Explore the creepy legends of the University of Virginia with author and historian Coy Barefoot.

Ghosts in Alderman

A recent list of statistics published about the University library includes many of the expected facts, things like the number of books (more than 5.1 million) and manuscripts and archives (19.1 million). One entry, however, is more surprising: “Ghosts reported: 2.”

One of these library ghosts is believed to be Dr. Bennett Wood Green, a Confederate surgeon whose collection of books was donated to the University library after he died in 1913. According to legend, Green’s ghost once haunted the Rotunda, which served as the library until 1938. When the books were moved to the newly constructed Alderman Library, Green’s ghost followed them across McCormick Road. Students and staff still report unexplained footsteps and the sense that someone is watching them, particularly after midnight. Incidentally, one of the Rotunda alleys is named for Green.

The library’s other ghost haunts the Garnett Room, which houses a large collection of books donated by the family of Muscoe Russell Hunter Garnett. The ghost is not a member of the Garnett family, and is instead believed to be the ghost of a physician who often visited the family’s home in Fredericksburg, Va. The estate was abandoned after the Civil War and was vacant for many years. The collection of books, however, remained immaculate, and some say the doctor’s ghost took care of the collection he had admired while alive. The books were eventually given to Alderman Library, where the ghost still watches over the collection.

Stiff Hall

Students of past generations complained about the smell coming from the Anatomical Laboratory, where human dissections once occurred. Located behind Peabody Hall, the building was informally known as Stiff Hall (not to be confused with the Jefferson-designed Anatomical Theater, demolished in 1939).

Virginius Dabney writes in Mr. Jefferson's University: “A letter to the newspaper in 1924 complained of an ‘offensive stench from the anatomical laboratory which daily infests the Peabody Hall lecture room … Only last week I saw a large flock of great dark birds circling over the University.’”

Stiff Hall, Dabney writes, was “carefully avoided by small boys and others who gave its gruesome contents a wide berth. It was used at times in fraternity initiations … [a student] in about the year 1918 was instructed to visit the “stiff hall” at midnight, pull one of the corpses out of its vat, and recite The Raven. He survived.”

What Happened in Poe’s room?

Deep in debt and unable to pay his bills, Edgar Allan Poe left the University of Virginia on December 15, 1826. According to UVA’s Raven Society, Poe is believed to have etched a mysterious message on one of the windowpanes of his room on the West Range before his departure:

O Thou timid one, do not let thy
Form slumber within these
Unhallowed walls,
For herein lies
The ghost of an awful crime.

The University Cemetery’s horrific harvest

What lies beneath the plot of land near the corner of Alderman and McCormick roads has long been the most important part of this piece of UVA real estate. Now the site of University Cemetery and Columbarium, the land was purchased by UVA in 1825 because the pipes that supplied water to the University ran underneath the property.

Three years later, a typhoid epidemic hit Charlottesville and the first bodies were buried there. It wasn’t long before grave robbers began to frequent the cemetery. A law that forbade the dissection or possession of human bodies created a healthy black market for cadavers supplied to medical schools. The problem became so bad the families staged fake funerals and, later, secretly buried the bodies under cover of darkness. Most of the grave robbing finally ended after it became legal for medical schools to study and dissect human corpses.

’Til death do us part

Tall tales surround Pavilion VI, also known as the Romance Pavilion. One legend, told by the University Guides during their “Ghost Tours” of the Academical Village involves the death of a professor in the mid-1800s and the widow who didn’t want leave her home on the Lawn. She kept her husband’s corpse sitting by the window, even changing his clothes daily, until the professor’s death was discovered and she was asked to leave the Grounds.

Another apocryphal story involving the Romance Pavilion tells of a professor’s daughter who fell in love with a student whom her parents did not approve of. After they broke up the relationship, the daughter died of a broken heart and her spirit still haunts the pavilion.

The real story? The pavilion got its nickname because Romance languages were taught there for many years.