A Haunting on the Campus of Washington and Lee: The Payne Hall Ghost
Molly Bush and Katey Smith
Overview of Project
Students of Professor Brock’s Spring Term class on the History of Ghosts paired up to conduct interviews with Lexington residents to record ghost legends in the local community. Our oral interview features two members of Washington and Lee’s faculty who speak of their personal experiences with the supposed ghost of Payne Hall. The final podcast featuring our interviews is uploaded above. The Payne Hall Ghost Presentation is included as well.
History of Payne Hall
Built in 1830, Payne Hall was first called the Lyceum and was added to create additional academic spaces (offices, classrooms, etc.) on campus. It was also referred to as the Athenaeum, specifying its initial purpose of a science building. Payne’s Hall collection of classrooms still features many large windows, evidence of past laboratory spaces. In 1936, the building was official given its name of Payne Hall after Judge Barton Payne, a major financial supporter of the Colonnade’s fireproofing and renovation efforts. Payne Hall was most recently renovated in 2011. This renovation is mentioned in our podcast above. Today it is home to the University’s English Department.
Dean Suzanne Keen
A member of Washington and Lee’s English Department for the last twenty-one years, Dean Keen is a skeptic of ghosts and the supernatural. Although she does not believe in ghosts, she enjoys hearing and telling ghost stories. Despite the surprising nature of her experience detailed above, she is still not sure she believes in the ghost of Payne Hall. Instead, she contributes the incident to mere coincidence.
Mrs. Sandra O’Connell
Born and raised in Lexington, Mrs. Sandra O’Connell has been the administrative assistant of the English Department for the last thirty-one years. Her husband, Coach “O”, volunteers as an assistant men’s lacrosse coach for the Generals. She has three children and four grandchildren. Mrs. O’Connell had a very unique personal encounter with the Payne Hall ghost. She is a believer in happy ghost spirits as she welcomes them into the “House of Payne.”
The several stories told in our podcast point to the possibility of a ghost, or several, roaming the hallways and classrooms of Payne Hall. Each of the recounts is unique to the teller. We speculate that Washington and Lee’s ghost of Payne Hall serves as a unifier between past and present community members under a common collegiate history. Perhaps, the ghost echoes memories of Washington and Lee’s southern identity and associations with the Civil War.
A big thank-you to Dean Keen and Mrs. O’Connell for being so willing and open to speak with us about the ghost of Payne Hall—it was a pleasure to chat with you both and we appreciate your contributions to our podcast!
Mr. Tom Camden, Washington and Lee graduate of the class of 1976 and head of Special Collections in our very own Leyburn Library, grew up at Buffalo Forge right here in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Buffalo Forge is a large plantation, and was home to many slaves in its past. The book, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, shares the full history of the plantation. He brought this book along to show us when we met for an interview.
His family owns what used to be the general store for the plantation. He grew up there, and still owns the house. A massive 21-room house which belongs to the family of the builders also sits on the property, near the general store. At the store, slaves held accounts and were allowed to trade. The plantation still ran as a mill during his childhood, and his family owned the store but hired a storekeeper to operate it.
Camden had many stories to share about his experiences at the plantation- in both houses though this podcast only covers those which took place in his own house- and the energy associated with its history. He firmly believes that a place with that much history inevitably never loses its energy.
“Now there’s no way you can grow up in an environment like this… without coming to some realization that there’s this vibe going on, there’s stuff going on here all the time that’s sort of unexplainable.”
During the Civil War, a man named Major Rex lived in Mr. Camden’s home and ran the store. Camden’s mother told the boys at a young age that Major Rex still audibly walked around in the attic. Later, Camden found out that Major Rex did in fact hang himself in the attic, whether or not his mother knew that when she told this story.
Another interesting experience Camden talked about followed his grandmother’s death. His mother put his grandmother’s rocking chair in his room, and it rocked back and forth, unprovoked, bathed in eerie moonlight.
Growing up, he maintained stubbornly that ghosts are a figment of the imagination and “major Rex in the attic” was simply a trick to get his brother and him to behave. However, as he grew up, mysterious happenings around the house and plantation led him to conclude that ghosts there are active, and the history of the plantation must leave energy, an aura, to haunt the property today.
“We’ve always known we were going to inherit this legacy. And now, we talk about the burden of history because it is extraordinarily a burden.”
Professor Alison Bell is a social scientist, anthropologist, archeologist and…. ghost believer? In our podcast, we sought out a ghost story from a local Lexington personality, hoping to shed some light on supernatural belief in our area. Although Professor Bell’s story speaks for itself, some introduction to Professor Bell herself is necessary to fully grasp her story.
