Section: Features

Kenyon College’s ominous history still survives on campus

Kenyon College’s ominous history still survives on campus

Pictured: Stuart Pierson, the Kenyon student who mysteriously died while rushing a fraternity. | COURTESY OF GREENSLADE SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES.

One only has to do a topical Google search in order to discover that Kenyon may be haunted. In recent years, Kenyon has acquired a nationwide reputation for haunted buildings, unexplained deaths and other supernatural goings-on; the College ranks highly in a number of “Most Haunted Colleges” lists. A Kenyon alumna even penned an op-ed for The New York Times detailing her experience in a “haunted dorm,” that dorm being Old Kenyon.

Yet College Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73 suggests that Kenyon’s reputation as haunted is relatively new but mostly unfounded. “The ghost stories … are certainly fun and potentially scary,” Stamp admits, “but most of the stories are questionable.” Stamp recalls that during his time as a student at Kenyon, students did not celebrate Halloween or take an interest in the supernatural to the same extent as current undergraduates. Though countless stories of supernatural sightings and ghostly experiences are cycled through the Kenyon community on a yearly basis, only a few are based on events within the school records. Those College-documented stories, though, are the ones that have persisted. While the story of the Old Kenyon fire of 1949 is currently the most popular of these, the story that drew the most attention to Kenyon and secured the College as a site for supernaturality was the mysterious death of Stuart Pierson, a Kenyon student who died on a railroad bridge over the Kokosing River on the night of Nov. 29, 1905.

Tim Shutt, Integrated Program for Human Studies (IPHS) professor and an expert in Kenyon ghost stories, recounted the tragic tale. It was the night of initiation for Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE), a currently suspended fraternity, for which Pierson’s father (himself a member of that fraternity) had visited the College. During the initiation, Pierson was struck by an unscheduled train en route to Mount Vernon for repairs and killed.

While the College’s records suggest a number of reasons that this may have happened (for example, that he may have fallen asleep near the tracks, or became frightened by the train and unwittingly stepped into its path), Shutt’s account is far more sinister. “He was tied to the tracks,” Shutt attests, “and the evidence suggests that his dad, who was there, and evidently participated in the initiation rituals, helped to tie him to the tracks, or at least was present and consenting when he was tied.” Pierson’s body, however, was never recovered by Mount Vernon police, and the College failed to contact local authorities about the death. Instead, Pierson’s body was briskly sent back to his home in Cincinnati “before the sun was up” the next day. There was no further investigation into the fraternity or the cause of death. At the time, Pierson’s death made national news; Stamp noted that this occurred in the era of “yellow journalism,” — journalism based on exaggerated headlines and little substance — and was used as anti-fraternity propaganda. Since then, students have reported seeing Pierson’s ghost near the discontinued railroad tracks by the Kokosing Gap Trail and in the western wing of Old Kenyon, the former headquarters of the DKEs.

This story, Shutt proposes, is the “basis of the Kenyon ghostly tradition.” Perhaps there is something about this campus that suggests an inclination toward the strange and unexplained, such as the incredibly dark nights or the often-misty mornings. Perhaps it is simply the collective liberal imagination of the student body. Nevertheless, Kenyon students have a penchant for the ghostly.

Both Shutt and Stamp believe that it may be in good taste for the ghost stories to be toned down, even ever so slightly. “These are, after all, real people who deserve respect,” Shutt said. Maybe these ghost stories, then, are the way to keep the stories of these real people alive.

But maybe… the stories themselves are real.

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