Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Christian College prank haunts St. Clair Hall

One autumn day when I was waiting at my desk for the nine o’clock swim class to arrive, the students came up the steps chattering about a spooky thing that had happened on campus the night before.

Christian College, now Columbia College, was a two-year girls’ school with about 350 students. That was in the 1930s, when I was teaching five classes each week while still a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I was curious about this spooky thing that had them guessing.

It was a tradition at Christian for the first year students, called juniors, to go out on campus and serenade their "big sisters" in the dorms: Missouri Hall, St. Clair Hall and the new Hughes Hall. Big sisters were second year students, called seniors, who helped the younger girls get a good start on campus. Later, the seniors surprised the little sisters by singing college songs under their windows.

This spooky thing that both juniors and seniors were talking about the next day was a ghostly figure carrying a lighted candle in the unoccupied third floor of St. Clair Hall. "The Grey Lady … " someone screamed, interrupting the serenading. The screaming brought other students out of the dorms to see the figure proceeding slowly from room to room without interruption.

The Grey Lady’s "ghost" seemed to go through solid walls that divided the vacant student rooms. The ghost story went as follows: During the Civil War, a Christian College senior was notified of the death of her fiance, a Confederate soldier. The grief-stricken girl supposedly leapt to her death from a third-floor window, and her "ghost" continues to roam the halls. The Grey Lady was reportedly sighted in halls, attics, closets and vacant rooms. She also slipped into girls’ rooms and raised the windows on hot days or closed them in sudden rain. She even occasionally did a student’s ironing!

The dean of women, Elizabeth Kirkman, decided to get to the bottom of what was obviously a student prank. She asked students, "Exactly what did this so-called ghost look like?" One said it was tall and wrapped in a sheet or something and "in the hand that held the candle, I could see a bit of a red sleeve ... " The astute dean promptly said, "Go get Penny Pittman!" Penny was a fun-loving girl, a fine athlete, a scholarship student — and mischievous. Dean Kirkman was right!

Joan Gilbert, author of "Missouri Ghosts," interviewed Pittman and learned how she "went through solid walls." She and an accomplice were identically clad in big beach towels. "One of us waited on the opposite side of the connecting wall, candle concealed, until her accomplice knocked to let her know that her own walk should begin. Then the first ghost scurried out into the hall and past the room being haunted, into the next room, and waited for the signal ... " Pittman added that staircases went down at each end of the hall so "we were sure we could get out quickly if we needed to." Both "ghosts" were confined to the campus for a week for frightening some of the other students.

Now in my mid-80s, I’ve never even imagined that ghosts exist. In "Missouri Ghosts," a 220-page book, author Joan Gilbert includes this quote from Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: " ... are we so advanced in our knowledge that we can prove the impossibility of ghosts?"

"Missouri’s Ghosts" includes a four-page bibliography for further study. Gilbert’s book is available locally at bookstores and at Friends Together Antiques. A sequel is expected next year. For more information, call 442-2809.

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