Seances and Spiritualism in Alumni Hall

Alumni Hall at dusk.

In a building as old and large and looming as Alumni Hall, ghost stories are bound to circulate. And, from what we know, spooky speculations have surrounded Alumni Hall since early in the building’s history. These ghostly rumors sparked certain student activities, like séances.

Spiritualism rose in popularity during the Civil War, and people’s interest in it continued until the late 1920s.

The giant theatre in the middle of the building, which at the time was being transitioned from the library to a performance theatre, had poor acoustics before a remodeling in the 1960s. The poor acoustics were what caused students to hear things, explains Lance Factor, George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and a campus expert on Alumni Hall as well as Old Main.

“If we were to spend some time sitting here in silence, we might share that experience. I don’t know what we’d hear,” Factor says, standing on the stage during a tour of the building this summer.

Factor shares the same view of Professor Raub, a professor of philosophy, physics and psychology from the early 20th century, who spoke out against the student séances. Their stance: There’s nothing there.

“[Professor Raub’s] remark was, ‘Why don’t they ever tell us what life is like on the other side? They never report,'” Factor said.

Students keep searching. Factor reports he has received requests for ghost tours of Old Main and the Old Jail.

“They’ve heard there’s haunts or spirits or whatever,” Factor said. “but I think the séances were more of a social experiment. It was trendy.”

Still, there are those among us who do get a little spooked by the empty building glowing at night and wonder about the many spirits who have come and gone in the 122-year history of Alumni Hall. To those folks, Happy Halloween!

Inside View of Exterior Support System

Alumni Hall Renovation - Wall Support System
Above, 24 threaded rods, 5/8-inch in diameter, through exterior steel buttresses and an inside steel girder, times two on the east wall, shown here, with a matching structure on the west wall.
Alumni Hall Renovation - Wall Support System
The steel buttresses support the walls until new interior floors are installed.
Alumni Hall Renovation - Exterior Wall Support

Gnothautii Cornerstone

Gnothautii cornerstone

The third and final cornerstone-laying was for the Gnothautii cornerstone. Check out the first and second ones. Sounds like it wasn’t quite as cool as the Adelphi ceremony.

Members and friends of Gnothautii got together on a Wednesday morning to lay the mottled red granite stone, which bears a simple inscription: “Gnothautii. Founded 1848.” They filled an empty space within the stone — what we’d now call a time capsule — with several items. Among them: an account of Gnothautii’s founding, its constitution and by-laws, a list of members from the founding, a list of present officers, and newspapers.

The cornerstone was laid by Knox Professor Milton Comstock, an 1851 Knox grad and one of Gnothautii’s original founders. He taught mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy, and he also was a noted horticulturalist. Comstock was part of “The Great Triumvirate,” a name given to three distinguished scholars (Comstock, Albert Hurd, and George Churchill) who formed the core of the Knox faculty in the second half of the 19th century.

Comstock delivered remarks, and he was followed by J. A. McKenzie, a Gnothautii and a lawyer in Knox County. McKenzie made his speech without using notes.

Here’s a photo of “The Great Triumvirate.”

The Great Triumvirate of Knox College in the late 1800s.

Milton Comstock, left, Albert Hurd, right, and George Churchill were The Great Triumvirate of Knox College in the late 1800s.

Supporting Exterior Walls

Alumni Hall Renovation
The renovation of Alumni Hall will involve complete removal and replacement of interior floors. Because the floors are tied into the walls, temporary steel structures — not unlike the “flying buttresses” in Gothic cathedrals — will support the east and west walls for the time between removal and replacement of the floors. Above, footings were excavated for concrete bases of the steel buttresses.
Alumni Hall Renovation - Exterior Wall Support
Alumni Hall Renovation - Exterior Wall SupportBelow, an ironworker welds the exterior beams.Alumni Hall Renovation - Exterior Wall Support

Second Floor — Welcoming the Community

Alumni Hall Renovation: September 2013The second floor of Alumni Hall will welcome prospective students and their families and visitors to the Knox campus. As you enter the floor from South Street, it will open into an atrium that is open to the third floor.

This floor will include the Office of Admission, Bastian Family Center for Career and Pre-Professional Development, Gerald and Carol Vovis Center for Research and Advanced Study, Eleanor Stellyes Center for Global Studies, and the Mark and Jeannette Kleine Center for Community Service.