The Ivy and the Occult



Harvard’s history with the Supernatural




Harvard is old. Properly old in a way that very few places in this country are. Three hundred and eighty three years is plenty of time for all manner of strange things to happen. The occasional macabre event is bound to occur from time to time, adding to the ever-growing body of stories told late at night by overworked students. Occasionally a strange and ill-advised field of study rises briefly to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist, resulting in researchers conducting experiments that attempt to test for the existence of supernatural phenomena. While ghost stories and psychical research seem to have largely disappeared from Harvard over the years, there is still an eclectic mix of strange undertakings and stories scattered throughout Harvard’s history.

Harvard’s association with the occult dates back to its early days. Harvard University’s sixth president, Increase Mather had a noticeable interest in witchcraft and in his expressed his belief in its power. In the 1690’s he notoriously defended the judges presiding over the Salem witch trials.  By his own admission his attended the trial of fellow minister George Burrows and stated he believed that Burrows subsequent execution was the correct course of action. His son, Cotton Mather, was more active in his involvement. Supposedly the younger Mather even personally interceded to make sure that a particularly unpopular execution proceeded unhindered. While the pair’s degree of involvement in the tragic affair remains a matter of debate to this day, at the time the name Mather was synonymous with the execution of witches. 

These days’ tales of specters and apparitions are a rare oddity on campus, but old rumors ghosts haunting Harvard and its surroundings are plentiful, if often a little vague. Massachusetts Hall supposedly has a number of restless spirits that make their presence known. A specter that went by the name of Holbrook Smith was supposedly regularly seen in the B entryway during the first few weeks of each new school year, introducing himself to new students and claiming to be an alumnus of the class of 1914.  Allegedly Smith left in a huff sometime in the mid 1900’s after being confronted by then assistant freshman dean William Young and has not been seen since. Thayer is also another hotbed of supernatural activities. There are claims that the building is haunted by unhappy spirits that were employed there when it was a textile mill with exceptionally poor working conditions. There is the minor issue that there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there was ever a textile mill in the space now occupied by by Thayer hall, but apparently this technicality does not bother the ghosts.

Restless spirits do not appear to limit themselves to just freshman dorms. Amy Lowell, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and sister of former Harvard president Abbot Lowell, supposedly still wanders the halls and has a tendency of leaving behind a faint smell of cigar smoke. Others claim that the spirit of former housemaster Elliot Perkins occasionally stops by to check on the state of house affairs. Apthorp house, the master’s residence of Adams House, was used the site of British general John Burgoyne’s imprisonment after his surrender to American forces during the revolutionary war. In life he was extremely critical of the poor quality of his lodgings, and supposedly still makes his opinions known from the afterlife.

The cultural craze that was parapsychological research also enjoyed a period of popularity at Harvard University. This scientifically dubious field of study covered supposed supernatural phenomena ranging from telepathy and extrasensory perception to more bizarre happenings like séances and spiritualism. Harvard psychologist William James, namesake for the building that currently houses Harvard’s psychology department, was active in the spiritualist and psychical research communities in the late 1800’s. He was a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research, and regularly held séances with renowned and self-admittedly somewhat fraudulent medium Lenora piper. This fascination with the possibility of contacting remained alive and well in the Harvard community. In the 1930’s Harvard psychology chair William McDougal and a number of students participated in the investigation of famous medium Mina Crandon alongside the legendary Harry Houdini. Mina was ultimately discovered to be a fraud, but McDougall continued to encourage continued psychical research until his death.

Harvard was also home to some of the earliest scientific experiments studying telepathy. In a study first published in 1917, Harvard researcher Leonard Troland had one “agent” observe a lamp being lit in one of two rooms while a “receiver” attempted to determine which room was illuminated. Subjects performed worse than would be expected by chance, but the mystique of the field kept it alive. The aforementioned William McDougal went so far as to claim that the existence of telepathy had been scientifically proven. There are articles as late as 1949 discussing experiments performed on students by the Harvard parapsychology club.

Over the past four centuries Harvard has been witness to all manner of strange and unusual events and phenomena. The old buildings and rich history lend themselves to the creation of stories, and there’s nothing slightly inebriated students love better than a good scary story. Parapsychology has almost entirely fallen by the wayside and most of the ghost stories on campus. Even so, when you go out this Halloween, if you feel a chill down your spine and hear something breathing down your neck, maybe think twice before you turn around.


Cid Thillairaja ( writes news for the Indy.