Alison Bell has spent most of her adult life in Central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. She completed her Bachelors here at Washington and Lee University with a double major in Anthropology and English. She was among the third class of women to attend W&L and that itself speaks to her incredible personality and drive. Professor Bell went on to earn her Doctorate of Philosophy in Anthropology from the University of Virginia. She has spent several years teaching at various institutions through Virginia and the East Coast, including a position as a English professor at Armstrong State College. Her research interests include material culture, consumption and production, and the 18th and 19th century eastern United States.
However impressive her CV is, as we met Professor Bell in her office, we immediately felt at ease. Her warm personality and contagious laughter filled the room as she spun the tale of her ghostly interaction at the age of 18 in Kalispell, Montana. She did not hold back recounting the details of her story, but shared with open ease and the comfort of a story told many times over. As an educated women, her experience with the supernatural is surprising. After hearing her story, it is near impossible to decide if this indeed a ghost or merely a lucky chance encounter with a helpful stranger.
As you listen to her tale, consider the full reality of her experience. A young woman, alone, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere – the true fear that must have surrounded her as she was abandoned at a country gas station. This alone makes a terrifying tale. Add in a strange man and a nonexistent house and the tale progresses to something out of a horror movie. Listen to it without judgment, accept the reality of her experience, and try to decide – do you believe in ghosts?
This podcast was created by Hannah Austin and Lily MacDonald for the History of Ghosts Spring Term class, 2016. Featured in this podcast is an interview with Professor Donald Gaylord, an archaeologist with 20 years of experience. A graduate from the University of Virginia, Professor Gaylord spent 12 years working at Monticello before accepting a position at W&L in 2012. In the interview, he tells us about a personal experience concerning the haunted archaeology building on campus, an experience that he shared with Archaeology Dog Murphy (the Jack Russell Terrier pictured below).
Murphy was Professor Gaylord’s assistant at Monticello and here at W&L, until he unfortunately passed away this March. The story told in the podcast features Murphy as a main character, as it was either his mischievous antics or a ghostly encounter, or perhaps a combination of both, that brought about this story.
Also in the podcast, Professor Gaylord answers a few of the following questions: Do you believe in ghosts? Would you enjoy meeting a ghost? And, what other strange experiences have you had that could be attributed to the supernatural? All these questions and more are addressed in the podcast, so please, take a listen!
Ghosts of Rockbridge Powerpoint-This attached powerpoint provides an array of pictures you can look at while listening to the podcast. It is timed to move with the podcast as you listen.
Many who visit, live, or attend school in Lexington, Virginia would describe it as a sleepy, truly timeless college town that is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Doug Harwood, founder, editor, and publisher of The Rockbridge Advocate, is not one of these people. Harwood came to Rockbridge County from Massachusetts almost forty-five years ago to attend school at Washington and Lee University. A journalism major, he told us that he found his way to W&L because he had heard both the town and school were fifty years behind the times, almost like stepping back into the 1920s. Even though Rockbridge County has changed dramatically and he sees any kind of change as bad, Doug chose to settle in the area immediately following his graduation.
For the next eighteen years, Harwood worked many jobs including bartender, dishwasher, disc jockey, and editor of a small paper based in Buena Vista before he decided to start his own paper, The Rockbridge Advocate, in 1992. Harwood told us that he is not in the business to make money, but rather because he loves what he does. Since establishing the paper, Harwood has been inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame and won first place in editorial writing and second place in investigative journalism in the 1977 Virginia Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.
Having lived in Rockbridge County for so long and having spent so much time investigating the life and culture of the area, Harwood had many stories to tell of the ghost and supernatural history of the area. Harwood noted in his interview with us that there are many ghost stories based in Rockbridge County that everyone knows, either through word of mouth or because they have gone on the local ghost tour. He believes that the commodification of these stories trivializes the content, taking away from the mystery and suspense of the tale. He believes the best stories are the ones that no one knows about. Included in this podcast are two of these unknown ghost stories. One is a personal experience of Doug’s that followed his graduation from Washington and Lee and the other is the story of the McChessney Ghost, a tale that has fallen through the cracks of Rockbridge ghost lore.
