Princeton is a good setting for a ghost story. After dark, the Gothic towers seem to scowl from their shadowy lancets. Dorm windows glow with eerie blue light: an LED phosphorescence as grim students of unhallowed arts huddle over their laptops. Laughter may chitter from any direction; groups of mysterious figures may pull students from their rooms in the dead of night to initiate them into dark orders like the Princeton Society of Physics Students.
This correspondent has seen — while stepping, in response to an eerie impulse, from Witherspoon Hall at 3 in the morning — silver fog hanging upon the air in thick ropes and coils, like foam battered out of the limit between this world and another, and a vaguely humanoid shape moving within it. (And then the shape resolved itself into a student, who turned to look at the silver coils around him and said, “What is this, freaking Narnia?”)
Over the years, University students and staff have reported encounters with a multitude of wraiths, phantoms, and specters. Our purpose here is to describe the ghosts who have appeared on the record on campus and in town — the traitor, the Hessian, the star athlete, the old banker, and others — so that readers may enjoy a thrilling tale in a chilling month. From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, deliver us!
Did anyone doubt that Aaron Burr Jr. 1772 would be one of the ghosts of campus? The former vice president is buried in Princeton Cemetery alongside his father, Aaron Burr Sr., who also happens to be a campus ghost. Reports from thrill-seekers through the years, noted in Daily Princetonian stories and tourism books like Haunted New Jersey, claim that these famous Princetonians continue to wander among the living.
Burr Sr., who was the University’s second president, keeps mostly to the site of his old office, “haunting Nassau Hall and checking up on the progress of his beloved college,” Haunted New Jersey says. Apparently nobody sees him these days, though perhaps an administrator, working in Nassau Hall after hours, has felt a sudden gust of inspiration to word an email with the furious composure that makes an administrative missive truly frightening: as calm and chilly as the grave.
His son, by contrast, is restless. People have claimed to meet Aaron Burr Jr. on campus, in the local graveyard, and as far afield as New York City. (Even the dead need to leave Princeton for the city once in a while.) He has become a genius loci, a figure who represents a sense of place. In 1892, a student wrote in the Nassau Literary Review that, while tramping along McCosh Walk “during the moony time of evening,” he ran into the ghost of Aaron Burr, who explained that the mood of the campus had summoned him from other realms: “What is your proper abode?” the student asked. “Are you, when at home, in the realms of the blessed, or are you er — er —?” “Yes; I am the latter. I am always in Princeton for a while before examinations and during them. You know what this is during that period.” We didn’t need otherworldly confirmation of it, but yes, exam period is hell.
Inevitably, Princetonians built Burr Jr., the most famous campus ghost, into their rites of passage. In 1940, the Princetonian documented an old University tradition, a nighttime trip to his grave: “The first rainy night of the fall term, a group of sophomores would herd a bunch of first-classmen down Witherspoon Street to see Aaron Burr arise from the goodly company of great Americans which surrounds him and flit about the graveyard.”
Probably the freshmen were visited that night only by a bad cough, but the sophomores, standing out of the rain to watch their unhappy underlings, no doubt had a great time.
When he visits the city, the shade of Aaron Burr Jr. reportedly frequents One if by Land, Two if by Sea, a restaurant in the West Village that used to be his stables. He no doubt spends his time at one of the restaurant’s tables working on a script for Broadway about himself and the Haitian Revolution, a musical to rival his rival’s famous musical.
Not every famous Princetonian waits to shake off the chains of mortal existence before returning to campus as a ghost. Over the decades, students have reported, from time to time, seeing the ghost of Bill Bradley ’65, the senator and basketball star, in Dillon Gymnasium. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Princetonian published an annual “Princeton Dictionary” that referenced Bradley’s ghost each year under the definition of “Dillon”: “Old-timers … claim the ghost of Bill Bradley still haunts the hardwood after dark.” This apparition is all the more impressive given that Bradley is still very much alive.
A ghost is a metaphor until it’s not. According to the Prince, after Bradley graduated, Gary Walters ’67, a player on the University’s basketball team who later became Princeton’s athletic director, remarked that “Princeton would be the only six-man basketball team in the league: five players and a ghost.” Bradley’s old teammates looked to pass to a player who wasn’t there; when a great play came together, fans told each other, “Now they are playing Bradley-ball!” and saw among the hustling bodies on the court the departed player’s spirit.
