the sound of a river. The Kokosing? It must be, but where were they going? He felt now that he was being carried at an incline, they were going uphill. The soft footsteps on the soil turned to something more metallic. A bridge? Then it hit him. Clarity pierced through his mental fog – the train tracks. They were on trestle bridge.
Abruptly, Stuart was falling. Was he thrown off the bridge? THUD. Wincing in pain, barely able to breathe through the burlap, his back ached. That was his answer. No, he wasn’t hurled from the bridge – the fraternity brothers merely dropped him onto the tracks. Mercifully, the burlap hood was removed and he took in large gasps of the chill October air.
Bewildered, Stuart looked around him and tried to regain his bearings, the cloaked figures formed a tight circle around him…staring…silent…unmoving…and without warning they chanted “DELTA KAPPA EPSILON!” and pinned him down to the train tracks.
They pulled ropes from beneath their billowing cloaks and began to bind his legs together. “What are they doing? Are they insane?” he thought? Then he felt a hand wrench his left arm and pin it down. Then his right. They began tying his hands to the tracks as he screamed. The cloaked figures didn’t move, they just continued their knotwork, one of them stuffing a handkerchief in Stuart’s mouth.
Stuart began to panic now. His face was flushed, he imagined it was steaming in the cold autumn air. Sweat dripped down his brow and into his eyes, stinging. Or were those tears? Stuart felt the dread in his soul once more, panic filling every bone in his body. He couldn’t breathe, he felt like he was dying.
And then…Stuart felt a familiar hand on his shoulder. His father. His muscled eased, though he still screamed through the handkerchief. “Don’t worry, son” his father whispered “there’s no train coming tonight, calm down, you’ll be safe. We’ll return within the hour.”
His father stood up as the other figures pulled their final knots. They didn’t seem to notice his father tipped him off. Stuart screamed and thrashed in his bindings as the figures walked away. For show, as to not give away his father’s tip.
Once he could no longer hear their footfalls, Stuart relaxed. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay, he told himself. Now even more exhausted than before he felt his consciousness slowly slipping. He welcomed it. If anything, he could use this hour to nap before the fraternity came back to untie him.
With his eyelids too heavy to keep open, Stuart closed them and began to dream.
After some time in a deep sleep, Stuart felt himself being shaken awake. As he opened his eyes he didn’t see his father but instead the bright light of an oncoming train.
If it wasn’t obvious, poor Stuart Lathrop Pierson was struck by a train. It turns out that while a train wasn’t supposed to be coming that night, an unscheduled eastbound train was headed to Mount Vernon for repairs. The conductor and crew didn’t know they had struck anything and so it never stopped….they only noticed something was amiss once they arrived at Mount Vernon and found pieces of fabric and blood smeared on the train.
Now how much of my fictional tale was true? It’s honestly very hard to say, and who you ask will tell you a different story. There was so much controversy involved in the investigation and the journalistic integrity at the time was, as we well know on this podcast…questionable at best.
When Stuart was struck, his watched stopped and so it’s safe to say he was struck at 9:41pm. When his fraternity brothers, and perhaps his father, found his body around 10:00pm. it was still warm. They hurriedly removed it from the tracks before another train came. Stuart’s mangled body was taken to the home of William Pierce, the College’s president. Here is where things become suspicious. Instead of calling William Scarborough, the Gambier coroner, Pierce instead called a local physician to examine the body.
The next thing that undermined any hope of an investigation into the incident was Stuart’s father, Newbold Pierson, who arranged for a special train to transport his son’s body home before the sun rose the next day…and, conveniently, the President of the college didn’t tell police about this departure until after the train had already left the station, along with Stuart’s corpse and any potential clues that may have lent us clarity.
Someone must have called Gwen Stefani because the newspapers at the time went absolutely bananas. B-a-n-a-n-a-s. Some of the newspaper illustrations at the time alone were so outlandish and sensational. I found one in the St. Joseph News-Press Gazette published November 7, 1905 that shows a young main tried to a train bridge, in almost a crucifixion pose, with a skull lantern on his chest. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I went ahead and put that on the podcast Instagram along with other goodies from today’s episode, so go and have a look! @CrimesAndWitchDemeanors.
