‘That’s just my ghost’: Pitt ghost stories feature University history, folklore

By Allison Radziwon, Assistant News Editor

According to Matthew Swayne, author of “Paranormal Pitt, experiences with ghosts often occur on college campuses because much of the population is in a transitional period of life.

“You’re going from a, you know, a child to an adult, and there’s this in between phase and I’d like to refer to that as these ghost stories tend to happen in this liminal area, neither real nor dreamlike,” Swayne, a journalism professor at Penn State, said. “You’re really trying to discover your direction as your occupation, but also spiritually. So a lot of these ghost stories speak to your transcendence about going to the next level.”

Since Pitt was founded as the Pittsburgh Academy in 1787, several rumors have popped up among students and faculty to explain strange noises and incidents. Several campus buildings allegedly house ghosts, including the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Union. Students also report experiencing ghostly incidents in their residence hall buildings, such as Ruskin Hall and Centre Plaza. 

The Early American Nationality Room in the Cathedral “has a funny haunting story,” according to Nationality Room Tour Coordinator Michael Walter. He said the former nationality room programs director, Maxine Bruhns, thought the ghost was her late grandmother, who was related to writer Edgar Allan Poe.

“Several decades ago, a Pitt custodian who was friendly with Maxine told her he once was cleaning the upstairs area and part of what he did was make the bed. When he left the room, he said, he heard a sound and looked back and saw that the bedspread was turned down and a head sized depression was in the pillow,” Walter said. “When he told Maxine this, Maxine immediately thought it was her maternal grandmother, Martha Jane Poe, who was haunting the room, because it was her bedspread and several other items in the room that Maxine and her mother donated.”

Walter said Bruhns loved talking about these stories during her 54 years as the Nationality Rooms director. Bruhns retired from her position in January 2020 and later passed away in July of that same year. 

“After that, Maxine was very fond of telling people this story and embellishing it with the ‘cradle rocking by itself,’ and other things supposedly happening,” Walter said. “She even advertised this as an aspect of the Early American Room by having a Halloween night ghost watch.”

According to Swayne, the Croghan-Schenley Ballroom in the Cathedral is also reportedly haunted. Swayne said people see apparitions of Mary Schenley, who ran off and eloped with British soldier Capt. Edward Schenley at 15, in the ballroom. The room was originally part of a mansion built in the 1830s by William Croghan Jr. for Mary — his daughter — before the room was restored in the Cathedral, according to the 225 Years of Building Better Lives website. 

“There was a rumor that people saw her apparition or the apparition of a young lady there,” Swayne said. “There were other stories about furniture moving, even though the doors were locked.”

Swayne said he also investigated Bruce Hall’s 12th floor for his book. According to Swayne, someone either “committed suicide or was murdered” on the 12th floor as a result of a love triangle gone awry. 

“The catering staff [in Bruce Hall] had incidents where things have moved, glasses have broken and I think they even — when I got the story — they actually put out a Christmas stocking for this ghost,” Swayne said.

Swayne said his favorite ghost story features a Russian ballerina who lived in the William Pitt Union back when it was a hotel. According to Swayne, the ballerina overslept through dance rehearsals and the leader of her dance troop fired her. Swayne said she committed suicide and began to haunt the former hotel, now the WPU. 

“There’s this kind of layer to this where the legend is, if you fall asleep waiting for class or waiting to take a test, she’ll wake you up before,” Swayne said. 

Some students reported other haunted buildings on campus, such as Ruskin Hall. According to Swayne, Ruskin Hall doesn’t have any folktales that may cause potential hauntings. But for former residents Camila Aguayo and Gianna Colon, the hauntings became so frequent while they lived there last academic year that they even named the spirit “Ruskghost.”

Aguayo, a senior marketing and art history major, said she often heard a random clapping sound in the middle of the night when she lived in Ruskin last academic year.

“So I was in bed and my roommate was as well, but we were both facing the wall and suddenly we heard this loud clap. Like if someone randomly just clapped,” Aguayo said. “I go, ‘Javi, Did you just clap?’ and he goes, ‘No, I was about to ask you the same thing.’ And we started freaking out.”

Colon, a junior majoring in sociology, said one time her speaker randomly turned on in the middle of the night despite no one touching it. 

“We put our speakers up in the top part of the closets, because we were listening to music. And then like a couple days passed and the speaker was still there. We’re like laying in bed, it’s super dark and then the speaker just turns on,” Colon said. “And like it makes the Bluetooth connection, so like you have to push the button so it sounds like that. So that also happened, and that was very scary.”

Colon also said an incident would happen about once “every week” in either her apartment, Aguayo’s apartment or another friend’s apartment. 

Centre Plaza also allegedly houses a ghost, according to junior emergency medicine major Joselyn Simmons. Centre Plaza again has no known folktales to attribute to these situations, according to Swayne. Simmons said her bed would start shaking randomly in the middle of the night every few days when she lived there during the spring semester of last academic year.

“It kind of felt like someone was jumping on my bed,” Simmons said. “And then, you know, I’d see these little things in the corner of my eye. I would just be like, ‘that’s just my ghost.’” 

Simmons also said her bed had no logical reason to shake.

“I know it wasn’t a train, because the train had come by before and all [fall] semester. And I don’t have any issue,” Simmons said. “And I knew it wasn’t people like banging next door. Because there was no noise, just my bed shaking. And the side or the wall that my bed was on is the hallway, so I don’t even have a neighbor there.”

Swayne said he likes the lesson aspect in the folklore surrounding ghost stories.

“We could go through these stories, and they’re very interesting to kind of read on a deeper level. You’ll get the sense of, ‘Hey, there’s a lesson in the story,’” Swayne said. “There’s history in the story, and I think that’s what really doesn’t come out a lot in most of the pieces I read. They stick to the stories, but the interesting thing is just how varied and how deep some of these stories are.”