By now, however, Bradley’s ghost has long since transformed from an immediate memory of greatness into something richer and stranger: a sudden visitation of unfamiliar greatness, a sensation without muscle memory to explain it, an extra chill on a chilly court or an extra squeak of sneakers on polished wood. Did you, O young Princetonian, really make that sweeping hook shot in the lunchtime pickup game, or did you have a spectral assist? Bradley was not available to comment, but we hope he will not find this fate unwelcome. How many of us know in advance where we will spend the afterlife? Is there a better place to spend it than Princeton?
One story had it that Seeger never took his wife’s body out of her room, which happens to be the room where strange noises bothered the renters.
Then again, the campus was not always a place of pastoral tranquility, as Princeton’s ghosts remind us. Consider the Hessian, who in life was one of the German mercenary soldiers who fought with the British against Washington’s forces at the Battle of Princeton. He died young, as those who have seen him attest: He looks like a boy in a man’s uniform, a slight figure in a huge burlap coat. Though he died a stranger to the people of Princeton, the town’s inhabitants have passed down a story about his death: Following Washington’s surprise attack across the Delaware on Christmas Day, the Hessian fled with his contingent from Trenton to Princeton, where — after a days-long fight which, in the words of one witness, left “the college and church [in] heaps of ruins” — he finally died while seeking shelter in a house on Edgehill Street, a site that he has haunted ever since.
In 1939, the Rev. Arthur Kinsolving tried to exorcize the ghost using an old Church of England prayer book, but the ritual had no effect. The homeowners decided they didn’t mind. Margery Cuyler, who inhabited the house together with her husband, the Princeton trustee Lewis B. Cuyler, called the Hessian “an amiable ghost — he appears each Christmas Eve at midnight, smiles, and quietly goes up the chimney.”
As the Hessian’s example suggests, members of the University cannot protect themselves against the supernatural simply by living off-campus. For almost a century, graduate students keeping quarters in an old Victorian mansion on Prospect Avenue were shaken awake at night by an eerie tapping. They were hearing the fret saw of Old Mr. Seeger, the mansion’s resident ghost, the newspaper Town Topics cheerfully explained in 1975. Seeger, a banker who once lived in the mansion and did carpentry to relax, apparently is using the afterlife to catch up on his hobbies. He also manifested occasionally to spook his housemates, the newspaper said: “It’s after midnight when he appears, a tall, gaunt shadow against the wall of the hallway. He doesn’t stay long, and if you look again, he has probably vanished.”
Seeger’s story is actually quite sad. His wife died in childbirth during the Civil War, and he left her room untouched, with visitors forbidden to enter it, for the rest of his life. He supposedly built the house himself, which is a tribute to his carpentry skills; but after his wife died, he plunged into depression and neglected the home’s upkeep. Locals gossiped that he had let the house go so much that it looked like a haunted house, says Andrew Moravcsik, a Princeton politics professor who, together with professor emerita Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80, CEO of the New America think tank and former dean of the School of Public and International Affairs, lives in the Seeger house today.
Elizabeth Menzies, who worked as a photographer for the University for almost 50 years, grew up in the Seeger house and recalled hearing stories about “the ghost of Old Mr. Seeger,” though she never saw him. Roy Welch, a music professor who lived in the house after Menzies, told dramatic tales about his own encounters with the ghost: how he would see a tall shadow in the doorway as he worked in his study late at night; how he heard phantom footsteps on the stairs. The tap-tap-tap of the fret saw has only bothered graduate students who once rented the third floor.
One story had it that Seeger never took his wife’s body out of her room, which happens to be the room where strange noises bothered the renters. Perhaps that is why he never allowed visitors to enter; and perhaps, as Moravcsik recalls hearing from a person he can’t remember, the ghost who haunts the third floor is actually Mrs. Seeger. Does the haunted house on Prospect Avenue hold two ghosts rather than one? Was that tapping noise really a wretched soul trying to tap out a message from some hiding place where she hasn’t yet been found?
Moravcsik says his family has never seen or heard any ghosts. “You sometimes hear the tapping of four-footed beasts running in the attic above the third floor, you sometimes hear rattling, but other than that, nothing.”
Have they ever looked up and seen a gaunt shadow in the doorway?
“I have often seen a gaunt shadow in the doorway: my husband,” Slaughter says.
“I am 6-foot-5,” Moravcsik says, “and gaunt.”
No word on whether the house’s extra occupants have ever pitched in on the rent. Given the horrors of graduate school — long nights in lonely laboratories; the creation of monstrous progeny in the form of one’s thesis; ancient sins of the department still demanding resolution after all those involved have left, like a beating heart under the floorboards — an undead roommate is probably nothing special to complain about.
Stony Brook University professor Elyse Graham ’07 is the author of You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English.