In an article titled Death on the Tracks by Mark Ellis in the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, he describes another cartoon from the Los Angeles Sunday Times wherein a train is drawn ripping into a body with its decapitated head flying through the air. Maybe it’s best that this publication isn’t available online, Instagram probably would have taken my post down!
Ellis also outlines some of the outlandish headlines that came out of papers at that time such as “Stuart Pierson’s Head Cut off and Placed in a Lunch Basket” In my own research, a lunch basket was a recurring theme in newspaper articles but nothing of his head being placed in it – just that his lunch basket was found on the tracks.,
There seems to have been a lot of contention between President Pierce and the coroner and detective investigating the case. The detective, who has the most amazing name of all time, Detective Grim, accompanied Coroner Scarborough to view the body and had this to say after viewing it:
“The wounds on the right wrist and the left ankle of the young man certainly seemed to have been made by cords or ropes encircling them, while he was using all of his great strength in trying to free himself.”
Both the coroner and the detective made public claims about these ligature marks, oh my god, look at me using vocabulary, claiming Stuart was bound. It wasn’t helped by newspaper outlets who apparently had a witness, a young farmer, who claims he saw Stuart being led to the tracks by a rope around his neck, with his hands bounds together.
Naturally, President Pierce could not have any of this. While one day a headline might say “Facts Point to Ghastly Crime: Former Law Student Led Toward Railroad Track Bound with Rope” an article the next day would boldly claim “NOT TIED TO TRACK: President of Kenyon College Derides Coroner’s Theory of Pierson’s Death”
The long and short is we’ll never know what truly happened, the investigation is too muddied to draw any certain conclusions. Taking pledges out to remote areas and leaving them there for a time were a common initiation ritual at the time. Whether he was bound or not is a point of debate. However, it’s safe to say theories involving chloroform which were purported by papers or that his own father tied him to the tracks are most likely false. His father was probably waiting in the “Kenyon Bullseye” which I can only ascertain to be this circular window in one of the college buildings where both this haunting, and others, take place, it is also where Stuart uttered the last words to his father “Goodnight pop, I’ll see you after awhile”
In fact, the Kenyon’s West Wing Bullseye is where Pierson’s spirit is most often glimpsed and appears to be the epicenter of tragic events – as recently as 2016, a student fell out of the bullseye window, leading to metal bars being installed for safety.
Many students who have lived in that room tend to avoid staying there on the anniversary of the incident. John Hepp, class of ’04 was one of the students who decided to stay in the room that night. He went out for the evening, but when he came back the bullseye window was wide open – a window that is notoriously difficult to open, so it couldn’t have been the wind. Was it old Stuart Pierson?
Another night, Hepp was lying in bed with his girlfriend asleep beside him. when he felt an icy touch on the back of his neck. Thinking it was his girlfriend, he turned, but she was fast asleep. Alarmed, he jumped out of bed and turned on the light, which is when he notice the lock, presumably installed by maintenance, on the small door in his closet was unhinged. He got a flashlight and opened the door, which revealed a small crawlspace. Inside the crawlspace where countless signatures of former students, pledge books, Delta Kappa Epsilon memorabilia, and other trinkets. However, one engraving caught Hepp’s attention: the initials SLP with the date of 1905.
Students also claim to see Stuart’s spirit near the train tracks, waiting in the bullseye for his father, and roaming the campus. But he does not wander Kenyon College alone. He is joined by a litany of other spirits, which we’ll cover briefly, including first-hand encounters of students and faculty.
Perhaps the most well-known group of ghosts is those that perished in the 1949 dormitory fire. On February 26, 1949, after attending the sophomore dance, students began returning to their dormitories in Middle Kenyon with their dates. Some had stayed awake in the Middle Kenyon parlor, burning a fire in one of the “new” fireplaces – the old fireplaces had long been covered up and would not be seen again until the following morning when the building was reduced to ash.
Stray sparks from the fireplace cut into one of the lost chimneys and fallen into an old flue. From the flue these sparks found their way into a space between the first and second floors. Here, the sparks smoldered and gases and smoke built up before erupting into the second and third floors around 4:00am.