Harwood’s personal experience took place in an old farm house near Buena Vista. He lived in the house while a student at Washington and Lee and during the summer following his graduation. While living there, he and his roommates experienced many strange noises – including the sound of footsteps walking in the attic, and up and down the stairs. Describing these noises as a friendly presence, Harwood thought nothing of it until one night in the summer following his graduation when the presence did a little more than just walk around the old farmhouse.
As described to us by Doug, the tale of the McChesney plantation and its malevolent spirit began in earnest sometime in the space between 1825 and 1835 in Brownsburg, Virginia. The October, 1995 edition of The Rockbridge Advocate is the main source of information on the McChesney ghost. It contains much more information on the McChesney ghost, than is available on this page, but for the sake of brevity, we will only cover important segments of this saga as described to us by Doug during our interview. We begin with the day that marked the McChesneys and their slaves’ descent into a life wracked by fear and chaos. It was on this day that young Ellen McChesney, Dr. McChesney’s daughter, and her slave friend Maria, were in the plantation yard enjoying a book together. It was at this time that the two girls, fast friends by this time in their youth, were suddenly and without warning rained upon by “a volley of stones… apparently from nowhere”.
A week following this incident, the stones, purportedly as large as a grown man’s fist, “began falling again, red-hot this time, scorching the grass, falling through windows, breaking the window panes, and burning the heavy window hangings”. These “rock showers”, outside of the control or explanation of the McChesneys, became a commonplace occurrence on the plantation, but that did not stop the phenomenon from gaining notoriety in the surrounding area. Spectators frequently came hoping to catch a glimpse of the rock showers or the spirit thought to be the source of the activity, but the vast majority if not all left disappointed by the lack of action.
In response to the popular interest in the strange phenomena occurring at the McChesney plantation, two faculty from Washington College, Professors Preston and Radford, came out to Brownsburg to have a look for themselves. The evening of their arrival, while sitting with Dr. McChesney at the house’s dinner table, “a pile of hot bricks fell upon the table, breaking the dishes and smashing everything.” Immediately after this, Maria, the slave girl who had been rained upon with stone while with Ellen McChesney, rushed through the house’s door, “Panicked. Screaming. Flailing her arms to protect herself. Begging her assailant to stop beating her”, “But there was no assailant that could be seen”. Dr. McChesney and Professors Preston and Radford were helpless against Maria’s unseen attacker. She eventually succumbed to the pain and lost consciousness. When she came around, and continuously afterward, she cited “de ole woman” as the source of her torment. Aside from routinely chasing Maria around the plantation, “de ole woman” pricked Maria with pins and beat her with a “big stick” – evidence of which was found by Mrs. McChesney in the form of pin pricks and bruises all over Maria’s body.
Realizing that Maria seemed to be at the center of this supernatural activity, Dr. McChesney decided to experiment by sending her to stay with his brother-in-law, Thomas Steele. McChesney hoped that Maria’s stay with Steele would help ascertain whether or not she was truly the source of their troubles. Unfortunately for both Steele and McChesney, not only did the activity continue at the plantation in Maria’s absence, but Maria’s brief sojourn to Steele’s Tavern caused the rock showers to occur there as well. Indeed, one day when the McChesney family and friends were at the house sitting around a fire, “a stone, seeming to come from a corner of the room… struck Mrs. Thomas Steele on the head… her scalp was cut to the bone, causing profuse bleeding'”. This event persuaded Dr. McChesney to send her away again – this time to “grandmother Steele’s house up near Midway, several miles up the road”. Upon Maria’s arrival at the Steele residence, “‘A terrible noise as of the stamping of many horses proceeded from the house. Then a wild scream came from Maria… They saw her standing perfectly still, her face ashen and her eyes rolled up until nothing except the whites could be seen'”. When those present went to the house to find the source of the commotion, “All the furniture on the lower floor had been swept onto the large veranda as if by a whirlwind”.
For the rest of her time with the Steeles, Maria continued to claim that she was being beaten and pricked by forces unseen. As the seasons changed and Maria’s time with the Steeles came to a close, Dr. McChesney was faced with the prospect of Maria, and the terrifying phenomena that seemed to follow her, returning to the plantation. “Reports later say that he hated to do it”, but Dr. McChesney sold Maria to a slave-trader from Mississippi. “With Maria’s forced departure, the stones stopped falling from the sky, and the furniture no longer was piled high in the living room by some unknown force”.
Interestingly, shortly after selling Maria, Dr. McChesney ended up moving his family to Staunton. The article from the Advocate states that sometime in the 1970s, the “last heir” of the McChesneys came forward and told a Staunton newspaper that the reason the McChesneys moved was because “the ghost murdered one of his [Dr. McChesney’s] daughters”. Perhaps Maria was not the sole source of the horrifying activity at the plantation as Dr. McChesney had presumed.
