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School Spirits: The Haunted Campuses of Pittsburgh Universities

By Nicole Pampena 

When the ghost of Martha Jane Poe rocks the cradle in the Cathedral of Learning’s Early American Room, she does so slowly, and exactly four times — no more, no less.

When conservatory students at Point Park University see The Lady in White, they learn she gets her name from the wedding dress she wears and the color that encompasses her “like someone took a sheet and just draped it over her,” according to one witness Mackenzy Clyne.

And when staff working inside Byers Hall at the Community College of Allegheny County’s (CCAC) Allegheny Campus hear children’s laughter and see objects move on their own, they’ve learned to accept it as the harmless ghosts accompanying them in the building that once was a mansion.

Despite the rapid transformation of both Pittsburgh and its higher education institutions on the outside, the past still lingers on the inside, and the spirits that haunt some of each campus’ oldest buildings don’t seem to be going anywhere.

GRANDMA MARTHA JANE POE

It began with a four poster bed: a donation for the Early American Room in the Cathedral of Learning Nationality Rooms. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and International Cultural Rooms Program, called her mother to tell her.

“I remember that my grandma and grandpa had a four poster bed,” Bruhns said. “So she said, ‘Maxine, if you get that bed roped and get a mattress on it, I’ll give you grandma’s wedding quilt.”

The quilt, made before Bruhn’s grandmother even met her grandfather, was then added to the bedroom on the second floor of the Early American Room — and Grandma Martha Jane Poe wasted no time making her presence known.

Upon entering the Early American Room on its first floor, there is an immediate and noticeable drop in temperature in comparison to the hallways of the Cathedral of Learning. Photo by Nicole Pampena.

The very first day, Bruhns was approached by one of the custodians:

“He said, ‘Max I want to tell you something. Please don’t tell anybody, but when I went in this morning and when I went up to the bedroom, I noticed the quilt was messed up. So I straightened it out and put it onto the pillows, and when I turned around to leave I heard a swish. And when I looked back, the quilt is turned down and there was a dent in the pillow. Somebody had done it right in front of me!’ and I said, ‘I’ll be damned!’”

According to Bruhns, the spirit of her grandma is attached to the wedding quilt, which was first placed in the Early American Room about 15 years ago.

Poe got married on a leap year, so one night, Bruhns decided to grab a sleeping bag and spend the night in the bedroom on the second floor.

“And so I laid down, [and] put my water bottle in my shoulder bag which was on the chair,” Bruhns said. “I laid there for about an hour and nothing happened, and I thought ‘well, this was boring,’ until finally something started to make a swish and another swish and bang! It just hit right by my head and I was just paralyzed.”

The water bottle had fallen out of her shoulder bag, and Bruhns believes it to have been her grandma, adding that psychics she’s spoken with say water is a favorite medium of ghosts.

Martha Jane Poe had a total of ten children, Bruhn’s mother being the youngest. This photo is sat on a shelf behind Bruhn’s desk in her office in the Cathedral of Learning. Photo courtesy of Maxine Bruhns.

Another incident occurred when a carpenter was called in to fix a crack in the floor. Careful not to break anything in the room during that process, he wrapped a picture of Poe in a towel and placed it in the third drawer of the chest of drawers. When he finished later and went to put the framed photo back, the glass in front of Poe’s face was broken.

“He said, ‘Max, I was so careful!’ I said it got broken because she got pissed off you guys were messing with her stuff,” Bruhns said.

But Grandma Poe truly “shows off” and built up some popularity when she rocks the cradle in the bedroom.

“Now grandma can make that cradle rock real slow,” Bruhns said. “If I touch it, it’ll go fourteen times — she makes it rock four times slowly… And I decided that when I die, I’m going to have a little leather pouch of some of my ashes and put it in the cradle because she loves to rock the cradle, and so she can do that with me there.”

THE LADY IN WHITE AND THE LADY WITH A GUN

Point Park just opened an entirely new Pittsburgh Playhouse, replacing 85 years of history and performances from the old Playhouse on Craft Avenue in Oakland.

Among that history exists The Lady in White, a ghost alleged to be seen most commonly in either the old Rockwell or Rauh Theater, according to student tales. Legend tells that back when the Playhouse was a German social hall, this particular spirit found her husband in bed with another woman on the night of her wedding. After killing them both, she then threw herself from the balcony and ended her own life.

This retelling of the legend was told by Malle Winters, a junior performance and practices major at Point Park, who also claims to have seen The Lady in White before leaving technical rehearsal for a production last spring.

“There were a couple of people backstage, but I was the only one in the house, and I thought I saw someone trying to get my attention from the balcony,” Winters said. “I turned and I looked up and there’s no one there.”

She at first convinced herself it was just her hair in her peripheral vision, but a second look quickly settled any doubt.

“I finished putting stuff in my backpack and I threw my bag on my shoulder, and I just happened to look up again and I saw The Lady in White… and she was clear as day,” Winters said.

Mackenzy Clyne, a junior stage management major, described this same figure from a sighting during her first semester of freshman year.

“I saw a tall, kind of thin figure just… walking upstage at the Rockwell,” Clyne said. “I didn’t turn and look. I just moved my eyes and tilted my head. Everything about her was white.”

However, the version of the legend Clyne heard instead claims that The Lady in White hanged herself off of the balcony, showing that a ghost story is often never told the same way twice.

“Most of my friends believe me: COPA majors, even my non-COPA roommate,” Clyne said. “I sometimes even doubt myself.”

As for former visiting artist and assistant professor Marty Schiff, his encounter with one Playhouse ghost leaves less room for doubt: he has a scar to prove it.

In November 1977, Schiff was a junior theatre arts major at Point Park assisting in the process of turning the downstairs dance studio into a theater since the upstairs theatre was deemed to not have enough fire exits.

