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Payne Hall Ghost: Spooked by Renovations?

Sandy O’Connell vividly remembers the morning she saw the Payne Hall ghost.

It was about 8 a.m., a gray and overcast day, and she was stepping from the Colonnade into the first-floor hallway of Payne Hall. O’Connell, the administrative assistant to the English Department, was the first person to enter the building that morning—or so she thought.

As O’Connell started to flip on the light, something caught her eye. “Up the stairwell went a figure in a white shirt,” she said. “I’m thinking, this is a student who’s turning in a paper late. Didn’t hear any footsteps, but just saw the white shirt going up the steps.”

O’Connell dashed up the stairs to see what the student wanted. The second-floor hallway was dark—and empty. “Then I went up to the third floor. Dark as it could be up there. The professors hadn’t come in yet. Not a soul up there.” She turned on the lights, then returned to the second floor, even stepping into the men’s bathroom to see if there was anyone in the building. “There was not a soul.”

O’Connell is just one of many people who have reported ghostly encounters in and around Payne Hall. Built in 1830 as the Lyceum, its name was changed to Payne after a 1930s renovation; it now houses the English Department. Purported sightings include a dark presence moving swiftly down the back stairs, a person dressed in black swirling down the Colonnade, and a cape-wearing figure that whisks into the building.

Is there just one Payne Hall ghost? Or several? Or are the stories the stuff of a creative English Department coupled with the imaginations of impressionable students?

In a class a few years ago, Lesley Wheeler, the Henry S. Fox Professor of English, was discussing “The Book of Ephraim,” a poem by James Merrill that he wrote with the help of a Ouija board and séances. Several students asked if they could use a Ouija board to communicate with the spirits in Payne Hall. “I thought that sounded like the most questionable field trip ever,” said Wheeler. “So I said, I’ll do it with you, but it’s got to be really optional.”

About six students gathered on a spring evening in Payne 201, the large, second-floor classroom where Robert E. Lee took his oath of office as W&L’s president in 1865. It was dark outside, but light enough to read the letters on the Ouija board. “I assumed if I was in the room, nothing would happen,” said Wheeler.

The students and Wheeler each placed one finger on the planchette, the pointer that Ouija-board believers say spells out letter-by-letter messages from spirits. The planchette flew across the board.

“I’m not claiming this is real, but we had a series of apparent conversations,” said Wheeler. The group determined that the first spirit to communicate with them was a Civil War veteran. “The questions eventually led us to the idea that he was a guy who died at 40. He was from North Carolina,” said Wheeler, who kept notes about the encounter in an early draft of a poem. The spirit seemed to idolize one of Stonewall Jackson’s daughters. “I vaguely remember that. It was a strange little detail.”

(Jackson and his second wife, Mary Anna Morrison, had two daughters: Mary, who died soon after her birth in 1858, and Julia, born in 1862. As Jackson’s only surviving child, Julia was a public figure until her death in 1889.)

Stonewall Jackson himself may have been in the room. “What’s supposed to happen is that the planchette slides off the board and then comes back on, and that means it’s a new voice,” said Wheeler. The new spirit identified himself as a veteran who had taught at the neighboring Virginia Military Institute. “We asked him, ‘Are you Stonewall Jackson?’ and he said yes. And we asked him what his favorite book was, and he spelled out B-I-B-L-E.”

(A devout Presbyterian, Thomas Jonathan Jackson lived in Lexington from 1851 to 1861. Before the Civil War, he taught at VMI. He lived on the W&L campus with his first wife, Elinor Junkin, the daughter of the college’s president at the time, in what is today called the Lee-Jackson House. In 1854, Elinor died there after delivering a stillborn son. Stonewall Jackson died in 1863 at Guinea Station, Va., of complications from wounds he received at the Battle of Chancellorsville.)

For Wheeler, the spookiest moment occurred after a student asked one of the spirits to name the most haunted building on campus. “The letters spelled out B-I-O, and we thought, “bio”? The Science Center?  How could that be haunted?” The Science Center addition on campus opened in the late 1990s.

At a reception the next day, Wheeler discussed the incident with a colleague—who told her that biology used to be taught in Payne Hall, back when it was called the Lyceum. “It gives me goosebumps every time I talk about it,” said Wheeler.

Suzanne Keen, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English and chair of the English Department, used to have an office on the second floor, near the front stairwell. “I would hear footsteps coming up the stairs real slow, like an older person,” she said. “When I would go out to see if it was a colleague, there would be no one there.”

Keen says no one should disrespect the Payne Hall ghost. “I did have a weird experience once years ago teaching in Payne 201, on the second floor. I was telling the students about the Payne Hall ghost and I was, I am sad to say, making disparaging remarks,” said Keen.

“Up on the ceiling was one of those big old light fixtures for fluorescent bulbs, double, five feet long. It sprang off the ceiling,” said Keen. “And then it was dangling. Luckily it didn’t hit any of the students. And we were all frozen.”

The question today is whether the ghost, or ghosts, stuck around after the 14-month Payne Hall renovations, completed in July. During that time, the English faculty and staff relocated to Baker Hall. “Last summer when we were packing up, getting ready to move out, I did keep seeing this shadow out of the corner of my eye,” recalled Wheeler. “It looked like the shadow of a man kind of leaning forward, but I just kept telling myself, ‘It’s the books, it’s the stack of books.’ ”

But the figure wouldn’t leave. “It was eerie, but I also kept explaining it to myself as a trick of the shadows,” said Wheeler. “I have a vested interest in not quite believing in the ghost because I work in this building.”

Jim Warren, the S. Blount Mason Jr. Professor of English, said that pre-renovation, the door to Payne 201 would occasionally swing open or shut while he taught. Was it a cross-current from open windows or a communicative spirit? With Payne’s new heating-and-cooling system—and closed windows—that question may soon be answered.

“I don’t think the Payne Hall ghost is sinister, except for knocking out the light fixture. A bit poltergeist-y, but he certainly seems benevolent. Like an old professor who forgot to retire,” said Keen. “We just hope we didn’t scare him off with all the renovations, because basically it’s still the same building.”

— by Amy C. Balfour ’89, ’93L

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