Even though Rockbridge County has changed a lot since Doug was a student at Washington and Lee, please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge Podcast to hear more about the history and ghosts of which the area still holds on.
Mary-Frances Hall and Reid Gaede
Harwood, Douglas J. The Rockbridge Advocate. http://www.rockbridgeadvocate.com (accessed May 19, 2016).
Scott, Stuart. “The Ring-tum Phi: The man behind The Rockbridge Advocate.” The Ring-tum Phi, April 5, 2015. http://ringtumphi.com/1175/arts-life/the-man-behind-the-rockbridge-advocate/ (accessed May 19, 2016).
“The ghost that rocked the farm.” Rockbridge Advocate (Virginia), October, 1995, 41-46.
Seth McCormick Goodhart is the Senior Special Collections Assistant at Washington and Lee University. He has worked in Special Collections for over five years. “We are the keepers of the university and institutional memory,” said Seth about the Special Collections department.
Goodhart was born in 1973 and was raised in Lexington, Virginia. He traveled the world working various jobs before coming across the opportunity to work in Washington and Lee’s Special Collections. After returning to Lexington, Seth now lives with his wife and children.
Seth was raised a devout Catholic, but after the passing of his grandfather, the church handled the situation poorly. After this event, Seth and his family began to separate from the Catholic Church. Seth remains spiritual and believes in a higher power. He still takes his children to church services not wanting to deny them of the great sense of community the Church instills.
The main story Seth shares focuses on a house located at 504 S Main St, Lexington, Virginia, just outside the center of town. The house was owned by family friends and Seth spent a lot of time there as a child. The original house was built in 1884, although it has been renovated multiple times since then, including during Seth’s teenage years and most recently in 2015. A house that old must have a deep history, but the only thing that has turned up was the possibility of a convalescent home during the Civil War time period. He tells us multiple stories of a spirit haunting this house over the years.
Listen to our Ghost of Rockbridge podcast, The Haunted, to learn more about the ghost of 504 S. Main St. and more Lexington ghosts.
On the outskirts of Washington and Lee University’s intimate campus stands the Lee House, an impressive yet simple southern home. The house received its name from its first and most famous occupant, Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who led the university from 1865 to 1870.
The Lee House was built specifically for the Lee Family, who lived there for three decades. In 1868, it cost $15,000 to construct, which is about $240,000 with today’s inflation. General Lee lived in the house with his wife, Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee, and their four grown children. Due to severe arthritis, Mrs. Lee was confined to a wheelchair and resided on the first floor. Therefore, General Lee commissioned the builders to create the wrap-around porch still present today. The servant call bells were also lowered so Mrs. Lee could reach them from her wheelchair. General Lee specifically designed a Gothic-style sun porch off his wife’s room so she could enjoy the sunshine.
Mrs. Lee’s sun room overlooked the stable adjoined to the house where General Lee kept his horses: Ajax, Lucy Long, and Traveller. Traveller was Lee’s favorite horse and was given free reign of Washington and Lee’s campus so he could roam and graze as he pleased. Traveller died a year after his master in 1871 from tetanus and was eventually buried beside Lee Chapel, the location of General Lee’s crypt. Today Traveller’s barn serves as the current university president’s garage. Tradition states the stable doors must be left open all the time so Traveller’s spirit may come and go as it pleases.
Lee’s favorite spot in the house was the dining room because of its big bay windows overlooking the campus with the Blue Ridge Mountains towering in the distance. In the fall of 1870, the General suffered a stroke after attending church. Lee was too weak to retire upstairs and, in response, a makeshift bed was placed in front of the bay windows, and was the place of his final breath. It was perhaps fitting that Lee died in his favorite room of the house. Following his death, Lee’s son, George Washington Custis Lee, took over as President of the university and changed the school’s name from Washington College to Washington and Lee University to honor his father.
Today, all university presidents and their families reside in the famous Lee House. The house’s current residents are the university’s 26th president, Kenneth Ruscio, and his wife, Kimberley Ruscio. They are the 12th family to live in the home. With such a long history, the Lee House has been rumored to contain many benevolent spirits, including the most famous ghost of Robert E. Lee’s favorite horse, Traveller.
Please listen to our Ghosts of Rockbridge podcast to hear more about the Lee House and Mrs. Ruscio’s personal experiences living in the home.