There was one– and only one– set of keys to access the rooms upstairs such as the old bar and restaurant from the social club, but more specifically only one key to access the electrical box. Schiff was with another theatre arts major, Gloria Mason, retrieving the lightboard, which required cutting all power. They touched all of their bases and went down the checklist: turn off all power, check that there is no power (there was none,) “idiot check” by trying to turn up everything (nothing came on).

So Schiff began to take the bolts off of the lightboard.

“Every light in the theater came on,” Schiff said.

Schiff was blown backward out the door falling on his back, his watch now welded to the lightboard– hence the scar left behind by the watch.

Schiff’s scar left behind from an electrical shock through the theater’s lightboard after an unknown force caused power to turn on. Photo courtesy of Marty Schiff.

Schiff’s scar left behind from an electrical shock through the theater’s lightboard after an unknown force caused power to turn on. Photo courtesy of Marty Schiff.

“Because my watch was taking the power from the board, it was taking the circuit from me and probably saving me from being killed,” Schiff said. “I probably should’ve gone to the hospital.” Schiff avoided the hospital trip arguing he didn’t want to miss that evening’s performance of “Dawn of the Dead” in which he played a role.

He called it “the closest call [he’s] ever had with paranormal activity.”

“There was no logical explanation for what happened,” Schiff said. “There’s no way the lights were on, no short in the board, everything was grounded.”

Schiff said that the old upstairs theatre is the “domain” to another Playhouse ghost, The Lady with a Gun, who he believes to have been the spirit he encountered, but goes on to once again show that passing down ghost stories is “a game of telephone.”

According to Schiff, The Lady with a Gun walked in on her husband in bed with a barmaid during the times of the old social club. She killed him, the barmaid and herself, just as the story goes with The Lady in White according to current COPA students.

Except Schiff believes The Lady in White to be a bride and an accompanying ghost, the Man in Black, to be the groom– two different entities from the one he presumed to have encountered during the lightboard incident.

“Everyone has their own personal experiences,” Schiff said. “The students’ of the 70s stories line up with what I know and with the students from the 50s and 60s. I think that as the years went on… every generation embellished or changed certain stories.”

A total of four ghosts haunt the memory of Schiff from his time at Point Park: The Lady with a Gun, The Lady in White, The Man in Black, and John Johns, an actor who died of a heart attack on stage in the 1930s. The most recent addition to the Playhouse’s paranormal cast is Screaming Mimi.

“They’re part of the charm of the Playhouse,” Schiff said.

THE NANNY

The former home of J. Frederic Byers from CCAC’s Archives. Photo courtesy of CCAC.

It only took a year or two before Program Coordinator for Community Training and Development Susan Kennedy began noticing the past of CCAC’s Byers Hall coming to life.

Byers Hall is now an administrative building on the Allegheny Campus, but the L-shaped building found on the North Shore used to be a mansion housing two families: the Byers themselves, as well as the husband and children of the Byers’ daughter.

Before CCAC acquired Byers Hall as an administrative building, the structure was a mansion and home to two families. Courtesy of Mary Jo Guercio.

Before CCAC acquired Byers Hall as an administrative building, the structure was a mansion and home to two families. Courtesy of Mary Jo Guercio.

According to the legend retold by Kennedy, the Byers had a nanny named MaryAnn; and one day, one of the children was accidentally killed.

“They were in MaryAnn’s care,” Kennedy said. “She was so distraught, she hung herself at the staircase.”

The spirit of both the child and MaryAnn have been seen in Byers Hall. A workman on the fourth floor of the building– which requires a special key to gain access– claims to have seen a toddler once on that fourth floor.

Photo courtesy of CCAC.

“You’d think it’s in danger,” Kennedy said, referring to the workzone conditions of the floor at the time. “Well, there wasn’t any little kid.”

Kennedy’s own personal experiences range from seeing a grey figure go from right to left in the reflection of a window her computer faces. She, at first, mistook the figure for one of the janitors, until the elevator chimed only minutes later with the janitor just then entering.

A much closer encounter occurred while she was in the copier room alone.

“I was making copies and there was a garbage can with one of those flip-flop lids,” Kennedy said, “and it just started flipping and flopping…and not just slightly. It was like something hard hit it.”

To add to the unnatural event, Kennedy mentioned that this phantom flip-flopping went on for about 20 seconds, Kennedy herself not sticking around much longer after that.

Photo courtesy of CCAC.

Director of Community Training and Development Mary Jo Guercio encountered the same phenomenon in the copier room a few years back as well.

“I was there one Saturday doing some work and catching up,” Guercio said. “I was at the copier making copies, and out of the corner of my eye I see the lid flapping around and around and around.”

As for Linda Hickman, a staff member at Byers Hall for 15 years, she was the only one of the group to have seen MaryAnn. Each year, Hickman would stay on campus later than usual to decorate for the college’s “Deck Your Halls” fundraising event, so it came as a surprise that the sighting occurred in the middle of the afternoon.

Photo courtesy of CCAC.

“I was at the doorway talking to a coworker at the end of the hall,” Hickman said. “Suddenly, I saw what appeared to be a figure in a white gown quickly go by beside me and I said, ‘Wait, wait a minute!’ First I thought they ran into the storage room, but the door was shut. Then I thought they must’ve run into my office across the hall. I went over, looked behind the partition and in the little storage area. There was nothing.”

Guercio noted that MaryAnn is not a hurtful or spiteful ghost and that the copier room is simply her space, the same as Martha Jane Poe rocking the cradle in the Cathedral of Learning or the Lady in White gliding through the balcony of the old Playhouse.

“I think she’s just a soul of unrest being protective of the building,” Guercio said.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

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