Seven students (Erenest Ahwajee, Edward Brout, Albert Lewis, Martin Mangel, Jack McDonald, Marc Peck, George Pincus, Stephan Shepard, and Colin Woodworth) lived on the third floor of Middle Kenyon and perished in the fire. Meanwhile, two other students died from skull fractures and internal injuries after, in a futile attempt to save their lives leapt from the building.
The seven aforementioned students were not found for a few days as the ashes and ruins were too hot to search through. The building was eventually reconstructed from scratch being nearly identical to the original structure.
Since the fire, numerous reports of ghostly apparitions and phantom sounds have been heard. People have heard poundings on their doors and cries of “Get out!” or one individual who heard a knocking on his door and someone screaming “Ed, wake up! Fire!” It turns out that room had once belonged to Edward Brout.
Now my favorite sighting in regards to the fire is this one. Someone had seen apparitions in the building but…something was off. On the fourth floor, he spotted ghostly figures but they were only visible from the knees up. When he went down to the third floor he could only see feet suspended in the air. Upon investigation in the college archives, it was revealed the new structure’s floors had been built 18 inches higher than the original building. It appears the ghosts are trapped in the building’s old floorplan.
The ghosts feet can sometimes be seen grazing student’s heads as they walk the third floor.
Now, I mentioned the university archives, which actually has a folder in their collection dedicated to the hauntings of the college. College Historian, Thomas Stamp states that the college’s “haunted reputation is relatively a modern thing and that “The ghost stories are certainly fun and potentially scary but most of the stories are questionable” Conversely, the stories that are most well-known, those above, are rooted in fact.
Some ghost stories, however, are purely legend, while some are real but have been embellished by students over the years as Kenyon’s reputation for being haunted has become a major draw…or deterrent to potential students. A reddit user expressed concern in the r/Kenyon forum about the college’s reputation for being haunted and wanted to ask current and past students if they believed it was or not. Here are some of my favorite answers:
“Lemme put it this way. I, like you, don’t really believe in magic/the supernatural. That being said, if anywhere is haunted, Kenyon is.”
Another student states, “A buddy of mine and I decided to stay in a dorm room where a murder homicide occurred. The girlfriend apparently stabbed her boyfriend and tried to hide the body in an elevator shaft. After that she took a plunge out of her 7th story dorm room window.” And goes on to talk about a ghostly encounter of a slamming window.
This version of the story…is largely false. It does involve an elevator…but that’s about it. In 1979, a pair of friends was coming home to Caples from a party late one night around 2:30am. One of the friends decided to take the stairs up to their room, while the other opted to take the elevator up to his girlfriend’s room. The elevator ended up getting stuck between the seventh and eighth floors, and the student pried the doors open and attempted to jump to the floor below. Unfortunately, they missed and he fell down the elevator shaft where he was found by a security guard the next morning. The student later died of his injuries in the hospital.
Many women Caples experience waking up in the night with someone on top of them or the feeling of someone on their beds. However, the best story to come from Caples is recounted in Wendy MacLeod’s article The Haunted Kenyon Tour in the Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin.
In the summer of 1995 after all students had gone home, there was one very eventful night in Caples. Safety Officer Dan Turner was working this particular night and was told he should keep an eye on Caples in particular because showers and lights had been found on while there was no one in the building. Around 5:00am Dan got a call over his radio “All units to Caples!”
The switchboard operator had received three calls in a row from rooms 511, 611, and 711 respectively. Each phone call was the same: a woman screaming into the receiver and hanging up.
Dan was the first to arrive at Caples and waited for the others to arrive. He positioned himself so that he could keep an eye on both entrances and say no one enter or exit the building. Once the other officers arrived, one of them stayed in the lobby while the others searched every room in the building for an intruder, locking the doors behind them. They were so thorough in their search they even checked the trap door that led to the roof and made sure it was padlocked. There was no one in the building…but things were just getting started.
They found a shower was running on the fifth floor, with steam was wafting out into the hall. When the officers searched the three rooms where the calls had originated they found the lights were on and the phones were unplugged. The officers plugged the phones back in, turned the lights off, locked the doors, and prepared to leave the building.
But, before they could begin to leave, another call, just like those before, scream and all, came from room 811. One of the officers rushed to the room and the light was turned on, but the door was still locked. He opened the door to find the phone in this room was also unplugged. Before the officer could voice his confusion he heard the elevator begin its descent.
