Though Philadelphia is well-known for its haunted sites, the troublesome past of Main Campus is often overlooked as providing a spooky ghost story.
Each year, more than 7,000 incoming students suit up in their Cherry-and-White best for their initiation into Owl-hood. Compare this to 125 years ago, when Russell Conwell taught his first class of only seven students.
Throughout the university’s history, which is consequentially tied to the history of Philadelphia for the past century-and-a-quarter, thousands of students came to Temple and eventually left, in search of the next chapter of their lives. Some Owls, however, never left the premises after closing the book, and remain on Main Campus in the afterlife to this day.
At least as the stories go.
Tales of haunted college campuses are nothing new to Americana folklore.
Ohio University of Athens, Ohio, has been regarded as one of the most haunted places in the world. One residential building, Wilson Hall, was featured on “Scariest Places on Earth.” As legend goes, a student who was practicing satanic rituals died in a room on the fourth floor. Since, university officials sealed off the room, claiming nobody could live in it peacefully.
And in a city as engrained in American history as Philadelphia, ghost stories remain a big part of culture and tourist attraction. Though some stories are well-known, such as those housed at Eastern State Penitentiary and Fort Mifflin, North Broad is often ignored as a site rife with historic hauntings.
But with enough digging, it’s surprising what kind of stories, and bodies, have been unearthed.
An Apparent Apparition
In 1910, Russell Conwell’s wife, Sarah Conwell, passed away. She was laid to rest in the now non-existent Monument Cemetery, located on Norris Street between Broad and 17th streets.
Russell Conwell, who then lived on 2004 N. Park Ave., which is now where Peabody Hall stands, recalled seeing his wife’s spirit three years after her death. Russell Conwell was so convinced this apparition was Sarah Conwell, that he recounted the story in “the Baptist,” a sectarian publication, despite disapproval from his Christian friends.
“Three years after the death of my wife I began to see a form sitting on the side of my bed, at the foot, every morning when I woke,” Russell Conwell wrote. “I attributed it to some effect of overwork on my eyesight. But after many weeks it grew so like my wife that I consulted two physicians, who reasonably said that if I would work less the vision would disappear.”
Russell Conwell continued to recount how his wife helped him find his army discharge papers, which he said had been lost for 25 years. She appeared once more after that instance, and he never saw her apparition thereafter.
Since 1913, no sightings of Sarah Conwell’s spirit have been told. However, Russell Conwell faced a different fate.
The Final Resting Place
When Russell Conwell died in 1925, he was buried next to his wife in Monument Cemetery, which was constructed in 1837.
Local historian Thomas Keels published “Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries” in 2003. His book found lost burial grounds in Philadelphia, one of which was Monument Cemetery. The cemetery was built during a 15-year boom in rural cemeteries in the city, and was modeled after the first rural cemetery in Paris.
Since the founding of the city, Keels said, Philadelphia has battled the need to honor its dead and the need to provide its living citizens with space for homes and infrastructure. By the 19th century, a population boom in the city ensured the phasing out of rural cemeteries in honor of urban ones.
By 1903, some of the cemetery’s structures–including a monument dedicated to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette–were destroyed to make way for the construction of Berks Street.
In 1928, former university President Charles Beury sought to build over Monument Cemetery, according to WRTI.
“Perhaps, after we buy up the property for several blocks around, it will be possible to ‘raise the dead’ across Broad Street,” Beury said.
WRTI continued to report that Phillip Klein, a “prominent Philadelphia advertising executive” led a movement encouraging the owners of plots to give or sell the land to Temple in 1954.
In early 1956, the university purchased the land for a parking lot and athletic fields. By June of that year, the university broke land and removed approximately 28,000 bodies, according to Keels.
According to WRTI, the Conwells were moved to Mount Laurel Cemetery in Mount Laurel, N.J. as a temporary home.
On May 11, 1959, The Baptist Temple held a service for the re-burial of Russell and Sarah Conwell at their new burial site outside Conwell Hall.
“So with Temple University permanently established on this site of its first campus and recognized by both state and community as a necessary segment in their ever-expanding educational system, we establish this memorial as Russell Conwell’s final earthly resting place to be held sacred–a reminder of the past, an encouragement to the present and a pledge to the future,” said Bishop Fred Corson, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, in his address at the memorial service.
Unfortunately, this would in fact not be the final resting place for Temple’s founding family.
Less than 10 years later, in 1968, the university moved them once more to their current resting place in Founder’s Garden on Liacouras Walk and Pollett Walk.
All too many ghost stories recount disinterred bodies moved from their original resting ground. These spirits haunt visitors of their current resting places because, according to paranormal experts, they wander the earth until they are returned to their original burial place.
A Haunting in the Halls
Peabody Hall is the oldest residence hall–and one of the oldest still-standing buildings–on Main Campus. The four-story hall was completed in 1957 and houses approximately 290 students.
While Peabody is certainly one of the oldest buildings here, Temple’s original building was destroyed to make way for the residence hall.
Russell Conwell’s first home in Philadelphia stood at 2004 N. Park Ave., but was destroyed to make way for Peabody Hall in 1956. Conwell lived there from 1882 to 1892, according to WRTI. But it’s not the Conwells who supposedly haunt the residence hall.
In 1923, Gertrude Peabody came to Temple as a home economics instructor. She rose within the department until 1930, when she achieved the position of dean of women. The university dedicated the new residence hall to Peabody, a distinction which was unusual for someone still active within the school, according to Templar, which dedicated its 1958 edition to Peabody in light of the new building.
Rumors surfaced on Main Campus several decades after her death. Some told of Peabody’s ghost haunting the lobby and elevators of the residence hall.
Other legends speculated Peabody’s death to have been a tragic suicide on the fourth floor while she was still the dean.
Found buried beneath all the embellished legends is the story of an old woman’s demise.
Peabody, who was originally from Princeton, Maine, graduated from the University of Maine in 1920 as an honors student and member of Phi Kappa Phi fraternity.
She held her position as dean for 30 years until she retired in 1960. After, Peabody moved back to Calais, Maine–approximately 20 miles from her hometown–where she died at the age of 84 on March 30, 1979, according to the Maine State Archives Bureau of Information Services.
Mitten Hall’s Mysterious Past
At the outbreak of World War II, the Red Cross used rooms of Mitten Hall for simple procedures, such as bandaging, as well as producing clothing for soldiers, according to WRTI. The auditorium of Mitten was also used as barracks for soldiers doing pre-medical and pre-dental training programs.
Ben Roth, a sophomore film major and treasurer of T-Lights, a paranormal society on Main Campus, said he and the group believe they came in contact with a 6-year-old girl named Liz.
“I think she said she was sick or her parents worked there,” Roth said.
Roth said he and his fellow T-Lights members used a Ouija board to contact her. The only other places on Main Campus they have looked into for paranormal activity is the Elmira Jeffries residence hall on 15th and Jefferson streets.
Laying the Legends to Rest
Amidst all the hype and hyperbole, no conclusive evidence has been gathered to neither confirm nor deny the presence of the afterlife on Main Campus.
Russell and Sarah Conwell have remained in Founders Garden since the late 1960s, and Gertrude Peabody never returned to Temple after 1979–dead or alive. Yet, that shouldn’t discount the possibility of spirits that walk amongst us.
If you’re seeking a paranormal experience, Philadelphia and North Broad Street are rife with history dating back to our nation’s founding, through the Civil War and up to the present day.
Alexis Sachdev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.