The elevator in the building stays on the last floor it visited and will only move if it’s called on another floor. The officer asked the others if they had called for the elevator. Negative. Who was going down in the elevator?
All the officers raced down the stairs trying to catch the perpetrator. When they reached the ground floor, they found the officer who was supposed to be in the lobby outside, with his face pressed against the glass saying to the others he wasn’t going to wait for the elevator door to open by himself! No one was found that night and the incident was listed as an “unexplained event”
Now this story is still rather modern, so it’s interesting that so many legends surround it. I found the college newspaper from the time of the incident and the mystery surrounding the events of that night. This article explains in detail all the possible ways that the accident could have happened, complete with diagrams of how the elevator was stuck and the boy’s rationale for doing what he did (…why did he try and drop to the seventh floor when the eighth floor was easily and safely accessible? Why did no one hear him scream? Why was his coat found stuck in the doors of the elevator?). Long story short? A mystery. But the murder-suicide theory by the reddit poster is at least debunked by this news story. Some people suspect foul play, others suspect a prank gone wrong, while others think it was just a tragic accident.
There are more ghosts, but I’m running out of time! So we’re doing a lightning round!
There’s a ghost in Schaffer dance studio, which was once Schaffer pool and known as the “Greenhouse” because of its glass roof. Versions of the story vary, but essentially an air force cadet during World War II died in a diving accident, which led to the removal of the diving board. Accounts vary, some say he bounced too high and broke through the…literal glass ceiling…broke his neck and drowned. Other versions leave him decapitated. Either way—man dead, diving board gone.
Ghostly wet footprints leading to the locker rooms are still found at night in the dance studio, despite there not being a pool in the building for decades. Schaffer is known as the creepiest place on campus to safety officers and maintence workers.
The truth? World War II did host cadets enrolled in the Air Force Meteorology Program but there are no records of anyone dying. The three-tier diving board was removed in the 1950’s – not because of an accident but because the new coach discovered the pool was only 9 feet deep instead of the required 12 and there was a dangerous ledge between the deep and shallow ends of the pool where kids would often come up from a dive covered in blood from crashing into it.
The Gates of Hell are two pillars that if you walk between them at midnight as the church bells chime, you’ll be transported straight to hell. Do…I even need to debunk this? That is…I mean…Ohio is as close as you can get to hell on earth aside from Florida, so maybe it’s not too far off.
Lastly, we have Hill theatre which is apparently haunted by a car crash that took place on the site of the theatre in 1937, before it was built. However, old maps say there was never a road in that spot.
However, that doesn’t stop weird things from happening – most notably the ghost light (lights left on stages to repel…ghosts…or help them see? No one knows which is which and that’s confusing) inexplicably becomes unscrewed or the light is blocked out by a light passing by.
And ohmygod that’s the end of today’s episode. When Lucas told me his college was haunted I was like “Oh yeah, sure it is” but I did not expect the journey through time I was put on! There is so much I didn’t get to cover, this could have easily been two parts but that feels like torture.
As always, view historic images of the stories and documents mentioned in this episode on the Instagram page, leave a review on iTunes if that’s your listening platform, and just a huge thank you for listening and accepting me back into your life!
So, please, don’t join a fraternity…for so many different reasons, always take the stairs, and of course…stay spooky. Bye!
College installs bars on Bullseye windows. (2018, April 19). The Kenyon Collegian. https://kenyoncollegian.com/news/2018/04/college-installs-bars-on-bullseye-windows/
Confusion Surrounds Sophomore’s Death. (1979, November 15). The Kenyon Collegian, page 1.
Death on the Tracks—Alumni Bulletin—Kenyon College. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from http://bulletin-archive.kenyon.edu/x3615.html
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Shutler, N. (2017, October 16). Opinion | My Haunted Dorm Room. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/15/opinion/haunted-college-halloween.html
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Two Dead, Six Missing in Kenyon College Fire: Flame Destroy Historic Hall, Many Injured Escaping Blaze. (1949, February 28). The Logan Daily News, page 6.
Verdict Due Today: Stuart Pierson’s Death Will be Laid at Door of the D.K.E. (1905, November 11). Atloona Mirror, page 1.